Frank Herbert Herbert, Frank - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frank Herbert 1920–

American novelist, short story writer, and journalist. Herbert is a science fiction writer who questions the limits of the physical and spiritual qualities of mankind and comments on the future effects of ecological abuse. His novels combine the technological and the psychological, and have as their theme the problems inherent in man's manipulation of his environment. Herbert's Dune trilogy contains many of his literary characteristics. It is an epic description of the quest and destiny of a superior human, Paul Muad'Dib, who seeks enough water to save his planet. Herbert created a complete civilization in these works, including full descriptions of its history, philosophies, and physical makeup. Although the novels have been criticized for their complexity, they are popular and well respected among science fiction readers, and are often cited by those who maintain that science fiction should be considered serious literature. Dune was the winner of the 1965 Nebula Award and cowinner of the 1966 Hugo Award. Herbert's interest in social and ecological concerns is reflected in his background. He served as a consultant in these areas in Pakistan and Vietnam, as well as in the United States. He has had many varied occupations, such as oyster diving, and has taught both creative writing and jungle survival. Herbert has edited several newspapers, and has contributed short stories to magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction, which printed the first versions of the Dune mythology. His first novel, Dragon in the Sea, was the cowinner of the 1956 International Fantasy Award. Although Herbert has been consistently popular, he has become something of a cult figure during the present decade. Despite the esoteric and extremely detailed nature of some of his works, young adults have found that they can relate his subjects and concerns of the future, especially the ecological situations, to their own questions about themselves and their world. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56, and Something about the Author, Vol. 9.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Dragon in the Sea"] is a sea story of an imaginary war that comes very close to matching—in suspense, action and psychic strain—any chronicle of real war by C. S. Forester or Herman Wouk. Frank Herbert writes of the next war, a conflict wherein the "curtains" are so impenetrable that the only theatre of action is under the sea. In marvelously convincing fashion, he tells the grim saga of a "subtug," venturing across the Atlantic to raid the enemy's subterranean oil reserves…. In this fine blend of speculation and action, Mr. Herbert has created a novel that ranks with the best of modern science fiction.

J. Frances McComas, "Water War," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1956, p. 33.

R. Z. Sheppard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Professional] science-fiction writers have rarely been encouraged to be good stylists…. This is partly because SF publishing and marketing methods make little distinction between the kind of star-schlock in which intergalactic cops battle hypothyroid blobs, and a well-wrought literary work in which far-reaching concepts and social problems are dramatized with intelligence, wit and verbal skill….

More important, critics and reviewers who confer literary status rarely know much about science or technology…. Even journeymen practitioners of SF are likely to know more about literature than most novelists and critics know about science. And in the 20th century, ignorance of the fundamentals—and social implications—of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics constitutes an embarrassing form of illiteracy.

Despite much misunderstanding over the past half-dozen years, SF has undergone an explosive growth…. In perspective, the interest in SF can be seen as part of the natural anxiety about the future of the planet….

Unlike many bestselling popular novelists who squint at headlines for topical book ideas, SF writers often prove to be commercially farsighted. [One] of the most spectacularly successful SF novels of recent years, Frank Herbert's Dune … [is a good example] of how public concerns and infatuations catch up with the science-fiction imagination. [It has] been extremely popular with youth, which is greatly involved with the power of mysticism and the impieties of earthly industrial civilization. (p. 86)

Paul Atreides, the hero of Dune, is … well equipped [with psychic abilities and Christlike symbolism]. A superior thought-hypnotist, swordsman (of the old school) and ecologist, he is descended from an ancient line of space migrants whose antitechnology religion is summed up in the commandment, "Thou shalt not disfigure the soul." Set on the nearly waterless planet of Arrakis thousands of years in the future, Dune is a swashbuckling account of how human civilization, as it is now known, is reborn in a desert.

Like most science fiction,… [Dune is] conceptually rich. [It] … has 541 pages crammed with the canned fruits of Herbert's researches into ecology, desert cultures and history. There are even extensive appendices outlining the soil growth and planting schedules that Atreides projected for his centuries-long ecological project to make Arrakis bloom. (pp. 86-7)

R. Z. Sheppard, in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1971), March 29, 1971.

Robert C. Parkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dune Messiah should be considered not as a sequel to the massive Dune novel, but as the penultimate section of an as-yet-incomplete work—whether trilogy, tetralogy or five-act epic matters not.

