Brian Herbert, Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert (Tor, 2003)

Frank Herbert was a giant of science fiction. His Dune series of books set numerous sales records and helped bring the genre out of the realm of space opera and into the hallowed halls of Literature.

In Dune and its five sequels, Herbert imagined an entire universe and a galactic empire far in the future, peopled by three-dimensional characters: emperors, dukes, tradesmen, desert nomads and mysterious starship pilots, all of whose activities revolved around a spicy drug found on the planet Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune. Through the first book and its sequels, we traced the rise of a precocious boy named Paul to power as the ruler of first the nomads and then the entire planet, and eventually becoming some sort of mutant messiah, giving birth to a galactic spiritual and temporal empire, which his descendants and followers ran just as ruthlessly as the empire he had overthrown.

Dune operates on many levels — as an adventure story, a spiritual quest, and an allegory with ecological, historical and religious themes. It arrived on the cusp of the environmental movement, and coincided with great spiritual awakenings among people young and old who were looking for meanings beyond the eight-to-five corporate reality of the establishment. Young people whose friends, brothers and fathers were serving and dying in a meaningless war in Southeast Asia found solace in a book about a truly meaningful war, waged to free the planet Dune from economic slavery and ecological disaster.

A comprehensive biography of this larger-than-life author is to be welcomed. Unfortunately, this misnamed memoir by his elder son is not that book.

To be sure, Brian Herbert draws a fairly complete, warts-and-all picture of Frank Herbert's life. Born in 1920 in working-class Tacoma, Washington, the son of an alcoholic sometime policeman and his alcoholic wife, he grew up largely on his own, boating and rousting-about on Puget Sound. It was a paripatetic childhood, moving frequently, his parents failing at one venture after another, and he took refuge in the outdoors and in books, announcing that he wanted to be "a author" at the age of eight.

He served in a non-combat role as a photographer in the Navy during World War II, and after the war worked off and on for newspapers in Washington, Oregon and California. He inherited some of his father's restlessness, uprooting himself and his young family frequently for sojourns in Mexico or better opportunities somewhere over the horizon, and always with the dream of becoming a professional writer. Several times in the 1950s and early '60s, he worked for stints as speechwriter for various Republican congressional candidates from Washington; all of them lost, but he made many connections and learned much of human motivation and political wrangling on the way.

He met and married Beverly Forbes (his second wife) in 1946, and the two spent their honeymoon on a fire lookout in the Washington Cascades. She was an aspiring writer too, but spent the rest of her life supporting Frank in his dreams and endeavors.

Brian Herbert reveals his father as a blustery, impatient man, uncomfortable with children and unable to relate to his own offspring until they were adults. He demanded quiet when he was writing, and enforced a strict and regimented order in the household.

And he worked hard at his craft, honing it constantly, putting in long hours and forever seeking to improve his writing until, finally, it was published. His first book was speculative fiction of a sort, a psychological thriller about the crew of a submarine in a future war when oil was the most precious commodity on the planet.

Herbert wrote most of Dune in a small house in San Francisco between 1961 and 1965 (Brian refers to it as a one-story house in the text, although a photo in the picture section clearly shows it to have two), while working evenings as photo editor for the San Francisco Examiner. What became the thick first Dune book was originally written as a trilogy, the first part of which was serialized by John W. Campbell's Analog science fiction magazine. Into it Herbert poured years of informal study and research into psychology, religions, politics, speechcraft, ecology, sociology and numerous other subjects.

Dune was not an immediate hit, but its popularity grew with each sequel. It was the first book to win both the Nebula and Hugo awards, eventually selling hundreds of thousands of copies in many languages and being made into a feature film.

Frank Herbert never learned to manage money, and probably never knew how much he was worth. He was hounded by the IRS for back taxes for much of his adult life, but spent lavishly on travel and on several homes, including one he custom-built in Maui. It was there that his wife died in 1984 of heart disease brought on by radiation therapy for lung cancer 10 years earlier. He himself was diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer in late 1985, and died two years after his wife while in the hospital for cancer treatment.

It was an interesting life, and I found myself eagerly turning the pages of this book, in spite of Brian Herbert's awkward writing style. I could cite numerous examples like this one:

"In my father's lifetime there were many incidents involving his driving. He was, in fact, something of a notorious motor vehicle operator wherever he lived — mostly involving speeding incidents."
And in every chapter, sometimes on every page, the narrative slips from a detail of Frank Herbert's writing career to some extraneous (and frequently repetitive) detail about the family's life. For example, in one paragraph we're told of a time when Frank has begun his research for the book that would become Dune: "He had the science fiction bug once more, but for a respite from the rigors of novel research, he began writing short stories in that genre again and mailing them off to (his agent) in New York City..." And in the next paragraph, "Sometimes Dad kidded Mom about having a black spot on her lower back, a mark that came and went...." and in the next, "My parents were totally faithful to one another, and rarely argued about anything, at least not in front of the children. They were remarkably compatible."

I can't believe that a man with the glaring personality defects that Frank Herbert had did not have some skeletons in the closet. But would we find out about them from his son? Not in this book. A man who would hook his teenage sons up to an Army surplus lie detector to find out who committed some minor infraction of household rules, who bullied waitresses and other underlings and drove like a madman must surely have made some enemies. A rift between Herbert and Robert Heinlein is briefly mentioned, with no details given. None of his agents were interviewed, apparently, nor his publishers or editors, nor any of the volatile and opinionated personalities who worked on the disappointing Dune movie.

Instead, we get what seem to be great undigested chunks from Brian Herbert's diaries, including detailed descriptions of meals eaten at fancy restaurants, down to the label and year of the wines, on ordinary days in the life of the family. In fact, the second half of the book seems more a memoir of Brian Herbert's attempts to patch up his relationship with his father, than a biography of the enigmatic and influential author who is ostensibly the subject of the book.

Again and again, Brian uses the techniques of dramatic foreshadowing, but nothing happens. Several times, as I read about how Brian Herbert spent his day, what he ate for breakfast and lunch, what he said to his wife over dinner, how many deer he saw in the yard, how far he walked with his father, what kind of wine they had as they discussed their day's work, I kept expecting some revelation, some catastrophe — his mother takes a sudden turn for the worse, or his wife wrecks the car, or brother Bruce calls from San Francisco with the news that he has AIDS. But no, he's just pouring out his journals and filling up pages with uninteresting details.

Frank Herbert was frequently accused during his lifetime of writing the seemingly endless series of Dune sequels simply for the money. And although Brian frequently quotes his father complaining about his financial woes, and looking forward to the money he'll make off of each sequel as it's sent off to the publishers, at one point he makes the spurious claim that his father didn't write the books solely for money, offering nothing but his own word as evidence.

Brian Herbert has written an interesting but uneven family memoir. The world still awaits the definitive biography of Frank Herbert.

[Gary Whitehouse]