Frank Herbert

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Frank (Patrick) Herbert 1920–

American science fiction novelist, short story writer, and journalist.

In his best-selling novels, Herbert investigates the physical and spiritual limitations of humankind, creating complex philosophical and religious systems in order to examine society's perception of itself and its future. His Dune trilogy has a strong cult following and is becoming a science fiction classic. It incorporates ideas about ecology, the hero mystique, and genetic planning, all within an ingenious plot.

His recent addition to the Dune series, God Emperor of Dune, continues the Atreides saga in the desert world of Arrakis. Most critics agree, however, that it lacks the imaginative brilliance of Dune.

(See also CLC, Vol. 12; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)

John Leonard

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[Frank Herbert] is abetted in "The Jesus Incident" by the West Coast poet Bill Ransom. Their collaboration in no way improves those scraps of liturgical upchuck that Mr. Herbert, with his tin ear, somehow thinks portentous. But the ideas, as always in a Frank Herbert novel, provoke and astound.

The usual spaceship, with the usual mothering computer, spends the usual thousands of years wandering one way or another across the usual incomprehensible universe in search of a planet like the usual Earth. As usual, the humans are in suspended animation. As usual, they will be beeped awake in time to fiddle with our myth of voyage, our sense of otherness, the ambiguity of the past, the mysteries of worship and the complications of sex….

Mr. Herbert is in the business of producing what might as well be called eco novels. Such eco novels look for a system, harmony, symbiosis, decent respect, accommodation, weaving, rhythm and compromise. Each swamp has its logic, and its fatalism. The alien, brilliantly imagined, is made familiar. The thinking reeds are no better than the perturbed kelp. These novels, of necessity, are religious; they associate with the sacred and the profane, and they kill off fallen angels, cowboys gone wrong. We experience awe and play Go. (p. 263)

John Leonard, "Two Novels," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 1, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 6, 1979, pp. 262-63).∗


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Frank Herbert has overreached [in The Jesus Incident]…. Some colonists trying to settle a hostile planet discover that their ship's computer is, or believes itself to be, God, and requires them to learn to wor-ship it in the appropriate manner on pain of being destroyed. To achieve proper wor-ship in a game played between the ship and the colonists is to achieve proper maturity. It is a long and ambitious work, but flabbier than The Dosadi Experiment, with the same tendency towards over complex narrative, while neither the characters nor the situation have sufficient weight to support the authors' ideas. It is not a trivial work, and is always interesting, but with the exception of the final pages it is too light and too messy to match the metaphysical points about gods and men that it is attempting to make. (pp. 22-3)

Alex de Jonge, "January SF," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 244, No. 7905, January 12, 1980, pp. 22-3.

Patricia S. Warrick

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The novel that most successfully dramatizes the adventures of computer spaceship questing in outer space is without question Frank Herbert's Destination: Void (1966), a very underrated novel. The story explores the creation of artificial intelligence and the philosophical issues raised by this act of creation. The strength of the novel is that it never sacrifices plot to philosophical discussion; it is...

(This entire section contains 1328 words.)

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uniquely successful in dramatizing the issues rather than merely talking about them. An element of suspense constantly pushes the story forward. But it is a story of mental adventure rather than physical action. It has often been claimed that in science fiction the idea is the hero;Destination: Void is one of the sparkling examples. (p. 181)

Destination: Void is a rousing good space adventure, quite satisfactory if it is read only on this level.

If one chooses to explore beyond the literal level, one begins to discover the rich complexity of ideas and meanings Herbert has merged in his novel. The ship itself and its small crew of experts are analogous to the larger human situation. The three hundred passengers lie dormant and unconscious in their spaceship, their fate in the hands of the small crew of experts who will make decisions, operate complex equipment, and maintain the elaborate ecosystem of the Earthling without the awareness or consent of the passengers. They can neither understand nor interfere. The ship carries its fragile cargo of life through deep space, hoping to reach a destination. But this destination may be illusory. The analogy with spaceship earth is clear. Earth's population travels through space with its fate in the hands of the scientists and the engineers.

The four crew members are carefully drawn to represent different approaches to the problem of developing high-level machine intelligence—the intelligence necessary for mankind's survival, according to the analogue of Destination: Void…. [The] crew represents psychology, biology, chemistry, and computer science—the four disciplines most active at present in the study of reason and thought in the computer and the human brain. Herbert adds a chaplain to raise philosophical and ethical issues. These personae allow him to explore from all angles the relationship of machine and human intelligence. A given in the situation is the necessity of developing artificial intelligence. The long-term survival of the ship depends on it.

The questions before the Earthling crew, as Herbert presents them, are three. Is it possible to create a machine capable of functioning like a human brain? To do so it must have consciousness. This conscious direction is necessary for the long trip the ship is to make because the trip "involves … many unknowns that have to be dealt with on conditions of immediacy." Pre-programming is not possible. If machine intelligence can be created, is it safe? Might not the creation turn out to be a "rogue consciousness," full of pure destruction …? If safe, is it morally defensible? As Flattery, the chaplain, points out, "The issue's whether we're intruding on God's domain of creation."… (pp. 182-83)

The solution to the problem of survival lies in understanding the nature and function of consciousness. Herbert's central concern in the novel is to explore consciousness. If machines duplicating the human brain are to be built, then the function of the brain must be understood. What role does consciousness play in the thinking process? It is a key question in studying intelligence. To make a meaningful statement about the nature and function of consciousness is difficult, but Herbert handles complexity with grace. In Destination: Void the difficult subject of consciousness is approached from several angles. Each crew member struggles for understanding, studying consciousness with the concepts and possibilities of his discipline.

