. . . And I got this funny feeling that dunes are like waves, and it's only a matter of the time scale that changes. Dunes ae slow waves.

-- Frank Herbert, on the genesis of the Dune tetralogy

"DUNE" WAS A sure thing. How could a book miss with these elements:

An addictive, mind-expanding, life-lengthening drug (the melange secreted by sandworms in symbiosis with the sandtrout, the pre-worms that protect the giant worms from water);

The Bene Gesserit -- essentially a powerful coven of witches, to whose adepts the melange gives particular powers, especially to the Atreides line;

Monsters -- the sandworms like Godzilla look like Lassie;

Ecological significance -- the inevitable effect of human encroachment, improvement, on the fragile ecology of the desert;

Larger-than-life Heroes;

And romance, suspense, adventure, betrayal, love, courage, hatred, revenge . . . all the primal and delicious human emotions.

More than 3,000 years before the time of the full-flowering of the planet Arrakis, when it was still mostly the desert planet Dune, the Second Leto (who was destined to become the God Emperor) overdosed on melange, let the sandtrout cover him, encapsulate him, become part of him, change him, slowly, ineluctably . . .

And that was really supposed to be IT for the Dune story, those final scenes in "The Children of Dune," the Second Leto's sacrifice (for the continued existence of a largely undeserving humanity) that wrapped up the more than 1,200 page, three-book saga of Shai-Hulud, the giant sandworm of Dune, and the umpteen-thousand-or-so-year-long saga of the House of Atreus.

But a funny thing happened.

Leto, who was blessed/cursed with all the memories of all his ancestors and who sensed the future, wouldn't let his creator go.

"I've had characters dominate my thoughts when I'm working," Frank Herbert was saying, "but Leto just kept on dominating. In fact, I wrote this new book because he just wouldn't leave me alone."

"This new book" is "God Emperor of Dune," the volume that picks up 3,500 years after "Children" leaves off, the astonishing science fiction phenomenon that popped to the top five or six of the major best-seller lists at the instant of its publication earlier this month, and is either holding its own or moving up, depending on whose list.

It is not altogether surprising. "Dune," the first of the trilogy (which Herbert had actually envisioned as one huge "longer-than-'War and Peace'" saga) has been translated into 11 languages -- Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish and Hebrew -- and sold, worldwide, more than 10 million copies. Berkley, publishers of the paperbacks, estimate some 40 or 50 million readers. The second two books, "Dune Messiah" and " Children of Dune," have each sold more than 2 million copies in hardback and paper. "God Emperor," published by Putnam, has already sold out its first printing of 100,000 and is 30,000 into its second, in only the third week it has been on the shelves.

Frank Herbert is affable and loquacious. He laughs easily and loudly and often -- at his own jokes or anyone else's, or at a bathroom door in his Dulles-Marriott room that at once sticks and has no doorknob, or at a major film director ("Allien's" Ridley Scott) who wanted to make "Dune" into a movie about futuristic incest (between "Dune's" hero and Leto's father, Paul, and his Bene Gesserit mother Jessica.)

With his salt-and-pepper shaggy scrub of a beard, his sturdy (but fit) build, and his -- yes it's true -- twinkling blue eyes, there is almost a Santa Claus quality to his appearance. It deceives.

He conveys a boundless enthusiasm for life, but an endless contempt for bureaucracy, for government, for leaders, for followers, for soldiers, for unthinking faith, for unthinking anything.

He often speaks in aphorisms ("Herbert's first law of government is 'All governments lie'; Herbert's second law is 'Never forget Herbert's first law.'")

He is a born reconteur -- one anecdote tumbles upon another in endless succession in a variety of accents from a hearty (but barely passable) Yiddish to a cheerful Cockney to a tolerable French -- and, of course, that is in large part why his 21st novel is yet another best seller.

"First of all," he tells would be science fiction writers, "you have to be a storyteller. If you can't do that, well then, forget it."

Frank Herbert began telling stories to his cousins on and near the Kitsap Peninsula farm where he grew up in the state of Washington. ("You know," he says, and grins, "the blood and guts kind.") But they clamored for more.

The clamor did not translate readily to the publising world, however, at least at first, and eventually Herbert turned to newspapering. He was variously investigative reporter, wine columnist, photographer, picture editor or war correspondent for California papers like the Santa Rosa Press Democrat or the San Francisco Examiner. He covered the Vietnam war for the Hearst Headline Service where his cynicism about war, warriors, governments and corruption was honed to a point as sharp as a sandworm's crystal tooth.

He is fond of saying that Richard Nixon is his favorite president. He leans forward as though to confide and, looking very sincere, says, "He's my hero." Pause. "Because he taught us to distrust government. And he did it the best way -- by example."

Another whoop of infectious laughter.

The sandworm saga is myth within myth within myth. It draws from a dazzlingly electric assortment of religious and religious movements -- from Greek to Judaeo-Christian to Moslem, Zen, existentialism.

It is good against evil but yet again a step beyond "Star Wars." For good can decay into evil and evil and regulate into good and this happens in the "Dune" books with almost rhythmic regularity.

