Brian Herbert: The Chronicler Heir of Dune

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Frank Herbert is regarded as one of the few holy names of the science fiction pantheon of authors. His 1965 novel, Dune is the bestselling science fiction novel of all time. His passing left behind big shoes and a tall shadow, but Brian Herbert has been more than up to the task of carrying on the Dune legacy. Working with author Kevin J. Anderson, he has added over a dozen more novels to the history of his father's creation, setting up a tradition of New York Times best sellers in his wake.

With so many years of Dune history still available to be explored, is there any planned end in sight for the franchise?

So far, Dad published six novels and I published ten major novels with Kevin, and then a secondary Dune novel, so there's -- depending on how you count -- either 16 or 17 published now. We have two more under contract, which would get us up to 18 or 19, and after that -- I think there might be three more and that would be it. That would be about the founding of the Great School -- The Bene Gesserit. So that would be The Sisterhood of Dune, The Mentats of Dune, and The Swordmasters of Dune. But beyond that, I'm feeling like it would be too many books, and these are all major novels that follow Frank Herbert's outline that he laid out for this 23,000 year epic. But I don't want to branch off the main river -- at least with major novels. Now, there's some talk about intelligent graphic novels that could tell some smaller stories, but as far as the major novels go, I do see the end in sight.

Are there any future plans for anthologies of short stories by other authors, done inside the Dune setting?

To do that, it would require a huge amount of fact-checking, so it would be easier for Kevin and I to just write short stories ourselves, as we have. So I'm not sure how we would do that. Kevin and I have a six hundred page Dune concordance that I've prepared, that took about a year, so I know all the page numbers where Frank Herbert described everything. So I'm not sure how another writer would get into all that and figure out all the details.

Maybe after you've written the last book, you could publish the concordance?

(laughs) We've thought about it, but by then we'd need to add all the other books to the concordance.

The latest book, The Winds of Dune, has just debuted and quickly made it onto the New York Times bestseller list. What, in a nutshell, can fans expect to find in The Winds of Dune that will expand the mythos? What will they come away with that will be the reason they needed to read this one?

It's about something really important. At the end of the novel Dune... The whole novel is the story of Paul Atreides, basically, and he's on this heroic journey and by the end of the novel he marries the emperor's daughter -- so everything is looking rosy and he's followed a typical heroic journey that seems kind of familiar to people from hearing old stories of other heroes.

But by book two, Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert flipped that myth over, the myth of us following a "charismatic leader," as the way Dad put it. He flipped that myth over, and he pointed out that a charismatic leader, basically, can be very dangerous. So that's why he made Paul Atreides dark in book two, and there's billions of people who have been killed in his name.

The Winds of Dune is the direct sequel to Dune Messiah, and at the end of Dune Messiah Paul has abandoned his emperorship, he's walked off into the desert, he's presumably dead -- he doesn't want this huge mythos that's developed around him. And Frank Herbert was that way himself. He was referred to as a guru of science fiction He was asked if he was going to form his own religion, and Dad insisted he was not. He would then go another step and say about himself, "I am nothing." And so he's doing that with Paul Atreides, too, and showing that we need to doubt our leaders, that governments lie. Sometimes we need charismatic leaders, but we need to question them and make sure we don't just follow them blindly.

While Dune fans know of "Frank Herbert, the Legend," you had the unique privilege of relating to him as "Dad, the Human Being." What are some of yoru strongest memories of your father?

I wrote a detailed biography of him, Dreamer of Dune. First of all, I didn't get along with him when I was growing up. But he and I later became best friends because I saw some wonderful things he was doing for my mother when she had terminal lung cancer. My mother had been a professional writer who gave up her own writing career for him earlier in their marriage, and so she was supporting our family with a "real job" while Dad could do his creative writing. But later, when I was in my twenties, I saw my dad just completely sacrifice himself for her: he became her maid, her cook, her nurse when she could hardly walk. She was only given six months to live, but through his loving care she lived ten years. He built this house for her in a remote part of Hawaii, Ohana, where she could breathe easier with her condition. He and I became best friends, and we were very close. The last book that he wrote, Man of Two Worlds, he wrote with me.

My memories of him growing up were sometimes strained, but always exciting. We never knew what was going to happen next. He showed up one day when I was eight years old. He'd gone out and purchased a car. Well, the car turned out to be a hearse -- a 1941 Cadillac LaSalle hearse with yellow chapel doors on it -- and he announced that my brother and I were getting shots, we were not going to be in school in Tacoma anymore, we were going to Mexico in the hearse. So we piled all of our worldly belongings into the hearse and headed through Mexican villages, and the peasants would fall to their knees with their sombreros over their hearts thinking that we were a funeral procession going through town.

