My first encounter with Dune was the opening sentence of Part Two, Muad’Dib: “Now Harkonnen shall kill Harkonnen,” Paul whispered.
Dune wasn’t even a novel at that time – it was a pair of magazine serials, published in one of the leading magazines, Analog, still under the legendary editorship of John W. Campbell Jr. The first section, “Dune World” (“Dune” in the novel), appeared in three parts between December 1963 and February 1964. Readers then had to wait almost a year for the second section, “The Prophet of Dune”, which was a five-part serial commencing in January 1965. In the interim, of course, Analog acquired new readers, my schoolboy self among them.
It was clear from the outset that “Dune World” and “The Prophet of Dune” were considered something special, and I struggled manfully to catch up. (Finding copies of the issues with the earlier serial was a challenge which was completely beyond me.) It was, in retrospect, an excellent way to encounter this world. “The Prophet of Dune” began in medias res, plunging the reader into a survival struggle following some apocalyptic climax to the earlier work. Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica were hiding in a tent in the extreme harshness of the desert on an alien planet. His father, it soon became clear, was dead. The Harkonnens were the enemy looking to track them down, but as that opening sentence cleverly establishes, Paul himself is to some degree one of them. Those opening pages are swift, vivid, evocative.
Some months later – having been rejected by some 20 publishers! – Dune was published by an obscure American house which rarely dabbled in fiction. The following year Gollancz issued the first UK edition. They clearly felt it was special enough to take it out of their usual yellow series jackets – it appeared with a black dust jacket, adorned with some impressionistic white curves meant to suggest sand dunes, and reportedly designed by Livia Gollancz herself. It was also produced in a much larger format than the rest of their sf list, but even so ran to 400 pages – an unprecedented size for a science fiction novel at a time where 250 pages or so was the norm.
It was in this edition that I encountered the whole novel, and thus the story of House Atreides’s betrayal, and Paul’s enforced exile. I also, of course, encountered the first appearance of a sandworm. Paul and his father have flown into the desert, visiting a giant factory which crawls the desert in search of the spice which is the source of Arrakis’s wealth, and the reason for its importance.
“The worm is now beneath the crawler,” Kynes said. You are about to witness a thing few have seen.”
Flecks of dust shadowed the sand around the crawler now. The big machine began to tip down to the right. A gigantic sand whirlpool began forming there to the right of the crawler. It moved faster and faster. Sand and dust filled the air now for hundreds of meters around.
Then they saw it!
A wide hole emerged from the sand. Sunlight flashed from glistening white spokes within it. The hole’s diameter was at least twice the length of the crawler, Paul estimated. He watched as the machine slid into that opening in a billow of dust and sand.
For all the reputation of Dune as the novel which popularized ecology in science fiction and introduced Bedouin culture, few can doubt that the sandworms are the creation which helped make the novel the phenomenal success it is. In another writer’s hands they might have been portrayed as monsters, but for Herbert they are huge, slightly mysterious animals, living their lives mostly concealed beneath the sands of this desert planet. Humans can – and do — learn to coexist with them in this harsh environment. Of all the invented creatures in science fiction they are perhaps the most iconic. This quality was well-captured in John Schoenherr’s outstanding illustrations for the Analog serials, one of which now graces the cover of the SF Masterworks edition of the novel.
More than forty five years after it was first published, Dune still effortlessly tops every poll as the best science fiction novel ever written. It has never been universally liked, or universally praised, but it has captivated generations of readers in the way that it captivated me in the mid 1960s, and even now I only have to open it to experience the same flashes of wonder it first induced.