One of the most famous of the Old Guard of science fiction authors, Frank Herbert is regularly mentioned in the same breath as the acknowledged Grand Masters of the genre: Issac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and Robert Heinlein. Heinlein himself, paying tribute to Herbert's magnum opus, the Dune saga, called it 'powerful, convincing and most ingenious', while the Library Journal said:
Dune is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy.
For those not familiar with the initially three- and ultimately six-book series, 'Dune' is a planet devoid of any water. It is a sand world, where living is both extreme and dangerous. When people die on this planet, the water is recovered from their bodies; this is their legacy to the next generation.
The planet has evolved huge sand-worms that excrete a spice found nowhere else. This spice is powerful and addictive, has potentially destructive properties, and consequently has become a commodity of immense value. The spice can be mined and sold for huge profits, but the worms are attracted by vibrations and will attack. Battles for control of the spice have raged for centuries between the Great Houses – for spice read oil and for Great Houses read corporate cartels and in particular, OPEC1.
It is a story that includes gholas (clones manufactured in axlotl tanks), mentats (human creatures with computer-like minds) and a powerful all-female secret society: The Bene Gesserit. The Dune saga combines elements of religion, philosophy, politics, environmentalism, drug addiction and evolutionary extrapolation.
His CV would probably have described him as a newspaper journalist, photographer and science fiction writer, but that would ignore the fact that Frank Herbert was also a student of marine geology and ecology, and at various times had been an oyster-diver, a judo instructor, a radio news commentator and a jungle survival instructor.
Frank Patrick Herbert was born 8 October, 1920 in Tacoma, Washington, to parents Eileen and Frank Sr. A boy with an insatiable enquiring mind, Herbert was a voracious reader and knew from the age of eight that he wanted to be a writer – typical of the man, he announced this decision to his family while stood on top of the breakfast table. At Salem High School he was active on the school newspaper and soon after took summer jobs helping out on local newspapers.
Herbert began his writing career in 1939, having lied about his age to land a job on the Glendale Star newspaper. His first marriage in 1941, (he would marry three times), to Flora Parkinson was not a success, and finally ended in divorce in 1945. In the meantime, the US entered WWII and Herbert entered the Navy, in which he worked as a photographer for the US Navy's Seabees (Construction Battalion).
After the war he enrolled at University of Washington in Seattle, but dropped out after a year as, according to his son Brian, he couldn't study anything that didn't interest him. A fellow student in a creative writing class, Beverly Stuart, did however interest him and the two were married in June, 1946. She was to be his muse and soulmate for almost the next 40 years. Frank resumed his career as a journalist, and worked at the Seattle Star and the Oregon Statesman newspapers. During this time, he became briefly involved in politics, working for a time as a speechwriter in Washington, DC. Failure of the newspapers he worked for led him to San Francisco, where he worked at The Examiner for ten years, also writing and editing the paper's California Living magazine.
After his marriage to Beverly and since leaving the Navy, Herbert had written and had published in Startling Stories magazine, a number of short stories, including Looking For Something, his first science fiction story. He made his first foray into book-length narrative in 1955 with Dragon In the Sea, in which he explored issues of sanity and madness in a 21st Century submarine setting and predicted a global conflict over oil resources. While meeting with critical warmth, it didn't fare particularly well with the book-buying public.
Herbert started collating material for 'Dune' in 1959, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the project following his wife's return to full employment as an advertising writer for department stores – she was to be the primary earner in the family over the following decade. The origins of 'Dune' came about when he was researching sand dune control in Florence, Oregon, for an article for the US Department of Agriculture. The article was completed, but publication was eventually shelved; by this time he had amassed a huge amount of material which he kept and which served as a basis for his masterpiece.
Sands Of Time
At the time Dune was written, science-fiction was almost invariably based on scientific and technological advancement - Heinlein's Starship Troopers, for example, published in 1959, has powered armour and faster-than-light interstellar travel (although it's deeply involved with philosophical discussions about citizenship, government and sociology).
