Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert, by Tim O'Reilly
Frank Herbert by Timothy O’Reilly. Copyright © 1981 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc. (Out of print.)

Chapter 1: Dancing on the Edge

An Introduction

Imagine a world so dry that one man might kill another for the moisture in his body. From its deep desert, guarded by enormous, predatory sandworms, comes a spice with the power to prolong life and evoke visions of the future. Ten thousand worlds are dependent on that spice—a Galactic Empire, seemingly strong, but rigid and ruled by fear. One man stands against the desert and the Empire. Driven out into the sand to die, he promises the ecological transformation of the water-starved planet and unites its people in a holy war to seize control of the spice, the future, and the Empire.

This is the world of Frank Herbert's Dune, considered by many people to be the greatest science-fiction novel ever written, and certainly the pinnacle of Herbert's own art. Each reader finds a different reason for praise. One is struck by the scope of the creation—an entire world, detailed in topography, ecology and culture. Another seizes on the relevance of its ecological themes. All are fascinated by the characters—epic heroes who sweep their worlds and the reader into their struggles. Heroism, romance, philosophy—Dune has all of these, crafted into the vision of a future one might almost believe has already happened, a history stolen from its rightful place millennia hence.

It is said of Paul Atreides, the central figure of Dune and its two sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune: "Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place." The same must be said of Herbert himself. He has written other successful novels, but all are inevitably judged against Dune. And while his best work can stand alone, several of his shorter novels are so closely intertwined with the evolution of the trilogy that to study them in isolation from it deprives them of their greatest strength.

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. Herbert believes that the primary function of fiction is to entertain, but as Ezra Pound, one of his literary models, wrote: "If a book reveals to us something of which we were unconscious, it feeds us with its energy." The best way to entertain is to provoke, to make people think.

Such depth is integral to Dune's enduring success, yet to the reader interested in science fiction only for the marvels of imagination it portrays, the incomparable story of young Paul Atreides and the crusade he sparks, of battles and intrigues with the fate of worlds hanging in the balance, is enough to justify the novel's fame.

Raised on watery Caladan to be a Duke of the Imperium, trained as a "mentat" warmaster with the abilities of a human computer, and carrying the penultimate genes of a secret, centuries-long plan to breed a psychic superman, Paul is orphaned on Arrakis by a cruel twist of Galactic politics. His father is given the planet in fief, then betrayed and deprived of life and power. Paul must flee to a new destiny among the Fremen of the desert. These oppressed people dream of irrigating their planet and transforming its arid ecology. When an overdose of "melange," the spice-drug of Arrakis, triggers in Paul the ability to read the future, he knows how to give the Fremen what they want. Their plan will take hundreds of years, but if they will follow him to victory over the Emperor himself, Paul can promise the transformation in a single generation.

Even in so short a summary, one begins to see Herbert's essential themes. One of his central ideas is that human consciousness exists on—and by virtue of—a dangerous edge of crisis, and that the 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.

In Dune, each of the players—the Emperor, the Baron Harkonnen (archenemy of the Atreides), the monopolistic Spacing Guild, even the seemingly wise Bene Gesserit gene manipulators—tries either to dominate the situation or to control it in such a way as to minimize his own risks. And in the end all are overwhelmed. The elemental forces of history can only be ridden, not controlled. Paul alone is victorious, because he chooses to ride the whirlwind. He risks everything. His initiation by the Fremen into riding the sandworms is symbolic of his choice. These predators represent all the elemental forces of Arrakis: their native name means "maker," and they are the heart of the ecological matrix of the planet, source of the spice, the sand, and thief of water. And, like nature itself, they abhor artificial boundaries; they are drawn irresistibly to destroy the protective energy shields relied on by off-worlders. They close the desert to all who try to isolate themselves from it; only the Fremen "sandriders," who move with the rhythms of the desert, and mount the fearsome worm, can brave its wilds.

The opposition between isolation (or control) and adaptation to an environment is also shown in the ecological transformation described in the novel. The first stage of the transformation is mastery of the shifting sand dunes. Herbert had noted in the research on dune control, which first led him to the idea for the story, that dunes are very like slow-motion waves. Only those who can see them as waves can begin to learn how to deal with them. In addition, the spice wealth of the planet is a by-product of the life cycle of the sandworms, creatures of the deep desert impossible to raise in captivity; so any plan to change the human environment must preserve a large measure of the worms' original habitat. Men must learn to live with the desert. They can never hope to tame it completely.