The objection to criticizing Dune Messiah as a simple sequel to the earlier novel is that almost invariably it has been seen as some sort of "repeat performance," and as such judged in terms of what the critic thought were the important themes of its predecessor. Considering it merely as a further installment, on the other hand, allows the critic the possibility that the important themes may only now be becoming apparent. (p. 16)

I suspect that in a large part the admiration Dune has commanded has come from the scope and the detail of its author's creation…. But the true scope of science fiction is not as an exhibition of the author's fertile and untrammeled imagination, but as a place to examine important human themes under radically altered circumstances.

Now in depth of background-detail, Dune Messiah does not significantly advance the reader's knowledge of the planet Arrakis, nor (as might have been expected of a sequel) does it tell of the wider universe in which this planet exists. There are one or two new wonders … but these were not entirely absent in the earlier novel, and they are not integrated into a vast interlocking ecology in the way that the parts of Arrakis were in Dune. This, however, seems of minor importance. If we are to judge Dune on its wealth of physical and social creation, then we should look at its flaws also—in its politics, to give one example, which far from being the sophisticated creation of a distant future are an almost straight "lift" from the later Turkish Empire.

But Arrakis is, after all, only a planet. What Dune Messiah does do is to continue the unfolding story and the philosophical problems begun in Dune. Among other things it converts a straight adventure "success story" into high tragedy.

What is Dune about, anyway?

Let me ask another question, which may give us a clue to the first. Why does Paul Atreides fear so much the consequences of following his vision? And if he does fear it so much, why does he never step aside from it?

This is the first obvious continuing theme of both books…. By looking at this theme, it becomes possible to see that most of the ecological interactions of the first book are simply characteristics of that part of the work, and not what the total work is about. Not as they stand.

Ecology does have a large part to play in the Dune novels…. And Kynes, the ecologist of the book, commends the young Paul for having understood a fundamental law of ecology: that "… the struggle between life elements is the struggle for the free energy of a system."

But it is a simplistic view of ecology. In particular it is a simplistic view when applied to human political systems as ecology. If an ecology is seen as a closed and dynamically balanced system, then one of the implicit lessons of the Dune novels … is that ultimately a political system which sees itself in these terms cannot achieve this balance. (pp. 16-17)

It is possible that Herbert's axiom only really holds for closed and collapsing societies, and even then a "superhuman" figure like Paul Atreides may disturb the system sufficiently to destroy its balance.

Just as, by his political actions, he probably destroys the delicately evolving artificial ecology of Arrakis. (pp. 17-18)

The struggle in Dune is obvious enough. Paul Atreides (and there is more than a trace of symbolism in that name; indeed, one could put a deal of orthodox Freudian interpretation into the book) comes from the wet world of Caladan to the desert world of Arrakis (and the parallel with human birth is explicitly underwritten …), and is immediately threatened by his hereditary enemies, the Harkonnens. He is therefore pitchforked into a situation where he must learn to survive both in the hostile environment of Arrakis and under the attack of the Harkonnens. As might be expected, Herbert is a good enough storyteller to make sure that the solution to the one problem—how to survive on Arrakis—is the solution to the other….

Indeed, even the ecological themes parallel one another. The secret of Arrakis is that it has water, and that its ecology is being deliberately disturbed to the point at which a wet-cycle ecology can be self-sustaining. And in the wider universe, Paul Atreides has found that the political ecology which would squeeze him out...

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Joni Bodart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The author of The Gods Makers] creates a new world peopled by a cast of unusual characters…. The characters are believable and interesting, the plot moves quickly, and suspense is maintained. The most enjoyable part of the book is the writings of various characters which begin each chapter, giving their personal philosophies. The result is an insightful novel which should be popular with fans of Dune. (p. 126)

Joni Bodart, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the March, 1973 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1973), March, 1973.

Brian W. Aldiss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If you can't be great, be big! Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) is certainly big, and many people have found it great.

