FRANK HERBERT 1920 - 1986
by Willis E. McNelly
I like to think that when Frank Herbert died last February 11,
he murmured the Litany against Fear: "I must not fear. Fear is the
mind killer. Fear is the little-death that brings obliteration, I will
face my fear."
He had known for some time that he had pancreatic cancer, an
almost invariably fatal, rapidly spreading form of that fearsome
disease. He had a few months to meet his fear, enough time to seek
out the newest medical breakthroughs; time even to sign new
contracts, make plans as if the word "cancer" had never entered his
vocabulary; perhaps time to die with equanimity.
As a life-long student of the psychology of C. G. Jung, he also
knew that death is an inexorable part of the structure of life. He well
realized that both life and death are Jungian polarities. "We begin to
die from the moment of conception," he once told me, stating the old
truth as if it were fresh and new. For him -- indeed for all of us -- it
IS new, for each person must discover that truth for him/herself and
learn that however mortality or immortality treats us, flesh will fade.
Frank had learned that secret decades ago, and I like to think that he
approached his end without fear, faced it with composure.
It is something of the measure of his success as a writer that
virtually every major paper in the country printed an extensive
obituary. Some dutifully repeated the AP dispatch sent over the
wires from the Madison Wisconsin hospital where he died, but others
carried a more detailed story. Even the papers of the Eastern
Establishment -- the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times and the
Washington Post -- carried no mere canned wire service obits but
lengthy memoirs written by journalists who knew his work well.
These writers neither condescended to him or science fiction nor
praised him beyond his merits or accomplishments. Frank would
have appreciated this little fact. A journalist himself, he had a
passion for the truth, and when facts -- or a life, even his life -- are
presented with objectivity, he would have been satisfied.
Not that he was dispassionate or completely objective himself.
Far from it. Anyone who ever met Frank for more than two minutes
knows how strongly he felt about so many things -- good wine, wind
power, ecology, scuba diving, aerial photography, computers, the
environment, solar heating -- the list is virtually endless. He also had
the capacity of instantly charming those who listened to him. For he
loved to talk. Lord, how he loved to talk -- to fellow writers, to
interviewers, to fans, to his friends, his family, large audiences, small
groups. His voice -- a voice that at first meeting seemed too highly
pitched for this bearded bear of a man -- was rich, resonant, full of
intensity. It was at times questioning, even querulous. At other
times it was almost pontifical, and indeed he sometimes seemed to
voice his opinions as if they were ex cathedra pronunciamentos.
Yet for all of his success both as an writer and as an apologist
for causes he held dear, he never took himself too seriously. He could
poke fun at himself too, knowing full well that the human tendency
to follow heroes was a constant cause of trouble throughout history.
"If you want to follow me as a guru," he often said, "come with me to
Guyana and you can have the Kool Aid concession." So much for
heroes and feet of clay.
His first great commercial success was "Dune", although even
that book did not become a best seller until several years after its
initial hard and paperback editions. We have all heard the story
about how "Dune" was rejected by nearly twenty publishers, but
which of us would like to be the editor who said "I might be making
the mistake of the decade but . . ." and then went on to reject the
novel. In 1968 he told me that he had made no more that eighteen
or twenty thousand dollars from the book including the money
Campbell paid him for first serial rights in "Analog." He was a
working journalist even then, not devoting himself to full time
science fiction writing until some years later when he could afford
the luxury. The book and its sequels made him a lot of money
eventually, of course. More importantly, the commercial success of
"Dune" paved the way for large advances, bigger printings, best seller
status, and heavy subsidiary sales for many other writers. Every
member of the SFWA owes Frank Herbert and "Dune" considerable
His first novel was published in "Astounding/Analog" under the
name "Under Pressure." It wasn't the name he preferred. "Dragon in
the Sea" was the title he liked best and he often spoke of it as "Good
old Dragon." Yet anyone who read that mid-1950s book might well
have recognized that incipient major talent at work. This early book
provided no mere hint of what Herbert would later develop in "The
Dune Chronicles." Rather, it is a fully developed, serious novel that
still rates as one of his best. In it Herbert shows the same control of
ideas, concepts, characters, and psychological insights combined with
action-adventure that made "Dune" a masterpiece. What strikes the
reader who approaches the book today three decades after its
writing is its contemporary tone. Its problems could well be those of
the late1980s; its ecological sense is current, and its psychological
insights into problems faced by men at war are as real as those of
the Vietnam POWs. The fullness of detail with which Herbert filled
his "Twenty-first Century Sub" (still another title) reads like a
blueprint for America's modern nuclear submarines. The novel is
crammed with a careful consideration of modern problems such as
the role of oil in a petroleum-starved world or the vexatious question
of "security." He was proud of the book, particularly proud that
submariners continually read it and wrote to him tell how well he
had detailed their fears and hopes.
