In case you’ve recently returned from years of self-exile, or awoken from a decades-long breakdance-related coma: Welcome! The year is 2021, and just last week visionary director Denis Villeneuve released his take on Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune. While Dune the movie is the absolute center of the current zeitgeist, we’re here to talk about Dune the book — and its interesting ties to automotive history.
Dune has been the singular big thing to talk about since it came out on Friday (I just today bought the parts to slap together a stillsuit for Halloween), but the book has been around just a bit longer than that. Its nearly fifty-year history began at the offices of a company you all likely know: Chilton Publishing Co.
As a Jalopnik reader, you likely know Chilton from their incredibly detailed auto repair manuals. In its 115-year history, however, the company has occasionally dabbled in other books. In the ‘60s, that meant science fiction, and a freelance writer named Frank Herbert.
Herbert had the idea for Dune while looking at actual earthbound dunes, researching a magazine story about a US Department of Agriculture operation in Oregon. He never finished the article, but he did write two short magazine stories set in the world that would become Dune.
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Those magazine stories became one single book, which Herbert shopped around to twenty different publishing houses. None of them signed on. Dune was long and confusing, much like the process to replace spark plugs on a Subaru. So, when Chilton reached out to Herbert the book seemed like a natural fit.
At least, at first it did. Dune sold slowly — so slowly, in fact, that Chilton editor Sterling Lanier was fired over the decision to publish it. Lanier has been vindicated by history, and the current film’s $40 million opening weekend at the box office, but it remains an odd step for the car-repair publisher.
When you go to watch (or rewatch) Dune this coming week, the first thing on your mind likely won’t be repair manuals for the Chevy Corvair. If you need some trivia to tell your friends as you exit the theater, though, this is likely your best bet. A beginning is a very delicate time, and the origin of Dune is a story all its own.