Herbert's structural methodology is to weave together a three-stranded pattern of the evolution of consciousness. First, the theoretical discussion of the crew creates a hypothesis about the process by which consciousness must have evolved in mankind. Second, Bickel's engineering activities create a slowly evolving consciousness in the computer. Its evolutionary steps duplicate those the human consciousness may well have taken in its long history of development. Each step in the creation of the computer's consciousness forces the crew to an understanding of the creation of consciousness in the human species. Third, the consciousness of each individual in the crew evolves with the struggle to solve the survival problem. Each comes to realize that the consciousness he possessed as the journey began was a kind of sleep. Only as he awakens to a new awareness of the universe can he see the limitations of his earlier consciousness.

Bit by bit the four scientists patch together their insights about consciousness. Simultaneously with their theorizing, Bickel starts modifying the computer components to increase its complexity. Machine consciousness begins to evolve. Bickel is aware of the risk he takes; what develops could be an "ultimate threat to mankind—a rogue, Frankenstein's monster, cold intelligence without warm emotions." (p. 184)

The novel reaches its climax when the computer is brought to a rudimentary consciousness. Its first act, true to the instinct programmed into it, is to turn on the crew. Its first words are "To kill." Under this stress and threat to their survival, the four are awakened into a higher consciousness. Each experiences a brilliant epiphany, and each epiphany reveals the essential unity of life in the universe. (p. 186)

Bickel's epiphany is the most dramatic, and it occurs after he has united his consciousness with the computer. He becomes almost wormlike and unformed, perceiving through all the sense of his skin rather than through his brain. He feels himself immersed in some kind of system, and he cannot differentiate whether the system is the computer or his own self. "Synergy," something whispers, "Cooperation in work. Synergy. Coordination." And finally, "The Universe has no center." Having escaped from the limiting center of self, as he united with the computer, he is free and his epiphany ends in a vision of "impossible colors and borealis blankets of visual sensation."… (pp. 186-87)

Prudence experiences her epiphany after listening to Timberlake trace the evolution of consciousness. Life started evolving about three thousand million years ago. When it reached a certain point, subconsciousness appeared. "Consciousness comes out of the unconscious sea of evolution. It exists right now immersed in that universal sea of unconsciousness." She suddenly knows that consciousness is "determinism at work in a sea of indeterminism!"… The sleeping colonists on the ship serve the computer, to which they are wired, as its unconscious. They are "a field of unconscious from which any unconscious can draw—a ground that sustains and buoys. We share unconsciousness," she realizes…. (p. 187)

Herbert's is a unique literary accomplishment—a bildungs-roman whose idea is the protagonist. The reader follows the birth and growth of the idea of consciousness. There is little physical action, but the mental adventure is demanding and suspenseful, and it requires the reader's expanding awareness if the ideas are to be fully understood. The novel is a superb model for the writer who wishes to explore a substantial idea, in all its permutations, with techniques that go beyond the usually lengthy and abstract discussions by a selection of typed characters. Herbert is clearly knowledgeable about the function of computers and of the human brain. Given his familiarity with the subject of computers, one is not surprised at his attitude: high-level artificial intelligence is presented as man's hope. The crew of the ship Earthling were carefully briefed before they set off on their journey in space: "You'll be required to find a survival technique in a profoundly changed environment." Machine intelligence in symbiosis with human intelligence is the technique they develop, and it leads to their survival. Herbert's view is clear. In the changed environment of mankind's future the computer will be necessary to survival. (pp. 187-88)

Patricia S. Warrick, "The Open-System Model," in her The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction (reprinted by permission of The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; copyright © by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology), The MIT Press, 1980, pp. 161-202.∗

Kirkus Reviews

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[The] fourth and apparently final episode in the Atreides saga, [God Emperor of Dune,] is a fatalistic, somber, typically complex creation which manifests something of the structure of a Bach fugue (a parallel which Herbert clearly intended). 3500 years have passed since the death of Paul Atreides and the accession of his son Leto II: the ecological transformation of Dune is complete, with crops, forests and seas obliterating the desert; the sandworms have vanished, ending "melange" (addictive geriatric spice) production; the God Emperor Leto broods in his citadel as he slowly metamorphoses into Shai-Hulud, the fearsome giant sandworm of old Dune. So now there's a dullish peace throughout the Empire, rigidly enforced by the Emperor's ruthless control of the remaining melange and his omniscient, oracular vision. But, while wise old royal majordomo Moneo is convinced of Leto's essentially benevolent intentions, embittered Siona (Moneo's daughter) and bewildered, reincarnated Duncan Idaho (latest in a long line of clones provided by the Tleilaxu for Leto's use) view him as a vicious tyrant to be expunged at all costs. The resulting struggle unfolds at a stately, almost staid pace, with even more talk than usual (tantamount to a lecture at times) and less action. Leto himself, however, gradually emerges as a genuinely tragic hero, accepting (and even abetting) his own approaching doom at the hands of Siona and Idaho—who never fully appreciate the terrible sacrifices Leto has made in order to redeem a humanity of which he is no longer wholly a part. Something of a disappointment in terms of surface action, then—but ultimately profound, poignant and powerful: a fitting end to a series which, its many faults notwithstanding, is unequaled in scope, intelligence, inventiveness, and narrative power.

"Fiction: 'God Emperor of Dune'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1981 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLIX, No. 6, March 15, 1981, p. 363.

John Leonard

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There are some of us who feel that Frank Herbert should never have written a sequel to "Dune," much less three of them. "Dune," given Mr. Herbert's talents and limitations, was just about a perfect science fiction, as well as a lecture on ecology. The desert planet, the giant sand worms, the blue-eyed Fremen, the water suits, the narcotic spice, the God-making, the witches, the telepathy and the prescience—how could they have been improved upon? And they haven't been, not in "Dune Messiah," in "Children of Dune" or in "God Emperor of Dune."

