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"Dune", Plus Often-Neglected Other Novels by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert is, of course, best known for creation of "Dune" (the "most selling science fiction novel of all time"), but he also wrote some of the most intelligent and sophisticated science fiction (mostly in the 1960s-1970s), exploring many issues of spirituality, psychology, ecology - while managing to entertain readers at the same time.


Frank Herbert
"Dune" (nv)

(also as "Dune World")
(Dune series #1)
© Analog, Dec 1963 - Feb 1964
Berkley Medallion / Ace / Chilton, 1965
--novel : 1966 Hugo W (tie)
--novel : 1966 Nebula W
--book : 1966 Astounding/Analog All-Time Poll /21
--foreign novel : 1974 Seiun Award W
--all-time novel : 1975 Locus All-Time Poll W
--all-time sf novel : 1987 Locus All-Time Poll W
--sf novel (before 1990) : 1998 Locus All-Time Poll W
--/ third place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ style award

Without a doubt, "Dune" is a legend – as is Frank Herbert, its author. The book, and Herbert, have won reams of awards; and there’s the "Dune" movie, the "Dune" mini-series, the "Dune" games, the "Dune" sequel … and the sequel, sequel, sequel (five in all). It’s considered by many to be the most successful science fiction work to date.

Here’s the thing, though: is "Dune" really (or, "simply") science fiction?

Now don’t get me wrong, "Dune" is a fantastic, incredible novel: wildly imaginative, brilliantly plotted, amazingly told and totally original. It also certainly has many speculative details: a far-far-future setting, an alien world, genetic memory, and so forth.

But if you strip away a good percentage of those speculative ideas, what remains could very easily be merely an excellent novel. The story of "Dune" really has less to do with the SF details and more with Herbert’s skill as a storyteller. "Dune" is a carefully crafted tale of politics and intrigue: the characters – from the Savior of Dune and the Fremen, Paul Atreides (aka Muad'Dib), to the Head of House Harkonnen, The Baron – are maneuvering and manipulating everything around them on a complex social chessboard. A great example of this is the famous banquet sequence where nothing is as it appears and every gesture and manner is a carefully planned strategic exercise.

"Dune" is also often called an early ‘ecological’ novel, meaning that Herbert addresses what’s now a pretty common theme: that nature is an essential – and very fragile – necessity. The Fremen are a perfect example of this: they live not on their desert world but with it, respecting its tremendous power as well as its precarious health. Again, if you take out the Sandworms and the Spice Melange they create "Dune" could still stand as a powerful statement about the need for man to also live with this plant and not just use it up and toss it away.

There are many other elements in "Dune" that also could be taken away from the book’s far-future setting: the book’s exploration of Islamic culture (especially in relation to ecology), an examination of collapsing civilizations and decadence, and even a chance for Herbert to further look at the world through a Zen lens.

In the end, it’s because Dune can stand without its science fiction elements that makes it such a great, and long-lasting, masterpiece. Herbert understood humans, even though he was setting their stage twenty-thousand years from today, and understood nature, even though "Dune" is on another world. With "Dune" he created a perfect allegory, one that speaks the truth of humanity, and nature, as clearly today as when it was written – and probably will for a very long time.

Review by M. Christian

Frank Herbert
"The Santaroga Barrier" (nv)

© Amazing Stories, Oct 1967
Berkley Medallion, 1968

Something’s odd about Santaroga: sure, on the surface it might appear to be like any other community full of normal-looking people, but look a little closer – like psychologist Gilbert Dasein is hired to do – and Santaroga begins to look anything but average.

For one thing, the town is far from accepting of anyone who isn’t a local. They aren’t hostile, at least not openly, but if you weren’t born in their valley they won’t buy from you, trade with you, or accept you in any way. It’s the Santaroga barrier, and what lies beyond it makes for a totally original and fantastic read.

