the Last Word in
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I remember him taking me for a walk behind his house past the chicken coop and onto a small trail through the woods. He took me to meet the Starrys, my neighbours for that summer, a warm and polite couple who could have been featured sitting on a porch in a Norman Rockwell painting. After saying friendly 'hellos,' we returned to the trail heading back toward home.
"So what do you do?" I remember asking him as we made our way into the damp forest.
"What do you mean, 'What do I do?'"
"You know," I said impatiently, "for a living. What do you do?"
His brow furrowed up in frustration. It looked as though he were getting mad, but then his blue eyes softened and he told me, "I write." Those two words held little meaning for me at the time, but later became something I would never forget.
As a child, the only things I wrote were assignments for school and little do-dads here and there. I couldn't fathom someone doing that 'for a living.'
"Come on, Grandpa," I laughed. "Really."
"I write books. They're called science fiction novels."
Being of an age that many things simply don't compute, he witnessed the curious - if not disbelieving - look upon my face as we emerged from the woods and strode uphill to the house.
Once inside he took me upstairs to his study, something that would occur only twice in my life. He pulled down a wide book from a high shelf and handed it to me.
"Do you know what those big white letters on the cover say?" he asked.
I scanned the book's surface and saw the letters he was referring to. "Fffrrrannnk Herrrbbberrt," I said, then looked up in astonishment. "That's your name!"
"That's one of the books I've written. Perhaps when you're old enough, you can read it," he said and put the book back on its shelf. I don't remember which book he showed me, but I do remember the new sense of awe I felt from then on whenever I was in his presence.
It wasn't until my freshman year in high school that I began to realize how significant my grandfather's work was to others. It was 1979 and my English teacher, Mrs Blair, stood at the front of the class discussing great literary works throughout the ages and mentioned Dune. I sat bolt upright, feeling the blood leave my face. I hadn't read it yet! When I got home, I asked my mother if I could read Dune. She said "of course" and pulled down a signed, thick copy from a shelf.
As a pubescent teenager it may as well have been War And Peace she'd handed me. I looked at it with a depressive stare and wondered why anyone would read such a behemoth. But I went to my room, opened up the first page and began to read. That day changed my life. I was propelled into a new world.
My memory spun back to the meeting in Grandpa's study when I was seven. "I write." I had no idea what that truly meant... until now. The pages whipped by as I dove into the complex web of layered stories. When I'd finished, I went back and reread it, surprised by what I'd missed the first time.
I spent several summers with Grandpa after that and learned a lot from him. I took him stories I'd written and watched as he meticulously went over them. He would give me pointers on plot structure, the use of adjectives, and many other things that helped me weave tales. But I could never create a world as complex as his no matter how hard I tried. It seemed an impossible feat to create, as my Uncle Brian Herbert said of the original Dune novel in his Afterword to Dune: House Atreides - "a magnum opus that stands as one of the most complex, multilayered novels ever written." How did Grandpa do it? What grain of sand wafted into that brain of his, creating such an incredibly textured universe?
As his family, we knew where it began. It was on the dunes along the coast of Oregon where Grandpa got his first inkling into the world that would become his masterpiece. He worked briefly in Florence, Oregon, a small, coastal, bedroom community at the time of about 1600 people (the town is now much bigger). He was there doing research for an article during his tenure as a freelance writer, trying to sell the written word to magazines. The article would be based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture study about the trouble with shifting dunes. He became fascinated by the amount of life that fought for existence on the unpredictable sands of the area. How, even in the tiniest crevices of the dunes, life clung and fought for permanence in such an inhospitable place. It was here his mind began to unfold the story that would become Dune.
After Grandpa's death, I still hadn't realised how important he was. I missed him terribly, an emptiness that one feels when a family loses someone close to them. What I hadn't realised was how it would affect others. Frank Herbert left more than just a void within our family; he'd left a void within a much bigger clan: the literary community. The last Dune novel Grandpa wrote, Chapterhouse Dune, ended on a cliffhanger, promising something greater and more profound in the final book. All of that now seemed lost with his passing. February 11th, 1986 marked the death of a man and his vision.