"Dragon" also provides an early statement of the parable of life,
death, and resurrection that so absorbed Herbert in "Dune" and its
sequels. Citing the passage from Isaiah that gives the novel its name,
one character says, "'In that day the Lord with his great and strong
sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan
that crooked serpent, and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.'"
When the dragon in all of us is slain, Herbert seems to be saying,
then there shall be peace. That concept is most assuredly another
Jungian notion. In the later novel, the dragon in the sea becomes the
dragon in the sand ocean of Arrakis, Shai Hulud, Old Father Eternity,
the sandworm whose seed becomes melange, the spice which gives
virtual eternal life.
This may not be the place to discuss "Dune" and the remainder
of the "Chronicles." But it is surprising to realize the "Dune" was only
Frank's second novel, although he wrote a dozen or more following it.
Each of those later books has its own strengths -- and sometimes
weaknesses -- but it is "Dune" by which we will all remember him.
Campbell recognized it merits at first reading, but he also believed
that Frank had written himself into a hole with his creation of Paul
Muad'dib, the nearly omnipotent super-hero.
"Congratulations," he wrote Herbert, "you are the father of a
15-year superman! But I betcha you aren't gonna like it . . ." In this
instance, at least, Campbell was wrong, for Herbert always claimed
that it had never been his intention to create a genuine super-hero, a
messiah who would save the world or the universe as the case may
be. Instead it was his belief that heroes carry the seeds of their own
destruction, that the consequences of our actions must always be
considered before we undertake any action. In this belief he echoed
Aristotle's notion of the tragic flaw, the "hamartia," the over-weaning
pride that brings about its own destruction.
One of the many messages of "Dune" itself was that ecology is
the science of understanding consequences. Few readers in fact,
perceived that implicit concept in the novel, lost as they were in the
intricacies of the story itself. Certainly they did not apply it to its
sequels. "Where does Arrakis get its oxygen?" he asked. He then
pointed out that, lacking any green plants, the planet has no
chlorophyll base and hence no natural oxygen. Its atmosphere comes
from the digestive process of the sandworm, and if you limit the
sandworm by reintroducing water to the plant, you'll have an
oxygen catastrophe on Arrakis. He never wrote about it though,
perhaps feeling that he wanted to concentrate on melange -- still
another by-product of the sandworm -- and what its diminution
would do to the known universe. He wanted to talk about the uses
and abuses of power. Melange was merely his instrument for telling
that story of corruption. Nonetheless he felt that the oxygen problem
would have been an inevitable consequence of the ecological
redemption of Arrakis. Ideas have consequences, he often said, and
he pursued his ideas in book after book.
Critics have often carped at some of his later books, saying that
portions of those novels often read like extended orations. For him
the act of writing was not quite identical to sending a message,
certainly, but he saw no reason not to embed ideas into the structure
of what he wrote. It's a fine line as many of us know, and if he
occasionally slipped over the edge and became too talky, the
sermonic tone may be the result of his fiercely held opinions. Yet he
was always aware that he had to compete in the marketplace, fight
for the couple of bucks someone might shell out for one of his books
before boarding a plane. It was a competition he gloried in, because
when all is said and done, he was an entertainer, not a prophet or a
guru; entertain us he certainly did.
His sense of scene was almost unequaled, and some very well-
drawn characters people his books. Jessica remains one of the very
best science-fiction portraits of a woman, and the various Idahos,
Atreides, and even the villainous Harkonnens will long be
I earlier referred to Frank as a bearded bear of a man. True,
he shaved that beard a couple of years ago revealing a Walter
Cronkite-like cragginess under those smiling, penetrating eyes, but
the beard seemed a part of him even after it was gone. Most of us
will remember him as the bearded raconteur.
On the end it seemed that Frank approached all of God's
creation as if it were magically beautiful, yet he could also warn us
that unless we understood the full consequences of our actions, we
might be in for serious trouble. An eternal optimist, he never really
believed it though. R.I.P.
(C) Copyright 1986 by Willis E. McNelly
All rights reserved.
Originally published in the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of
America, and reprinted since in various books and publications.
* RM 1.3 02460 * Some men's lives are too noble to be merely successful.
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Email: jim.m...@granite.mn.org (Jim Mcnelly)