After the publication of his 1956 debut novel, The Dragon in the Sea, Frank Herbert needed a new project. He became interested in the topography of Florence, a coastal Oregon town—and the answer to when Dune was written lies among Florence's shifting sands.
At the time, Florence's sand dunes were encroaching on the town's port and highway. When the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies discovered that European Beach Grass could be planted to prevent the dunes' spread, Herbert became fascinated by the project, and traveled to Florence in 1957 to do research for an intended article.
By combining his interest in the natural world with his interest in science fiction, Herbert came to the idea for his smashingly successful novel. Although he'd intended just to write an article, Herbert later said, "I had something enormously interesting going for me about the ecology of deserts, and it was, for a science fiction writer anyway, an easy step from that to think: What if I had an entire planet that was a desert?"
Instead of publishing his article, "They Stopped the Moving Sand," Herbert took five years to write what would become Dune, the first novel in his series set on the desert planet Arrakis. As he later explained in a 1969 interview, Herbert "got fascinated by sand dunes, because I’m always fascinated by the idea of something that is either seen in miniature and the can be expanded to the macrocosm."
He also found that the dunes offered a perfect setting to explore his interests in theology: "We all know that many religions began in a desert atmosphere, so I decided to put the two together because I don’t think that any one story should have any one thread. I build on a layer technique, and of course putting in religion and religious ideas you can play one against the other.”
Dune was originally published in two parts in Analog magazine. The first part ran in three installments in the magazine, from December 1963 to February 1964. The second part of the novel was serialized in five segments that ran from January to May 1965.
After the serial publication in Analog, Herbert unsuccessfully submitted the book to more than 20 publishers. These rejections may seem surprising given Dune's eventual success, but at the time publishers were wary to represent such an unusual, philosophical body of work. Dune (the novel) was ultimately published in August 1965 by Chilton Books, a publisher which up until then had primarily released trade manuals.
Dune then went on to win both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award. Herbert has been praised for the novel's incisive exploration of the human condition that highlights the pitfalls of power, corruption, greed, and compassion.
The novel is also ahead of its time in terms of its treatment of the environment and ecology as themes. In the Dune universe, the environment is critical, a character itself. Because Herbert was originally inspired by the environment when conceptualizing Dune, his worldbuilding is influenced by an appreciation of nature and fears around its destruction.
Crucially, Herbert's interest in ecology and Western man's relationship to the natural world was partially inspired by his longtime friendship with Howard Hansen, an author who was raised on a Quileute reservation.
Because the recent Dune movie has led to a renewed interest in Herbert's franchise, it's important to remember where and when the story ultimately began—in a small town that, in the 1950s, served as a microcosm of Western man's relationship to nature.