Or did it?
Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert's eldest son, had been harangued by agents, publishers and fans alike to finish the series. Having written several novels of his own - including co-authoring Man Of Two Worlds with his father in 1985 just prior to his death - Brian wasn't sure if he wanted to take on such a monumental task. Besides, he didn't know exactly where his dad was going with the Dune series before he died.
After more haranguing by agents and publishers, Brian was contacted by an editor who introduced Brian to his future, energetic co-author.
By the first week of May 1997, more than 11 years after the death of Frank Herbert, Brian finally met up with best-selling author Kevin J. Anderson, and they began throwing ideas around. After months of painstaking research and deliberation, they decided to start setting the groundwork for three prequels to the original Dune (Dune: House Atreides, Dune: House Harkonnen, and Dune: House Corrino), but still had no clear idea how the final book should end. What did Frank Herbert have in mind for 'Dune 7'?
"Just keep a backup copy of everything you write off premises," Brian told me he had said to his father on several occasions. "It was the insurance agent in me talking," he recalled later. "Fire, flood, or any number of disasters could have ruined his work if he wasn't careful. Little did I know he would take my advice to the extreme." Brian's advice would bear fruit he couldn't have imagined.
"I remember the phone ringing in May of 1997 and it was this lawyer for Dad's estate," my uncle told me. "He said there was a safety deposit box that had been overlooked all these years at a local bank in Seattle. Initially I thought it might be jewelry from my mother's - Beverly Herbert's - estate that he'd kept for safe keeping or something. But then something in my head reminded me of those conversations I'd had with Dad before he passed away. I remember him working on that small Tandy computer in his hospital bed and me telling him to always save copies of his work."
Two weeks after that phone call Brian found himself, along with an estate attorney and the bank manager, covering their ears as two safety deposit boxes were drilled open for lack of any keys.
"I can't remember exactly what I was thinking at that particular moment," Brian said to me about this momentous day. "I knew there must have been something important in there for Dad to have kept it locked up."
The boxes were laid onto a table and Brian watched as the lids yawned open, as if waking from a deep slumber. From the first box, the attorney handed Brian volumes of recipes his father had cooked up (the "I write" man was also an excellent chef). In the second box were a few very old five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks with stacks of papers underneath.
"I remember being handed the papers and placing them on the table," Brian said to me, his voice rich with anticipation. "Then I uncovered the top page and my heart nearly stopped."
What Brian saw was beyond imagination and hope. He'd uncovered an item that'll be shared with millions of people. On the cover of the first page, scribbled in Frank Herbert's unmistakable hand, were two words: 'Dune 7.'
In the middle of June 1997, my own mother (Penny Merritt) called me. There was an air of excitement in her voice. We went through the usual 'how are you' and 'I'm fine how are you' type conversation, then I finally had to ask:
"What's going on?"
"What do you mean?" she asked, trying to sound calm and collected, but failing miserably.
"Mom. What's going on?"
"Oh honey, it's just wonderful," she said in a quavering voice.
"We've found notes for a seventh Dune book. They were discovered in a safety deposit box in Seattle after all these years."
I sank onto the couch, my mouth agape. After confirming that she wasn't 'joshin me,' we talked about what this meant to us and to literature. But mostly we talked about what it meant to us, to our family.
"You know," I finally said, "Grandpa's not really dead then."
Dune was first published in 1965, the year of my birth. Dune Messiah followed in 1969, then Children Of Dune in 1976, Heretics Of Dune in 1981, God Emperor Of Dune in 1983, and Chapterhouse Dune in 1985. The prequels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson are: Prelude To Dune: House Atreides, (1999), Prelude To Dune: House Harkonnen (2000), Prelude To Dune: House Corrino (2001). Tor Books has contracted with Brian and Kevin to write three more early prequels to show the development of what would become the Dune universe. Dune: Butlerian Jihad is due out at the end of 2002, Dune: Machine Crusade is set for 2003, and Dune: Battle Of Corrin is set for 2004. Dune 7 (as yet, untitled) will be available sometime after 2004. No concrete date has been set for its publication.
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