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.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
6 X-Rated Library Collections
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the 19th century, some librarians became preoccupied with the morality (or lack thereof) of some of their titles. As a result, a number of libraries created special collections for "obscene" works, to ensure that only readers with a valid academic purpose might access them. Below are six examples, adapted from Claire Cock-Starkey’s new book A Library Miscellany.


At the British Library (or British Museum Library, as it was called then), it was John Winter Jones, Keeper of Printed Books from 1856, who was responsible for the creation of the “Private Case.” Titles that were deemed subversive, heretical, libelous, obscene, or that contained state secrets were kept out of the general catalog, stored in separate shelving, and marked with the shelfmark category “PC” (for private case). By far the majority of books in the private case were pornographic or erotic texts; it's rumored that by the mid-1960s the case contained over 5000 such texts, including George Witt’s collection of books on phallicism and Charles Reginald Dawes’s collection of French erotica from 1880–1930.

What was unusual about the Private Case was that it was so secretive: None of the books were recorded in any catalog, as if the collection didn’t exist. But starting in 1983, all books once in the Private Case have been listed in the catalog, and many have been returned to the main collection—although librarians may still check that a reader has academic reasons for consulting some of the more scandalous titles.


General stacks of the Bibliotheque nationale de France

L’Enfer, which translates as “the hell,” was created in 1830 to house the French national library’s large collection of erotica and other books that were considered “contrary to good morals.” Many of the works were obtained by the library through confiscation, but fortunately the librarians had the foresight to preserve these scandalous texts. The collection—which still exists—has been largely kept private and was only fully cataloged in 1913, when about 855 titles were recorded.

Modern pornographic magazines and erotic fiction do not get cast into L’Enfer: It is only for rare works or works of cultural significance, such as a handwritten copy of the Marquis de Sade’s Les Infortunes de la Vertu (1787) and The Story of O by Pauline Réage (1954). In 2007, the library put on a public exhibition of some of the more fascinating (and titillating) texts in L’Enfer, finally granting the public a glimpse of this hidden collection.


The New York Public Library Main Reading Room
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At the New York Public Library, some obscene works were once hand-marked with "***", which indicated that readers who wanted to consult those volumes had to be supervised. (Librarians regularly collected erotica, including from nearby Times Square, as part of their "mandate to collect life as it was lived," according to The New York Times.This system began in the mid-20th century and caused certain titles to be locked in caged shelves; it also meant that the items could only be consulted in a small restricted part of the reading rooms after special permission was granted.


Radcliffe Camera building, part of the Bodleian Library
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The restricted collection at the Bodleian Library was created by E. W. B. Nicholson, who was head librarian from 1886–1913. No one is quite sure why it was named after the Greek letter phi, but some have suggested it was because it sounds like “fie!” which you might exclaim when asked to retrieve a book from this collection. Or, perhaps it stems from the first letter “phi” of the Greek “phaula” or “phaulos,” meaning worthless, wicked, or base. The collection included pornography alongside works of sexual pathology, and students needed to ask a tutor to confirm their academic need for a book before the librarians would let them consult any texts with a phi shelfmark. Today, many of the books have been reclassified into the general collection, but the phi shelfmark still persists.


 Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

The Widener Library still holds its restricted collection behind a locked copper door in the basement of the library—not because they still want to hide it, but simply because (it's said) no one has the time to redistribute the collection back into main circulation. The collection was thought to have been set up in the 1950s, after a sociology professor complained that many texts he needed for his class were missing or defaced (the Playboy centerfold was apparently always going astray), and thus the restricted collection was created to protect and preserve rather than to censor. The collection was only added to for a 30-year period and is now closed; however, its classification reveals something of the social attitudes of the times towards titles such as The Passions and Lechery of Catherine the Great (1971) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The X part of the shelfmark does not stand for X-rated but indicates that the books are unusual; the R part stands for “restricted.”


Trinity College Library, Cambridge University
Central Press/Getty Images

As library collections are frequently made up of a series of smaller collections donated to the institution, they may often acquire titles that the library may otherwise have not chosen to collect—such as some of the more risqué works. Cambridge University Library felt it had a duty to students to protect them from some of the more offensive books in their collection, and for this reason the Arc (short for arcana—meaning secrets or mysteries) classification was created. As with other restricted collections, Cambridge’s Arc provides a fascinating insight into changing moral attitudes. Some of the highlights included what is considered by some historians as the first gay novel, L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (Alcibiades the Schoolboy), published in 1652; a 1922 copy of Ulysses by James Joyce (notable because at that time the book was being burned by UK Customs Officers); and a misprinted copy of the Cambridge Bible.


The Sistine Hall, once part of the Vatican Library
Michal Osmenda, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

There has always been a rumor that the Vatican Library holds the largest collection of pornographic material in the world, in a collection supposedly known as the “Inferno,” but in fact this honor goes to the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana. It is thought that the Vatican Library’s collection was created from the thousands of erotic works that have been confiscated by the Vatican over the years. However, no evidence for the collection has been found, and the (admittedly incredibly secretive) Vatican librarians deny its very existence.

This article is an expanded version of an entry in Claire Cock-Starkey’s A Library Miscellany, published by Bodleian Library Publishing.

8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words

Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.


Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.


Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”


The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.


Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.


Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.


Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.


More from mental floss studios