Herbert, Frank (1920-1986)

views updated

Herbert, Frank (1920-1986)

Science fiction writer Frank Herbert is ranked among such well-respected authors of imaginary worlds as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Isaac Asimov. Though he wrote more than twenty novels and several short stories, his fame is linked to his "Dune Chronicles." His first book in the series, Dune (1965), won the first-ever Nebula award and shared a Hugo award for best novel. Although initially rejected by twenty publishers, the book became the best-selling science fiction book in history, with more than twelve million copies sold. By the end of the twentieth century the book had not yet gone out of print. Intended as the beginning of a trilogy, Dune instead spawned five sequels, with a sixth left unfinished at the time of Herbert's death in 1986. Dune was made into a major motion picture in 1984. The series, set on the planet of Arrakis, or Dune, follows the history of the Atreides family over thousands of years. The "Dune" saga is considered one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written.

Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1920, Frank Patrick Herbert possessed a wide-ranging mind. He attended the University of Washington for a year in 1946 before becoming a reporter. He worked as a reporter and editor of west coast newspapers, including the Glendale Star (California), the Oregon Statesman, the Seattle Star, and the San Francisco Examiner, between 1939 and 1969, and later an educational writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1969 to 1972. With the success of Dune in 1965, however, Herbert was able devote his attention to his novel writing. But he did continue to lecture and act as a social and ecological consultant.

A strong believer in self-reliance and ecological harmony, Herbert generated his own energy on his small farm with solar heating, methane gas from chicken dung, and wind power (from an improved windmill design for which he was awarded a U.S. patent). Herbert wove many of his ecological ideas into all his novels. Throughout his work Herbert provides his readers with complex adventure plots and probing questions about the cosmos, human nature, and society.

Dune is a work of extraordinary complexity, telling the story of the desert planet Arrakis and its inhabitants. Set 25 centuries in the future, the novel introduces a universe that is controlled by two opposing political powers, the Imperium and the Great Houses. The interstellar civilization is a precarious balance between the political, military, and economic forces of the largest powers as well as the disruptive smaller independent organizations, including the Spacing Guild (which has a monopoly on interplanetary travel), the Bene Gesserit order, the massive CHOAM trading company, and the Bene Tleilax. The story is a remarkable metaphor of late twentieth-century American society with the blending and balancing of political, economic forces with religious, cultural, and business interests—and of course the ever present, but largely ignored, ecological phenomena. Dune successfully created the most complete and detailed imaginary world ever before written.

The success of Dune was a turning point in science fiction publishing. The book's popularity broadened the audience of science fiction. It also "paved the way for large advances, bigger printings, best-seller status, and heavy subsidiary sales for many other writers," according to Willis E. McNelly. The ecological thinking examined in Dune made it a college campus cult classic, in fashion with J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or the original Star Trek series. The attention directed toward Dune in the 1970s and 1980s was in many ways the predecessor of the type of fandom that sprang up around The X-Files in the 1990s. Many young people strived to become more ecologically minded, patterning themselves after Herbert's character Liet Kynes, the planetary ecologist, who was aware of and concerned with the consequences of human actions on the environment. The novel also attracted those interested in the effects of drugs on behavior. The book discussed a substance called spice, which increased awareness and cerebral functions and allowed Mentats (human computers) to pursue their vocation in a world that has banned thinking machines. Users of controlled substances claimed many of the same effects as those discussed in Dune. Although illegal, hallucinogens called "smart drugs" were used in areas of California to aid complex problem solving and another street drug, named "ecstasy," reportedly improved sexual awareness and pleasure.

Despite the intense interest in turning Dune into a movie, a script written by David Lynch, and a 40-to 50-million dollar budget, the resultant film flopped in 1984. But the disappointing film did not damage the cult-like interest in Herbert's original material. By the late 1990s, New Amsterdam Entertainment (NAE) announced that, in cooperation with ABC and The Sci-Fi Channel, it would produce a six-hour miniseries adaptation of Dune (although the future of this series is uncertain).

