'Dune' And The City Of Destiny: How Tacoma Inspired One Of The World's Most Acclaimed Sci-Fi Authors

Nov 17, 2017

If you go to the base of Point Defiance in Tacoma and look east, you'll see a finger of earth jutting into Puget Sound. 

It formed as toxic slag spilled from a copper smelter during the city's industrial heyday. 

For years, it was a foreboding sliver of black, glassy material. Today, workers and machines roam the peninsula as they transform it into a grassy park with Puget Sound views.

Tacoma Metro Parks Commissioner Erik Hanberg has a space-age term for what's going on there. He calls it "terraforming." 

The choice of words is no accident. If Hanberg gets his way, the park's name will honor Frank Herbert, a son of Tacoma who authored one of the most popular and acclaimed science fiction novels of all time, "Dune." 

Hanberg was in middle school when he first read the epic tale of interplanetary politics, religious prophecy, and a consciousness-expanding drug mined from the deserts of a faraway world. 

He remembers how it felt to turn to the author's biography and find out "Dune" came from the imagination of someone from Tacoma. 

"I was growing up in suburbia," Hanberg said. "I didn't know that people came from here who did things like that." 

Herbert spent chunks of his childhood and adulthood in and around Tacoma, exploring Puget Sound in a cedar rowboat, making friends among members of the Salish Native American tribes, and learning about Zen from Japanese-American neighbors. The experiences bled into his writing. 

Herbert's son, Brian Herbert, wrote about Tacoma's influence on the author in the biography "Dreamer of Dune." He describes how Tacoma's history of industrial pollution, and the towering sight of the city's copper smelter in particular, inspired some of the environmental themes in "Dune." 

So, some say, what better place is there for a Frank Herbert Park?

A September 2017 drone photograph of the peninsula that workers are transforming into a park in Tacoma
Credit Atkinson Construction / Metro Parks Tacoma

"I don't know of even a street that was named after this great man, known to millions of people all over the world," the author's son wrote in an email. 

"If Frank Herbert Park were to become a reality, it would be the first recognition of this sort for the man who wrote the greatest science fiction novel of all time," Brian Herbert continued. "And, since he was an avid environmentalist, it would be highly appropriate for it to occur on a former EPA cleanup site." 

Hanberg agrees. For the past few years, he's waged a publicity campaign of sorts to get his neighbors to acknowledge Herbert's local roots. "He's from Tacoma, but no one here seems to know it," Hanberg wrote in a 2013 article for the website Post Defiance. 

He notes that plains and valleys on one of Saturn's moons are named for planets in Herbert's universe. 

Soon, an 11-acre park in his hometown may be named for him, too.

When Metro Parks Tacoma officials asked the public this year to suggest names for the new park, 300 of the 500 responses were related to Herbert and "Dune," Hanberg said. 

There are any number of ways the park could honor the author. For instance, it's name could reference one of the many worlds in "Dune."  

But Hanberg said that wouldn't sit right with him. 

"I really want to see it be Frank Herbert Park," he said. "It's not just 'Dune.' It's much bigger. It's about the person." 

A design illustration of part of a park that's under construction in Tacoma
Credit Stephanie Bower / Site Workshop