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 9: How It All Begins Again

A frequent response to Children of Dune is a kind of puzzled anger. The reader wonders: What happened to so drastically change Herbert's point of view from the first book of the trilogy to the third? Why did he turn from presenting one of the most admirable heroes in science fiction to presenting the opposite, an anti-hero (at least on the surface) with whom no one can identify? What is he really trying to say?

In order to answer those questions, it is necessary to understand that the second and third books were an essential part of Herbert's original conception. The Dune trilogy is really a single novel that grew so comprehensive that it took twenty years and three volumes to write. Herbert recalls his dilemma while writing Dune:

I had the place, and the characters, and the thrust, for a monumental story, with a lot of action, people, evolutionary processes displayed. And it kept getting bigger. Of necessity. There were all kinds of things happening… Finally, I just took out how long it should" he, and started building from the hack. Where does it have to go? So parts of Children of Dune and Dune Messiah were already written before I completed Dune.

The two sequels are as much a part of the design as Dune itself. The question is why the underlying unity is not more apparent to the reader from the first. What is it about Dune, and about ourselves as readers, that makes it so hard to see the unified purpose of the trilogy, so apparent once it has been pointed out?

The answer is that in writing about the mystique of the superhero, Herbert himself was prey to it. No less than the people of Arrakis, science-fiction readers demand an infallible hero. John Campbell, the editor of Analog, frankly stated this observation when he refused to publish Dune Messiah:

In "Dune," Duke Leto was fated to fall, and did, before the forces of a malign fate. A Greek tragedy set-up. But Paul, rising against all the cruel fates, overwhelming his enemies, triumphs—a true heroic saga.
In this one, it's Paul, our central character, who is a helpless pawn manipulated against his will, by a cruel, destructive fate… In this one he is not a Hero—he's simply a helpless Pawn of Fate. The anti-hero, showing that even seemingly mighty men of courage and abilities are helpless—that the whole world is a hopeless, overwhelming place, wherein struggle and high purpose are useless…
The reactions of science-fictioneers, however, over the last few decades has persistently and explicitly been that they want heroes—not anti-heroes. They want stories of strong men who exert themselves, inspire others, and make a monkey's uncle out of malign fates!
As Paul did in "Dune"—not as he fails completely to do in "The Messiah."

The point Campbell missed is that Herbert deliberately looked for this reaction from his readers. 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.

This intention is reflected not only in the narrative but in the structure of the work. Herbert did not want to present his readers with "a pot of message" for which they would sell their birthright as they would to anyone else with a convincing argument. He did not want to become a "hero" himself. He wanted to create a form that would engage each reader with his ideas in an imaginative, educational process. Above all, Herbert is a storyteller who knows that fiction can be a powerful tool to change consciousness. It can speak to the unconscious levels where old patterns are rooted and begin to change them. A reader identifies (in pre-conscious rapport) with the characters in a novel. By playing out certain choices in fantasy, he prepares himself to play them out in fact. The stronger the identification that is created, the more effective the lesson that is conveyed. This is also good storytelling: get the reader involved, and then begin to twist.

The Dune trilogy was very carefully structured to build up Paul as a hero in the reader's eyes, so that his failure, when it came, would reach across with full intensity as a lesson on the danger of hero worship. Herbert has repeatedly confirmed this intention.

Dune was set up to imprint on you, the reader, a superhero. I wanted you so totally involved with that superhero in all his really fine qualities. And then I wanted to show what happens, in a natural, evolutionary process. And not betray reason or process.

Although the unhappy conclusions to Paul's messianic efforts are foreshadowed in Dune itself, the clues are hidden by the reader's own involvement. He is caught up in the enthusiasm of the cause: he hates the Harkonnens, he cheers Paul and the Fremen against the Emperor's previously unbeatable Sardaukar troops, he longs for the desert's promised blooming, and he truly believes all will turn out well in the end. This is what Herbert means when he says he wrote so as "not to betray reason or process." The reader is enmeshed in the time of Arrakis and does not know, any more than the characters in the story, what is to come. He is blinded by his own submission to the hero mystique.

