The Roots of Dune

Dune, 1990 edition, cover art by Frank Herbert

I give you fair warning: I am a Dune Dork.

I read all the books when I was a kid, i.e. in college. I had a poster for the upcoming 1984 Ridley Scott movie on my dorm room wall, facing my roommate’s life-sized photo of Spock. I owned the Avalon Hill game of Dune, which I regretfully gave away years ago because I thought it was too dorky to own and too complicated to play.

Dune is coming–a fourth movie version–yes! there are four. That’s how dorky I am, that I know about the Jodorowsky version. If you aren’t quite so enamored, I do understand. Some people prefer Xena or Ernest Hemingway. But Dune was a landmark in science fiction history, so I am excited. I will tell you more about Dune, the movie history, in a later blog. And I will review the movie after I see it on October 26th at the 2:40 pm show in seat B9, hoping not to be as disappointed as I was on December 17, 1984 when I saw it at the big dome at the Century Theater in Sacramento.

But wait, there’s more! Because we were out a wanderin’ and came upon the Dune Peninsula. (!!!?!?!!)

The Dune Peninsula

Imagine, if you are a Xena dork, coming upon the location where they filmed the Xena’s death scene–the first one. Or, if you like Ernest Hemingway (for some reason I can’t fathom, but to each his own), his favorite tobacconist in Paris. I own a second edition paperback of The Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones). During a tour of an ancestral home in Scotland, where our tour guide happened to be the Earl of Something, he casually mentioned that they had filmed a scene from Season 3 of the show out on his estate, near the folly. Squeee!

Or, try to conceive our glee, when my wife and I–who have a well-thumbed script version of Monty Python’s All the Words — once came upon an ExParrot sculpture in a park in Greenwich, England. There is nothing like being an absolute screaming mad enthusiast about some arcane bit of art, cinema, or history and finding a reference to it unexpectedly placed in front of you. Not on the planned tour, you see, that is the key.

The Ex Parrot statue by John Reardon in Greenwich, photo by kajmeister.

We are in the Seattle area this week , visiting family as our first vacation since You Know When. Yesterday took us to Tacoma, to have a scrumptious bout of sushi and lively lunch conversation with sorely-missed good friends, followed by a meander up to Point Defiance Park in search of a Japanese Garden. (It was worth it; see new blog header photo). While we were there, we ambled over to a bluff in order to get panoramic photos of Puget Sound. I stopped in my tracks seeing a sign, casually labeled “Frank Herbert Dune Trail.”

Please understand, Herbert’s book is on my nightstand right now. I just started reading “Part Two: Muad’Dib.” In a museum the very day before, there had been a six-foot mouse sculpture, which I had pointed out boisterously to my companions– Look! Muad’Dib! Everyone had briefly stopped to listen to my dorky explanation and looked at their watch as I talked of how Paul Atreides embodied the mother/father, the anima/animus, which Bruno Bettleheim mentions in… ah, never mind … they said, as they went to look at the Monets…

Tacoma, though, clearly heard me! They installed in a flippin’ park in Frank Herbert’s honor.

Starring Frank Herbert as the Young Paul Atreides

It turns out that Frank Herbert was born and raised in Tacoma. At nine years old, he rowed to the San Juan Islands–on his own. At 14, he swam across the Tacoma Narrows, alone just like the rowing. A few years later, with a friend, he sailed up to British Columbia and back. This is what he was capable of. Breathing in all this wilderness transformed him into an ecowarrior of the pen, and he wrote a clarion call on nature and the importance of water to our climate.

Aside from sailing, he also loved to read and write. Of course, he then worked as a reporter for local Tacoma papers, then migrated down to Oregon to write speeches for a senator. It was in there that he encountered the Oregon coasts–those soft, sandy, windy miles of beaches, giant undulations and fissures of whiteness that go on forever. I’ve flown kites there, near Newport and Florence. My wife and children rode dune buggies there–Dune! buggies.