Everyone knows Herbert for his "Dune" books but what a lot of people, unfortunately, don’t know about this Grand Master of science fiction is that he’s written, in my mind at least, even better novels – and "The Santaroga Barrier" is one of them. It’s also unfortunate that some think science fiction has to have aliens, time travel, robots, and all those kinds of flashy, shiny, and far too-often grandiose concepts. What Herbert does in "The Santaroga Barrier" is show that science fiction can be based on a very simple idea, an idea that – when handled by a superb writer – can be more powerful and fascinating than anything flashy or shiny or grandiose.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, Dr. Gilbert Dasein slams headfirst into the Santaroga Barrier, propelled to return to Santaroga by duty to his employers, his professional curiosity and by his own interests: a girl named Jenny who left him in Berkley, where she as a student and he a professor.

One of the best elements of the story is a hauntingly slippery word that Dasein keeps hearing among the locals in relation to their lives and, especially, to their food: 'Jaspers'. It takes him some time but eventually Dasein gets to see through the barrier, at the societal wall the Santarogans have put up around their town. What he sees is what makes the book to entrancing: Jaspers is a ‘consciousness fuel’ additive the locals have been culturing and using for generations. What it does, though, is create a unity among the citizens: a form of collective will.

But that’s not all: there’s something else beyond the barrier – a something else that’s killed everyone else who has tried investigating the town. Oh, sure, they might look like accidents but Dasein comes to realize that there’s nothing accidental about them, and if he doesn’t figure the puzzle out he might be next.

Okay, that’s a teaser of the plot, but there’s something else about "The Santaroga Barrier" that keeps this book on my ‘favorites’ shelf: Herbert’s superb skill as a writer. There’s something almost hallucinatory about the style; it imparts a dreamlike air without resorting to overly flamboyant, pretentious language – a skill few do well and only writers like Herbert master.

In the end, "The Santaroga Barrier" is a totally imaginative novel told with sparkling language and genius skill: the work of a master storyteller at the height of his game.

Review by M. Christian


Frank Herbert
"The Green Brain" (nv)

(also as "Greenslaves")
© Amazing Stories, March 1965
Ace Books, 1965

Unfortunately, as with many other books by Frank Herbert, the fame and success of "Dune" has overshadowed "The Green Brain", making it another book only hardcore Herbert fans even know about. This is really unfortunate because while "The Green Brain" is not "Dune" it shares a common theme as well as revealing more of Herbert’s masterful skill as a storyteller.

Herbert has often been called one of the first ‘ecological’ science fiction writers. True or not, his work definitely shows his concern about the health of the earth as well as man’s place in it. "Dune" explores that relationship, as does "Hellstrom’s Hive", and – especially – does "The Green Brain".

Set in a comfortable familiar future, "The Green Brain" is about a society in open war with nature – the jungle to be exact. Needing room to expand, the world has cut, carved, burned, poisoned and smashed its way into the heart of the wilderness. The characters are, for the most part, soldier/exterminators fighting guerilla infestations of weeds, roots, seeds, animals and primarily insects, all the while pushing their native habits towards extinction.

While "Dune" and "Hellstrom’s Hive" are more subtle about the ethical and moral issues surrounding man and his relationship to the environment, "The Green Brain" is deceptively simple: as man fights against nature, nature begins to evolve to terrifyingly fight back. ‘Deceptive’ because as with all of Herbert’s books even if the conflict is clear there are always other factors keep the story from becoming cartoonish.

One of the best things about "The Green Brain" is clearly enunciated idea of nature and its evolving intelligence as alien yet familiar, like it’s a different side to the earth’s own mind – a different side that’s more than a little irked that humanity continues to be insanely stupid about not maintaining a respectful balance with it. Part of that anger, coupled with nature’s superb adaptability, comes out in the jungle’s new weapon: a collaborative hive of insects that expertly mimic what’s threatening them: humans.

No, "The Green Brain" is not "Dune" but it’s still an excellent read and well worth picking up – as it everything else by Herbert. And, who knows, maybe you’ll start looking warily at insects … or people with very, very green eyes...

Review by M. Christian

("Heretics of Dune", art by Jim Burns)


and other reviews for this writer! ->

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Anonymous Jack said...

Looking forward to reading these other titles, I've read much of the Dune series but not any of Herbert's other works.

In agreement with much of what you wrote about Dune, the best SF novels strike me as those capable of transporting the reader to other realities, while simultaneously eliciting the sensation that an undercurrent of the characters' experiences and world are wholly plausible in this universe, now.