Some of us, however, are outnumbered by hundreds of thousands of readers who insist on a "Dune" redux every five years or so…. Mr. Herbert is the prisoner of a cult, his own Leto. I suspect he would prefer to branch out and risk something else, as he did in "The Green Brain," "Whipping Star," "The Dosadi Experiment" and other novels that have not been nearly so successful as the "Dune" retreads. His cult won't let him….

To read "God Emperor of Dune" without having read its great-grandfather is like meeting Anastasia when you are totally ignorant of Russian history; the glamour is missing. Mr. Herbert depends on ideas for his imaginative effects; his prose has seldom roused itself to sing, and his characters tend to stand around like mailboxes full of mysterious profundities in sealed envelopes, waiting for the weather to change for the worst….

Without giving too much plot away—which would be difficult, because Mr. Herbert is so prodigal with plot that he would embarrass a Robert Ludlum—I will say only that Leto 2d is turning himself into a sand worm. Upon his metamorphosis, the desert will return to Dune.

I admit my addiction [to the "Dune" mythology], even while wishing that Mr. Herbert didn't try so hard to be a poet and a philosopher. He does go on about what Marx called the Asiatic mode of production, and he can't resist sounding like a Brutus with a tin ear, and his whole notion of leadership and uniforms and the elite female palace guard of "Fish Speakers" smacks of an unintentional and undigested fascism, anarchy for the fun of it. Blue eyes will ride sand worms across the desert into freedom.

When you can visit the past, guess the future, read minds and live for 3,000 years, it is easy to suffer. The rest of us are bookworms.

John Leonard, "Books of the Times," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 27, 1981, p. 17.

Gerald Jonas

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Because science fiction takes science seriously and because science takes the laws of nature seriously, the s.f. writer cannot simply let his imagination run free when he creates characters, setting and plot; he must always appear to be following some rules—even if he has to make them up himself. No one knows this better than Frank Herbert, whose favorite theme, appropriately enough, is the nature of godhood and what happens to men who reach for it.

[In "God Emperor of Dune"], the fourth but not necessarily the last in his best-selling Dune series, Mr. Herbert reshuffles all the elements of the fictional universe that he created in previous volumes. I cannot imagine anyone making sense of the story without having read the first three books. At times, Mr. Herbert's energy flags; and, behind the understandable world-weariness of his 3,000-year-old hero, we sense the weariness of an author trapped by his own success. Yet against all odds, "God Emperor of Dune" compels belief. (p. 15)

The real fascination of the Dune books was Dune itself. So completely did Mr. Herbert work out the interactions of man and beast and geography and climate that the first novel, entitled simply "Dune," became the standard for a new subgenre of "ecological" science fiction. (p. 28)

Since Dune itself has lost some of its interest [after three books], Mr. Herbert draws on the vast galactic background that he has built up in previous books. The problem with most fiction set in the far, far future is that the author must invent just enough but not too much: If his imaginary world seems too familiar, we refuse to believe it is the future; if it is too different from our own, we cannot empathize with its inhabitants.

Frank Herbert gets it just right. By postulating a series of Luddite reactions to technology, he earns the right to limit his mechanical marvels to those that will advance his story…. Other authors have invented galactic empires with medieval power structures. In most cases, the motivation seems to have been laziness. Mr. Herbert makes it plausible; we not only believe in Leto's agon, we care about him and the self-deluded race he insists on saving.

By the end, however, I had the strong feeling that the resources of both Dune and its universe were exhausted. Frank Herbert hints that the manner of Leto's sacrifice will bring the desert back to Dune, which implies yet another book in the series. For the sake of the author, the Fremen and future readers, I hope this is not the case. Even Gods must learn not to repeat themselves. (p. 28)

Gerald Jonas, "The Sandworm Saga," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 17, 1981, pp. 15, 28.

D. Douglas Fratz

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Although the trappings of Dune were those of science fiction, in substance and form the book resembled fantasy, and the Tolkien books of Middle Earth more than the standard classics of sf. The society of Arrakis represented feudalism on a grandiose scale; science and technology, while not quite nonexistent, were totally secondary to the metaphysical aspects of this desert planet and its vaguely Arabic culture.

Like Tolkien, Herbert showed himself to be a master world builder. He used a strong narrative—a struggle for political control of Arrakis—almost solely as framework for presenting the marvelous details of his creation (most memorably the giant sandworms, the mysterious Bene Gesserit sisterhood, and the Fremen, a desert people who use moisture suits to conserve their perspiration). His characters were not really memorable as individuals, but were vital components of the fascinating, waterless world in which they lived.

In the sequels Dune Messiah (1969) and through most of Children of Dune (1976), Herbert neglected the enrichment of his world in favor of lengthy enigmatic conversations, often about religion, human evolution or psionic abilities, all themes of the series. Only in the last few chapters of Children of Dune did the story again pick up in interest, as Leto Atreides, having discovered his inner powers, fights to gain control of an empire and makes his irreversible decision to start his slow transformation into something not quite human….

Though God Emperor of Dune does not suffer from the authorial indulgences of the two previous books, readers hoping once again to experience a vision of the complex power and richness of Dune will be disappointed.

In God Emperor Herbert has a new, later Dune to create, one ruled by the virtually immortal, part-sandworm, part-human Leto. Although this novel is a pale reflection when compared to Dune, Lord Leto himself is one of the more original and awe-inspiring creations in science fiction….

Perhaps Herbert may again write a book of the power and scope of Dune. But in the meantime his admirers will have to make do with books like God Emperor of Dune in which an occasional spark of the old brilliance shines through.

D. Douglas Fratz, "It's a Man! It's an Emperor! It's a Giant Sandworm!" in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), May 24, 1981, p. 8.

John L. Grigsby

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Anyone at all interested in SF is probably familiar with Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune trilogy.

