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 gratitude.
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 remembered.
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.
Copyright © 1986 by Willis E. McNelly
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission. 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.