Julian May and her novelette Dune Roller - a bit of SF history


Luddite Curmudgeon
Jul 26, 2012
Auckland, NZ
Julian May is most famous for her Saga of Pliocene Exile, and Galactic Milieu SF series (published between 1981 and 1996), though her background and some aspects of her life in SF fandom starting in the early 1950's are quite interesting. As I've started a re-read of the Saga of the Exiles, I started to look into her history and achievements in a little more depth and found out some interesting trivia nuggets. Born in Chicago in 1931, she became a fan of SF in her teens, and had several letters to the editor published by Campbell in Astounding when she was 17 and 18. Clearly enamored of the form and genre she was submitting to Campbell by 1951.


Her first published story was the novelette Dune Roller, which appeared in Astounding in December 1951, under the name J. C. May. There is perhaps no other first publication by an author which on its own has had had more impact for the author or the genre. Dune Roller is a professionally constructed and well-written tale, playing out like a B-picture monster movie, and containing all the tropes one might expect from that genre: The mysterious discovery of something unusual at the beginning; a scientist living on his own, pining for a lost love; the arrival of a new young woman to provide some love interest and sexual tension; the young woman being chased, the risky denouement, and so on. It's very readable and fun (though hardly deep or meaningful), and the writing is a notch above a lot of the work Campbell will have seen across his desk in these years, I'm sure.


The impact of Dune Roller appears to have been quite profound. May had only one other SF story published in the early fifties (Star of Wonder, in Thrilling Wonder Stories, in Feb '53), and she then ceased writing SF until 1977. In the interim she wrote many children's books and science fact articles for various publications. And yet, on the back of her role in SF fandom in Chicago and the publication of Dune Roller, she was appointed Chair of the 10th World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago in 1952. May must have done a pretty good job chairing the convention, though she was only 21 at the time and had only one published story behind her. The 1952 WorldCon is famous for several reasons: it was by far the best attended at that time, and its attendance was not surpassed until 1967; Hugo Gernsback was the convention's official guest of honor; the Hugo Awards were first proposed and adopted; and Sturgeon's Law was coined following his statement on a panel that "ninety percent of everything is crud".


The influence of Dune Roller was not limited to May's success Chairing the '52 WorldCon, however, as it also received TV, film and radio treatment over the years. In January 1952, only a month after its publication by Campbell, it was used as an episode entitled The Dune Roller in the Tales of Tomorrow TV series (Season 1, Episode 15), with Bruce Cabot playing the protagonist Dr Thorne alongside Nancy Coleman and veteran character actor Nelson Olmsted. It is well reviewed as being one of the better 'Tales'. The episode must surely have been in development while it was 'in press' at Astounding, prior to publication.

The next treatment of the story in the media was by the BBC Home Service, who broadcast a full cast dramatisation of Dune Roller in 1961. It can be heard here. I cannot discover who the cast was for this, unfortunately.

And lastly we arrive at a 1972 feature film based on the story, retitled The Cremators, and directed by Harry Essex. Garnering only 2.6/10 on IMDB, this is widely held to be a shockingly bad movie! The cast is of mild interest, however, as the leading lady here was Maria De Aragon, who also played Greedo in Star Wars (uncredited) and who co-starred in the 1973 version of Wonder Woman.


Clearly, given the multiple treatments on TV, film and radio, the story developed a reputation as a classic in the B-movie 'monster' subgenre. But as a piece of SF fiction it has also been treated with respect over the years, being collected in various anthologies by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Silverberg and Isaac Asimov. Indeed, Silverberg chose it for a Treasury of SF Masterpieces, as late as 1983.

All in all, its hard to think of another first publication - barely followed up for 20 years - having such a footprint on SF fandom - which I thought was all mildly interesting, so figured I would share. If you'd like to read Dune Roller, you can obtain it off the web from several Astounding archives, or it can be found in any of the anthologies mentioned on ISFDB.
Dune Roller is mentioned as imporatant in the bio in my 1980s Saga of Exiles books, though I never followed that up. This detail is new to me. Very interesting. Thanks.

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