We arrived at this village in the heart of Mexico, and since we were outsiders -- Norte Americanos -- they didn't like us for about a month. I would play marbles with the kids in the streets, and the mothers would call their kids in and say that I couldn't play with the kids because I was a bad influence on them. In the meantime, all of the hubcaps were stolen from our hearse, the windshield wipers, the mirrors, everything.

But one day, the curate, who was the priest of about five villages -- he was a very powerful priest -- got an infection in his hand. The doctor was out of town in Mexico City. So Dad, who knew literally everything about everything, had antibiotics and a medical kit and he cured this curate of his infection. The man would have lost his hand. Later Dad said the man could have died.

After Dad saved this man's life, he became the hero of five villages, and then all the parts reappeared on our car, the kids could play marbles with me again, and we had a great time.

That was one of the rare instances where I was close to my dad. We had a period in Mexico where it really went well, and other than that in my childhood I was pretty well excluded from the house. But he was creating a great work in there, he was creating characters from his imagination in the Dune series. Becoming a writer later, I'm a lot more understanding of what he was trying to do, and I was kind of a rambunctious noisy kid.

Do you have children?

Yes, I have three children -- three daughters -- and we have five grandchildren. Early on when I started writing, I tried to lock my three daughters out of the house. One day my wife got home from work and found all three of them out in the front on the grass, and they said Daddy locked them outside. Well, I never did that again. (laughs) I only did that once.

In the Legends of Dune trilogy, you introduced two characters -- Omnius and Erasmus -- who we then see neatly dovetailed into the follow-up to Chapterhouse: Dune. Was this the plan all along, or was it more serendipity?

No, it was the plan, and it's the reason we didn't write Dune 7 -- actually, Dune 7 turned into two novels. What Dad called Dune 7 was the grand chronological conclusion to the series. He envisioned one novel, but by the time Kevin and I started writing all the stories about The Butlerian Jihad 10,000 years before Dune and other stories, there was just too much -- we had to do it as two novels. But the two novels that we did, Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune, that were Dad's Dune 7 basically, we had his plot, we had his notes, so we knew exactly where he was going with it, and we wove the old events -- Erasmus and Omnius -- we wove that all in, knowing where Dad wanted to go with the series.

Some people see Dune as a parable about oil and the Middle East. Do you have any elucidation on that?

Dad was very much interested in finite resources, and one of the reasons that Dune became a huge best-seller -- and it was slow, gathering momentum; I mean, the first printing was 2,200 copies in 1965. But by 1970, the environmental movement was just getting going in a big way, and there was word that this was an ecological handbook that Frank Herbert had written in fiction form. So Dad spoke at the very first Earth Day, and he toured college campuses speaking to young people all over the country. He was very much concerned about our environment.

I mentioned earlier that Dad had this warning about charismatic leaders, that they could lead us off the edge of a cliff. Well, he was flipping a myth there, but he was also flipping a myth when you look at the environmental situation in that he was stating that we can't just keep living this high lifestyle and littering the planet and this and that, and he took it to an extreme and said the whole planet could turn into a desert. He was not only talking about a parable for water or oil or that kind of thing, very limited resources, but he made that planet the source of spice, Melange, and that spice is an incredible material that's needed in a multi-planet galactic empire. So then you have all these power structures surrounding the spice, and it's only attained on this one planet.

Dune was only his second novel. His first novel, Dragon in the Sea was also about finite resources. It was about oil, and he invented containerized shipping in that novel in 1955. The Japanese afterward took it from his novel and enlarged it into a huge commercial operation.

Still with the political aspects of the books, there's the famous quote, "He who can destroy a thing controls a thing." Do you see any current parallels to that line today?

Well, I think we're trying to get off of oil. If our oil supply can be destroyed and we're dependent upon it, we've got major troubles. But I'm heartened by what I'm hearing that there are cars out there that may get 230 to 340 miles to the gallon.

So yeah, that's the threat that Paul Atreides issued to some powerful interests of the Spacing Guild and some other interests. He basically said, 'I will destroy Dune. I will destroy the spice.' And that was one of the main ways he gained control. And Dad was really talking about -- he had read copiously from all sources and history in particular, and he'd studied Mesopotamia where they had "hydraulic despotism" as he termed it. Whoever controlled the water there controlled a large political area. So he very much understood the power structures that surround finite resources if they can be controlled. He also understood the power structures that can surround a heroic figure like Paul Atreides, and the dark things those power structures can do in order to maintain their own interests.

There's a small but loud contingent of hardcore Dune fans who seem to react to any addition to the Dune legacy as one might expect fundamentalist religions would react to someone trying to expand the Pentateuch. Was that a surprise, and how did you come to cope with that kind of criticism?

