How to Repair Your Ornithopter

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“My father was a master mechanic; I grew up with a screwdriver in one hand and a pair of pliers in the other.”* 

– Frank Herbert

| By Ryan Lee Price |

In an era when character development and plot structure took a back seat to technological ideas and dystopian/utopian predictions, Frank Herbert deliberately suppressed technology in the Dune World saga so he could focus on the future of humanity rather than what technology humanity could create. The result was a book series that earned widespread acclaim along with Nebula and Hugo awards—becoming what some consider the greatest and most profitable science fiction novel ever written.

But it almost wasn’t so.

Herbert had been a moderately successful science fiction short-story writer; his work appeared in several magazines, starting with “Looking for Something” in the April 1952 issue of Startling Stories. He followed that with stories in a variety of magazines and a novel, Under Pressure, which was serialized in Astounding magazine (its name became Analog in 1960), all the while working as a reporter for various northeast regional newspapers.

The concept behind Dune World came from a magazine article he was supposed to write in 1959 about Oregon sand dunes. Herbert deeply threw himself into the subject, acquired way more material than he would ever need to write the article . . . and then never wrote it. Instead, the storyline for Dune World was born, and it took him nearly five years to complete it.

Based on the success of Under Pressure, the editor of now Analog magazine, John W. Campbell, jumped at the chance to serialize Dune World, the original title of Herbert’s ever-growing manuscript, as it was known that Campbell preferred stories involving extrasensory perception. At Analog, Herbert was in good company since Campbell influenced the careers of Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard—and frequently published new authors like Michael Burstein, Orson Scott Card, and Joe Halderman.

According to Brian Herbert in his bio of his father, Dreamer of Dune: “Analog readers liked Dune World, and fans nominated it for the 1963 Hugo Award for best novel—rather unusual since the story hadn’t yet been published in book form. While Dune World did not win the award, its popularity was in no small part responsible for the awarding of a Hugo for the best science fiction magazine to Analog.”

Late in 1964, Herbert attempted to have the Dune World serial published in book form, but a number of publishers—20 to be exact (including Doubleday, which had published the serialization of Under Pressure in 1956 under the title The Dragon in the Sea)—rejected his book. Brian Herbert explained in The Road to Dune: “In late January 1964, Timothy Seldes of Doubleday again declined the novel, writing: ‘Nobody can seem to get through the first 100 pages (of Book I) without being confused and irritated.’ A few weeks later, Julian P. Muller of Harcourt, Brace & World also rejected the manuscript, citing ‘slow spots,’ ‘wearying conversations,’ ‘burst of melodrama,’ and the sheer size of the material. He also said: ‘It is just possible that we may be making the mistake of the decade in declining Dune by Frank Herbert.’”

Frank Herbert wrote his agent, Lurton Blassingame: “This is going to be a salable property.”

In the January 1965 issue of Analog, the now 125,000 words of Books II and III of Dune World were published in serial form under the name Prophet of Dune (Campbell’s choice). About this time, science fiction writer Sterling E. Lanier read the first installments of Dune World in Analog, and he loved it enough to contact Blassingame to begin negotiations for the printing rights to Herbert’s books. Since 1961, Lanier had been an editor at a small publishing firm in Philadelphia called Chilton Book Company.

Brian Herbert explains the deal: “In the buy of an editor’s lifetime, the literary coup of coups, the farsighted Lanier offered a $7,500 advance (plus future royalties) for the right to publish Dune World (Book I)and Prophet of Dune (Books II and III) in hardcover.” A prominent science fiction writer in his own right (known for his postapocalyptic novel Hiero’s Journey), Lanier asked Herbert to rework some of the book’s themes and rewrite much of the text. He combined chapters and reorganized others, and proposed a simple title: Dune, which Lanier liked for its power and mysticism.

Chilton had been best known as a publisher of automotive repair manuals and magazines for, by then, nearly 70 years, but published a few novels (Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey being one of them in 1973). This led Herbert to quip that they might rename his book How to Repair Your Ornithopter after the transport vessels in the Dune universe. At least Chilton had experience printing large books, he reasoned, before accepting the offer.

Soon after Dune hit bookstores, Lanier was fired from Chilton Books because of its high publication costs (Dune was 412 pages) and low initial sales (it was not initially successful due in part to the book’s $5.95 price). Herbert went on to write five sequels in the Dune universe, as well as over a dozen other novels throughout the rest of his life. His work is also portrayed in movies, television, and video games—influencing generations.

As the film Dune: Part II launches, appreciation should be attributed to the foresight of an editor in a small division of a small publishing house—Chilton—as the world may have missed out on the mysticism and majesty that are the Dune novels and the brilliance of Frank Herbert’s mind.

By the way, an original first edition in fine condition of Herbert’s Dune, printed by Chilton Books in 1965, is currently valued at several thousand dollars.

Chilton is still the best way automotive enthusiasts can find comprehensive information about most any car on the road. It’s free through many libraries, where it’s available online 24/7 with a library card—ask for ChiltonLibrary.

*Platt, Charles. Dream Makers. Interview with Frank Herbert, May 1979, Los Angeles.

About the Author

Ryan Price is the author of The VW Beetle: A Production History of the World’s Most Famous Car, 1936–1967 and other titles. Not only is Ryan Lee Price a freelance writer specializing in automotive journalism, he also was a longtime magazine editor and an essential member of the Chilton editorial team.

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