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A Week to Remember: Frank Herbert

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Writer Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert was born on October 8, 1920. Herbert was a science fiction novelist, best known for his 1965 novel Dune, a landmark in the field that remains popular a half-century later.

As a young man, Herbert worked as a journalist. He got his first newspaper job in 1939, and worked for various newspapers and magazines for the next thirty years. During World War II, he spent six months in the Navy Seabees as a photographer before receiving a medical discharge.

After the war, Herbert briefly attented the University of Washington, though he never received a degree. He said in later interviews that he only wanted to study the things that interested him, and couldn’t make himself sit through enough uninteresting classes to complete the required curriculum for any specific degree program.

Among the subjects he did study was creative writing. Herbert had published some adventure stories in Esquire in 1945, and began publishing science fiction stories in the early 1950. His first novel was published in installments in Astounding, the leading science fiction magazine of the era, in 1955-56 under the title Under Pressure; the title was changed to The Dragon in the Sea (e-book | e-audio | print) when it was published in book form. It was a science fiction adventure story set in the early 21st century, and was one of the first stories to imagine that oil shortages might lead to international conflict and war.

In 1959, Herbert was asked to write a magazine article on Oregon’s sand dunes. The article was never finished, but it started Herbert on six years of research and writing that led to his masterwork, Dune (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). Between 1963 and 1966, parts of the novel were published in Analog (since 1960, the new name for the magazine formerly called Astounding).

4 books by Frank Herbert

The Dune stories were popular with Analog’s readers, but Herbert struggled to find a publisher for his novel. It was more than 400 pages long, unusually long for science fiction at the time, and more than a dozen publishers rejected the book. It finally found an unlikely home at Chilton Book Company, which was best known (and still is) as a publisher of auto repair manuals.

It was a novel unlike anything the science fiction world had seen. A sprawling epic set 20,000 years in the future, it’s the story of two families battling for control of a desert planet that is the only known source of the most valuable substance in the universe. The novel follows members of the two feuding families, a local religious order, the indigenous people known as the Fremen, and the planet’s mysterious sandworms. Herbert put enormous effort into creating the world of Arrakis, developing elaborate histories of the world and its characters, writing glossaries and fictional documents, and imagining the political maneuverings between mutiple complex social organizations.

Chilton’s gamble paid off. Dune won the Nebula Award for the year’s best novel, and tied for the Hugo Award. It’s been translated into dozens of languages, and is estimated to have sold more than 20 million copies. Between 1969 and 1985, Herbert wrote five sequels; none of them were as critically successful as the original, but all were bestsellers.

Herbert’s other writing has generally been overshadowed by Dune, but he wrote 20 other novels and several volumes of short stories (e-book | print). His novels include two other multi-volume series. The ConSentiency novels, Whipping Star (e-book | e-audio | print) and The Dosadi Experiment (e-book | e-audio | print), imagine an interstellar confederation of planets that has become so efficient that it has created a Bureau of Sabotage, tasked with deliberately gumming up the works of government to keep decisions from being made too quickly. The WorShip series of 4 novels, the last three written in collaboration with Bill Ransom, are centered on a spaceship that becomes sentient and demands to be worshipped as a god; that series begins with Destination: Void (e-book | e-audio).

Herbert died on February 11, 1986, while recovering after surgery for pancreatic cancer.

The world of Dune has outlived its creator; Herbert’s son, Brian, writing with Kevin J. Anderson, has written 13 additional Dune novels. Most are prequels, set before the original Dune, but Hunters of Dune (e-book | e-audio | print) and Sandworms of Dune (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) are sequels, based on Herbert’s notes for the planned 7th volume he never got to write.

Dune has been filmed twice. David Lynch made a theatrical film in 1984, which Herbert reportedly liked very much, though the critics generally thought that it was incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t already read the book. A 2000 television miniseries had more time to spend on the intricate plot—about five hours—and was well-enough received that a sequel miniseries, Children of Dune, was made in 2003. A new movie version is scheduled to be released in late 2020; director Denis Villeneuve says this will be part one of a two-movie adaptation.

Perhaps most interesting is the Dune adaptation that never was. In 1975, director Alejandro Jodorowsky announced plans to film a ten-hour movie; noted science fiction artists Moebius and H. R. Giger were hired to create creatures and sets. Jodorowsky’s planned cast included Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Hervé Villechaize, and as the principal villain, Salvador Dali. It was perhaps inevitable that so ambitious a production would never come to fruition; the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune tells the “what if” story.

Brian Herbert’s biography of his father is called Dreamer of Dune (print).

Also This Week

October 8, 1899

Bruce Catton was born. Catton was a Civil War historian who wrote more than a dozen books on the subject. Catton wrote with a general audience in mind, not for scholars. The Army of the Potomac trilogy—Mr. Lincoln’s Army (e-book | print), Glory Road (e-book), and A Stillness at Appomattox (e-book | e-audio | print) follows that army through the course of the war; the third book won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

October 10, 1969

Brett Favre was born. In the 1990s and 2000s, Favre was one of the NFL’s dominant quarterbacks. He played for 20 seasons, most of them with the Green Bay Packers. Favre was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s all-star game, eleven times, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016. Jeff Pearlman’s biography of Favre is Gunslinger (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

October 8, 1982

The musical Cats opened on Broadway. The show, with songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on poems by T. S. Eliot, tells the story of a tribe of cats deciding which one of them will ascend to the “Heaviside Layer”—essentially, kitty heaven—and come back to the next of their nine lives. The Broadway production ran for 7,485 performances, just under 18 years. At the time, that was the longest run in Broadway history. A movie adaptation is scheduled for release in December.

October 11, 1987

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was first displayed in full, on the National Mall in Washington, DC. At the time, the Quilt included 1,920 3’x6’ panels, each a memorial to a person who had died from AIDS-related illness. When the Quilt returned to Washington a year later, it had grown to more than 8,000 panels; it now includes more than 48,000 panels, and it is the largest community folk art project ever created. The Quilt is the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary Common Threads (streaming | DVD).