Gigantic, 1,000-year-old sandworms dominate the barren planet of Arrakis, where the last remnants of a desert society, the Fremen, struggle to survive. This is the world of Dune, the sci-fi series that has sold more than 13 million copies so far (No. 5, Heretics of Dune, hit the bookstores last month) and inspired a Trekkie-size cult following that is expected, in throngs, to see the long-awaited $40-million movie version this winter.
The unlikely creator of this bleak and often violent futuristic fantasy is Tacoma-born Frank Herbert, a 63-year-old, ecology-conscious grandfather who lives quietly in Port Town-send, Wash., the town where An Officer and a Gentleman was filmed. Until 1971 Herbert, a University of Washington dropout (he lectures there now), churned out 14 science-fiction paperbacks while working as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
The Dune bug bit Herbert while he was writing a magazine story on government experiments to control shifting sands in the coastal town of Florence, Oreg. The first novel in the series, all 500 pages of it, appeared in 1965 and became a campus bestseller. Dune Messiah, Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune followed, tracing the evolution of the hapless Arrakisians and the sandworms that share their planet.
The last several months have marked a new chapter in the author’s personal evolution. In February Herbert’s wife of 38 years, Beverly, died of cancer at their vacation home on Maui. The week before, she made Frank promise to finish his sixth Dune book, Chapter House: Dune, in time for publication next spring. “I had five months to do it. I did it in two,” he says, adding, “It was good therapy.” The book contains a lengthy, haunting dedication to Bev: “Her hand was in mine when she died, and the attending doctor, tears in his eyes, said the thing that I and many others had said of her: ‘She had grace.’ ”
While in Washington, D.C. on his eight-city tour to promote Heretics, Herbert, known for his meticulous research, grilled Sally Quinn, 42, about her marriage to Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, 62. “I get it,” said Quinn, cutting Herbert off mid-sentence. “You’re in love with a younger woman!” Bull’s-eye. While book stumping earlier in L.A., Herbert had met and fallen in love with a 30-year-old blond woman whose name he is skittish about revealing. Herbert claims he was on a plane when he had a “vision” from Bev. “She was telling me, ‘It’s all right. She’s the one,’ ” says Frank. It must be love—after 15 hirsute years he shaved off his beard in her honor. “It just seemed like the time to do it. My new lady love has never seen my face. This is the new Frank Herbert.”
It’s taken almost 20 years for Dune to make it to the screen because, says Herbert, no one—including himself—had been able to condense the symbol-ridden saga into a workable screenplay. Executive Producer Dino De Laurentiis, 64, gave the imposing task of writing and directing to David (The Elephant Man) Lynch. “I had never read Dune until Dino called me,” says Lynch, 38. “I loved it because I like things that take you to another world. I like it when there are different textures, moods, dreams and visions, when there’s a feeling of bigness, of infinity.” Of Herbert, who visited the Dune set outside Mexico City several times, Lynch says: “He’s a leprechaun, a Santa Claus. He’s got a billion ideas on a billion different things.”
It’s rare to find an author who feels that a director hasn’t massacred his work, but after seeing a rough cut of Dune, Herbert is pleased. “They’ve got it. It begins as Dune does. And I hear my dialogue all the way through. There are some interpretations and liberties, but you’re gonna come out knowing you’ve seen Dune.” His reaction to the rock singer Sting, who plays the villainous Feyd-Raucha, “Ah, he can act!” As for those infamous sandworms, created by John (Star Wars) Dykstra and Carlo (E.T.) Rambaldi, Herbert was impressed: “They’re realistic and scary. These are no Japanese monsters rising out from the deep to eat Kyoto.” They may not be as cuddly as Ewoks, but Herbert’s worms will be on toy-store shelves along with other Dune-related spin-off items around the time of the film’s release.
Herbert, who earns $500,000 a year in royalties and lecture fees, is philosophical about the prospect of being transformed by the epic film from cult figure to literary superstar. “It’s like being this season’s Hoola-Hoop,” he shrugs. “Might as well just roll with it.”