Dune: The Novel That Changed Science Fiction
The world’s best selling science fiction novel turns 50 this year and in a mid- century celebration, we will examine Dune’s significance in the sci-fi world, the science fiction works it has inspired, and its relevance in our current socio-political and environmental landscape.
About the Novel
Dune first hit the bookshelves in 1965 and gradually garnered accolades from critics within the small science fiction community, leading to huge success among readers over the course of its 50 years in print. A year after its publication, Frank Herbert’s breakthrough novel won both the Hugo award and the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. Perhaps its compelling nature in the literary world can be attributed to its similarities of a place closer than the far reaches of Herbert’s fully realized universe, and more contemporary than 20,000 years in the future. This adventure masterpiece forces the reader to inspect political, social, and environmental fictional situations that are only a shade away from contemporary societal unrest, political corruption, and ecological crises.
Dunes Influence to Science Fiction
Dune is considered to be a groundbreaking soft science-fiction novel because of its focuses on anthropology, sociology, political science, and environmentalism. At time of publication, Herbert’s novel was revolutionary in that his science fiction world rejects technology and instead forces its characters to rely on their humanity. Dune may be set in the very far future, but it has the reader looking inside more than looking ahead. In times of rampant technological growth, maybe the readers who continue to pick up Dune are yearning for a space free of pinging texts, ringing phones, and email notifications.
Whatever the reasons for Dune’s continued success, one thing is confirmed, the amount of influence Herbert’s novel has had on his genre and beyond. The expansive Dune Universe, or Duniverse, comprises Herbert’s Dune, his five sequel novels, the thirteen prequel novels of his son Brian Herbert and coauthor Kevin J Anderson. It also includes any derivative work, writings, games, songs, or film that lie in the scientific, social, and political setting of Dune. Its influence on readers in the science fiction world is evident in its continual book sales, and while it may not have an immense fan-universe as say a Lord of the Rings, it has survived the test of time even without a film transmutation.
In the Theaters
By all logical bets, Dune should have been transformed into a blockbuster silver screen event. Instead, all attempts to adapt the massively large source material onto film were disastrous until David Lynch took a big swing and a miss in 1984. First, producer Arthur P. Jacobs, responsible for Planet of the Apes, optioned the rights to film Herbert’s work in 1971. After delays in filming, directors unwilling to take on the project, and Jacobs’ death in 1973, the film rights moved to the hands of director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky had epic plans for his adaptation with a ten hour run time, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger set to star, and a soundtrack produced by Pink Floyd. Unfortunately, this never came to fruition, something further investigated in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. In 1978 Herbert himself set out to create the screenplay for his novel turned movie with Ridley Scott to direct. After working on three drafts of the script, realizing it would have to be split into multiple movies, and a dragging pre-production, Ridley bailed. Finally, for better or for worse, Dune was put onto the big screen in 1984 by David Lynch, who would later remove his name from the film claiming that he had almost no artistic license in the film’s making. It tanked with the critics and audiences alike.
Speaking of movies, many people would be surprised to learn that early drafts of George Lucas’ Star Wars had a great many things in common with Dune. Though the final version of Lucas’ greatest hit is more unique than the early drafts, many die-hard fans still have intense debates on the topic. And George Lucas himself has often acknowledged Dune as an inspiration. In fact, Herbert believed the similarity in stories to be so blatantly close, that he joined a joke society with other colleagues who felt they had also unwillingly lent George Lucas source material, and called it the “We’re Too Big To Sue George Lucas Society.”
Dune’s Relevancy Today
Beyond its entertainment value, it can be argued that the social and especially environmental issues Herbert fictionalizes may be more relevant today than ever. Herbert finished Dune three years after Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking environmental novel Silent Spring. It was the first book of its kind to raise ecological and pesticide awareness. Herbert was also inspired by the natural world. He was living on the northern Oregon Dunes watching the dunes change, shape, and contour their terrain through raw power when he began writing Dune. Perhaps it was a coincidence, or a general changing of times, opinion, and awareness. Whatever it was, these two contemporaries seem to have been trying to convey a similar green movement message through different mediums: One taking the scientific approach, the other using the power of fantasy.
For fifty years, this landmark in science fiction has influenced countless artists, writers, and creators. Dune’s cultural weight is like no other book in its genre, inspiring films, music, games, video games, novels, and even the names of the features on Saturn’s moon Titan. It can be argued that Herbert’s landscape of ecological and political unrest is even more relevant in our current climate than it was when the book was first published in 1965. Hopefully, this book set 20,000 years in the future can continue to bring awareness and introspection to our present environmental condition.