Herbert Jr., Frank

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Frank Herbert, Jr.

The novels of American author Frank Herbert (1920-1986), particularly the series that began with Dune (1965), set new standards of complexity in the field of science fiction, imagining entire worlds and drawing on diverse fields of human knowledge in an attempt to depict large interconnected systems.

Dune itself is widely regarded as a masterpiece. “Described as ‘science fiction for people who do not read science fiction,’ ” noted the Times of London, England, the novel “ranged widely over biology, astronomy, philosophy, politics, physiology, religion, psychology and ecology, and was rated by devotees as one of science fiction's most comprehensively realized achievements.” Dune was one of several Herbert books that explored linkages among ecological structures, and social and political conflicts, including religion. He foresaw in his writings many aspects of ecology as a general idea, and his works in general are marked by a seriousness and ambition that were new to the science fiction genre.

Planned Writing Career Early

Frank Herbert Jr. was born in Tacoma, Washington, on October 8, 1920. His father moved from job to job in the southern Puget Sound area in the 1920s, working as a salesman, motorcycle patrol officer, and bus line operator. In 1928 the family moved to a farm near Burley, Washington. The younger Frank Herbert grew up tending to chickens and cows but was intellectually curious. He carried books with him wherever he went, and his classmates thought of him as a genius type who knew everything. Herbert liked adventure stories and read science fiction classics by Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells when he was very young. When Herbert was eight, he announced to his family that he wanted to be a writer.

At first that ambition took the form of preparing for a journalism career. World War II interrupted his plans, and he served as a photographer in the United States Naval Reserve until his discharge in 1943. Herbert then landed a job as a copyeditor with the Oregon Journal newspaper in Portland. From then on, until the runaway success of Dune made him self-sufficient, Herbert worked in the journalism field even though his energies were focused elsewhere; new jobs were easy to find in the burgeoning cities of the West. He moved from job to job, going as far afield as Glendale in southern California and working for a time for the San Francisco Examiner. Herbert's journalism career was interrupted by stints as an oyster diver and as a jungle survival instructor. His restlessness also showed up in his attitude toward classes at the University of Washington, where he took classes in 1946 and 1947 but failed to graduate, believing that he should study only subjects in which he was interested.

Herbert's first publications were adventure stories he sold to Esquire and Doc Savage magazines in the 1940s. Those had already been published by the time he took creative writing classes at Washington, and in his class he met another published author, Beverly Ann Stuart, who had landed a slot in Modern Romance. The two were married in 1947; Herbert had been married once before, to teenager Flora Parkinson in 1941, but that marriage had ended in divorce after producing a daughter, Penny. Beverly Herbert served as her husband's editor, sounding board, and confidante, and her work as an advertising copywriter often paid the family's bills during slow periods during Herbert's career—of which there were many during the early years. They had two sons, Brian and Bruce.

Working as a feature writer for the Tacoma Times in the late 1940s, Herbert wrote science fiction short stories and sent them to magazines. Startling Stories published Herbert's “Looking for Something” in 1952, but for the most part he accumulated rejection slips. He continued to write short stories through much of the 1950s, but only about 20 of them were published over his entire career—a small number in comparison with most of his successful contemporaries in the science fiction field. He had more luck, however, when he turned to the longer form of the novel, where he could let his imagination run wild. His very first science fiction novel, The Dragon in the Sea, won the International Fantasy Award in 1956.

Explored Undersea Setting

The Dragon in the Sea had an adventure setting that was typical of science fiction of the period: a small submarine or “subtug” is assigned to intercept fuel shipments in a future world war between the U.S. and a group of fictitious Eastern Powers with affinities to the Communist East Bloc. But the focus of Herbert's novel was not really on adventure, nor on international politics. Instead Herbert examined the behavior of a totally closed society—his undersea subtug crew, which is threatened by tensions and divisions. The book foreshadowed Herbert's later work in several respects, including his attention to detail: his description of submarine controls was so thorough that parts of it were later incorporated into designs used by Britain's Naval Intelligence Service.

“Despite his skillful handling of technical description,” noted the St. James Guide to Science Fiction, “Herbert, in the tradition of American romanticism, opposes the mechanistic with the natural and organic to show the superiority of the intuitive biological organism.” The limits of human technical intelligence interested him throughout his career, and the theme of the understanding of biological systems, at a time when the idea of ecology was still quite new, played a major role in his next novel, Dune. For this sprawling work, Herbert spent six years writing and doing research, expanding on an idea he had while observing a sand dune preservation project being carried out on Oregon's coastline. His research encompassed the 12-volume The Golden Bough, a classic anthropological study of mythology and religion, and the Lotus Sutras of Mahayana Buddhism.

