Dune, 50 years on: how a science fiction novel changed the world

As a sci-fi / fantasy author, I believe that Dune was one of the greatest novels ever written about those themes. In one of the Myra-Hati‘s chapter, my first published work, I paid a kind of tribute to Frank Herbert when a myra platoon is crossing the deserts of Kafria.dunaIn 1959, if you were walking the sand dunes near Florence, Oregon, you might have encountered a burly, bearded extrovert, striding about in Ray-Ban Aviators and practical army surplus clothing. Frank Herbert, a freelance writer with a feeling for ecology, was researching a magazine story about a US Department of Agriculture programme to stabilise the shifting sands by introducing European beach grass. Pushed by strong winds off the Pacific, the dunes moved eastwards, burying everything in their path. Herbert hired a Cessna light aircraft to survey the scene from the air. “These waves [of sand] can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave … they’ve even caused deaths,” he wrote in a pitch to his agent. Above all he was intrigued by the idea that it might be possible to engineer an ecosystem, to green a hostile desert landscape.

About to turn 40, Herbert had been a working writer since the age of 19, and his fortunes had always been patchy. After a hard childhood in a small coastal community near Tacoma, Washington, where his pleasures had been fishing and messing about in boats, he’d worked for various regional newspapers in the Pacific northwest and sold short stories to magazines. He’d had a relatively easy war, serving eight months as a naval photographer before receiving a medical discharge. More recently he’d spent a weird interlude in Washington as a speechwriter for a Republican senator. There (his only significant time living on the east coast) he attended the daily Army-McCarthy hearings, watching his distant relative senator Joseph McCarthy root out communism. Herbert was a quintessential product of the libertarian culture of the Pacific coast, self-reliant and distrustful of centralised authority, yet with a mile-wide streak of utopian futurism and a concomitant willingness to experiment. He was also chronically broke. During the period he wrote Dune, his wife Beverly Ann was the main bread-winner, her own writing career sidelined by a job producing advertising copy for department stores.

Soon, Herbert’s research into dunes became research into deserts and desert cultures. It overpowered his article about the heroism of the men of the USDA (proposed title “They Stopped the Moving Sands”) and became two short SF novels, serialised in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, one of the more prestigious genre magazines. Unsatisfied, Herbert industriously reworked his two stories into a single, giant epic. The prevailing publishing wisdom of the time had it that SF readers liked their stories short. Dune (400 pages in its first hardcover edition, almost 900 in the paperback on my desk) was rejected by more than 20 houses before being accepted by Chilton, a Philadelphia operation known for trade and hobby magazines such as Motor Age, Jewelers’ Circular and the no-doubt-diverting Dry Goods Economist.duna 2

Though Dune won the Nebula and Hugo awards, the two most prestigious science fiction prizes, it was not an overnight commercial success. Its fanbase built through the 60s and 70s, circulating in squats, communes, labs and studios, anywhere where the idea of global transformation seemed attractive. Fifty years later it is considered by many to be the greatest novel in the SF canon, and has sold in millions around the world.

The story setup owes something to the Mars stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, as well as the tales written by Idaho-born food chemist Elmer Edward “Doc” Smith, creator of the popular Lensman space operas of the 1940s and 50s, in which eugenically bred heroes are initiated into a “galactic patrol” of psychically enhanced supercops. For Smith, altered states of consciousness were mainly tools for the whiteous and righteous to vaporise whole solar systems of subversives, aliens and others with undesirable traits. Herbert, by contrast, was no friend of big government. He had also taken peyote and read Jung. In 1960, a sailing buddy introduced him to the Zen thinker Alan Watts, who was living on a houseboat in Sausalito. Long conversations with Watts, the main conduit by which Zen was permeating the west-coast counterculture, helped turn Herbert’s pacy adventure story into an exploration of temporality, the limits of personal identity and the mind’s relationship to the body.

duna 3Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius. Its concerns – environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism – are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.

After Dune was published, Herbert, the consummate freelancer, kept a lot of irons in the fire. He wrote about education for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and lectured at the University of Washington. In 1972, during the American push to extricate itself from the south-east Asian quagmire, he worked in Vietnam, part of a project called “Land to the Tiller”, aimed at cutting Viet Cong recruitment by enacting land reform. He built a family home on the Olympic peninsula which he thought of as an “ecological demonstration project”. He built his own solar collector, wind plant and methane fuel generator. In a 1981 interview he described himself a “technopeasant”. As the cult of Dune took off during the 1970s, he wrote a series of increasingly convoluted sequels, following Paul’s descendants as they fulfilled the cosmic destiny of the Atreides line. Since his death in 1986, his son and another writer have produced a further 13 books.

By rights, Dune ought to have become a big movie. An attempt by the visionary Chilean film maker Alejandro Jodorowsky to bring it to the screen became one of the great “what if” stories of SF cinema. Jodorowsky had extraordinary collaborators: visuals by Moebius and HR Giger, spaceships designed by the English illustrator Chris Foss. Orson Welles was to play Baron Harkonnen, Salvador Dali the Emperor. Pink Floyd and Magma were on board to do the soundtrack. But Jodorowsky’s prog-tastic project was strangled in the crib by risk-averse Hollywood producers. After a period of film industry bloodletting, David Lynch shot a version in 1984, only for Universal to release a cut that he hated so much he had his name removed from the credits. Lynch’s film is actually much better than its terrible reputation, but Sting in a codpiece and a Toto soundtrack will never match the potential greatness of Jodorowsky’s unmade epic.

Actually, the great Dune film did get made. Acording with The Guardian, its name is “Star Wars”. In early drafts, this story of a desert planet, an evil emperor, and a boy with a galactic destiny also included warring noble houses and a princess guarding a shipment of something called “aura spice”. All manner of borrowings from Dune litter the Star Wars universe, from the Bene Gesserit-like mental powers of the Jedi to the mining and “moisture farming” on Tattooine. Herbert knew he’d been ripped off, and thought he saw the ideas of other SF writers in Lucas’s money-spinning franchise. He and a number of colleagues formed a joke organisation called the We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.

Sarlacc

The sarlacc was a semi-sentient, plant-like, omnivorous creature found on several planets across the galaxy on Star Wars universe.

it was obviously inspired on the sandworms of Dune, as my own book was also inspired by it in one of the chapters (just the creature itself, for my story’s plot is completely different and original).

Dune__Drive_the_sandworm_by_leywadDune – Drive the sandworm by Leywad

Fifty years after Dune’s publication, the US Department of Agriculture is still at work on the Oregon Dunes, rooting out European beach grass, an “invasive non‑native species”. They want to return the dune processes to their natural state.

cover

Fabio Evagelista is a Brazilian writer.

Crossed Paths is the first book of the Myra-Hati trilogy, an epic adventure in a post-apocalyptic world, for the lovers of sci-fi / fantasy genre. This is the author’s first work published in America.

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