There was a group on the Internet before House Atreides was published -- that was our first novel that came out in 1999 -- and there was a hue and cry before that book was published asserting that we should not write a new novel in the series. Later, after they read the first novel, many of them actually apologized to us in writing. So we appreciate that. And I understand the fans that feel... I guess "an interest" in the series. They don't have a legal interest in it, but they have a stake in it of sorts, in that they love the stories, they love the universe, they love what my dad set up. But I try to write for the most demanding of fans. Kevin does too. I spent a year before writing a word with Kevin doing a concordance of all six novels that Frank Herbert wrote in the Dune series, so I know the whole history of the Mentats, the Swordmasters, the Bene-Gesserit; I know the eye colors of the main characters, I know their family histories. It's all in a 600-page, single-spaced concordance. The only better thing would be if Frank Herbert were to write these stories, but Kevin and I have immersed ourselves in this universe, and we really have done our homework.

Frank Herbert died in 1986, and when he died he was intending to write another novel. He was using a yellow highlighter on books five and six in series -- Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune -- and it turned out that there were thirty pages of notes in which he had an outline of the unwritten book, and he died before he could finish it. Somebody had to write that novel, because it's an important story, it's an important chronological grand conclusion to the series. So Kevin and I have written that novel as two novels. In the series, we've tried to maintain the quality. We do not intend to write a hundred Dune books -- at least the major novels, here. I'm seeing that the series should conclude at a certain point.

So that's my thoughts on the most difficult of fans, and I do understand. I'm a fan myself, so I want the quality to be maintained.

Dune has been adapted to film a couple of times now. Are there any plans to adapt any of the works you've created with Kevin J. Anderson?

Just getting Dune onto the screen by David Lynch in 1984... In Dreamer of Dune, I went into all the history of many attempts. We appreciate that David Lynch got it to the screen. He didn't follow the plot in all instances, but we feel like it's still a very good film, and it feels like Dune. After that was a television series produced by Richard Rubinstein called Frank Herbert's Dune. He also produced another series of the next two books called Children of Dune which included Dune Messiah, and he followed the plot, and he was very careful.

Now we have a deal with Paramount Pictures. Kevin and I had pitched various movie studios Dune: House Atreides, which was our first novel. We thought that would be a good movie. Paramount ultimately has decided to do a classic interpretation of the novel Dune. It's in the script writing phase right now, and we're very hopeful that it will go to the next stage. They're putting a lot of time and effort into this project right now.

Are you providing any input on the script?

I met with the script writer and the director, Peter Berg. Kevin and I met with them, and gave them a lot of detailed advice about the Dune universe, and they listened very carefully. We're sure that it's going to be a good screenplay. Right now it's going through the writing process, and we're looking forward to seeing it go further.

Aside from copious Dune notes and the family-Bible sized concordance, what else do you have sitting on your bookshelf to read?

I read a lot of history. I read biographies. I'm reading a book right now about medieval machines. I read Aldous Huxley, George R.R. Martin, Terry Brooks -- I read in the genre. You have to read the things you're writing about. I like Greg Bear for the excellence of the science that he puts into his novels. Of course there's Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury -- I love Bradbury's short stories. I went to Sri Lanka and met with Arthur C. Clarke before he died -- I'm a great admirer of his.

Albert Einstein once said about the use of atomic energy, "If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker." In a parallel universe where Frank Herbert chose to be a watchmaker instead of an author, what is Brian Herbert doing?

I've often said that my father could have been a winemaker or he could have been a shoemaker. I could be working in a vineyard improving the wine. It is a family business -- writing is the Herbert family business, and I'm trying to maintain the "quality of the wine." Dune is a Grand cru -- it's one of the great wines in the world of literature. So I'm working very hard to maintain that.

Any non-Dune books in your future?

Yeah, I just completed a series called Timeweb. It's three books -- Timeweb, The Web and the Stars, and Webdancers. It's about an ecological disaster that goes beyond one planet. I postulate that several planets in a galaxy are an ecosystem and it's all disintegrating, and I have a galactic ecologist who's my hero in that series.

Kevin and I are also writing a brand new series of our own called Hellhole. It's about a world that's been blasted by an asteroid 500 years ago, and it's the worst place anyone could imagine. We have a Napoleon-style character who is exiled there, and a lot of other events going on. And there'll be some alien archeology and some interesting things going on with that. So we're busy.

Any Dune-related merchandising on the horizon to be explored? Action figures or bottled "Water of Life (Not responsible for intense visions)" that fans can look forward to?

(Laughs) You do have some friends that know something about the Dune universe. I don't know that we could create that kind of a product.

There were action figures around the David Lynch movie, and some of those are collector's items now. The merchandising right now would depend upon what's done with the movie. In the world of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, there could be a really, really good Dune game, and we've talked about it with various parties, but I think that would have to be done in coordination with the new movies. So we're just balancing everything right now, and seeing where we go with the movie first. And then a lot of other things would fall into place around that.