W. Meyers: Problems with Herbert (Review), 1983

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W. Meyers: Problems with Herbert (Review), 1983

Postby SandRider » Fri Apr 30, 2010 10:00 pm



Walter E. Meyers
Problems with Herbert
Timothy O'Reilly. Frank Herbert. "Recognitions" Series. NY: Frederick Ungar. 1981. 216 p. $5.95 paper.

David M. Miller. Frank Herbert. Starmont Reader's Guide No. 5. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1980. 70 p.

$3.95 paper.

Both Timothy O'Reilly's and David M. Miller's straightforwardly named books suffer from the worst fate risked by

anyone who writes criticism about a living author: having the author add a major novel to the canon just after the

publication of the study. Apparently, neither O'Reilly nor Miller anticipated the publication of God Emperor of Dune in

1981. Thus in commenting on Dune, O'Reilly, for example, asserts that some things in the novel "were left deliberately

unfinished, to draw the reader's attention deeper into the story and to keep him involved long after it was over" (p. 54).

Some of these unfinished parts were resolved in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, so it would not have been going

far out on a limb to guess that still further works in the series would follow. If O'Reilly and Miller are fortunate, Ungar and

Starmont House will give them the chance to revise their thoughts in second editions.

For the present, though, we have only these two critical works at hand. Each makes additions to the exploration of the

themes of Herbert, one of the most ambiguous of current writers of SF. Any critic might be wary of Herbert's practice of

turning the table on his readers from book to book. The best known reader to suffer from table rotation was John W.

Campbell, Jr, who rejected Dune Messiah because the novel torpedoes the heroic image of Paul Atreides so carefully

built up in Dune. Through a study of both published and unpublished material, O'Reilly demonstrates that Herbert's plan

was deliberate from the start, and that at least part of the inflation of Paul was engineered by a design to make his

subsequent deflation the more striking. Yet this is only one example of the difficulty of pinning Herbert down.

Take a second example: Herbert often shows elite groups, with the Fremen of Dune chief among them. They show

marvelous adaptation to their environment, but little adaptability. When they get what they want most--the greening of

Arrakis--they change from vigorous to indolent, from honest to devious, and from independent to sycophantic. Was their

desire, in retrospect, a good thing? Herbert was proclaimed ecology's apostle when Dune appeared: here was the

husbandry of resources on a planetary scale. But the restoration of Arrakis is death for the sandworm, an endangered

species more spectacular than the Fremen. By the time of God Emperor, the sandworms have become extinct. Since the

species is the sole producer of the spice mélange that allows interplanetary travel, what seemed like conservation on a

planetary scale could have meant the destruction of society on an interplanetary scale.

It is very hard, therefore. to decide exactly what Herbert's statement is, especially in the Dune books. Yet both O'Reilly

and Miller make attempts. By both its length and the scale of its research, O'Reilly's book becomes the foundation of

future studies of Herbert. Certainly the book demonstrates very clearly that Herbert employs a number of very disturbing

ideas. O'Reilly notes how harsh environments (submarine life, the desert planet) produce a survival-of-the-fittest

scenario, in which "strength lies in adaptability, not fixity. Civilization...tries to create and maintain security, which all too

frequently crystallizes into an effort to minimize diversity and stop change" (p. 50). Although the term "Social Darwinism"

occurs in neither O'Reilly's nor Miller's book, they both articulate the presence of the idea in Herbert's fiction.

O'Reilly's study contains an unfortunate sentence, which some might think could continue an old piece of bigotry. In

talking about Herbert's education, O'Reilly says "he was taught by Jesuits. An order whose political power and long-term

vision silently shaped a great sweep of world affairs, and who were once famed for their training and asceticism, the

Society of Jesus bears no small resemblance to the witches of the Imperium" (p. 88). One may believe that the Jesuits

were in Herbert's mind when he created the Bene Gesserit without having to accept the nonsense of some sort of

Catholic Protocol of Zion.

Perhaps the scariest idea in O'Reilly's comments is his assertion that Paul's jihad, in which millions are slaughtered, is

inevitable. As O'Reilly phrases it, the jihad is a species-wide demand. [Paul] must sacrifice his civilized abhorrence and

submit to biology" (p. 76). One hopes that O'Reilly's study might spur further examination of this biological excuse for

armed conquest.

O'Reilly does a good job of showing the often direct influence of the philosophies of Heidegger and Jaspers throughout

Herbert's works, and it is a pleasure to see the consistent connections between ideas of the Dune books and novels like

The Santaroga Barrier, The Eyes of Heisenberg, and Hellstrom's Hive. But when O'Reilly tries to find not just the same

ideas but a clear and consistent attitude towards the actions of the characters, he seems doubtful whether one exists. He

states that Herbert distrusts even the ideas most appealing to him, that Herbert is suspicious of "easy answers," even that

Herbert "may have been carried away by his own pretensions" (p. 173). Yet, if it is true, as O'Reilly reads the Dune

series, that the story depicts "the arbitrary nature of human morality," then what moral judgment can be made by and

about the characters in those books? Paul's failure to free the Imperium from his religion is not just tragic, as Campbell

noted and O'Reilly seconds; not just a failure, as God Emperor of Dune shows; but in the last analysis, pointless. Indeed,

in the prologue of God Emperor, Herbert seems to have forced a happy ending by creating still another elite, the

descendants of Duncan Idaho and the Atreides.

The format of O'Reilly's Herbert is annoying: I hope I am not alone in disliking the way Ungar's "Recognitions" series

handles documentation. Since the placement of notes at the foot of the page seems beyond the technical capacity of

modern publishers, I can live with gathering them at the end of the text. But I would surely like to have a note-number, an

asterisk, or what-have you in the text to tell me that there is a note to what I am reading. In the Ungar series, notes are

identified at the end of the text by the page on which they occur and the first few words of the quotations. Some of these

quotations are indirect, so the reader does not even have quotation marks to identify the end of the cited material. When

reading the text, you cannot tell that a note exists, and when reading the notes, you cannot tell where the note ends.

O'Reilly is not to blame; this decision was the publishers'; they have continued the least useful and most imprecise

documentation system I know of.

One minor point: the index gathers the page-references for "John W. Campbell, Jr" under the heading for "Joseph

Campbell." Indexing makes strange bed-fellows.

Miller's Frank Herbert, at 70 pages, makes no pretense of being more than a brief reading of the works prior to God

Emperor. Some of the pages in my copy were bound in upside-down in random order, but a razor-blade solved that

problem. Miller's book would have profited more from closer proofreading: for example, the name of the planet Salusa

Secundus is misspelled, and Landsraad is spelled as Landsraat throughout. Sometimes Miller's guesses turn out to be

wrong: he wonders if the name of Dasein (in The Santaroga Barrier) is meant to suggest "daze-in," missing the fact that

the name is the German word for "existence," just as the name of another character in that work, Jenny Sorge, means

"sorrow" in the same language. Although Miller has a number of interesting insights, O'Reilly's work offers much more in

the way of coverage, length, bibliography, and background for only two dollars more. Now if we could just do

something about those notes.
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