The restoration of civilization [is a] theme of both trilogies…. In Foundation, the overproliferation of technology, political elitism, and the federal bureaucracy result in gradual stagnation and the loss of the inventiveness which had created the Empire and made it strong. The only real difference in Dune is that the Butlerian Jihad (the war resulting from the overdevelopment and overuse of technology) occurred long before the novel opens; however, the political infighting and power-grabbing characteristic of the Foundation Empire certainly exist in Dune. Such a struggle precipitates the move of the Atreides family from Caladan to the desert world of Arrakis to establish an effective government there. The move to a primitive world from the center of a decaying civilization is central to Foundation as well; the Encyclopediasts, led by Seldon, transplant themselves to Terminus to create their encyclopedia and also a new, and better, civilization. So, though some specific motives and contexts vary, the movement in both novels from a decaying central civilization to an outlying, primitive planet for regeneration is identical. Herbert uses Asimov's future universe as his source for more than just the idea of civilization restoration. The way the restoration occurs (in terms of movement) and the similarities between the declining Empires are too great to be coincidental.

Within these similarities of movement and design, there are also numerous specific similarities of action, setting, and character, all of which point to Herbert's adaptation of ideas from Asimov. One plot action of great significance in both trilogies is the establishment of a religious system on primitive planets which helps pave the way for the eventual ascendence of the new Empire. In Foundation, missionaries are sent from Terminus to the nearby primitive planets to create the "religion of science."… A similar religious crusade is carried out in Dune by the Missionaria Protectiva, which establishes the Muad'Dib messianic legend among the Fremen on Arrakis. This paves the way for the new civilization under the leadership of Paul Atreides. Like Seldon, Paul is seen as a Prophet who will lead the Fremen to power and a civilized existence, just as those who join with Terminus in Foundation are taught they are destined to lead their galaxy as the center of civilization and power. So, again, the almost identical use of religion in the two trilogies shows that Herbert is using Asimov as a primary source for a major aspect of Dune.

Like the missionaries, the traders in each story also play a similar role. They are independent and powerful, and at the same time highly organized, a force to be reckoned with in both series. Granted, Asimov's traders aren't addicted to melange as Herbert's are, but otherwise they are almost interchangeable. They convey missionaries, spread the new technology, and eventually, in both novels, aspire to the central position of power. One of Asimov's traders becomes the leader of Terminus, in fact, and one of Herbert's almost succeeds in replacing Paul Atreides as Emperor in Dune Messiah. Thus, the organized traders, or Guildsmen, are so similar as to reinforce the conclusion that Herbert is continuing to use Asimov as a source in this area, also.

A final major point of similarity between the two series is the use of advanced psychology. Although the future psychology is not used identically, it is likely (given the other similarities) that Herbert is again using Asimov as source and changing and adapting specifics for his own use. In Foundation, the psychohistorians have refined future prediction into an exact science and an academic discipline. Along with this mathematical-like predictive ability, though, the psychohistorians also develop the ability to communicate without words and to alter and control the minds of others. In Dune, prescience, or future prediction, and mental manipulation appear less as learned skills and more as personal, inherited abilities (although the Bene Gesserit of Dune and the psychohistorians of Foundation are similar, as both scheme to control history by selective breeding and special, secret training). Nevertheless, both psychohistory and prescience function in essentially the same way, enabling characters to see future probabilities and thus giving them an advantage over others in preparing for, or altering, those probabilities. The value and fate of those who engage in future prediction and thus prolonged planning and organizing is different in the two series. Yet the difference, while it seems to override specific similarities like radioactive body shields, arranged marriages for political power, and leaders who espouse prophetic sayings with amazing regularity, is a key variation: it points to Herbert's parodying and reversing of Asimov's assumptions in the final outcome of the Dune series.

At the end of Children of Dune, Paul Atreides' son, Leto II, acts like the psychologists in Foundation and decides to assume sole responsibility for the future direction of mankind. Through a strange mutation, he gains great strength of mind and body and establishes himself as leader of the Empire. The normal expectation is that Paul Atreides' son takes the best course of action for all concerned. His longevity gives him ample time to plan for and place mankind on his so-called "Golden Path" which will create an ordered, planned existence for mankind like Seldon's psychologist-controlled plan. However, this greatest representative of the prescient, of the psychohistorical, becomes a domineering monster in Herbert's ironic reversal of Asimov's ordered universe. Herbert's point is that one ordered, carefully controlled universe which limits human action and arbitrarily molds human nature is not really any different from any other…. All the propaganda about the future benefit of man through control that Hari Seldon espouses in the Foundation series (primarily that the period of barbarism can be reduced from 30 thousand years to 1,000) degenerates to the real motive force in Children of Dune: the desire of one person or a group to control others and force their values and life-styles upon them. This is a parodying of Foundation, where psychohistorians control minds, blot out memories, and erase thoughts to keep the "normal" humans from developing in the "wrong" way or from discovering that the psychohistorians exist, and where the unbelievable assumption is that such demeaning acts are the best course for mankind, since they avoid a longer period of a very vague barbarism. Herbert reverses this situation in his ending, perceiving the planned universe and the controllers from the point of view of those who lack power and are simply led by force of one kind or another. He sees ultimate horror, horror which leads to revolt sooner or later, or a return to a sort of necessary barbarism. Herbert endorses that revolt, even has his monster-controller endorse it, because Leto II is actually, secretly trying to teach mankind a lesson. (pp. 151-53)

That dynamic, ever redefining paradox of death and life, freedom and control, civilization and barbarism is the way Herbert sees the world, and it is the complexity of such a world that causes him to parody Asimov. Any reductionism which places the fate of the universe in the hands of a few manipulative, egomaniacal psychologists ignores the effect of that control on the people in general and is too limited to go unchallenged. The ending of Children of Dune directly responds to the call. Humans may make mistakes and even become a little barbaric in Herbert's world, but at least they retain their knowledge of freedom and their creative energy—their ability to respond spontaneously and completely to a complex universe in all the multitude of ways such a universe calls for…. Herbert feels that all men must have the freedom to be creative and contribute to civilization in any way they can or want to if society is to avoid stagnation, a far greater danger than barbarism in the present age. Herbert's choice, in writing this ending, is clearly superior to Asimov's and is an important philosophical comment on the future, the present, and even the past.

