Dreamer of Dune by Brian Herbert
Sometimes I think it’s a mistake to read a biography of an author you really like because sometimes it happens that the man behind the fantastic stories is not a very nice person. That’s what I discovered when I read this biography of one of my favorite science fiction writers, Frank Herbert. The book has all the wonderful details regarding how and when Herbert’s great novels and stories came out and how success affected him and his family. If it were just that, I would have loved everything in it. Unfortunately, it also tells us a lot about the dark side of Frank Herbert. He spent a considerable amount of effort hiding from his ex-wife so she couldn’t collect child support payments from him. He was an overly strong (the word abusive comes to mind) disciplinarian of his children. He was an obsessively reckless driver routinely terrifying and risking the lives of his passengers. (In fact, the famous jump the bridge scene in The Santaroga Barrier appears to have been based on his decision to do exactly that with his wife and friend in his vehicle). He got friend Jack Vance to co-sign a car loan and then purposely didn’t make the payments so he could focus his money on other bills—stiffing Vance for years until he finally made enough to pay him back. In short, Frank Herbert wasn’t a nice man, even though apparently he had a gift for making people like him. And I find that sad, not that it changes how I feel about his stories.
As a biography, this is a pretty fine endeavor, but Brian Herbert also spends more than a small portion of it talking about his own life and his own writing career. To a certain extent, this is fine as he is Frank Herbert’s son and it shows his father’s influence, but often it seemed gratuitous to me. On the other hand, Brian Herbert is pretty honest with his own feelings toward his dad and how they changed for the better after he became an adult. Perhaps the nicest part of the biography is the picture he paints of his mother, Frank’s second wife, and a loving and dedicated spouse. If you enjoy Frank Herbert’s books, you’ll probably want to read this tribute, but be aware, Herbert is a complex man with a dark side.
Destination: Void by Frank Herbert
This is one of Frank Herbert’s most thought-provoking novels—and that’s saying a lot. Four clones on an interstellar space flight designed to fail, attempt to create an artificial intelligence to steer their craft safely between the stars. Their entire lives, and this completely manufactured crisis, are part of an experiment being run by humans to try and achieve artificial intelligence. Herbert’s plot unfolds with a series of crises intended to force the clones to succeed in their task or die—exciting on its own level. But at the same time, Herbert consciously models his story on the big questions raised by Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein. He questions what life and consciousness truly are and brings the crew to what was to me a totally unexpected fate at the end of the story. I’ve read this book five or six times and always get something new out of it.
Direct Descent by Frank Herbert
I am a highly plot driven reader, remembering the plot of just about every book I’ve ever read with very little difficulty. So it says a lot when I write, despite having read this book two times before (once in college and once a few years ago) I couldn’t remember the plot of the story. Perhaps the reason for that is that it feels so derivative. Direct Descent is two stories about a mammoth thousands-year-old library that really feels like it was written after Herbert read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (written three years before this work was published in serial form). The whole thing really reads like an Asimov story instead of a Herbert one. Both stories in this collection have the same basic plot. The new galactic government has decided to shut down the library in their attempt to stop knowledge from being disseminated. In each case, the evil government operatives are outwitted by brilliant librarians. Asimov did it better.
Perhaps it is actually a good thing that this plot is so forgettable. Frank Herbert is one of my favorite authors of all time. His great books like The Godmakers and Whipping Star, and yes, of course, Dune, all deserve to be read a dozen or more times. But his “lesser” works like The Santaroga Barrier, The Heaven Makers, and the Green Brain (to name only three) both entertain me and make me think every time I reread them. I’d honestly rather forget a rare misfire like Direct Descent.
The Godmakers by Frank HerbertThe Godmakers is one of my favorite Frank Herbert novels. On the one hand, it’s an adventure novel, the story of Lewis Orne, a well-meaning, extremely bright young man who works for the Rediscovery and Reeducation Service trying to help planets reconnect with galactic civilization after the Rim Wars. He discovers that all is not right on the planet Hamal and he helps to prevent a military debacle there, getting himself drafted into the more cynical Investigative Adjustment Service in the process. Roughly two-thirds of the novel has him investigating similar problems with Herbert dropping hints that he is the god that the “makers” of the title have “made”—even if he doesn’t know it yet. The final third of the novel involves Orne going to Amel, a mysterious planet which houses the heads of most of the galaxy’s religions, both to find out why they are messing with galactic politics and to discover the limits of his own peculiar abilities. This is where the novel becomes deeply philosophical novel. Herbert makes you think while he entertains you, which is probably why he’s so highly respected in the science fiction field.