It is a general principle of ecology that an ecosystem is stable not because it is secure and protected, but because it contains such diversity that some of its many types of organisms are bound to survive despite drastic changes in the environment or other adverse conditions. Herbert adds, however, that the effort of civilization to create and maintain security for its individual members, "necessarily creates the conditions of crisis because it fails to deal with change." Paul's enemies are hopelessly out of step because they have forsaken their adaptability for the attempt at control. Assurances of survival such as power, traditions, beliefs, and causes have become more important to them than the actuality of survival. Their substitutes for adaptability can sustain them only in the limited enclaves of civilization, not in the wide open spaces of the desert, or in the terrifying futures Paul opens himself to in his visions.

Paul's opponents try to tailor a surprise-free future for themselves, but in a subtler, far more insidious way, the fear of the unknown also corrupts Paul's followers. 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. To achieve his powers was a triumph of self-mastery and confrontation with the unknown, but to exercise them inevitably means to limit those qualities in others. Though Paul exhorts his followers to imitate his self-reliance, the very state of mind by which they are drawn to him necessitates its opposite. 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. Their deep longing for a messiah is a submergence in a group hunger for an overriding purpose; it is an escape from the individual greatness Paul himself displays.

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. In the backwaters of history, or its Golden Ages, civilization plays the part of a parent, providing not only warmth and security and meaning, but a limited arena within which an individual can exercise his powers with some hope of actually dominating the situation. A conspiracy of family, culture, and religion manages to convince the individual that he is not alone, that he does not need to struggle, but only to take up his birthright. In times of crisis, or on the fringes of hardship and oppression, men become all too aware of the uncontrollability of the universe. They long for messiahs and saviors, dreaming that such men have the certainty they lack.

Like most science fiction, Dune is built on the question "what if… ?" What if there really were a man, godlike in knowledge and wisdom, who could grasp that ungraspable universe and bring it to heel? The Dune trilogy is Herbert's answer to that question. He says:

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, 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?

In the end, such a savior would avail mankind nothing. It is our own awakening we must seek. So when we are stirred by Paul's courage and genius (and this, cunningly portrayed, is really the heart of the book), we must use him as an inspiration, not a messiah. We can find those same qualities of heightened consciousness in ourselves.

One of Herbert's working assumptions as a writer is that he can speak directly to parts of the reader's consciousness that the reader himself may not be aware of, and thereby create unexpected effects. For instance, he says, "In some people, simply confronting the idea of hyperconsciousness sharpens their mental alertness to a remarkable degree." He has noted that this is a common reaction, and on this he has banked—with great success—in Dune. Reading the story of a man before whom space-time barriers fall, and who can read human motivation as though it were shouted aloud, we are nudged by the possibility of being the answer to our own dreams.

The human potential for hyperconsciousness is central to such science fiction classics as Clarke's Childhood's End, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, and Sturgeon's More Than Human; even Asimov's Foundation trilogy touches on the idea. The treatment of hyperconsciousness in such works can include heightened perception of environment, self and others, and a consequent sense of power and transcendence of the limits that usually confront human beings, as well as a kind of moral evolution. Those who possess such consciousness are considered to be somehow fundamentally better than those who do not. But while Herbert places great value on higher consciousness, he does not see such a state as "the" answer to mankind's problems. He is extremely suspicious of utopian fantasies, whether embodied in a social order or in a state of consciousness. In an infinite universe, where anything can happen, more consciousness simply means new kinds of problems. "The reward of investigating such a universe in fiction or in fact," he says, "is not so much reducing the unknown but increasing it, opening the way to new dangers, new crises." The most important consequence of Paul's ability to see the future is not that he can control what happens but that he can respond more ably. Although his power over the course of events is greatly amplified, so too is his awareness of the forces with which he is grappling. Paul is like the mythical giant Briareus, who had one hundred hands, but also fifty bellies; he had as much trouble procuring food for himself as the next man. Paul has no more real control over the universe than anyone else, and at times less.

