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Frank Herbert's 'Dune' holds timely - and timeless - appeal

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Half a century ago, a middle-aged newspaperman with a few obscure books to his name sat down to pursue a pet obsession based on a story that had never sold.

The ensuing 1965 novel -- in which his agent had no confidence -- sagged at first. But within a few years, it was a pop-culture sensation, and this year, on its 45th anniversary, "Dune" is one of science fiction's best-known books and probably the field's bestselling novel.

The mystery of why some works continue to speak to us is heightened with a book like "Dune": Frank Herbert's desert-planet epic not only remains popular and well-known, but this tale has anticipated many of our contemporary concerns. Its saga of dueling great houses, the fight for a rare resource and a young aristocrat's coming of age was set 200 centuries in the future. But it grapples with numerous issues pressing in the 21st: the fragility of the environment, the shortage of fossil fuels, the threat of religious jihad, the unpredictable effects of mind-bending drugs.

"It was the SF book that everybody in the mainstream culture was reading," recalls Northern California novelist Kim Stanley Robinson. "But it wasn't like Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle,' which was essentially a mainstream novel. Herbert was doing hard-core SF in the anthropological and world-building sense. People went for its huge back story taking off from [the prophet] Mohammed's life."

That the novel was planned and researched during the Eisenhower and Camelot years -- before widespread Muslim fundamentalism, OPEC, mainstream narcotics use and other issues that seem to inspire the narrative -- underscores the author's prescience. The book also helped galvanize the environmental movement: Set on a world far from ours, its rich description of a water-poor planet is credited by some as the inspiration for Earth Day.

Because of its huge following, fast-moving plot and opportunities for special effects, "Dune" has repeatedly attracted other artists -- it's been the source of a video game, a board game, numerous posthumous sequels and several adaptations. And though a 1984 film was widely considered a failure and two subsequent Sci-Fi Channel miniseries were made, Paramount recently selected a director for a big-budget movie.

The inspiration

"I am a political animal," Herbert said in a 1983 promotional interview. "And I never really left journalism. I am writing about the current scene -- the metaphors are there."

The novel was sparked when, in the late 1950s, Herbert flew to Florence, Ore., in a small chartered plane to write about a U.S. Department of Agriculture effort to stabilize sand dunes with European beach grasses. The author was struck by the way dunes could move, over time, like living things -- swallowing rivers, clogging lakes, burying forests. "These waves can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave . . . they've even caused deaths," he wrote his agent, beginning an article, "They Stopped the Moving Sands," that was never published.

Despite his agent's indifference, Herbert dug in: He was fascinated by the project and superimposed the history of another sandy place -- including Arabs and Islam's Mohammed -- into an adventure novel originally called "Spice Planet."

When he hit his stride, Herbert was writing 70 pages a week.

At the time, science fiction was at the tail end of its Golden Age, dominated by brisk tales of interstellar war and planet hopping. Several icons of midcentury were doing major work -- Robert Heinlein, for instance, published his campus sensation "Stranger in a Strange Land" in 1961 -- but the field's energy was flagging, and the magazine market had imploded. (A 1961 fanzine was titled "Who Killed Science Fiction?") Herbert and his gargantuan manuscript were turned down by dozens of publishers but eventually accepted by Chilton, a small press known for auto manuals.

Herbert's story of young aristocrat Paul Atreides, along with maps, appendixes, glossary and epigrams ran to more than 500 pages. After almost two years, the book took off in 1967. The novel was a hinge between new and old, says Annalee Newitz, editor of science fiction blog io9.

" 'Dune' functions nicely as a transition between classic SF -- focused on space opera and astro-politics of the kind Isaac Asimov and other golden age authors wrote -- and the next generation," she says. "In the '60s, we saw a shift away from science fiction focused on space travel and space politics to anthropology. You aren't rushing between planets, you've landed on one and you talk about that one" -- including its biology and sociology.

Writers had imagined life on other planets and written of environmental catastrophe. But the scale of "Dune" was unprecedented, comparable, as Arthur C. Clarke said at the time, only to "The Lord of the Rings."

"The planet was something you could really feel," says Robinson, whose latest novel is "Galileo's Dream." "Herbert spent a lot of time outdoors -- you can see it in the writing, he's seen things you can only see if you've been there. It's physical and expansive."