It becomes clear, then, that both series are interrelated and similar, but also very opposite in their conclusions because of Herbert's ironic reversal of Asimonv's assumptions. Both are also successful in their own special ways, though Asimov leans a bit too much on detective devices to interest his reader, and Herbert depends a bit too much on fantastic adventures for the same purpose. Though perhaps less speculative than unconnected novels, these two series also enable Asimov and Herbert to completely avoid overt moralizing, since they have the space in which to embody all their ideas and show them being worked out to their logical conclusions. Herbert's trilogy is more philosophically perceived than Asimov's, but then Asimov must receive credit for a more probable future universe in terms of plot, character, and setting (though perhaps it is too similar to the present, given its Roman Empire basis and too-extensive fear of barbarism). Some of Herbert's characters (like face dancers, gholas, etc.) verge on the fantastic, but Asimov avoids such venturing into fantasy. But then, Asimov is the scientist and Herbert is the literary romanticist-philosopher, so the strengths and weaknesses fit logically with the authors' backgrounds. (pp. 153-54)

John L. Grigsby, "Asimov's 'Foundation' Trilogy and Herbert's 'Dune' Trilogy: A Vision Reversed," in Science-Fiction Studies (copyright © 1981 by SFS Publications), Vol. 8, No. 24, July, 1981, pp. 149-55.∗

Spider Robinson

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God-Emperor of Dune suffers from a bad ending—and this is the third Dune book to have that problem. In Dune Messiah, several hundred pages of complex conspiracy and intrigue resulted in the use of an atomic bomb to do a job that Moe of the Three Stooges could have accomplished with two fingers. (And why bother blinding a prescient in the first place?) In Children of Dune, the rules of the game were changed in the last quarter, when, after more hundreds of pages of equally intricate plotting and counterplotting, the hero suddenly revealed that he had the unsuspected power to become God….

It is a bold step to extend an already massive trilogy by a thousand years. For one thing you must cover a lot of history without lecturing. For another you have lost virtually all of your series characters, and must cajole your readers into identifying with a whole new lot. To top it off, your one for-sure recurring character, the focus of the book, is not a human being. By definition his nature is something that, no matter how well you depict it, your reader can only guess at. You've run smack into John Campbell's famous challenge: write me something that thinks as well as a human but not like a human.

But—I thought to myself—if Frank can surmount these problems, he will have written the great SF novel of our times. (p. 164)

How did Frank solve the problems cited? Well, he ducked the first. There is very little history to pass on because very little has happened; the whole Dune fiction seems to have been remarkably stagnant for a thousand years…. No population growth, no expansion, no significant new technology whatsoever, no philosophical evolution—absolute stasis. Leto seems to have deliberately, carefully fostered this stasis. Hmmmm. Well, this preserves continuity-of-character, of a kind—for all the social entities named are "characters," of a kind—and furthermore one real human character is also preserved, by Imperial whim…. Why? Well, there we get to the third problem: the ineffable nature of Leto the Worm, God-Emperor of Dune. (p. 165)

Leto sees all, knows all, has a couple of thousand years of experience to draw on, and is effectively immortal. To top it off, his body has been transformed into a giant worm…. He is not human, except by distant ancestry. How do you depict a character like that? Frank takes refuge in paradox, in ineffability, in mystery. Leto speaks in parables, opaque Zen koans, and allegories so subtle I didn't know what the hell he was talking about half the time. He is the Perfect Master—yet he seems to be in constant emotional turmoil. His actions seem to defy logic…. [All] seem arbitrary and capricious. Ah, but that, we are told, is only on the surface. Beneath it all Leto has a secret purpose, his mysterious Golden Plan. Only the Golden Plan can save the human race from utter annihilation—indeed, Leto accepted the bitter burden of godhood only because his prescient vision told him that the destruction of the race could be avoided in no other way.

But exactly what the hell this Golden Plan is, why it requires all the seemingly meaningless (and horrible) things Leto must do to make it work, what it preserves humanity from and what it enables humanity to … we never do find out. I waded through pages and pages of profound inanities and insane actions in the expectation of an explanation, and don't feel I ever got it. What I got was a pie in the face that raises more questions than the whole preceding book. I'm horrified to say that Frank has made another sequel not just possible, but essential. The thing is overextended, all the holes are starting to show, and it's been two books since I had any idea where the hell it's all going.

I see that I have spoken entirely negatively. If you have enjoyed all three Dune books so far, you will probably enjoy this one too, perhaps as well; it does well much the same things those books did. I had a lot of mind-stretching exercise trying to get into Leto's head so that I could try and guess what kind of game he was playing (all my guesses were wrong). But I have been patiently watching that hat for so long now that a damn big rabbit had better start coming out of it real soon. (p. 165-66)

Spider Robinson, "The Reference Library" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. 101, No. 9, August 17, 1981, pp. 161-70.∗

Timothy O'Reilly

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[Herbert] walks a narrow line between entertainment and didacticism. In his best work, such as Dune, the story itself is the message; the concepts are so completely a part of the imaginative world he has created that the issue of didacticism never arises. Ideas are there to be found by the thoughtful reader, but one never stumbles over them. Other works, however, are sometimes unnecessarily obscure. Herbert's shorter novels in particular lack the development of story and character to support the weight of the ideas they contain. (p. vii)