Dune is enjoying something like the same success as [Robert Heinlein's] Stranger in a Strange Land, and probably for the same reason, because its readers can indulge in a fantasy life of power and savour a strange religion. But there is more than that to Dune and its successor, Dune Messiah (1969). Although Campbellian science fiction is still present, so, too, is an attention to sensuous detail which is the antithesis of Campbell; the bleak, dry world of Arrakis is as intensely realised as any in science fiction. The obvious shortage of water, for instance, is presented not just diagrammatically, but as living fact which permeates all facets of existence. (pp. 274-75)

[Dune and Dune Messiah] are dense and complex books, repaying careful reading. While they contain many ideas, the main informing idea is an ecological one; which makes them—together with all the other things they are!—very trendy books.

Herbert has long been known as an impressive writer. His great … Under Pressure—reprinted … [as] Dragon in the Sea, and 21st Century Sub—also has strong religious elements, and is well worth seeking out for its study of obsessed men engaged in undersea warfare some time in the future. (p. 276)

Brian W. Aldiss, in his Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (copyright © 1973 by Brian W. Aldiss; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1973.

G. Robert Carlsen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A book that builds with spellbinding intensity is [Soul Catchers, the] story of a young Indian graduate student in anthropology who works summers as a counselor in a boys camp. Slowly he becomes convinced that his mission is to expiate the sins of the white man toward his people by taking the life of an "innocent."… The values of the old Indian culture are highlighted in this moving story which can lead to an exciting exchange of ideas among students. (p. 91)

G. Robert Carlsen, in English Journal (copyright © 1974 by the National Council of Teachers of English), February, 1974.

John Ower

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The very rawness and naivete of popular culture are signs of a vitality which can, without a breach with its origins, transcend itself in the inspiration of fine art. This fertile paradox is illustrated by Frank Herbert's Dune. It is the unstultified vigor of Herbert's imagination which is responsible for the complexity, the depth, and the symbolic virtuosity of his novel. At the same time, his art is rooted in the naive elements of good storytelling. The setting of Dune is an adventure—a wonder-land elaborately spun from the author's imagination. However, it coheres perfectly in its solidity of specification, never abandoning the concreteness and verisimilitude which are primal sources of pleasure....

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Elizabeth Hall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Using the movie The Hellstrom Chronicle as a spring-board, Frank Herbert has written a compelling novel. But Hellstrom's Hive … is straightforward science fiction, no nature story in disguise. Herbert has concentrated on what he does best, the creation of a balanced civilization. This time the aliens are among us, except that they are mutants…. The time is now. Hellstrom's Hive, founded secretly 300 years ago beneath an Oregon farm, is beginning to feel swarming pressure. And its 50,000 inhabitants are the object of a Government investigation. This book doesn't reach the heights of Dune, but Hellstrom's Hive does provide the ultimate group experience. (p. 20)

Elizabeth Hall, in Psychology Today (copyright © 1974 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), August, 1974.

Theodore Sturgeon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Expectedly from a writer of Frank Herbert's great competence, [Hellstrom's Hive] is fascinating reading, but one has the feeling that he got tired of it five-sixths of the way through, and let his drama get melo. (p. 39)

Theodore Sturgeon, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 8, 1974.

Robert Scholes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Few would deny that Dune is a "great read," as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a "great read." It gives us strongly defined heroes and villains, engages us in an action which is simple in essence but full of events, twists, complications. Dune and its sequel, Dune Messiah, first appeared as serial fiction, and they exhibit the frequent climaxes and moments of great suspense which the serial format requires. Dune is a romance of adventure, and it is not my intention here to suggest that this romance hides great speculative profundities. What makes it exceptional is the systematic way in which the narrational events are imbedded in a particular ecological setting, and the thoughtfulness...

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Leon E. Stover

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

That we are in for a portentious rendering of great issues in philosophy is signaled at the outset [of Santaroga Barrier] by the name of the hero, Dr. Gilbert Dasein. Dasein in German means "being there" and is the key concept of existential thinking in the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, whose own name figures in the drug with which the townsmen of Santaroga infuse their beer, cheese, and other foods.