Frank Herbert’s novels have often included ecological themes and in this one he seems to have taken his inspiration from Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the War on Crop Eating Pests—birds, rats and insects. In China, this effort to eradicate pests put special emphasis on the killing of swallows because they ate the crops. Swallows also, as it turns out, ate their body weight in insects every day and without them the insects could not be stopped from ravaging harvests exasperating the famine caused by other policies of the Great Leap Forward. Yet, China found it ideologically difficult to admit that Mao’s policies had had such devastating results and it is in this that I think Herbert found his idea for The Green Brain.
China is leading the world (except for North America and Western Europe) in a program to destroy all insects so that they will not eat food needed by people. China is convinced (and tells people that in China they have already marvelously succeeded) that all the ecological niches filled by insects can be filled by mutated bees. Unfortunately, these policies have resulted in horrendous crop failure in China and they need a scapegoat they can provide to the Chinese people so that their leaders can stay in power. To find this scapegoat, they have come to Brazil where their agent is spreading rumors that men hired to exterminate the insects in the jungle are secretly repopulating the jungles with mutated insects in order to continue earning the huge bounties they make from their work.
There are two heroes in the story—one is Joao Martinho, the man chosen as the Chinese scapegoat. The other is the Green Brain of the title—a mutated insect collective that is trying to figure out how to convince the humans to turn away from their path of destruction that is destroying the world. It is part of Herbert’s genius that these insects can be both the source of horror in the story and a force that we can also hope succeed.
The heart of the story is very similar to Herbert’s book Angels’ Fall which he wrote early in his career but wasn’t published until after his death. It involves an unpowered trip down a mighty jungle river with the intelligently directed insects pursuing our heroes.
This isn’t Herbert’s best novel, but it’s a good story so long as you
remember that it was written before our modern satellite system was in place. China’s
schemes would be impossible with satellite imagery showing that they had turned
their nation into a desert.
The Heaven Makers by Frank Herbert
This is a book for everyone who feels like we are not really in control of our lives. In it, Herbert posits that a group of immortal aliens, struggling against the ever-present weight of boredom, have been secretly manipulating events on earth for thousands of years in order to provide entertainment dramas for their race. These aliens are responsible for humans becoming civilized, developing religion, fighting with each other on both a grand and personal scale, and basically everything else that has ever happened on our planet. One of the major storylines of the story involves an investigator coming from the alien government to learn why the owner of this planet (and the creator of these most famous entertainment spectacles) is still interested in this planet after thousands of years. The answer to that is the great mystery of the novel.
The second plot is more personal. It focuses on a psychologist (Herbert loves to have psychologists as main characters) whose ex-girlfriend’s father has just murdered her mother with a saber. This psychologist has just suffered an accident involving radiation which damaged his eyes. The unique eyeglasses that correct his damaged vision also permit him to see through the cloaking devices of the aliens and notice them. The psychologist attempts to find out how and why the aliens are playing with people’s emotions and causing so much damage.
It's a very enjoyable story, but the first storyline involving the alien investigator really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The aliens have been watching stories about humans for many thousands of years and can’t wait for the next ones to come out. Why then is it surprising that the creator of these stories is also still interested thousands of years later? Yet, without that investigation, the whole novel falls apart, so you have to look past that and just enjoy the ride.
The Santaroga Barrier by Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert has long been interested in expanded consciousness and collective or hive minds, themes that show up at least in part in many of his novels (Dune, Destination Void, The Dosadi Experiment, Helstrom’s Hive, The Green Brain, etc.) and is of central interest in The Santaroga Barrier.
The setup for the story is handled quite efficiently in the first pages. Major retail and marketing firms are frustrated by their inability to penetrate the Santaroga Valley for their consumer goods. Almost everything used in the valley is produced there (there are exceptions like gasoline, but there is only one gas station in town, and it is run by a Santarogan). The retailers want in to Santaroga and they’ve hired psychologist Gilbert Dasein to do a market study on the valley to help them solve their problem. There is only one major problem. The last two people they’ve sent to do the same project have died from what appear to be genuine accidents—and yet Dasein and the reader are immediately left to wonder if something more sinister might be involved. Dasein has one major advantage over his predecessors that is undoubtedly the reason he was chosen for this task. His college girlfriend, Jenny, whom he asked to marry him, left him at the end of her studies and returned to her home in Santaroga. Dasein has a potential “in” that the marketers and retailers want to take advantage of.
