Frank Herbert Essay - Critical Essays

Frank Herbert American Literature Analysis

In 1965, thirteen years after publication of his first science-fiction short story and nine years after the publication of the mildly futuristic The Dragon in the Sea (Under Pressure), Herbert wrote his second science-fiction novel: Dune. His work thereafter reflects these different forms in that it can be divided—without reference to any particular time in his creative life—into three categories: “Earth-bound” novels, novels set far from Earth in space and time, and novels that take Earth as one setting in a distant future.

The Earth-bound novels tend to analyze a single aspect of human psychology or social organization. Under Pressure, which alone among Herbert’s works has consistently received critical acclaim equal to that accorded Dune, is considered one of the finest of submarine tales. It even inspired fan mail from service members who had served in submarines. The other novels of this group are viewed as more typical of cautionary science-fiction tales, with themes of ecology (The Green Brain), runaway science and technology (The White Plague, 1982), and the possibility—and dangers—of a communal mind (Hellstrom’s Hive, 1973, and The Santaroga Barrier).

The novels that deal with Earth in the distant future or in another reality are inclined to use this perspective as a vehicle for parody or satire through which Herbert pokes fun at science-fiction genres such as the futuristic detective story (Whipping Star, 1970), comments wryly on an aspect of society, such as the use and abuse of the law (The Dosadi Experiment, 1977), or toys with the reader’s preconceptions of the hostile and superior alien (Man of Two Worlds).

The novels that describe worlds far removed from the here and now are contained in Herbert’s two novel cycles—one centering on the planet Pandora and the other on the planet Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune.

The Pandora cycle begins with Destination: Void, the tale of clones sent into space on a ship programmed to fail and thus to challenge them to “wake up” and become fully conscious individuals, asserting their personalities and intellects in finding the solution to this deadly problem. While this book was written by Herbert alone, the other three in the series were written in collaboration with Bill Ransom: The Jesus Incident (1979), The Lazarus Effect (1983), and The Ascension Factor (1988).

Destination: Void, which is characterized by dialogues and interior monologues, is praised by supporters of Herbert’s dialogic style for its philosophical and psychological exploration of consciousness and sanity, and it is decried by detractors of that style as tedious. The succeeding three novels are more recognizably science-fiction adventure tales, which, however, also comment upon the nature of being human by tracing the development of new strains of humanity on the planet Pandora.

The Dune Series

First published: Dune, 1965; Dune Messiah, 1969; Children of Dune, 1976; God Emperor of Dune, 1981; Heretics of Dune, 1984; Chapterhouse: Dune, 1985

Type of work: Novels

Over several generations, humanity struggles to balance free will and fatalism—with probing analyses of messianism, fanaticism, ecology, technology, and the nature of history, myth, and language.

Herbert’s position as a preeminent science-fiction author who transcended the perceived bounds of his craft and enticed a large new audience to the genre—especially from college campuses—clearly rests upon Dune and its sequels. The power of his fictional world and its peoples to capture the imaginations of readers has been much analyzed, and there are many aspects and strands to the evaluations. Dune and its successors are rich in historical analogies. The feudal political setting suggests that social conflict is a Darwinian necessity—ruthlessly clearing away the old to introduce the new.

Here the reader encounters a complex balance of powers which resembles a futuristic version of the later Holy Roman Empire: the Emperor and his Sardaukar (janissary-like shock troops); the CHOAM Company, which monopolizes the spice trade (as the British East India Company once monopolized trade in India); the Landsraad or Great Houses (like Imperial Electors); the Guild, which uses the prescient qualities of spice to monopolize all shipping (like the Hansa and other trade alliances); the Ixians, who control all the nonbiological aspects of technology; the Tleilaxu, who have the secret of biological regeneration; and the all-female Bene Gesserit, whose use of spice gives each member access to the memories and personalities of those who have gone before her—a kind of drug-induced, encyclopedic knowledge of past events and a vivid example of Herbert’s technique of playing internal...

(The entire section is 2053 words.)