It’s not an easy thing, being the heir to Dune. Frank Herbert, who wrote the original book and many subsequent novels, died in 1986, but his son, Brian Herbert, went on to cowrite several more novels set in the world Frank built. The younger Herbert also manages his father's estate, which essentially makes him the keeper of the canon—a big deal when it comes to one of the most beloved stories in all of science fiction.
Brian’s OK with that—he’s been working in the Dune universe for decades—but it wasn’t always so. For much of his youth, he butted heads with his dad, and it wasn’t until he was an adult and doing his own writing that he began to appreciate Frank’s influence. In 2003, Brian released a biography of his father, Dreamer of Dune, and he estimates that he’s contributed nearly 3 million words to the canon himself.
Brian Herbert is also, yes, involved with the upcoming Dune film from director Denis Villeneuve. He’s been advising on the script and believes it will be the definitive adaptation of his father’s book. WIRED got on the phone with him to talk about the novel’s legacy, its many interpretations, and why now might be a good time to reimagine the book that inspired so many works of sci-fi that came after it.
WIRED: You’ve been involved with the Dune franchise for years, but what was your involvement with this new film specifically?
Brian Herbert: I wear two hats. I’m co-manager of my father’s estate. I’m also a writer in the Dune universe. So one of the things that’s important to me—and to millions of Dune fans—is for us to follow the Dune canon as Frank Herbert laid it out. We want to get things right. It’s a very complicated universe. So we did receive drafts of the script, and we would send comments back to Denis and his team. Then they would make various adaptations. It’s a very good working relationship in which Denis wanted to create the definitive version of Dune. He wants this movie to follow Frank Herbert’s vision.
For some folks Dune is a novel about philosophy; for others it’s a tome about environmentalism. What does it mean to you?
Well, I like to think about a book signing that I did in New England. I was with Kevin J. Anderson [Brian’s cowriter], and there was this very precocious 8-year-old sitting in the front row. He started asking us a lot of questions, and it would have been easy to get irritated with him, but I found out that he read Dune. I think that he read it mostly as an adventure story, which is the great story of Paul Atreides.
Right, it’s got those fantastical elements.
So you can read it on that level. You can read it like, Wow, look at the giant sandworms! That’s kinda like a dragon, you know, a dragon guarding a cave with treasure. The treasure in this case is the spice in the sands of the desert. But there are many more layers, so as you read it again, you might pick up the environmental message or women’s issues in there. Frank Herbert had powerful women not only in this book but in his subsequent ones. Then the politics, the religion.
Was that something your father ever talked about?
Dad told me he did that intentionally. He wrote these layers so that you could go back and reread the book. It was kind of a tricky, psychological thing that he did. He also liked to say that he’d like to send his readers spinning out of the end of the book with detritus clinging to them from the characters and the events and the scenes. Every time I read Dune, it gets better. I mean, that’s incredible, finding more and more. It’s like a great old movie—you watch it and there’s stuff in there you’ve never noticed before.
Perhaps the most relevant layer, right now, is the environmentalism.
Yeah. Frank Herbert read everything. He told me once that he couldn’t read one page of an encyclopedia without reading the opposite page. One of the things he noticed was that in history there was something he called hydraulic despotism. And what that meant was that the party—the group that controlled the water in, say, Mesopotamia—would control the environment. So he started thinking about that and he started thinking about finite resources, and he zeroed in on water. So if water were your finite resource, well, let’s make it all a desert. He was thinking far ahead. The Whole Earth Catalog, which was … I don’t want to say it was a hippie publication. I mean, I went to school in Berkeley, so I don’t want to sound derogatory. But the Whole Earth Catalog loved Dune. He spoke at the first Earth Day in April 1970 in Philadelphia. He said, “I don’t want to have to tell my grandchildren, ‘There’s no more Earth left for you. We’ve used it all up.’” It surprises people to know that he was Republican. He was very complex.
Did you know your dad was a big deal when you were a kid?
