Dive into Dune: The Past and Present of a Science Fiction Masterpiece

October 21, 2021 | Isabel

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With a new movie adaptation coming out of Frank Herbert's Dune, there's no better time to celebrate it. Published in 1965, Dune has never been out of print and is regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. It has taken many forms over the years, from a disastrous movie to the recent graphic novel adaptation. But, it almost didn’t get published at all!

This post features books and more available to borrow from TPL and special editions held at our Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. Dune is available as a regular book, ebook and in audio format.

Dune - first edition
The Merril Collection’s first edition copy of Dune. Cover art by John Schoenherr. On display in the exhibit at Toronto Reference Library, Spaced Out: 50 Years of the Merril Collection (Oct. 9, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022).



Dune tells the story of a young man coming of age in a treacherous interplanetary empire. Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and the Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit order, moves with his family from water-rich Caladan to the desert planet Arrakis. There, political treachery thrusts Paul into a battle for survival among the inhospitable dunes. Even if you haven't read it, you can probably picture the immense sandworms rearing out of the desert or the blue-on-blue eyes of those who consume Arrakis’ famous drug, “spice.”

Dune's story and images are part of the public consciousness, which may be why so many try to adapt it…

Dune - Ace deluxe edition
2019 special deluxe edition with cover art by Matt Griffin. Available to see in-person at the Merril Collection.


Dune on the Silver Screen

Most recently, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has adapted Dune for the big screen. Part one of his film duology opens in theaters on October 22, 2021. The movie has an all-star cast that includes Timothy Chalamet and Zendaya. But it is still haunted by the spectres of past adaptations.

The most well-known Dune film is David Lynch's from 1984. It is notoriously bad. Famed for wooden acting and gross-out body horror, it earned a slew of one-star reviews on its release. However, some argue that it has its merits and it has gained a cult following over the years. For those who want to delve deeper into this movie, the screenplay is available to read at the Merril Collection.

David Lynch's Dune

Another notorious failure is Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune. Jodorowsky was the first to attempt a film adaptation. He started work in 1975 with several big names attached to the project. The cast included Orson Wells, Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger. Jean Giraud, a French cartoonist better known as Moebius, was tapped to design the film’s creatures. H.R. Giger, later to become famous for Alien, designed the sets. Pink Floyd would produce the soundtrack. But after three years of work, this hugely ambitious project was cancelled due to the ballooning budget and phone book-sized script. The 2013 documentary Jodorowsky's Dune memorializes this valiant attempt at movie-making.

Jodorowsky's Dune


Other Adaptations

In 2000, writer and director John Harrison made a TV miniseries called Frank Herbert's Dune that aired on the Sci-Fi channel. It was thankfully well-received, though it didn't garner any critical acclaim. A sequel miniseries, Frank Herbert's Children of Dune, based on the second and third books of the series, was released in 2003.

Frank Herbert's Dune

Film is not the only medium Dune crops up in. It has inspired video games and even a pop-up book. It also recently got the graphic novel treatment.

Dune pop-up book interior
Two-page spread from the Dune pop-up book created by Maida Silverman and illustrated by Daniel Kirk. Available to see in-person at the Merril Collection.


The Road to Publication

Dune’s journey to publication is almost as much of an adventure as the novel itself. Dune was Frank Herbert's second novel. His first, The Dragon in the Sea, was a well-received near future thriller set on a submarine. It was serialized in the science fiction magazine Analog from 1955 to 1956 and published as a "fix-up" in 1957. He had been working as a reporter since the 1940s and wrote pulp adventure stories for magazines like Esquire. His first science fiction story was published in the science fiction magazine Startling Stories in April 1952. But by the late 1950s, he was struggling to sell his writing.

The Dragon in the Sea
1973 New English Library edition. Cover art by Bruce Pennington. Available to see in-person at the Merril Collection

In 1957, Herbert heard about a U.S. Department of Agriculture project in Florence, Oregon. They had successfully stabilized unstable sand dunes by planting hardy grasses. (Readers of Dune may recognize this strategy.) Herbert was interested in the history of desert regions, like the Sahara, that had been fertile until they were swallowed by encroaching sand. He visited Florence, saw the dunes and started working on an article about his trip. While writing, the image of a desert world came to him. The article was never completed, but it planted the seed of something more.

The Road to Dune
The Road to Dune contains Herbert's unpublished papers and stories, including the article "They Stopped the Moving Sands."

In 1963, Herbert completed the first part of a planned trilogy, titled "Dune World." It would later become the first half of the novel Dune. His agent sold it to Analog for three cents a word and it was serialized in that magazine from December 1963 to February 1964. Doubleday, the company that had published his first novel, expressed interest in "Dune World."

Ornithopter illustration from Dune World in Analog
Illustration of an ornithopter by John Schoenherr. "Dune World" part 2,  Analog, January 1964. Available to see in-person at the Merril Collection

Herbert finished the trilogy in November 1963, and there his troubles started. Publishers felt the stories should be one book instead of three, but the resulting volume would be far too large and expensive to print. The story was complicated, the first part slow-moving. It was too big, too experimental. Twenty-three publishers rejected it.

But, Analog was still interested. From January to May 1965 they serialized the second and third installments of the trilogy under the name “The Prophet of Dune.” An editor at Chilton Book Company, which was known for publishing automotive manuals, saw Dune’s promise and quickly snapped up the printing rights for the manuscripts. Chilton decided to publish it in one hardcover volume. The science fiction publisher Ace Books soon offered to print a cheaper paperback edition for the following year.

Dune - Ace paperback
1965 Ace paperback edition. Cover art by John Schoenherr. Available to see in-person at the Merril Collection

Dune was published in August 1965. The cover art was by John Schoenherr, who had also illustrated the run in Analog. A third of the first print run was riddled with errors and had to be discarded. The surviving books from this small first printing became the most valuable science fiction books in history. Dune won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1965, the year that Award was established. The next year, Dune won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Dune - Gollancz edition
This 1966 Gollancz edition has lovely, minimalist cover art. Artist unknown. Available to see in-person at the Merril Collection

Herbert wrote five sequels to Dune, to lesser acclaim. After his death, his son Brian and author Kevin J. Anderson have continued writing in the world of Dune. Together they have co-authored numerous prequels and sequels to the original Dune series.

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Brian Herbert (left) and Kevin J. Anderson (right) at the Merril Collection on the 2009 book tour for The Winds of Dune. Photo by Steve Wong

More books about Frank Herbert and Dune

The Maker of Dune: Insights of a Master of Science Fiction by Frank Herbert (Available for reference at the Merril Collection)

Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert by Brian Herbert

The Dune Encyclopedia, compiled by Willis E. McNelly (Available for reference at the Merril Collection and North York Central Library)