Ecology Omen

How Does Frank Herbert's Dune Reflect the Northwest?

The book’s huge influence can make you forget its local legacy.

By Stefan Milne Published in the Winter 2020 issue of Seattle Met

From left: promo poster for David Lynch’s 1984 Dune film; Little Makers by artist Nichole Rathburn at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma.

I was watching a YouTube video. A car zoomed along a Central Washington highway. The sky grew increasingly occluded—wildfire smoke mixed with a sandstorm—until it darked out, midnight in the morning. The next day, September 9, I watched an inadvertent cognate, the year’s most anticipated movie trailer. Dune—starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya of Euphoria—was supposed to hit theaters on December 18. Because of the Covid-devastated movie industry, it’s been bumped to later in 2021. For now, we have just this glimpse, full of parched landscapes ablaze, or sandstorms whipping across them, the light gone coppery. Watching felt like a reminder: Dune can get only so far from Washington.

Seek the single most influential novel to come out of the Seattle area, and you’ll almost certainly land on Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi tome, the first in an eventual series of 20 novels. The initial book is long (my brick-like copy is 867 pages) and intricate. In short: At 15, Paul Atreides heads to the desert planet of Arrakis with his ruling family to manage its valuable resource—spice, a life-extending drug made by giant sandworms that slither below the dunes. Cue corporate and political intrigue. Shit goes sideways. Paul, in exile, becomes a supernatural messiah figure to a group of desert-dwelling natives. And so on.

Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet in the upcoming film version, now set for release in 2021.

 The books’ DNA encodes everything from Tremors to Game of Thrones. Star Wars bore such similarities that Dune fans cried, and Herbert insinuated, a rip-off. “There are 16 story points of absolute identity between the two stories… I’m not saying it wasn’t an accident, but the odds are astronomical,” Herbert said. The original book is likely the best-selling sci-fi novel ever and, according to Wired readers, simply the best sci-fi novel ever. Landscapes on one of Saturn’s moons take their official names from planets in the book series. 

Today, Dune seems tethered only faintly to the Northwest. Perhaps you know that Herbert was a lifelong Washingtonian, born in Tacoma, and that his work on a magazine article about the Oregon sand dunes inspired the book. Yet look a little closer and you find between Washington and Dune a sort of gravity at work.


The film flickered. The film staggered to a halt, let’s say around the time Paul Atreides first heads into the desert and sees a sandworm swallow a spice mining operation. The crowd of 200 or so had gathered to see David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune in downtown Seattle on opening day, December 14, 1984. But the aging Coliseum Theater’s equipment was tired. With the screening stuck, the audience grew so irate that Seattle Police dispatched two units to deal with the crowd. Had the movie finished, the audience may’ve been nearly as upset.

With a $43 million budget, Dune was then the most expensive movie Universal Studios had made. An adaptation of the book had been brewing for a decade. What ended up on-screen was a thoroughly Washington affair. Lynch had lived in Spokane as a kid. Its star, Kyle MacLachlan in his first role, came from Yakima and had just finished an acting BFA at the University of Washington. Before the movie hit theaters, Herbert and Lynch were already writing the sequel’s script. The author was excited with the first movie, telling The Seattle Times it was a “visual feast” that “does precisely what I set out to do… The mythical archetypes, the battle between good and evil, the messianic impulse, the rise of a cult leader.”

The Times critic loved it, “a dark, mesmerizing, operatic epic.” Most everyone else hated it. The movie bombed. The sequels never materialized. Herbert died in 1986. And the movie, along with a previous failed attempt, skunked the books with an “unfilmable” reputation. Which is silly. While the first novel is complicated—lots of characters and subplots, a 30-or-so-page glossary of invented, or repurposed, language—its backbone is blockbuster fodder. Although shaving away the peripheral bits for the screen is a shame: Today they’re the most pertinent parts.


Frank Herbert was yelling about the environment. Pretty literally. In 1979, the author was talking with reporter Jane Cartwright ahead of speaking at Edmonds Community College. “We ought to close down nuclear power plants, he bellows over the telephone, and label ‘goddamn lies’ statements like: Americans really want to buy big cars, and solar energy is too expensive,” Cartwright wrote.

Frank Herbert in 1984.

Herbert had retired from his work as a journalist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer only in 1972. Before that, he fought a toxic copper smelter in Tacoma, once the largest in the world, and spoke at the first Earth Day in 1970. He was an ecology geek who ran a farm in Port Townsend, practicing “techno-peasantry,” like using “beer cans for solar collectors,” an obituary mentioned. Dune took off in part because of the growing environmental movement.

Aspects of the book now read poorly. Foremost: Beyond his murderous scheming, the main villain is defined largely as a fat, gay predator. If Herbert was before his time, it was in creating a planet being squeezed to death by industry, where water has become a precious resource. The native Fremen are working as ecological restorationists and fighting colonial spice plunder. There’s so little hydration that the Fremen have suits that absorb sweat, urine, feces, then filter them so the wearers can re-drink the water.

When I read the novel for the first time this fall, I searched for reflections of Washington in the text. What emerged, instead, was a negative image of this place—the grim future of a pillaged planet. Herbert describes desert dunes oceanically, as though our landscape had become its obverse: “The sand wave [receded] across the waste.” Those immense toothed worms resemble nothing more than whales.

That environmental streak is probably the most discernible influence among contemporary sci-fi writers, says Brenda Cooper, a Woodinville-based author of 12 sci-fi novels. She read Dune probably 20 times as a teenager—for its human stories packed into ambitious world-building. “Anything you love that much naturally influences your own work.” Yet she and others I asked—Nisi Shawl, Eileen Gunn—don’t see a widespread group of Herbert’s literary descendants here. 

Well, outside of a literal descendant. Since 1999, Brian Herbert, Frank’s son who still lives in the area, has extended his father’s six novel series into its own solar system, adding 14 more novels along with short stories and other works. This fall he cranked out two more—Dune: The Duke of Caladan and Dune: A Graphic Novel, Book One—the first novel’s local legacy carrying on.

Last year, that legacy manifested physically. The site of the toxic copper smelter that Frank Herbert had battled was remade into the Dune Peninsula, part of Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park. There the statue Little Makers—named after the sandworms, which deplete the planet’s water—rises from the earth. You can read it as a victory over the place’s pollution. But if you visited it during this year’s wildfires, this symbol of a planet wrung of resources looked more like a warning. 

Adaptations of Dune, Ranked

Kyle MacLachlan in David Lynch's 1984 Dune film.

Dune (1984)

3/4 sandworms
Do not enter David Lynch’s much maligned version of Dune seeking a typically “good” movie with a “plot” you can “follow.” All the expository voice-over makes it somehow more confusing. But if you want a delirious and frequently funny high-budget B-movie—Sting plays a villain, Toto does the soundtrack—it’s worth a look. 

Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000)

2.5/4 sandworms
This over-four-hour Syfy channel miniseries has all the trappings you’d expect: flat acting, canted camera angles on bad guys, slo-mo action montages of things randomly exploding. Nevertheless, its long runtime means it reproduces the book the most faithfully.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

3/4 sandworms
In the mid-1970s, Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky worked to make Herbert’s book into a 10–14 hour epic of batshit imagination, involving, among others, Pink Floyd, H.R. Giger, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. This lively documentary explores the abandoned project’s impact.

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