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15 Facts About Dune

Before Frank Herbert unleashed the first entry in his magnificent Dune series—a saga many now call sci-fi’s answer to The Lord of the Rings—almost nobody thought it had a prayer.

Publishers rejected the novel 23 times and even his own agents had their doubts. Yet, if anything, Dune’s humble beginnings bolster its appeal. To date, that first book alone has sold upwards of 20 million copies and been printed in over a dozen languages. Here’s some amazing stuff you may not know about this truly epic franchise. 

1. Herbert was Inspired by the “Moving Sands” of Oregon.

It all started with a scrapped magazine article. By the 1950s, coastal Oregon had gotten fed up with a serious ecological menace: sand dunes. As Herbert noted in a 1957 letter:

Sand dunes pushed by steady winds build up in waves analogous to ocean waves except that they may move twenty feet a year instead of twenty feet a second. These waves can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave in property damage… and they’ve even caused deaths. They drown out forests, kill game cover, destroy lakes, [and] fill harbors.

That year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had begun experimenting with beach grasses near the seaside city of Florence, Oregon. A certain species with unusually long roots was liberally planted in an attempt to stop the sands from excessively shifting. Fascinated, Herbert flew in and started gathering notes for a piece entitled “They Stopped the Moving Sands.” But his agent refused to send it to publishers unless it was rewritten, which Herbert never did. Still, Herbert remained intrigued and—after boning up on deserts and religious figures—outlined the story that eventually became Dune.

2. Dune Was Also Influenced by Psychedelic Mushrooms. 

“The spice must flow!” In Herbert’s Dune universe, the single most valuable commodity is—by far—an edible substance called “melange.” Also known as “spice,” this highly-addictive material is found only on the desert planet of Arrakis, where much of the action unfolds. Among its many properties are increased longevity and, in some cases, the ability to see the future itself.

Sound trippy? There’s a reason. While conversing with fungi expert Paul Stamets, Herbert revealed that the world of Dune was influenced by the lifecycle of mushrooms, with his imagination being helped along by a more “magic” variety.

3. Herbert had Previously Experimented with Dune-esque Plot Elements in an Uncompleted Story Called “Spice Planet.”

The tale’s protagonist is Jesse Linkam, who must endure a hostile, otherworldly desert with his 8-year-old son, Barri. “Spice Planet” touches on several topics that Dune would later explore, including drug addiction, aristocracy, and religious uprisings. Eventually, however, Herbert went back to the drawing board, shelving this primordial narrative en route (until his son released a new story based on Frank’s original outline).

4. It was Originally Released as a Serial.

Before getting published as the novel adored today, Dune started out in segments. Two main partsDune World and Prophet of Dune—were divided into a total of nine sections which appeared in Analog magazine from 1963 to 1965.

5. Eventually, Dune Was Picked Up by a Publishing Company That was Best Known for its Automobile Manuals.

Chilton Publishing—a small, Philadelphia-based organization—agreed to put out Herbert’s masterpiece in 1965. 

6. Herbert Deliberately Kept the Techno-Jargon to a Minimum.

By making its futuristic technology secondary to the plot, themes, and characters, Dune breaks from more traditional sci-fi. Despite being a huge novel (for its time), Herbert barely spills any ink covering his world’s machinery, feeling that going into too much detail about nuts and bolts would have made his story inaccessible to average readers.

7. Dune Features Several Nods to Zen Buddhism.

As Herbert’s son, Brian, wrote in Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, his father “was attracted to Zen Buddhism,” a fact reflected in Dune by the presence of fictitious religious traditions with names like “Zensunni” and “Zensufi,” which supposedly evolved from the union of Zen Buddhism and Sufism (Islamic mysticism). Herbert was also acquainted with the writings of Zen master Alan Watts, whom he met during the '60s.

8. Before Dune Came Along, Herbert Had Worked as a Political Speechwriter.

Between 1950 and 1960, he climbed aboard four political campaigns—every single one of which fell short. 

9. Dune Won the Very First Nebula Award in 1966.

Nowadays, that’s a reward every sci-fi novelist craves. By the way, it also shared the 1966 Hugo award for Best Novel with Roger Zelazny’s …And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal).

10. Children of Dune (1976) Was the First Science Fiction Novel to Become a New York Times Bestseller in Both Hardcover and Paperback.

Sales for the original Dune stagnated at first, but by the time Herbert finished this third installment, a rabid fan base had been built which couldn’t wait to devour it in breathtaking numbers. 

11. A Dune Board Game was Released in 1979.

For those interested, a digital version is now available online.

12. A Never-Made Film Adaptation was Supposed to be Scored by Pink Floyd and Star Salvador Dali.

“I wanted to do a movie that would give people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating,” says would-be director Alexandro Jodorowski. It sounds like he’d have been well on his way, having approached Pink Floyd to do the soundtrack and surrealist painter Salvador Dali to portray Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV. Also, it would’ve been a butt-numbing 14 hours long.    

13. Theaters Distributed a Glossary of Terms When David Lynch’s 1984 Movie Version Came Out.

Lynch’s notorious box office bomb is 110% incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the book. Realizing this, cinemas began giving their theatergoers page-long appendices to help explain Dune’s intricate backstory.  Apparently, these didn’t help Roger Ebert, who called the film an “ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” Ouch!

14. George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) Once Bore a Much Closer Resemblance to Dune.

Early drafts involved conflicts between Dune-like feudal houses and, although these were omitted, characters in Lucas’ breakout movie do mention “spice mines” and the movie takes place on the desert planet of Tatooine. Coincidence? Herbert didn’t think so; he soon joked of banding together with several other ripped-off sci-fi authors to form a “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas” society.

15. All the low plains on one of Saturn’s Moons are named after planets in the Dune Canon.

Saturn’s largest moon—a body named Titan—contains some shady-looking terrain called planitia (low plains) that are all named after Dune planets. The first one discovered is now known as “Chusuk Planitia” in honor of the fictitious (and musically-oriented) planet Chusuk.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES: Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert and The Road to Dune.

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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