It is a study of the Messianic impulse, a subject that fascinates Herbert. "Look," he reminds, "how many came out of the desert. . ." And it examines another recurrent Herbert theme (as in his "The Santaroga Barrier"), where one man's Garden of Eden is another's Hades.

"Dune" was a slow starter -- rejected by publisher after publisher -- and because of a misprint, there were only 2,200 copies in the first printing. (These are now worth something like $600 apiece, says Herbert, perhaps a record for modern science fiction.)

Of course, it became an immediate cult favorite of the '60s drug culture -- it was published in 1965 -- but quickly moved beyond to the realm of SF classic, copping the field's top awards (Hugo, Nebula) for its year. It went on to become one of the occasional books of its genre to capture general popularity as well. (It is still the subject of numerous Ph.D. theses, mostly dealing with its ecological import, and a must-read in this era's plethora of science fiction courses on college campuses.)

It has been an object of cinematic interest for some years, with one deal or another falling through for a variety of reasons. Currently, a Herbert-written screenplay is in the hands of filmmaker Dino ("King Kong," and "Serpico") De Laurentiiks who, Herbert says with some awe, "is talking about a $40 million budget." (Which, say aficionados, probably means $15 or $20 million.)

It will not, says Herbert, be about incest.

It will, he hopes, come in at "under 2 1/2 hours."

With all its scientific strengths, the heavy dose of myth, godhead and magic has made the "Dune" books into an admixture of science fiction and fantasy, according to current dichotomy. They are peculiarly suited to today's taste for new versions of the old legends of impossible dream, quest, noble sacrifice, truth, justice, in short, Leto's Golden Path, his prescient vision that he must evolve into a new kind of giant sandworm to save humanity.

People today very much need to know they will survive as a species, and Leto's link to the ancient roots of western civilization (however accursed) is oddly reassuring.

And as fantastical as it is, "Dune" hints at familiar images: sandworm as serpent in the Garden of Eden (or as worm in the apple of the world), or as magical steed, or as dragon to be slain; kings who are prophets, misunderstood tyrants -- read, parents -- and wicked witches of the future, Glindas of tomorrow.

Today, at 60, Frank Herbert has strong beliefs. The phrase "rugged individualist," however much abused, seems to fit him as the sandtrout glove on Leto's arm.

He never graduated from college. And because of the lack of a degree "was dinged" out of a chance to become government of American Samoa. That was during a brief political incarnation as researcher and speechwriter for then Sen. Guy Gordon (R-Ore.) in the '50s.

"Now, of course," he says, "I have all these degrees from, oh, you know, 'Oh, Mr. Herbert, if you come and speak to our graduating class . . .'"

And when he wasn't satisfied with the way his two sons were being educated, he and Be moved to Mexico and taught them themselves.

"There has been," says Herbert, "a battle between professional educators and the family for a long time. It's one of those hidden battles like, which way the toilet roll should be set or whether the toothpaste tube should be squeezed in the middle or on the bottom, but it's a very real battle nonetheless. And the general attitude of most professional educators is, well, 'You may have had them, but you're a dummy and we know what's good for them.' That rubs off on the kids, too, and they come home . . . to those dummies . . . us.

The Herberts have been married 35 yeas. The sons are grown -- one is an electronics engineer and the other an insurance underwriter who writes humorous book. The title of the latest, Herbert notes, with some pride, is "Don't Tie Your Horse to Your Sleeping Bag and Other Advice for the Young." Herbert also has a daughter from an early, brief marriage.

Herbert's preoccupation with ecology is not limited to Dune/Arrakis. He has equipped his own house in Port Townsend, Wash., on Puget Sound, with passive solar collectors he designed and made from seconds of Thermopane and halved beer cans. On Maui, where the Herberts now spend their winters, he uses wind energy and has patented (with a scientist colleague) what he believes will be a successful and practical windmill.

He writes on a word-processor he had built to his own specifications (so that, for example, he never loses a word to mechanical deviltry) and has co-authored a book about to be published by Simon and Schuster on how to program your own home computer. It is called, he offers, with a self-satisfied giggle, "Without Me You're Nothing."

He is also a scholarly wine buff -- "Palates educate like everything else" -- and his knowledge of aerial acrobatics won him admiration and unlimited air transportation when he was covering Vietnam.

"I have this theory," says Herbert, over dinner, "that you can have an experience in a book that you can't have any other way. If the writer has done it correctly, and you are immersed in that page, living in that world, if there's no distance between you and the world created there, you are having an experience. You can give people experiences that way that are entertaining, but also have another value, for good or ill, of including all sorts of other suff."

"Frank Herbert's "other stuff" very much involves his feelings. His philosophy is simple and appealing: maintain independence of spirit and of self. Self reliance, yes, but tempered with selflessness and compassion. But mainly, never submerge self in any thing, be it government, religion or the charisma of a leader.

Some Herbert homilies, via Leto II:

On the military:

One of the most terrible words in any language is soldier. The synonyms parade through our history: yogahnee, trooper, hussar, kareebo, cossack, deranzeef, legionnaire, sardaukar, fish speaker . . .