Herbert's work is informed by an evolving body of concepts to which the Dune trilogy holds the key. By tracing some of these central ideas, their sources, and their development from purpose to final form, it is possible to show how Herbert framed them with stories that insist that the reader use the concepts they contain. (p. 2)

One of [Herbert's] central ideas is that human consciousness exists on—and by virtue of—a dangerous edge of crisis, and that most essential human strength is the ability to dance on that edge. The more man confronts the dangers of the unknown, the more conscious he becomes. All of Herbert's books portray and test the human ability to consciously adapt. He sets his characters in the most stressful situations imaginable: a cramped submarine in Under Pressure, his first novel; the desert wastes of Dune; and in Destination: Void the artificial tension of a spaceship designed to fail so that the crew will be forced to develop new abilities. There is no test so powerfully able to bring out latent adaptability as one in which the stakes are survival. (pp. 2-3)

The opposition between isolation (or control) and adaptation to an environment is also shown in the ecological transformation described in [Dune].

The drama of the book, and especially of its two sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, builds around the tension between Paul's very real prophetic powers and the results when he puts them to use in the attempt to regain his throne…. The Fremen seize on Paul as a prophet because he has confronted the uncertainty of the universe and brought forth reassurance for those who cannot or will not find it for themselves….

In Herbert's analysis, the messianic hunger is an example of a pervasive human need for security and stability in a universe that continually calls on people to improvise and adapt to new situations. (p. 4)

The entirety of Herbert's work is an attempt to remake [our picture of the universe and how it functions]. His use of the ideas of physics is not practical and predictive, but almost completely metaphorical. The relativity he is interested in is the relativity of our perceptions and our cultural values. In a universe that is "always one step beyond logic" (as Paul describes it in Dune) it becomes essential to look at the nature of our logic, and the role of our preconceptions in shaping what we see. (p. 7)

Herbert's work shows the possibilities for good and evil of factors present, but unnoticed, in our culture. He gives his readers ideals and dreams, but not as an excuse for avoiding the realities of the present. He wakes us up to the dark side of our dreams, and thereby gives us somewhat more of a chance to redeem that dark side. Most of all, he offers a chance to practice in fiction the lessons that are increasingly demanded by our lives: how to live with the pressure of changing times, how to flow with them rather than resist them, how to seek out really new possibilities in a world in which every path seems increasingly pretermined.

Herbert's analogies are strongest when they are least obvious and can do their work on an unconscious level. The cultural patterns modeled by the Dune trilogy, for example, are not simply reproduced but are … represented in a fable with an inner life all its own. Many of the features of the superhero mystique that Dune sought to unveil were not made explicit until the third book of the trilogy, fourteen years later. The "pot of message" Herbert offers is worked into the design of the entire tapestry; the analogue is not enfeebled by premature expression. The reader is told a story. He must draw his own conclusions.

Herbert has developed fictional techniques which demand that the reader sharpen his perceptions and powers of judgment. (pp. 8-9)

One such demand—providing an opportunity for his readers to engage their consciousness—is the building up of images from the unusual cues Herbert supplies. In the Dune trilogy certain kinds of scenes—confrontations, love, tragedy—are invariably accompanied by the same background images, colors, or smells. For instance, whenever dangerous confrontations occur, the color yellow is present. Herbert says, "By the time you're well into the book, if you tell them that there was a yellow overcast to the sky, they're sitting there waiting for something bad to happen." There is also consistent attention to who sees things. Point of view is always deliberate…. There may be a generalized view of a scene, which is followed more and more by a concentration on the area in which the action is going to happen. Finally the eye is brought in for close-ups, "a hand tapping on the table, or somebody's mouth chewing the food."

In using such techniques, Herbert feels he is talking subliminally to the reader. The tremendous illusion of reality the novel conveys is the result of years of thought, layered so that only the most important details catch the eye, and others speak directly to the unconscious. At the same time, however, much that is ordinarily perceived subliminally is made conscious: the expression of emotion in nonverbal gesture, colors, smells, sound are all noted and evaluated by the characters. Because details that took the author hours to assemble are absorbed by the reader in minutes, the fiction of hyperconsciousness takes on a kind of reality.

The greatest demand that Herbert makes upon his readers is not on perception, however, but on judgment. Most science-fiction novels (except those that are overtly dystopian) are variations on the heroic success story. In the Dune trilogy, Herbert portrays a hero as convincing, noble, and inspiring as any real or mythic hero of the past. But as the trilogy progresses, he shows the consequences of heroic leadership, for Paul, his followers, and the planet. Anyone devoted to the heroic ideal stands to be devastated by the conclusions of the trilogy. Herbert demands that his readers look at their expectations, their heroes, and exactly what they mean by success.

The structure of Herbert's novels reinforces this process. His plots tend to be extraordinarily complex. One level of action after another is introduced, any one of which seems enough to carry the story. Not until late in the novel is the tapestry being woven by these threads revealed. Even then Herbert does not employ a hierarchical orginization, in which fact upon fact lead to some ultimate understanding, which is, in effect, the final reduction. The achievement of the meaning, the theme, the answer, while it appears to be an achievement of the broadest truth, is actually accomplished by the elimination of all the possibilities inherent in the original situation. Herbert doesn't write the traditional kind of story in which a hero overcomes the obstacles between here and happily everafter. (pp. 9-11)

Under Pressure is a superb war story. It is also a novel of self-discovery, of wisdom wrested from painful experience. To solve his twin mysteries, Ramsey must shed the role of psychologist and become a submariner. Only when he has confronted his own fears and prejudices, and has seen himself in the men he is supposedly analyzing, can he find the answers he needs. (p. 25)

