Frank Herbert Herbert, Frank (Patrick) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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).∗


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

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Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gerald Jonas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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D. Douglas Fratz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Spider Robinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Timothy O'Reilly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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