I didn’t get along with my father very well until I was in my twenties. But I remember one day I was hitchhiking down to Carmel or Big Sur, and I was sitting in the back of this Volkswagen. These long-haired kids picked me up, we just started talking, and they said, “Well, what does your dad do for a living?” I said, “Well, he’s a newspaperman, he’s a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. Oh, and he writes, he writes a little bit too.” So they said, “Well, what has he written?” I said, “The Dragon in the Sea and Dune.” And literally they pulled the car off the road and they looked at me and they said, “Dune?!” I had no idea. I was 19 years old. I didn’t know this was a great book.
As a Bay Area person, do you also see Dune’s influence on technology?
When I was growing up in the 1950s, we didn’t have a television, [my father] didn’t want that around. So he extrapolated, as we do, in science fiction. So what if … what if … what if … and what if computers were running everything and they enslaved us and then we had to break free? He came up with all that, of course, before Terminator and all that stuff. He was prescient, you know; he could see into the future, just like some of his characters.
The Russian hackers who attacked Ukraine a couple of years ago, they made encoded references to Dune in their malware. That’s how they got the name Sandworm. Did you know about that?
No, but it doesn’t surprise me that it’s so widespread. I wish they weren't using Dune names for that kind of thing, though.
Yeah. Creators end up losing control of their creations, right? You can’t always help what your fans do with your ideas once they’re out in the world.
Have you ever thought about Dune’s influence on something like Burning Man? They’re both about going into the desert to do drugs and find yourself.
We live in what Dad called a “light switch society.” He liked to think in terms of what would happen if you couldn’t access all that technology. When he was a professor at the University of Washington, he taught a class called Utopia Dystopia. He liked to take his students out into the woods and camp out there with them and actually make them live out in the woods the way he did as a child. He would teach them how to live off the land. You don’t bring things in there. You’re gonna fish. You’re going to find things you're going to eat, grub worms from underneath a log. You’re going to eat red ants, you know, things like that. So Burning Man is a similar thing in which we have to think about what it would be like if we didn’t have the things we take for granted.
Right. They both sort of have the ethos of Leave No Trace.
Yeah. That’s what we do as human beings: We adapt.
Speaking of adaptation, let’s return to the new movie. Do you think it’s time for anything in the book to be updated? When I interviewed Denis, he said he wanted to make the roles of women even more prominent than they were in the book.
Well, you know, we all see different things. I come to that book through a different way than Denis. In 1965, the book was published, and the most admired female character in science fiction is Lady Jessica. Lady Jessica is a very strong person. Very, very loving, obviously, but she was modeled after my mother. It’s incredible. Frank Herbert wrote the book in the late ’50s and mid ’60s, and he had as much as he could possibly put in there about women’s issues. That’s why the women are so strong in the series. Denis can certainly update that a little bit and make it more to our times, but Denis is following Frank Herbert’s plan there. Frank Herbert had good intentions for women when he wrote the series.
What about Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who has been called out as a stereotypical gay villain? Do you think that’s a fair criticism? Is there room for that to evolve?
I don’t know if that’s a fair characterization. He didn’t actually write him that way. The character was more made that way in the David Lynch movie. That movie has a cartoonish Baron in which he floats up to the ceiling, and he’s got these things all over his skin and everything. Well, that was exaggerating what Frank Herbert’s intention was. He didn’t intend to have somebody with an Eastern European name be the bad guy. Harkonnen was just a name he pulled out of a phone book, but he liked it. It had a little sound to it that he liked.
Where did he find the name Atreides?
That one’s a little different. That’s House Atreus, which is the Greek house of Agamemnon, which had many tragedies. Frank Herbert, in one of the Dune books, he wrote that Atreides traces back to House Atreus.
Obviously Dune has gone on to inspire so many things. Star Wars, Terminator—so many sci-fi writers have said they were inspired by Dune …
That can be a little irritating, though. “We were inspired by this, or we borrowed from it.” Well, now with the new movie coming out, it’s not borrowed from anything. This new movie is going to be the real thing.