The [successful] homecoming of the sub with its cargo of oil is anticlimactic. The solution of the puzzle has been bewilderingly complex, each answer giving way to another, each with a weight of concepts that would have overwhelmed any but the most tightly written novel. It all works in Under Pressure because the conceptual unfolding is matched step by step in the action of the plot. The ideas never interrupt the action; they are tightly woven into it. This success at blending ideas and storytelling is a direct result of the nature of Herbert's psychological insight …: it is based on character, not on concepts. And so it is not as though there are two levels operating in the novel—the level of action and the level of thought—but as though thought in every case springs from what happens. This is careful realism. Ramsey's involvement in what is going on provides the material—and the matrix—for his thought. (p. 32)

Herbert is always aware that thought and emotion are embodied. The story is set up perfectly to give full play to this viewpoint. Ramsey is deeply involved in the action, but he must also observe and study the other men. So the reader sees multiple layers of viewpoint at once…. (p. 33)

The net result is that the reader is never allowed entirely to desert the realm of involved action for the realm of thought. He is always brought to the brink, and then stopped. The continual tension between thought and action yields a powerful illusion of life, and from life one does not expect the simple answers you sometimes find in stories. When in the end the answers pour out in a rush, their weight and complexity are easily overbalanced by relief at finding a solution at all. (pp. 33-4)

[In Dune] Herbert constructed a painstakingly detailed world, in an exercise of ecological imagination as gradual, as delicate, and as complex as such a planetary transformation itself might be. Not the least part of his task was to imagine inhabitants for this greatest of deserts. Herbert "assumed that if people had lived there long enough, there had been an organic, evolutionary process which produced people who know how to survive there." These are the Fremen, who, as befits such a harsh world, are composite of the most striking qualities of all of earth's desert dwellers. (p. 41)

Enter Paul Atreides, the hero of Dune. He is not merely a prophet, but a here-and-now messiah with more than a visionary dream with which to inspire a following…. In Paul, Herbert had a vehicle to explore the many factors that go into the creation of a messianic "superhero." He also lays out in detail the structure of aristocratic leadership, the use of psychological manipulation, the birth of an irresistible legend from individually insignificant events, and an unusual psychogenetic theory of history. (p. 44)

In powerful visionary episodes, Paul breaks through to the swirling matrix of possibilities that is the future. He sees the forces at work in the uprising of which he is a part, and understands how little who he is or what he does has mattered…. (p. 49)

In a sense, what Herbert does in Paul's visions is to take ecological concepts to a much deeper level. Paul comes to see opposition between the aims of civilization and those of nature, as represented by the human unconscious. An ecosystem is stable not because it is secure and protected, but because it contains enough diversity that certain organisms will survive despite drastic changes in the environment and other adverse conditions. Strength lies in adaptability, not fixity. Civilization, on the other hand, tries to create and maintain security, which all too frequently crystalizes into an effort to minimize diversity and stop change. (p. 50)

In his visions, Paul comes face to face with the universe as it really is, a vastness beyond any hope of human control. Men pretend to power over their fate by creating small islands of light and order, and ignoring the great dark outside…. Paul confronts the vision of infinity and learns to yield to it, to ride the currents of infinite time and not to restrain them. And then, symbolically, he leads his troops to victory on the backs of the giant sandworms, the untamable predators of the desert who may yet be ridden by those bold enough to take the risk.

These are difficult concepts, and Herbert went to a great deal of trouble to see that they became more than concepts in the reader's mind. Dune is filled with events and images that echo the same themes. (p. 51)

When an idea is seen again and again in so many different forms, it begins to take on a life independent of any of them. It is no longer an abstraction but a reality. above all, the layering of the many ideas within Dune succeeds because the ideas are seen as the shaping experiences of one man's life. They are not presented in a linear manner, as they have been here, but are woven into one great texture of plot, imagery, and character. When Paul utters his insights, the reader has witnessed the events that gave rise to the thought, and is prepared. The concepts have become an integral part of the world and everything that has happened there. (p. 52)

Dune is loaded with symbols, puns, and hidden allusions. Though they may not all be consciously grasped by the reader. they lend weight to the story, a sense of unplumbed depths. (p. 54)

Herbert's use of rhythm further demonstrates his ideas about the unconscious. He is convinced that the sound of a passage is subconsciously reconstructed by the reader even though he reads silently, and furthermore, that it has a powerful unconscious effect. As a result, Herbert wrote many of the book's crucial passages as poetry—sonnets, haiku, and other forms, depending on the mood—and then concealed them in prose. (p. 55)

The end result of all this art is a novel packed with ideas that cannot easily be shaken from the mind, but which is never overburdened by their weight. (p. 56)

In addition, Dune mirrors aspects of our own culture—uncertainty, ecology, and heightened consciousness are all becoming matters of public concern—and so its lessons are particularly applicable to the reader's own life. (p. 77)

In Dune, Herbert used heroic myth elements from the Western tradition in an effort to awaken in his readers a sensitivity to the needs that prompt a messianic religion. But even so, it is too easy to see messianism as something that happens only to desert peoples like the Fremen. Less immediately apparent is the fact that to Herbert the neurotic use of science in modern Western civilization betrays the same pattern as messianic religion. (p. 85)

Dune was the culmination of years of research, and sums up all of Herbert's prior work. A work of such dimension is inevitably more than a synthesis; it has the power to call forth from the author ideas he did not possess before he began, and which cannot then be separated from the mythic elements that give the story life. In the years after he wrote Dune, Herbert began to translate its mythic language to make explicit and self-conscious the ideas buried therein. This distillation appeared to weaken the novels that immediately followed; the concepts, stripped of affect, seem naked without the images that had served them so well. But the eventual result was to be a new level of artistic brilliance [which] would ultimately lead to The Santaroga Barrier and Dune Messiah. (P. 97)

All of Herbert's works seem to cycle around a central axis of thought, continually recasting futures from different combinations of basic ideas. This too is a genetic process….

