The Dune Encyclopedia: 5 shocking facts from the most controversial Dune book ever
There's only one Dune Encyclopedia. Its canonicity is highly contested — but it's also awesome. Why is this book so hard to find?
Have you got $1,000 bucks lying around?
If so, you can own a copy of the 1984 book The Dune Encyclopedia, edited by Dr. Willis E. McNelly and containing all manner of Dune details you won’t find anywhere else.
This ultra-rare book, long out of print, is not only the source of arcane Dune knowledge but also Dune apocrypha.
Fans debate whether the book, written as an in-universe reference text, outlines the entire Dune canon. Here’s why the book is so rare and why it’s still controversial, 37 years after it was first published. Mild spoilers for the Dune novels ahead.
The Dune Encyclopedia - explained
The Dune Encyclopedia is a “fictional non-fiction” reference book that claims to be edited by a character named Hadi Benotto, in the year 15540 AG. (AG stands for “After Guild,” meaning the time after the spacing guild was formed.)
In real life, the book was compiled by an academic — and Dune fan – named Willis E. McNelly. Along with other vaguely credited contributors (there’s a cryptic bibliography in the back of the book), Willis’ The Dune Encyclopedia is what fanfiction would look like as a textbook.
Other sci-fi franchises — like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who — tend to have reference books at least nominally approved by the creators of those franchises. But in 1984, Frank Herbert didn’t have much to do with creating The Dune Encyclopedia other than allowing it to be printed, approving the text, and writing a brief forward.
The cover promises “The Complete, Authorized Guide and Companion To Frank Herbert’s Masterpiece of the Imagination.” But because the book was published in 1984 — one year before Chapterhouse: Dune came out — it doesn’t include any information from that Dune novel, the last Herbert ever wrote.
Though he put his name on it, Herbert damns the book with faint praise. In his very brief preface, about three paragraphs long, Herbert writes, “As the first ‘Dune fan,’ I give this encyclopedia my delighted approval, although I hold my own counsel on some of the issues still be explored as the Chronicles unfold.”
Is The Dune Encyclopedia canon?
Although Herbert was fine with The Dune Encyclopedia while he was alive, his estate was decidedly against it after his death in 1986. By 2000, the book was out of print; reprinting it was considered a not-for-profit pursuit. McNelly himself openly claimed he didn’t seek to profit from reprinting the book but was prevented from doing so anyway by Frank Herbert’s estate.
Why? In 1999, Herbert’s son Brian Herbert and co-author Kevin J. Anderson began publishing “official” prequels to the Dune saga, starting with the novel Dune: House Atreides. Many of the details in these novels and other prequels — like The Butlerian Jihad — directly contradicted “historical” information in The Dune Encyclopedia. For this reason, even fan wikis will list information from The Dune Encyclopedia as beyond the scope of the core book canon (the six original novels) or the “Expanded Canon” of the prequels.
Essentially, The Dune Encyclopedia is the third canon for Dune, separate from the classic books or what the estate deems “official.”
Physical copies of the Encyclopedia are hard to find
In 1984, The Dune Encyclopedia was published by Berkley Books in both hardcover and paperback. It was never reprinted, though you can sometimes find full PDFs circulating online. Buying used copies on eBay, ABE, or other shopping apps is your only way to go. These range from $1,000 on the high end to $499.99 for more worn-out copies. (The author of this article snagged a dog-eared copy for $130 back in early 2020, but the prices have spiked since then.)
As rare science fiction books go, The Dune Encyclopedia is one of the strangest, if only because it’s more valuable and harder to find than most versions of books written by Herbert. For example, if you wanted to find a copy of the 1963 issue of Analog, which published “Dune World,” Herbert’s serialized early version of Dune, you’re looking at $250. A non-canon book about Dune — not written by Frank Herbert — is the most valuable Dune book of them all.
The book includes one outrageous fan theory
Because The Dune Encyclopedia presents itself as a work of scholarly research, compiled by historians looking back at the galaxy's history, intentional contradictions exist between some of the entries.
Enter an off-the-wall fan theory, which masquerades as a fictional academic trying to reframe the story of Dune. In one of the entries on Paul Atreides, one “historian” suggests there’s no way that Paul could have been from Caladan. Instead, the writer argues, he was a Fremen, and his biographers have inflated the legends of Paul coming from another planet to Arrakis.
Confused? You should be. Within the framing of the first Dune novel, you’re lead to believe that most of the history of what Paul did was recorded by his wife, Princess Irulan. Even the novel version of Dune isn’t an objective story but instead loosely framed as a retelling.
The Dune Encyclopedia asks if those biographers are covering things up. Everyone knows that Paul Atreides came from the planet Caladan and later became part of the Fremen, but what The Dune Encyclopedia presupposes is — what if he didn’t? This detail alone (though presented as speculation) is one reason Frank Herbert’s estate may not have loved this book.
Denis Villeneuve couldn’t reference this book in Dune: Part One
Speaking with Inverse, an anonymous (though previously reliable) source stated that Denis Villeneuve is a big fan of The Dune Encyclopedia. But when he tried to plant references to the book in the new film, his “hand was slapped by the estate.” Within Dune: Part One, as a result, any apocryphal events or elements that contradict the original novel come from the screenplay, not from any other source.
Still, The Dune Encyclopedia is a fantastic resource, and the vast majority of the information contained within it is accurate.
It’s a super-helpful book if you’re interested in reading quick character biographies or getting questions answered about the Dune universe's technology, places, and cultures. The fact that the estate of Frank Herbert disapproves also makes reading it feel transgressive.
If you can get your hands on a copy or find a PDF on Reddit, your life will be spicier for it.
Dune: Part One is out in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22, 2021.