Frank Herbert was born on October 8, 1920, in Tacoma, Washington. He began his career as a journalist when he was seventeen. From 1946 to 1947 Herbert attended the University of Washington. During the 1950s he sold several stories to science fiction magazines, and in 1956 his first novel, The Dragon in the Sea, was published by Doubleday. He worked for the San Francisco Examiner newspaper for ten years, and while there he wrote the stories that would become his most famous novel, Dune. “Dune World” was serialized from December 1963 to February 1964 in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine. The serialization of “The Prophet of Dune” followed (January to May 1965) in the same magazine. These stories were revised, expanded, and combined to form Dune, which was published in 1965 by Chilton, a company that was known for publishing how-to books, not science fiction.
In 1965 Dune received the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula award for best novel, and in 1966 it received the World Science Fiction Convention’s Science Fiction Achievement Award, the “Hugo,” for best novel. In spite of these awards, most critics panned Dune when it was first published. The handling of controversial issues in Dune angered some of them. For instance, Herbert’s creation of a desert society of “Fremen” disturbed some anthropologists, who believed that he misunderstood how such a society would truly function. However, the novel focused on environmental questions that were becoming general public concerns, and these questions gave the book new critical life. Today some science fiction critics regard Dune as the outstanding science fiction novel of the 1960s, and some historians of the novel even consider Dune one of America’s major postwar novels.
Most of the novel is set on Arrakis, a desert planet known as “Dune” and inhabited primarily by sandworms and a martial people called Fremen. The planet is the place of exile for Paul Atreides and his family, and was intended as a place of hardship. Paul, however, finds the Fremen admirable for their courage and faithfulness. They provide Paul with a useful fighting force; the Fremen are tough, fanatical fighters, unmatched by any others in the empire.
Herbert maintained that Dune was about the destructive nature of charismatic leaders. In this sense, Paul Atreides is an allegorical figure: a good man whose efforts to survive and help his followers lead to war and chaos. Arrakis has a well-balanced ecological system in which even human society plays a cooperative role. When the Fremen surrender their freedom of choice to their prophet Paul, the natural balance of the planet is upset, and the entire ecosystem comes apart.
Paul is a charismatic leader who can foresee some of the results of his actions. However, a character’s ability to know the future presents significant problems for an author attempting to maintain suspense within the narrative. Often a writer will solve the problem by having the future-seeing character foresee a terrible doom; tension is then created by the struggle against that impending doom. Sometimes the struggle is complicated by characters who refuse to believe the prophesies. This happens to the prophetess Cassandra in Homer’s Iliad, where readers know something that most of the characters do not know-that Cassandra’s prophesies are valid. In such a case, tension arises from the possibility that some character may yet believe the prophet and thus avert disaster.
Reviewers in the 1960s generally faulted Dune for being naive about both planetary ecology and anthropology. In recent years critics have come to regard Dune and its sequels as extraordinarily complete portraits of an alien planet and a spacefaring society. In the 1960s American society was becoming increasingly aware of the environmental problems created by modern technology. Also during the 1960s there was a growing interest in mysticism and the religions of the Far East. This interest is reflected in Dune, which touches on several important social issues of its time. The novel’s central plot focuses on Paul Atreides, who is the product of generations of selective breeding, and who has the mystical ability to see possible futures. Further, he becomes the focus of a mystical religion.
1. Paul Atreides’s psychic powers are aided by a drug produced on Dune. Are drugs good or bad in Dune? Given the terrible effects many drugs have on people, are drugs portrayed responsibly in the novel? Should the way drugs are depicted matter to readers?
1. Study the critics’ objections to the anthropological content of Dune. To what did anthropologists object? Are any of their objections valid? Are there any real-life desert peoples who have adapted to their environment in ways similar to the Fremen? Does Herbert’s anthropology of the Fremen enhance or hurt the novel?
Herbert traced the fortunes of Arrakis and its theocracy through Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, completing what was originally intended to be a trilogy. However, Herbert then chose to expand the series, following God Emperor of Dune with Heretics of Dune and Chapter-house: Dune.