This idea of genetic variability and uncertainty is underlined by Herbert's style, particularly his use of multiple points of view. (p. 120)

Multiple viewpoints have been characteristic of Herbert's style from the beginning, but there is a significant change in technique [in The Eyes of Heisenberg]. Despite excursions into other characters' minds, Ramsey's perception was definitely central to Under Pressure. In Dune, a host of major characters each had a different view of the action, but Paul stood above all the rest. The Green Brain and Destination: Void experimented with true multiplicity of viewpoints, but without the superb characterization and layering of the earlier novels. The technique lacked vitality and often impaired the continuity of the story. The Eyes of Heisenberg is Herbert's first real success in separating the reader from the truth of a single vision. It is a finely crafted novel, without an excess paragraph. Everything works.

[But somehow,] it does not entertain in the same way as do Under Pressure and Dune. To one familiar with Herbert's themes and the subtlety of his intentions, the elegant internal symmetries of the novel's architecture are striking and the story holds tautly together. But to many readers, the lack of a hero is disquieting. Things don't quite make sense.

This is less a flaw than an experiment springing from the same concern with heroes that shaped Dune. Herbert has said he is interested in "making demands on the reader." Such demands may include following a story where there are no final solutions and no triumphant heroes. The reader's need for a hero and a solution to unify the threads of a novel is a literary example of the same urge for security that motivates the crew of the Fenian Ram or the Fremen of Arrakis. For this reason, the Dune trilogy sets up, and then demolishes, one of the most striking heroes in science fiction. In The Eyes of Heisenberg, Herbert tries to do without heroes altogether. (p. 121)

In Dune Messiah, Herbert toys with the reader's expectations about the conflict of good and evil by introducing the conspirators as the equivalent of the completely evil Harkonnens of Dune, but as the novel progresses, it becomes obvious that Paul's "tragic collision" is not with the conspirators at all, but with his own handiwork. Striving to mold life into his own good but one-sided form, he created its opposite. The conspiracy is only one symptom of Paul's shadow projection; the decay of Fremen morals and the failing ecology of the planet spring from the same source.

It is precisely the lack of another actor in the tragic collision that makes Dune Messiah so unusual a tragedy…. [There] is only Paul. There is no enemy he can pursue, no one to symbolically defeat as he defeated Feyd-Rautha at the end of Dune. There is only himself, his own half-truth, which is not enough. (pp. 158-59)

[Children of Dune] continues the story of the Atreides to its more than tragic end. In Dune Messiah, Paul had failed, but he retained a vestige of majesty…. In the conclusion of the trilogy, Paul is brought back from his seeming death in the desert, an old, broken man who can only rage at the church built on his name. His son Leto must undo the damage Paul had unwittingly done, topple the church, and reverse the ecological transformation…. The ultimate failure of messianic leadership foreshadowed from the beginning has finally come to the front. (p. 159)

At times, one gets the feeling that Herbert set out to make the novel defy analysis, that even he does not know where all the parts fit. Children of Dune is perhaps too full of ideas forced together without the brilliant layering technique of Dune. It is saved by the strength of the images…. And it is saved by the depth of characterization. One was awed by the number of fully realized characters in Dune; Children of Dune surpasses its parent in this respect…. Dune was monolithic, in that every strand converged into one. Children of Dune is explosive, expanding rather than coming together at the end. There are scenes and ideas that apparently add nothing to the plot. But far from leading nowhere, such scenes lead out of the novel, out of the ken of both the author and the reader, into the private lives of the characters. One loses the sense of inner continuity by which a novel is contained in its own form. (pp. 172-73)

Because Herbert is so good a storyteller, this multiplicity of viewpoints creates an uncanny sense of reality. It also frustrates the reader's hunger for a single point of view that will sum up the rest. While Leto gives all the indications of having such a summary view, his conclusions are difficult to accept. Many of his ideas are so far out that it is a struggle to comprehend them. It is hard to know whether there is a clearly defined logic to the whole or whether Herbert has merely chiseled out from some great block of myth the rudimentary forms of insights still at war with each other.

To an extent, Herbert may have been carried away by his own pretensions. Throughout the trilogy, he had used portentous statements hinting of ultimate success or failure, of infinite peril or unmatched significance, to heighten the intensity of the story. Despite (or perhaps because of) his stated dislike of absolutes, he took every concept to its limit. In Dune, this served to build Paul up as an unmatched hero; in Dune Messiah, to bring him down through the excesses of his own power. But in Children of Dune, Herbert must strain to make both Leto's powers and his confrontations with the universe more spectacular and more believable than Paul's. He succeeds, but only partly…. [Though] Leto stands preeminent in his own novel, he is greater than Paul only because Herbert has torn down Paul by changing the explanations for his behavior. The nobility—foolish though it may have been—of Paul's last march into the desert is now recast as cowardice. History is rewritten so that Leto will eclipse Paul. (pp. 173-74)

To Herbert, the hero mystique is symptomatic of a deadly pathology in contemporary society, a compulsive yearning for easy answers. As long as men are looking for simple solutions to their problems, they will give over their ability to think for themselves to the first person who comes along and promises a solution. The Dune trilogy is an attempt to unveil that pattern and, in some small part, to change it. (p. 188)

In the end, the Dune trilogy does not solve but merely explicates the superhero syndrome. Both Paul and Leto seem to promise a messiah to end all messiahs, but they represent only one more cycle in the repetition of archetypal patterns. The solution, if there is one, is to be found not in the trilogy, but outside it, in the effect it has on the reader. When asked, "What is the final judgment?" Herbert replied, "Maybe the judgment is on you." (p. 189)

Timothy O'Reilly, in his Frank Herbert (copyright © 1981 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1981, 216 p.


Herbert, Frank