Heinlein wrote Troopers in a few short weeks, as a response to a proposed moratorium on nuclear testing, among other issues. Herbert's 'Dune' worlds, in comparison, were over six years in the making. Published in Analog magazine in 1963 - 4 in two parts entitled 'Dune World' and 'Prophet of Dune', it then received the treatment accorded to most, if not all, visionary works - a score of rejection letters from publishing houses! One clairvoyant editor preceded his with: I might be making the mistake of the decade, but...
A small Philadelphia publisher, Chilton, eventually granted Herbert an advance of $7,500 and the rest, as they say, is history. The novel garnered immediate critical plaudits. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novel by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1965, and the Hugo - named after iconic Amazing Stories founder Hugo Gernshack - the following year.
Although Dune was a success, it did not yet enable him to become a full-time writer, so Herbert continue writing for the Seattle Post and lectured at the University of Washington. During the second half of the 1960s he wrote The Green Brain (1966), The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966), Destination: Void (1966 rev. 1978), The Santaroga Barrier (1968) and The Heaven Makers (1968).
By the early 1970s Herbert was able to take up his pen full time. Over the following decade, the Dune saga continued with Dune Messiah (1969), Children of Dune (1976) and God Emperor of Dune (1981). Other novels were completed over this same fertile period: The Godmakers (1972), The Dosadi Experiment (1977), The White Plague (1982); also projects co-written with Bill Ransom: The Jesus Incident, The Lazarus Effect and The Ascension Factor, sequels to Destination: Void.
Loss of Beverly
During 1974 Herbert's wife of 37 years was diagnosed with cancer. Beverly underwent invasive surgery and this gave her ten more years of life. Around the time Heretics of Dune was published in 1984, Beverly died of secondary cancer. Chapterhouse Dune, published the following year, was the last work Herbert ever completed; the Afterword to that volume incorporated an emotional and moving tribute to Beverly.
Dune the Film
In 1984 American filmmaker David Lynch brought his vision of Herbert's milieu to the big screen. Boasting a typical Hollywood budget and lavish production values, it scored huge successes in Europe and Japan with both critics and consumers (the US response was merely lukewarm, however). It was suggested that one reason for its reception in America was that there was too much material for the normal length of a commercial movie; rumours were rife that before editing, the film spanned something of the order of nine hours!
Theresa and the Last Months
In 1985 Herbert married for the third time, to Theresa Shackleford. During the following year, Herbert suffered a pulmonary embolism (blood clot) while recovering from surgery for pancreatic cancer. He died in Wisconsin on 11 February, 1986, aged 65. Theresa donated $50,000 to Sewanee School of Theology in honour of her late husband Frank Herbert.
Frank Herbert's Legacy
At his death, Herbert left behind an embarrassment of riches, including a mountain of notes, plots and storylines. These were used by his son Brian and Kevin J Anderson to continue the epic tale with Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. They also endeavoured to 'reverse engineer' the Dune stories; the events in The Butlerian Jihad, The Machine Crusade, The Battle of Corrin, House Atreides, House Harkonnen and House Corrino all chronologically precede Herbert's 1965 original.
In contrast to the futuristic, technological worlds of plenty that other San Francisco writers were presenting, Herbert wrote instead of far too familiar worlds of economics, politics, greed, corruption and, above all, human frailty and mortality. He was also deeply, and rather ahead of his time, concerned with ecology. In an Omni essay of 1980, he worried over the influence of humans in the chain of cause-and-effect:
Ecology encompasses a real concern, however, and the Florence project [for the USDA] fed my interest in how we inflict ourselves upon our planet. I could begin to see the shape of a global problem, no part of it separated from any other - social ecology, political ecology, economic ecology. It's an open-ended list.
The New York Times book reviewer, Gerald Jonas, observed: So completely did Mr Herbert work out the interactions of man and beast and geography and climate that Dune became the standard for a new sub-genre of 'ecological' science fiction.
Perhaps what would please him the most is that his former home on Olympic Peninsula in Washington state has been turned into a self-supporting ecology demonstration project.