Dune, like most of Herbert's fiction, was not particularly easy to read; its virtues lie in its complexity, detail, and originality rather than in tale-spinning skills. The book accumulated 23 rejections before it was serialized in Analog Science Fiction in 1963 and published by Chilton two years later, with Herbert earning an advance of $7,500. Eventually the novel would be translated into 14 languages, with sales of approximately 12 million copies worldwide. Herbert rewrote much of the text between the periodical and book publications. Dune was made into a film in 1984 by acclaimed director David Lynch, but many admirers of the original novel criticized the film adaptation.

The vast plot of Dune cannot be successfully summarized in a few words. The novel spans several worlds, describing the evolution of an intergalactic empire and its ruling House of Atreides; it tells the story of a new leader, Paul Atreides, who visits a desert planet called Arrakis that is the source of a spice called Melange. Melange is a fuel necessary for galactic travel and can confer special talents, such as psychic powers, on those who use it. “Metaphorically,” noted the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “it is everything that the human race has ever valued and fought over, from salt to diamonds, from precious metals to atomic secrets.” The core of the novel is formed by Herbert's elaborate descriptions of Arrakis and its inhabitants, the Fremen, whose society was modeled by Herbert partly on Arab societies and their adaptations to desert life. Melange, Paul Atreides learns, is closely connected with a species of giant sandworms he found on Arrakis—and he comes to understand the Web site of life on the planet in intricate detail. No similar description of an intricate biological system had ever been attempted before in science fiction, and Herbert's originality was recognized with a Nebula award in 1965. The following year he shared the Hugo award with author Roger Zelazny.

Expanded Themes in Series

Herbert remains known for Dune above any of his other novels, of which there are about 30 in all. He never again took the time to conceptualize the plot and background of a novel in such detail, and most of his other books received mixed critical receptions. Some critics, however, believe that an understanding of the other five books that constitute the so-called Dune Chronicles is necessary for a full appreciation of Herbert's intentions; the later books continue the story of Dune and expand upon themes of the original book. The five Dune sequels completed by Herbert were Dune Messiah (1970), Children of Dune (1976), God Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984), and Chapterhouse: Dune (1985). At his death Herbert was at work on a seventh Dune novel in collaboration with his son Brian, who completed it in 1999 as Dune: House Atreides. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson issued an eighth Dune novel, Sandworms of Dune, in 2007.

In between the volumes of this mammoth series, Herbert wrote numerous other books between the appearance of Dune and the end of his life. This collection included other books linked into series; Whipping Star (1970) and The Dosadi Experiment (1977) featured a secret agent named Jorj X. McKie who has been married 55 times. McKie must contend with the phenomenon of adaptation in alien cultures; The Dosadi Experiment deals, like Dune, with a race of beings that has evolved superior powers in response to the harsh environment in which they live. Herbert's Pandora series began with Destination: Void (1966) and continued with The Jesus Incident (1979) and The Lazarus Effect (1983; the latter two books were co-written with Bill Ransom). Destination: Void, among Herbert's most popular novels, tells of a spaceship crew that can survive only if it can raise the ship's computer to the level of human intelligence.

Herbert's The White Plague (1982), unlike most of his books, was set on a recognizable Earth in the near future. It is narrated from the point of a view of a scientist who, deranged by the deaths of his wife and children at the hands of terrorists, becomes a terrorist himself: through genetic manipulation he develops a new bubonic plague virus that affects only women. After he unleashes the virus, nations and their scientists must put aside their usual ways of interacting in order to contain it. Of all of Herbert's novels, only one, 1972's Soul Catcher, was not science fiction; it was set among Native Americans.

Herbert died in Madison, Wisconsin, on February 11, 1986, after a long struggle with cancer. But the influence of his writings, Dune above all, only increased after his death. Dune itself was made into a five-hour television miniseries in the year 2000, eliciting more positive reviews than the 1984 film had received; one reason for its success was that the novel's complex three-part structure was much better suited to a five-hour miniseries format than to the two and a half hours to which a big-screen adaptation was restricted. By that time, Dune had become one of the most successful science fiction novels of all time, and top science fiction writers who had once lived hand-to-mouth in the 1950s could command six-figure advances for major projects. Herbert was seen as one of the thinkers whose ideas had spawned the environmental movement, and the Dune novels had become the center of a small subculture with its own reference text, The Dune Encyclopedia (1984). Brian Herbert issued a biography of his father, Dreamer of Dune, in 2003.


Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement: Modern Writers, 1900-1998, Gale Research, 1998.

Herbert, Brian, Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, Tor Books, 2004.

McNelly, Willis E., The Dune Encyclopedia, Putnam, 1984.

St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th ed., St. James Press, 1996.

Touponce, William F., Frank Herbert, Twayne, 1988.


Detroit Free Press, June 10, 2002.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 3, 2007.

Star-Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), December 1, 2000.

Times (London, England), February 13, 1986.


“Biography: Frank Herbert,” The Dune Novels official Web site, http://www.dunenovels.com/bios/frank.html (December 24, 2007).

Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 24, 2007).

“Frank (Patrick) Herbert (1920-1986),” Books and Writers, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/fherbert.htm (December 24, 2007).

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