Herbert's "Dune Chronicles" inspired several popular musicians. Iron Maiden, a heavy metal band, performed what they called a Dune song, "To Tame a Land," on their 1983 Piece of Mind album. The Blind Guardian released a Dune inspired song, "Traveler in Time," from Tales From the Twilight World in 1991. A German techno band called itself Dune. The band's electronic instrumentals were popular in American techno dance clubs in the mid-1990s where the oft repeated refrain of "the spice must flow" could be heard.

Some of the jargon found in Dune has infiltrated popular speech. Many analogies have been made between the Dune storyline, with its obsession over the spice melange, and the Middle Eastern oil reserves and their influence on the global economy. "The spice must flow," a quote from a third grade guild navigator, is referred to quite often in its modern version "the oil must flow." In addition, statements such as "long live the fighters," "the gom jabbar," and "fear is the mind killer" are as ingrained in popular jargon as "may the force be with you" from Star Wars and "Grokking" and "Sharing Water" from Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.

The Dune story has been adapted into several games. In 1979, Avalon Hill created a board game called "Dune the Board Game" based on the novel. Five years later, Parker Brothers developed a board game titled "Dune," which was based on the movie. Computer versions of the Dune saga soon appeared on the market. In 1992, the first computer Dune game combined both strategy and adventure. A sequel, titled "Dune II: The Builders of Dynasty," followed in 1993. An improvement over the first, Dune II became an even bigger hit. It was awarded the 1993 Strategy Game of the Year Award. The continuing success of Dune II led to the introduction of "Dune 2000," released in 1998. "Dune 2000" is a real-time strategy game that can be played singly on CD-rom, over the Internet, or over local area networks. The game is focused on military strategy and political intrigue with Fremen warriors battling legions of Sardaukar and House Harkonnen plotting against House Atreides while the Emperor, the Guild Navigators, and the Bene Gesserit reek havoc where they can. Five Ring Publishing produced "Dune: The Eye of the Storm," a customizable card game, which was very popular in the 1990s. Though the games follow much of the Dune saga, none have incorporated any serious consideration of ecology, which was one of Herbert's central ideas in the series.

Herbert had considered Dune a "training manual for consciousness." Others agreed and the Dune Chronicles have been used in architecture, literature, and philosophy, among other courses at universities across the country. Herbert attributed the popularity of Dune in college classrooms to the genre of science fiction, which he noted "lends itself to that because we're dealing with ideas a great deal of the time." Indeed, Herbert's greatest contribution lies in his imaginative ideas.

—Craig T. Cobane

Further Reading:

DiTommaso, Lorenzo. "History and Historical Effects in Frank Herbert's Dune. " Science-Fiction Studies. Vol. 19, No. 3, 1992, 311-325.

Ellis, R. J. "Frank Herbert's Dune and the Discourse of Apocalyptic Ecologism in the United States." In Science Fiction Roots and Branches: Contemporary Critical Approaches. Edited by Rhys Garnett and R. J. Ellis. New York, St. Martin's, 1990.

Levack, Daniel J. H., and Mark Willard. Dune Master: A Frank Herbert Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut, Meckler, 1988.

Liddell, Elisabeth, and Michael Liddell. " Dune : A Tale of Two Texts." In Cinema and Fiction: New Modes of Adapting 1950-90, edited by John Orr and Colin Nicholson. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1992.

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

Miller, David M. Frank Herbert. San Bernardine, California, The Borgo Press, 1980.

Minowitz, Peter. "Prince versus Prophet: Machiavellianism in Frank Herbert's Dune Epic." In Political Science Fiction, edited by Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

O'Reilly, Timothy. Frank Herbert. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981.

Touponce, William. Frank Herbert. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1988.

About this article

Herbert, Frank (1920-1986)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article