As a complementary example, one realization made the significance of Dune clear within my mind:
Spice == Oil
Dune == The Middle East

Within that framework, the reality and power of the political narrative really hits home - albeit with a fresh perspective one might rarely encounter in most Western media presentations of the topic. This is one reason why I find SF so powerful - by wrapping a story in a fictitious setting and time, one can present the structure of an insight without fear of surface-level cultural associations impeding the interpretation of it.

11:55 AM  
Blogger mchristian said...

What a FANTASTIC comment, Jack: Bravo!

Your comparison between oil and spice is spot on -- I wish I'd thought of it! You're also completely correct that the best SF has it's roots in our current, common world, and it's heart in thoughtful and insightful social commentary.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

dune is astounding...
i added the following in a book i attempted a while back:

"The dreamer shall awaken? That’s you, buddy. The hand? Referring to metalanguage, including genus of concept. More advanced investment: symbol for
rerooting. If only we can evolve the social equivalent of the opposable thumb.

"The notable near-absence of computers? Emphasis on the human potential, mentats and
all. Vocal weapons? The power of converting thoughts directly into words. And of
course the Bene Gesserit’s Voice, ala hypnosuggestion.

"Spice? Oil, but this may be too close to the original laying by Herbert. More interestingly, the psychotropic effect of pot, ganja, weed. Arrakis? The Arab world, is humdrum. How about the importance of potable water, which is set to be the primary issue in the next global theatre of war?

"Dream sequences? Prescience, not in terms of the character and the fantasy world, but in terms of you watching the film or book enabling a comparison of your future projection with others. The Guild? And the Emperor? The power-brokers: the governments, moneylenders and businessmen. The Guild want to kill Paul before he awakens. Somebody doesn’t want you to wake up to the world situation.

"Guerilla fighting of the people of Dune? Notice, men and women. It’s grassroots up. Everyone does their share. The sense of oneness is shared. The trust they invest in certain leaders. The simple way of electing a leader. Hand-to-hand final fight between Paul and the Harkonnen? Conflict should be resolved in this small way. Not the Emperor and his generals firing through virtual screens. Hand on heart when Duncan leaves Paul? Obvious meme. Let’s not turn it into the Vulcan V, but it might be useful. The Gom-Jabbar and Paul’s test? Reprised in Fight Club, and inherited from North American Indian ritual when a boy becomes a man and has to transcend the fear of pain.

"The film’s retro-styling avoids the obvious dating of so many sci-fi’s. Since the theme is about time and prediction, it is a beautifully appropriate realisation."

of course this blends material with the film
but i'm no snob
and i like my post-production mixes jazzy :)

6:08 PM  
Blogger GMpilot said...

How could you neglect Herbert's best non-Dune novel: Under Pressure?

After the success of Dune, some of his other stuff saw print; "Under Pressure" was then known as The Dragon in the Sea in the late '60s.
When Ballantine got the paperback contract, they gave it the title it has now, which was a perfect description on many layers.

Given that the story was first published in the mid-1950s, it has aged very well; as a story about submariners in conflict, I feel it compares favorably to Run Silent, Run Deep, Das Boot or The Hunt for Red October--and it predates almost all of them! Those were all made into really good movies; someone should do the same with Herbert's'll have to be better than that messy Dune.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Thank you GMPilot - we did write a review for Under Pressure: scroll down our Frank Herbert page to read it:

Truly awesome thriller, one of the very best

9:52 PM  
Anonymous ChrisBracken said...

Just stopped by to mention my two favourites: The Godmakers and Whipping Star. I have to admit I tired of the Dune series pretty quickly, but these books stay with me.

3:39 AM  
Anonymous Bob R Bogle said...

A new, comprehensive and critical biography of the complete works of Frank Herbert is now available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If this is of interest to you, information is available here:

9:10 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dune Novels written by Frank Herbert are my favorite. I also enjoy reading his other Sci / Fi. Books written with the poet Bill Ransom, such as The Jesus Incident, The Lazarus Effect, and The Ascension Factor. I appreciate the continued sequels and prequels of Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Has anyone read Homer's The Iliad and noticed any similarities between with Herbert Dune Novels? I would like to better understand Classical Greek. Any suggestions? ranaRana

6:14 PM  

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