Frank Herbert’s “Dune” holds a special place in my heart, as it does for millions of science-fiction fans around the world.
In 1984, I took a young woman to see David Lynch’s movie version of the classic novel. She hadn’t read it, which would give me a chance to impress her with my occult knowledge of the planet Arrakis. (This says all you need to know about my experience with women.) Coincidentally, we sat down in front of my college adviser, which meant I also had to prepare pithy observations to share with him afterward in the lobby.
But halfway through the movie, I knew I couldn’t make it. The lancing of Baron Harkonnen’s giant facial boils was making me nauseous. When the Baron felt up a young slave and ripped out his “heart plug,” I was pretty sure I would vomit, which wasn’t the suave, intellectual impression I wanted to leave on my girlfriend or my adviser.
Fifty years after the original publication of “Dune,” I’ve finally been seduced back to the incredible story. In celebration of the novel’s golden anniversary, the Folio Society has issued an edition of Herbert’s masterpiece that every sci-fi fan will crave like melange. (At $125, it’s almost as expensive, too.)
A solid block of a book that comes in a sand-swept slipcase, this “Dune” features a piercing illustration of Paul Atreides on the cover, endpaper maps of Arrakis and 11 color illustrations by Sam Weber.
Longtime Book World critic Michael Dirda has written a fresh introduction that lays out the unlikely history of “Dune,” a novel he describes as “half Wagner, half spaghetti western.” Herbert had little reason to feel optimistic about his career, Dirda notes. A freelance writer and night photo editor at the San Francisco Examiner, Herbert could barely support his family. After he finished the manuscript, Analog magazine serialized the story in seven issues (1963-1965). But book publishers balked: 23 turned him down, claiming it was too complicated, too philosophical and far too long. Finally, a publisher of auto repair manuals (!) offered him $7,500 and printed 3,500 copies — almost half of which had to be “pulped because of misprints.”
Sales were slow at first, but hard-core sci-fi fans recognized the book’s genius. “Dune” won a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award and gradually became the best-selling science-fiction novel in the world, the basis for many sequels written by Herbert, and then by his son, Brian, with co-author Kevin Anderson. (This Folio edition contains a sweet biographical afterword by Brian, too.)
Pointing to the wide variety of influences evident in the story — from Joseph Campbell to Isaac Asimov — Dirda explains why “Dune” stays relevant to each generation: “Before Star Wars, before A Game of Thrones, Frank Herbert brought to blazing life a feudalistic future of relentless political intrigue and insidious treachery. . . . [It] is more than a futuristic swashbuckler or a science-fiction ‘coming of age’ novel. It is a serious moral fable about the foreseen and unforeseen consequences of the choices we make.”
So true. Even after I darted from the movie theater more than 30 years ago, that young woman made a choice to follow me. We’ve been together ever since.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.