Karl Jaspers … is associated with a number of critics of modern society who together have built what is probably the most influential social theory of our day: the theory of mass society…. [They] are concerned less with the general conditions of freedom in society than with the freedom of...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frank Herbert's long-awaited finale of his Dune trilogy, Children of Dune, cannot be dismissed casually as just another space opera. To be sure, there is plenty of traditional science-fiction action for the true believer, but, as with the earlier novels, Dune and Dune Messiah, there's much to satisfy ecologists, anthropologists and speculative theologians, as well.

Arrakis, the desert planet, sole source in the universe of a genuine life-prolonging drug, is the real hero…. Children of Dune opens as the changes begun decades before are taking place…. The vast spectrum of characters, many of whom illustrate some Jungian mythic archetype, are either unaware of, or...

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Gerald Jonas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To appreciate Frank Herbert's achievement in the Dune trilogy, which concludes with "Children of Dune" …, you have to be a devotee of obsession. On the surface, the Dune books offer an unlikely combination of old-fashioned space opera, up-to-date ecological concern and breathtakingly ecumenical religiosity. The space opera elements include a decaying galactic empire, heroes and villains of nearly superhuman power, and truly formidable monsters. The ecology centers around the planet Dune, which is one vast desert, yet which supports a population of remarkably disciplined human beings known as Fremen….

Herbert's vision of a people forced by circumstance into total ecological awareness is worked out...

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Harold L. Berger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What makes The Heaven Makers] unique among mind-invasion science fiction stories is [its] historical orientation. [It attributes] the madness and misery of past and present to mind-warping incubi—vampires feeding on man's creative energy or string-holders of the Punch-and-Judy show called history, whose scenario human beings imagine they have written. (pp. 111-12)

The Heaven Makers stirs recollections of Samuel Johnson's satiric criticism, "A Review of Soame Jenyns' A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil." "He [Jenyns] imagines," Johnson writes, "that as we have not only animals for food, but choose some for our diversion, the same privilege may be allowed to some...

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Robin Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Santaroga Barrier] is exciting and suspenseful; but there is a good message here as well. Santaroga seems utopian: perfectly adjusted, with no crime or reported mental illness. But there are failures—mental cripples who could not handle the Jaspers. Even the psychologist's own professional experience fails to help him under the drug's high. The message is not judgemental: Herbert likes to explore the possibilities of altered states of consciousness…. When Dasein overdoses on the drug, we are left wondering whether what is left is an omniscient superman, or a euphoric idiot. (p. 6)

Robin Adams, in Young Adult Cooperative Book Review Group of Massachusetts,...

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Michael S. Cross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Dosadi Experiment] is full of the characteristics that irritate the [non-science-fiction fan]: the combination of "hard" sf with a fantasy style; the plethora of names, institutions, and civilizations dropped in with little or no identification; the swashbuckling plot. Fans, however, will delight in all of these. And, as usual with Herbert, some of the conceits are intriguing. Here the plot rotates about the peculiar legal philosophy and institutions of a people called the Gowachin, a quite fascinating portrayal of alien minds. (p. 2084)

Michael S. Cross, in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, October 1, 1977; published by R. R. Bowker Co....

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Gerald Jonas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first thing that must be said about ["The Dosadi Experiment"] is that it takes place in an entirely different universe from his justly celebrated and popular "Dune" trilogy. The "Dune" novels are superb space opera—persuasively detailed fiction set against the broadest backdrop imaginable. By contrast, everything about "The Dosadi Experiment" is claustrophobic—the basic premise, the setting, even the writing. Sometime in the past, an illicit experiment was established on the barely habitable planet of Dosadi….

The result of this cold-blooded venture in Social Darwinism is, as expected, a planet full of cunning survivors. But the experiment has been too successful—the survival...

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Timothy O'Reilly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dune is a novel rich in ideas as well as imagination…. (p. 41)

Recalling the origins of Dune, Herbert says:

It began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies. I had this theory that superheroes were disastrous for humans, that even if you postulated an infallible hero, the things this hero set in motion fell eventually into the hands of fallible mortals. What better way to destroy a civilization, a society or a race than to set people into the wild oscillations which follow their turning over their judgment and decision-making faculties to a superhero?


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