Or, If there is no enemy, one must be invented. The military force which is denied an external target always turns against its own people.

About women:

The female sense of sharing originated as familial sharing -- care of the young, the gathering and preparation of food, sharing joys, love and sorrows . . . Religion began as a female monopoly, wrested from them only after its social power became too dominant.

These chapter headings are attributed to "The Stolen Journals" and other Dead Sea scrolls of the future and, after all, if they tend to occasion to be preachy, well, chalk if up to the science fiction writer's singular affection for his or her readers.

What other body of authors subject themselves willingly, lovingly to the conventions of their fans. (Even today in the Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington, some 1,500 fans are hobnobbing with SF veteran Isaac Asimov as well as a clutch of popular authors including Joan Vinge, William Tenn and Hal Clement at the Washington area's annual SF convention "Disclave.")

Observes Herbert: "There is a common denominator with a lot of science fiction writers that they really care about their readers. And that can be very beguiling. I know I do, and I think it is part of my popularity."

But he adds, "But don't follow me. I'm not about to set up Herbert-town in Guyana." Grin. Then, "Also, Bev keeps whispering to me, 'Thou art mortal, oh cult leader . . .'"

One thing Herbert did do for fans was resurrect the character of Duncan Idaho, heroic, pure Duncan. "You should have been the mail," he says. One letter came with tear spots, literally, and a woman wrote, "I cried for three days when you killed Duncan."

Never fear, Duncan is back. Ten of him.

Who reads science fiction, anyway?

For one thing, not the people who read mystery stories, as a general rule.

Frank Herbert is one of a few select science fiction (and fantasy) writers who breaks away from the estimated 60-100,000 hard-core science fiction readers who consider themselves fans. He is in the select company of Isaac Asimov Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, The odore Sturgeon, Stephen Donaldson, Ursula Le Guin and, of course, Robert Heinlein and maybe a few others, tracing their roots to the likes of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edward Bellamy and C. S. Lewis, as well as H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Allan Poe.

Even the mystery story readers know their names.

And their readers, like Herbert's, number in the millions.

They are the kind of writers who give science fiction a good name.

Back in the old days of unabashed pulp magazines and the late, lamented pre-Alien B.E.M. (Bug-eyed Monster), science fiction fans were mostly weirdos in the eyes of their contemporaries. Indeed, the genre attracts the lonely, the children who are too grown up to read fairy tales, but too young at heart to relate to Saul Bellow or Heinrich Boll, for example.

Some of these people grow up to be Noble Prize-winning scientists.

Some of them use the rich world of other people's imagination for their own escape from high mortgage rates, loneliness and a general sense that the future of mankind is bleak.

The typical (hard-core) science fiction fan is, observes his wife Bev Herbert, usually an adolescent male, high school or college. He will absorb his favorites in any from whatsoever, from comic book to movie.

He will appreciate "Star Wars" for its "Wizard of Oz" ingeniousness and scorn "Battlestar Galactica" for its callowness.

Science ficton and fantasy readers may be moral driftwood, alienated by the cynicism of world leadership unsatisfied with the old precepts of morality and theology and literally seeking answers in the artful and ingenious worlds of the future. tThat this can be dangerous is demonstrable: by L. Ron. Hubbard, whose fantasies led to the formation of Scientology . . . by Charles Manson, who took much too literally, with all its tragic consequences, Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land."

Encouraged by some far-sighted publishers, like the late John W. Campbell, and inspired by the example of Asimov's and Heinlein's prolificacy, science fiction (and fantasy, too, but not as quickly) began to rise above the pulps.

It became a vanguard of the literary reflection of social change -- for example Ray Bradbury on racism in both the "Martian Chronicles" and The Illustrated Man," and incessant and graphic (and too often polemial auguries of nuclear holocaust. And now, as in "Dune," of ecological catastrophe as well.

Women began to be treated like people in science fiction a long time before mainstream literature caught on. (And such treatments were cherished. When, a few years back, James Tiptee Jr. won an award for the extraordinarily sensitive treatment of a female by a male writer, Tiptree had to come forward and break her cover.)

Science fiction has been, and continues to be, a vehicle for "straight" writers from Aldous Huxley to Doris Lessing and, somewhat less gloriously, Gore Vidal. Kurt Vonnegut, whatever his popularity, is regarded as something of a turncoat in science fiction circles.

In any case, "God Emperor of Dune" leads the ads of Crown Books and has sold more than 100 copies at the tiny Moonstone Bookcellar. Another reflection of SF's coming of age, this science fiction (and about 25 percent mystery) speciality store is about to celebrate its sixth anniversary . . .

Who is reading "God Emperor of Dund"? Frank Herbert thinks it's a little of everybody.

A woman came up to him at a signing at B. Dalton in New York. "She said," says Herbert, "'You know, my son put on to the 'Dune' books."

"'Oh,' I said, 'he must be in college?'"

"'Oh no,' she said. 'He's 52 . . .'"