My Dune Epiphany

Apr 22, 2017

This depiction contrasting the bright blue water planet earth rising over a barren moon is one of the most influential environmental photos ever taken.
Credit Astronaut William Anders / Christmas Eve 1968 from Apollo 8

Some years after the Apollo astronauts took the first color photograph showing the earth rising over the lunar surface, I read the epic science fiction novel Dune. I was a lonely kid growing up in Southeast Kansas and I was drawn to the novel by its action. I didn’t understand the nuance contained in the pages of the dog-eared mass market paperback copy I carried around for weeks, but after reading and re-reading the novel in the years to come, I began to  its skillful depiction of politics, religion, and the fight for limited natural resources. The novel has influenced my thinking on heroes and the nature of leadership ever since.

Generally regarded as one of the best science fictions novels ever written, Dune was the work of university dropout and newspaperman Frank Herbert. The inspiration for Dune came when Herbert was researching a magazine piece on Oregon’s sand dunes. He never wrote that article, but in 1963 Analog began publishing installments of the novel he would write. More than twenty book publishers rejected the manuscript, however, with most saying it was too strange and much too long. It was eventually published, in 1965, by the Chilton Book Company, which was known for its auto repair manuals, not for its fiction.

But Dune won the first Nebula Award and became a best-seller.

On Christmas Eve in 1968, while Apollo 8 was in lunar orbit, the three astronauts were confronted by the beauty of the earth rising over the lunar surface. Clustering at the command module window, they departed from the flight plan to take an unscheduled photograph. Astronaut William Anders asked for some color film for his Hasselblad, and loading the camera in a hurry, took the iconic photo that has been reproduced millions of times on stamps and posters and in magazines ever since. The photo, which shows the earth as a bright blue water planet rising over a barren moon, is one of the most influential environmental photos ever taken.

But it was also a political photo. Nineteen sixty-eight was the most turbulent year of a turbulent decade. Americans had seen the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The Tet Offensive had ratcheted up the war in Vietnam, a war on which Americans were sharply and sometimes violently divided. But, viewed from space, the earth appeared as it truly is—beautiful and fragile.

I was ten years old when I sat in front of the family’s Sears and Roebuck television and watched the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast, live from lunar orbit. It would be the early seventies before I discovered Dune, and in some ways my path to adulthood would mirror Herbert’s—college dropout, journalist, and after many rejections, novelist.

Dune remains among my favorite books, and although I never met him, Frank Herbert taught me a few things about writing. The primary lesson is in the power of the narrative. With the right narrative, you can tell a complicated story about an imagined universe. But no matter where your story is set, or when, you’re always writing about your own world and your own times. Herbert knew the existential danger of a leader with a cult following. His protagonist, Paul Atreides, eventually comes to rule Dune, but ultimately cannot control the frenzied mob he created.

With that in mind, here’s my favorite passage from Dune. It comes early in the story, when the Reverend Mother--the old woman who knows--comes to examine the young Paul. After pronouncing that his father will die on the desert planet where the family is bound, she says this:

“Grave this on your memory, lad. A world is supported by four things…” She held up four big-knuckled fingers. “…The learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valor of the brave. But all of these are as nothing…”  She closed her fingers into a fist. “…without a ruler who knows the art of ruling. Make that the science of your tradition.”

Max McCoy is an author and journalist. He teaches at Emporia State University, where he is the director of the Center for Great Plains Studies. His website is www.maxmccoy.com