Science fiction and the closely allied genre of fantasy (Dune is often said to have elements of both) is difficult to define. A simple definition based on elements common in the genre, such as space travel, stories set in the future, and so on, or even a more sophisticated attempt at definition such as a ‘literature of ideas,’ is not sufficient, since many books contain those elements but are not science fiction. Works by authors such as Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, or Margaret Atwood meet those simple criteria and yet they have never been considered science fiction by critics, and the authors themselves more or less vociferously deny that their works are science fiction. A historical definition of the genre is more useful (leaving aside the works of authors such as H. G. Wells or Jules Verne, which are best seen as precursors of the purely genre development). Science fiction developed in the 1920s in the United States along with a series of pulp (mass-marketed) journals that capitalized on the increasing public perception of the transformation being effected in society by the hastening pace of technological change (such as radio and the dispersion of the automobile). The creator of the science fiction magazines was Hugo Gernsback, who had long published journals devoted to amateur radio enthusiasts. Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories in 1926; this and similar magazines were called ‘‘pulps’’ after the cheap paper stock on which they were printed. The formula of the science fiction genre was established by John W. Campbell, who from 1938 to 1971 edited Astounding Science Fiction. The genre originally consisted of relatively simplistic stories whose interest was generated by fantastically advanced technology (indistinguishable from magic as Arthur C. Clarke said) such as robots with intelligence and feelings comparable to human beings or interstellar space flight. The primary audience for these magazines in the 1920s to the 1950s consisted of teenage boys, and many of science fiction’s themes of adventure, warfare, and heroism—fantasies of power—catered to that audience. Most decisively, there was only a superficial contact between the language and style of science fiction and the wider world of literature as a whole. It was the isolation of a small, selfcontained world of science fiction authors (such as E. E. Smith, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov) and readers (fans) that created science fiction as a genre, while at the same time other authors, such as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and William Golding, were treating very similar themes in writing intended for a more general audience. Herbert’s work, before and after Dune, corresponds to the profile of genre science fiction, as noted by critic David Miller: ‘‘Most of Herbert’s novels seem designed to be read once; hence story lines are clear, there is little parallel action, genre markers are unequivocal, and proleptic [anticipatory] clues are relatively obvious.’’ Dune, however, broke out of this generic mold in a way that had never been seen before in science fiction. While Dune’s characters remain for the most part stereotypes, Herbert was successful in making the plot and its meaning arise from the characters, and especially from the character of the narrative world he created, thus introducing new levels of literary sophistication while staying within the genre. This made it possible to do real literary work in the science fiction genre, and while science fiction still maintains its distance from other literature and still produces a great deal of material that follows the old pulp formulas, it was forever transformed by the presence of Dune within it.
It is a peculiarity of science fiction publishing that a popular novel will often initiate a series of sequels (by the same author or others). The resulting series of books may not all contain the same characters or discuss the same themes, but they will take place in the same ‘‘universe.’’ That is, the books will all share the same premise about the development of future history and technology, take place in the same alternative universe, or share other essential features of the original’s setting. This trend exists largely because of the economic realities of publishing. It is easier to sell readers books that they already have some familiarity with, and writers frequently have extensive background notes compiled for the original novel that can be exploited in this way. Perhaps the prototype for this kind of publishing is L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, to which Baum wrote thirteen sequels and, after his death, other writers an additional twenty-six. The sequels are aimed at a specific fan base who read the original book and not at new readers. The pattern has been repeated endlessly in science fiction publishing (and to a lesser degree in mystery novels and other genres). Fans pride themselves on their knowledge of the ‘‘canon’’ of particular series, and a technical literature of encyclopedias and dictionaries relating to a series is often produced as well (though usually not by the writer or writers of the series). Herbert resisted this trend in some respects in that he introduced radically new concepts in his sequels, ideas that often undercut or reinterpreted material in the original novel and that many of his readers found distressing, but that he had deemed integral to the overall story from the original inception of the project. In Dune, Herbert included several appendices of reference material and a glossary of terms used in the languages he fabricated for Dune. He also encouraged his colleague Willis McNelly to create additional fabricated historical documents in The Dune Encyclopedia, although he eventually repudiated the new fictional material in this work as ‘‘noncanonical.’’ However, Herbert finally became trapped in a situation in which he had to write more Dune sequels because sales and therefore publishers’ advances were much larger for books in the Dune series than for anything else he could write. His son, Brian Herbert, has found himself in the same position; he has written eleven additional sequels and announced plans to produce about one novel a year indefinitely. Each sequel goes onto the New York Times best-seller list, while his original books enjoy lesser popularity.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Frank Herbert, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.