The dunes of the Oregon coast, which inspired Herbert, dune buggy in the foreground. Photo by kajmeister @2008.

Herbert was inspired by the interplay of the waves and the dunes, flip sides of the ocean’s coin. He conceived of a world covered with giant sand dunes and nothing else, where the water had long gone, and the dunes themselves had become ocean. The planet even has its own Loch Ness-type monsters, the giant sand worms who surface periodically to scare the reader and provide a key link in the book’s plot and the planet’s ecosystem.

Layers and Transformation

When Herbert’s monumental novel first emerged in 1965, it’s innovation was instantly recognizable. He included characters who crossed planets in their spaceships, but the book doesn’t center on space battles, not like Heinlein or Asimov. Dune is about Arrakis, the desert planet that holds a valuable resource in its harsh embrace, a planet everyone wants to own and exploit, but where few can survive without massive support from technology.

The writing had the feel of an epic, with its jumble of multiple characters and societies: Mentats, Bene Gesserit, the Harkonnens, the Emperor and his Sardaukar, bodyguards, water smugglers, Fremen. It worked well as a board game: each group wanted access to spice; each had a superpower; and each l had a vulnerability. Not unlike all the variations of Dungeons and Dragons, except that Herbert preceded those role-playing games by several years.

The book works in layers, building multiple characters and their back-stories, revealing secrets, immersing the reader in Arrakis’ past and future. It was the first book I read that included pithy chapter epigraphs written by characters in the book. In some cases, they tell you what’s going to happen, although the How and Why is still part of the mystery. It was also one of the big Firsts to take on ecology.

The increasing pollution he saw all around him, in the city of his birth, contributed to his resolve that something had to be done to save the Earth. This became, perhaps, the most important message of Dune.

Brian Herbert, talking about his father dad, Frank Herbert


In 1965, Earth Day had not yet occurred. We were still telling people to pick up trash, to “give a hoot, don’t pollute.” We were doing the bare minimum, decades ahead of recycling and organic food. Lake Erie caught on fire; there was no EPA.

In Tacoma, the ASARCO company smelter created “air so thick you could chew it.” The 67-acre site would become the first Superfund site in the U.S. What better way to transform the place that used to pour poison into the Sound but to build a park on its remediated soil. The site held a 562-foot brick chimney, brought down to applause in 1993. Sculptor Adam Kuby created Alluvion, not as homage but as a warning and reminder of those days.

Sculpture ode to a fallen smelting plant, Port Defiance Park, Tacoma. Photo by kajmeister.

Herbert poured his frustration about pollution and ecological waste into his epic. Yet, with climate disaster increasingly looming over us, it becomes harder to see those fundamentals at the heart of Herbert’s story. Plus, there have been so many imitations that it’s hard to see the original for what it was. The 2021 movie trailer emphasizes the space opera: the battles, the love story, the hero. But it isn’t a love story or a space battle. It’s about stewardship of resources vs. exploitation. Hence, one of the most pivotal characters is Liet Kynes: the planetologist. Herbert foreshadowed his attitudes about ecology and the coming climate change in the appendix to Dune, when the Arrakis planetologist says:

The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who do survive.

Pardot Kynes, 1st planetologist to Arrakis, from Dune, Appendix 1

In the story, the planet is both deadly and full of the most valuable thing in the galaxy, covered with monsters who are key to the existence of spice. The sand worms are an integral part of the ecosystem, as are these creatures called Little Makers.

“Little Makers” sculpture by Nichole Rathburn at Dune Peninsula. Photo by kajmeister.

As the ultimate homage to Herbert, on his Dune Peninsula, the sculpture of fallen chimney pieces faces a sculpture of similarly-colored Little Makers, atop a hill, overlooking the waters that Herbert used to paddle through. Waters rising because we didn’t listen very well back in 1965.

Are we listening better now? Do we need real sand worms to get us to pay attention?

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