Still, the novel's pulp roots show.

"Parts of it are almost poetic," says Rob Latham, who teaches science fiction at UC Riverside. "But the villains are comically ridiculous. Baron Harkonnen could have been played by Sydney Greenstreet or Charles Laughton, say -- 'swishy.' And I don't know what we're supposed to think of the eugenics. There are all sorts of half-baked ideas in there."

'A real mess'

Thanks to the novel's success, plans for a "Dune" film began as early as 1971, when producers wanted David Lean, whose "Lawrence of Arabia" is in some ways a precursor, to direct. Another early version would've enlisted Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, Gloria Swanson, Hervé Villechaize and Alain Delon in a 10-hour epic -- before financing evaporated.

Today, the 1984 movie directed by David Lynch and starring Kyle McLachlan and Sting has gained cult status. An endless shoot in Mexico City and the dunes of Chihuahua engaged 1,700 people: As the costs stretched, Lynch's film was sliced to two hours, and he was denied final cut. Roger Ebert, not known for his vitriol, called the movie "a real mess . . . incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless." Lynch all but disowned the movie and rarely discusses it in interviews.

Herbert, however, deemed Lynch's baroque film "a visual feast."

The current adaptation comes from the wreckage of a project that was to be helmed by "Friday Night Lights" creator Peter Berg and with Charlize Theron as Jessica, Paul's mother. After considering Neill Blomkamp (political-SF sleeper "District 9") and Neil Marshall (low-budget hit "The Descent"), Paramount opted for Frenchman Pierre Morel. (Chase Palmer, a relatively unknown writer, will work with an existing screenplay by Josh Zetumer.)

Morel -- director of "Taken" and "From Paris With Love" -- has discussed his aim to make the film faithful to the novel, which he says he's read 10 times.

Optimists hope that the director can do for Herbert's book -- and maybe its sequels -- what Peter Jackson did with Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," finding a balance among action, story and ideas.

It could also, of course, be cheap. "If they want to reawaken it as a film franchise," says io9's Newitz, "it's hard to imagine that it would not just be action-packed, with a video-game tie-in."

Lasting effect

For a book that's enjoyed such critical and popular success and continued interest from Hollywood, the legacy of "Dune" is not especially clear.

It's not quite New Wave -- which developed in the late 1960s -- not an antecedent to cyberpunk, nor a precursor to the recent space-opera renaissance. "It's some kind of singularity," says Latham.

"Dune" both channeled and stoked a greater environmental consciousness in SF: Important later novels by Ursula Le Guin, John Brunner and Octavia Butler looked at planetary ecology.

The original novel's most evident influence is on the science-fiction tradition of world-building, for which it raised the bar considerably. Writers and scientists had been envisioning other planets for a century, but not this deeply: The rituals by which the Fremen, the planet's desert people, deal with water are especially well imagined.

Many consider Robinson's trilogy about the terra-forming of Mars the best-realized exercise in the form since Herbert's. Robinson calls "Dune" a big influence: The book showed him, he says, that "you could talk about the future of the wilderness. It gave me courage. I knew that people were willing to read at great length and that the world could be a character."

But Herbert's future vision of a galaxy with numerous populated worlds seems out of step with the deflated present. "The future," says Robinson, "doesn't look to be off-planet in any near-future time frame."

A less encouraging descendant of the original "Dune" novel is the large number of other Dune novels. The first sequel, the much slimmer "Dune Messiah," came out in 1969; Herbert published the sixth of the original series, "Chapterhouse: Dune," in 1985. And though Herbert died the following year, while recovering from cancer surgery, Dune's universe has been extended by his son Brian and journeyman writer Kevin J. Anderson.

Some think these posthumous prequels and sequels have confused the legacy by dumping less serious books into the marketplace. "They've gone from something profound and thought-provoking," says Newitz, "to being something like candy, like the 'Star Wars' novelizations."

Whatever the book's influence and implications, the original continues to attract readers: It's sold an estimated 10 million copies. To Latham, it remains "a weird kind of in-between thing."

"It culminates a pulp tradition, with ridiculous villains and a pseudo-medieval empire set in outer space, and some bad writing," he says. "Then it has these '70s elements -- environmental concerns, drugs and mystical experiences. And somehow it managed to coalesce all of them."

Timberg blogs at www.themisreadcity.com/.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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