All of these ideas reflect the ecologist's emphasis on variety and adaptability as the key to the stability of ecosystems. However, Herbert has not been influenced by ecology alone in formulating these ideas. He is responding to the profound changes of the past seventy-five years in the philosophy of science. Around the turn of the century, famous scientists expressed their sadness that the great adventure of science was nearly at an end: nothing really significant remained to be discovered. Optimism ran high that man was on the threshold of immediate and total technological domination of his environment. But dreams of unlimited development have led to discoveries and devices that inescapably undermine those dreams. Everywhere the scientist of today looks, he perceives mystery. Einstein's theory of relativity postulates that there is no absolute reference point for our observations. Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle" demonstrates that the very act of observation skews the result of certain experiments. Gödel's theorem proves that all mathematical systems rest on propositions that are unprovable within the system, and conversely, that there are an infinite number of true propositions within any consistent mathematical system that can nonetheless never be deduced from it.

It usually takes about fifty years for the discoveries of science to penetrate popular consciousness. Einstein's special theory of relativity was published in 1905, the general theory in 1916, Heisenberg's principle and Gödel's theorem in the 1930s. These ideas were soon picked up by science-fiction writers, but their treatment consisted primarily of fanciful applications of these ideas and inventions based on them. Only recently have writers begun to consider the implications for our picture of the universe and how it functions.

The entirety of Herbert's work is an attempt to remake that picture. 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.

Herbert uses the term "consensus reality" to denote the body of common sense that constitutes the editorial board for perception in any culture and time period. Right now we are at a point of turnover, when one long-standing consensus reality is giving way to another. To Herbert the implicit lessons of our whole culture bid us to cling to old ideas even when we have intellectually embraced the new. We are still looking for absolutes in a relativistic universe, for stability in a sea of motion. We are looking for causes and effects when our new knowledge tells us we should be looking for contexts and matrices. We are looking for the conscious foundations of individuality when we should be looking at the biological base of our species and asking what beyond that is individual. Our common sense has gone sour, our foundations have become boundaries. The problem is that we are growing too fast; we don't have time to make a graceful changeover. It is no longer possible to operate on the basis of old data without coming to grief. We need to start working from new data as soon as it becomes available. How can we deal with the time lag?

Herbert's science fiction offers part of the answer. Science fiction is not a predictive but an informative tool, which seeks to prevent mistakes by trying to keep up with change rather than to stop it. Herbert says: "if I'd been born in my grandfather's time, I'd have made my grandfather's mistakes. There's no doubt of it. I just don't want to make my grandfather's mistakes today." As a result, his novels not only teach new ideas, they comprise implicit lessons to counteract those from his readers' early training.

To explore the power struggles of a galactic empire or the ecological salvation of an imaginary planet might seem to have little bearing on the world we know, but when such stories are spun from Herbert's mind, they profoundly illuminate the here and now. Author and critic Samuel R. Delany has written, "Science fiction is the only area of literature outside poetry that is symbolistic in its basic conception. Its stated aim is to represent the world without reproducing it." Herbert himself notes that science fiction allows him to "create marvelous analogues." He says:

If you want to get anything across, you have to be entertaining first. If you start standing on a street corner, people will tune you out. We human beings tend to have very good filter systems in our heads to see and hear only what we want to see. But analogues give you a marvelous device for getting past that screening system, because people can be caught up in the drama of the story, be deep into the problems of it. Then later on, much later on, they say, Oh, my God, he was talking about this!" And they come out of it with a brand new view of what's happening in their world.

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 predetermined.

Herbert's analogues 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, as Delany notes, 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. He says:

We come from a spectator society, by and large. Whatever entertainment you produce is supposedly for passive receptors, who sit there and take it… There are a lot of conventions, and you're supposed to gratify all of them. My contention is that entertainment has a far greater arena in which to perform. But to perform in that arena you make demands on your readers.

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. "I treat the reader's eye as a camera," Herbert says. 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, sounds 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 organization, 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.

Herbert's unwillingness to let himself be trapped into a final position gives his books an often frustrating ambiguity. It is just at this point that the books demand, if the reader is truly to understand them, that he begin to respond on unaccustomed levels. He must let go the need for certainty and absolute points of view. Herbert's novels demonstrate the action of principles as much as of character, and show the many sides of each situation with equal sympathy. One could say they are training manuals for exactly the kinds of awareness they describe.

Next: Chapter 2: Under Pressure