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.

Carlyle argued that heroes are the life-blood of the race—its visionaries, its lawgivers, its innovators. In decrying the evils of hero worship, Herbert is not taking issue with this point of view so much as he is looking forward to a time when all men might be heroes. Dune explores the meeting of the old way and the new. Paul is the prophet of a new subjectivity, faced with a populace who still hunger for absolute truth. Among many analogues to the twentieth century, one might note that the very scientists who discovered the fundamental principles of relativity and physical uncertainty upon which Paul's teachings are based are considered purveyors of an absolute, priestly knowledge too difficult for the uninitiated public to understand. Paul is forced by his people to play out the old pattern. He tries to fuse such discoveries as relativity and ecological diversity into one overmastering myth that will bring all men together in a single vision. The paradox defies even his skills. Leto's vision goes much further, to a new evolutionary step in the history of mankind in which each individual will create his own myth, and solidarity will not be the solidarity of leaders and followers, but of all men as equal dreamers of the infinite.

What makes Herbert's work unique (beyond even the depth of his thought) is his willingness to consider alternative futures that appear distasteful to present-day readers. In a work such as Hellstrom's Hive, this willingness serves chiefly as a spur to thought. A statement made in Destination: Void reveals a deeper meaning in Herbert's attitude:

There's a serious question whether humans actually can break out of their self-regulated pattern. It takes audacious methods indeed to explore beyond that pattern.

As suggested in the discussion of Children of Dune, Herbert seems to subscribe to a kind of evolutionary ethic, which uses survival as a touchstone for evaluating species behavior. This ethic is also the subject of one of his most effective short stories, "Seed Stock" (1970).

A colony has been landed on an alien planet. It is dying. There is no return. The colonists are trying to reproduce Earth; they cannot understand why their efforts do not work. There is a strange force that warps embryos and seedlings so they do not flourish. The experts choose the most normal-born of the plants and animals to nurture, with no success. They cannot see (because it is unthinkable) that it is the seemingly most stunted and sickly of the plants and animals that are adapting. Kroudar, the laborer, listens with his body; he feels the different rhythm of life on his new planet. He does not try to maintain the old ways. He nurtures the new.

In this one fable is all of Herbert's wisdom. When people want the future to be like the present, they must reject what is different. And in what is different is the seed of change. It may look warped and stunted now, but it will be normal when we are gone.

Herbert's insistence throughout the story that one cannot know this principle, but must feel it, suggests a warning about the analysis of his books: By exposing Herbert's intentions, one may circumvent them. "If you say, 'I understand'… you have made a value judgment," reads a Laclac riddle quoted in Whipping Star. And on Pandora, a planet like Arrakis or Earth itself, which demands human adaptation, Avata says, "If you understand, then you cannot learn. By saying you understand, you construct barriers." Understanding can convince one that a problem has been solved and nothing remains to be done. Feeling, a perception that remains in touch with its source, cannot be so deceived. This is the final reason why Herbert tries to speak to the unconscious of his readers, not just with hidden verbal or conceptual allusions, but with rhythms and perceptual demands that evoke the feelings he is trying to depict. "Seed Stock" slouches toward that undefinable evolutionary difference that Kroudar feels in his blood. Like the design of the Dune trilogy, the style is its own argument, from which the reader cannot come away unchanged.

Such an effect argues that imagination, in the older, more limited sense of the ability to summon up the fantastic or the impossible, is the aging mother of science fiction. In a few precious works, such as Herbert's best, it is replaced by a new scion, an imagination that draws its strength, like fabled Antaeus, from its ability to touch the ground of experience. Science-fiction readers are stereotypically escapist, but their need is real. They want more life than they can get their hands on. Science fiction supplies adventure, romance, a feeling of being on conceptual frontiers, shifts of awareness that are real: a spectrum of answers to that one basic need. Herbert's spectrum is merely broader than most. The Dune trilogy is more than just an analogue that mirrors our society in ways that illuminate it; for some it is a reality in itself, which creates a novelty of experiences not yet common, which helps to create the very futures it depicts.

Next: Notes