Things are weird from the moment Dasein arrives. Outsiders passing through the beautiful valley on the federal highway do not feel comfortable there when stopping at its restaurants or lone hotel. Dasein gets a different response. He is almost immediately recognized as Jenny’s young man from school (despite the fact that he’s never been there) and sort of half welcomed and half not. While Dasein struggles with himself to keep an objective view of his surroundings, it is instantly obvious to the reader that he can’t. This valley is the reason Jenny refused to marry him. She wanted them to return to her home (a place she left for without him every weekend of their schooling) and he was too proud to simply give in to her wishes without a “reasonable” explanation of why they couldn’t set up their practice somewhere else. Now he has a chance to understand the mysterious hold her home has on him.
Then the accidents begin to happen. Gas leaks into his bedroom and nearly kills him. A dangerous fall caused by tripping on a turned-up carpet almost causes him to plummet to his death. Accidents? As more and more such incidents pile up, it’s really hard to believe that they aren’t part of a conspiracy to do Dasein harm, and yet, they honestly appear to have been accidents and sometimes Santarogans save him from the peril.
Where many people would have simply given up the job and left, Dasein doesn’t for two reasons. First, he is incredibly proud and stubborn. Second, there’s Jenny, the woman he’s in love with and who honestly appears to be in love with him. Yet Jenny is part of the Santaroga mystery, working in the mysterious co-op which seems to be the heart of it. Yet it’s Jenny’s friend who rescues Dasein when he breaks into the co-op and gets over-exposed to the mysterious Jaspers.
Jaspers (and it’s never quite clear just what it is) is the heart of the Santarogan mystery. It’s consumed like a spice and it’s addictive and mind expanding. But it also becomes increasingly clear that it is something much more. It links Santarogans together at least on a subconscious level and when Dasein discovers what’s happening with the Santarogan children (and that many become brain damaged by the Jaspers) the town turns on him in a truly frightening way.
Jenny understands on some level what is happening, but no one else in the valley seems to be able to consciously credit that they are creating accidents to kill Dasein. It’s the most exciting part of the novel. Jenny has begged Dasein to leave because she loves him, he refuses, and weird things start happening and people start dying in situations clearly directed at Dasein. The reader grows to understand that the valley—jaspers—is protecting itself. The question is, will Dasein be killed, escape, or ensnared into becoming one of the Santarogans? It’s important to keep in mind that in many of his books Herbert isn’t interested in a conventional victory. You simply can’t predict how this novel is going to end.
Frank Herbert once said that he wanted half the country to think that Santaroga sounded wonderful and half to find it highly disturbing. At times, as a reader, I felt both ways, so I’d say he succeeded.
Whipping Star by Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert excels at the creation of truly alien, incomprehensible cultures, and it is this problem of communication that is the heart of the superb novel, Whipping Star. In the universe of the future multiple alien species live together in a government called the ConSentiency. For several decades, the peoples of the ConSentiency have taken advantage of advanced technology provided to them by a new race called the Caleban. The Caleban are almost impossible to understand, but they have a jump door technology that permits people to instantaneously move anywhere in the universe. At the start of the novel, the Calebans are disappearing from the universe and with each new disappearance millions of beings are going insane or dying. Very quickly, the protagonist Jorj X. McKie, learns that the disappearances and deaths are connected, and if the last Caleban in the universe disappears or dies (a phrase the Caleban refers to as “ultimate discontinuity”) all people (99% of the ConSentiency) who have used a jump door will also die.
So the stakes could not be higher in Whipping Star as McKie tries to determine what could threaten the existence of a being with cosmic power. The answer is totally perplexing, but is also the key to the communication problems which make this book the masterpiece it is. The Caleban is being murdered by the richest woman in the ConSentiency who has an obsession with flogging people, but has had her psyche treated so that she can’t bear the thought of causing suffering. Her answer was to form a contract with a Caleban—a sort of energy creature—and whip her. But why a primitive leather bullwhip could threaten the existence of the most powerful creature in the universe…well that’s the heart of the story.
This is a wonderful novel by a master of the science fiction field.