1973: The Vertex (Turner) Interview, Complete Transcription

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1973: The Vertex (Turner) Interview, Complete Transcription

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Vertex Interview: Frank Herbert by Paul Turner
October 1973 : Volume 1, Issue 4

VERTEX: What got you started in science fiction?

HERBERT: Well, I didn't cut my teeth on science fiction. I began reading science fiction, I would guess, in the forties, the early forties. I'd been reading science fiction about ten years before I decided to write it.

VERTEX: Who were your favorite authors?

HERBERT: Well, I did read some Heinlein. I shouldn't really tie it down to ten years because I had read H. G. Wells. I'd read Vance, Jack Vance, and I became acquainted with Jack Vance about that time. Jack came along about six months or so after I'd decided to write science fiction. I heard he was in the area where I was living, and just walked in on him one day. We wound up, about six months later, our two families, going to Mexico. We lived in Mexico for a while and plotted several stories together. We're still very close friends. I read Poul Anderson. You know, we could list names here for a long while. I read the field when I started writing it. I wanted to see what was being done.

VERTEX: What were you doing at the time you started writing science fiction?

HERBERT:I was a newspaper editor, but I was also writing fiction. I was writing short stories. I decided very early I was going to write fiction. I came down to my birthday breakfast on my eighth birthday and announced, formally and portentously, to my family that I was going to be an author. My mother still treasures several hand-scribbled, badly misspelled, early eight-year-old attempts at fiction. One of them doesn't have a bad lead on it. Even now I can appreciate that I had the sense to put a narrative hook on the beginning of a story. even at age eight.

VERTEX: Dune is probably your most well-known science fiction novel.


VERTEX: What caused you to write Dune?

HERBERT: Well, I had been nurturing the idea to write a treatment of the messianic impulse in human society for a long while, and my technique is to collect material. I collect file folders of material. A character idea interests me, and I put that in a folder appropriately labeled. Along the way I went to Florence, Oregon, to do an article about the U. S. Department of Agriculture's test station there, on the control of sand dunes. The U. S. pioneered in the control of sand dunes by planting specially developed grasses and other plants to hold a dune in the wind. You see, a sand dune is just a kind of fluid, only it takes longer for it to move. It creates waves that, when you see them from the air, are analogous to waves in a sea.

VERTEX: A slow-motion sea.

HERBERT: Yes, that's right. So, I did this magazine article and I started collecting material on the control of sand dunes. That lead me into ecological matters, what we were doing to the planet. One day I woke up to the fact that I had a filing drawer full and that I just couldn't do anything else but write that book. So I sat down and I plotted a much longer work than Dune.

VERTEX: Dune is a pretty long work to begin with.

HERBERT: I know! It was much longer. I cut it up into three parts, and held out more than a third of it for the first book. I sat down and took about a year and a half putting it together, writing it. My reports from the New York market were very poor and my treatment by some of the publishers back there was just outrageous. Then I went back, even before I knew that Dune was being so successful, and wrote Dune Messiah, which was planned as a pivotal book, pointing both backward and forward, because I had a long range concept of the treatment of this messianic impulse in human society. I'm at work on the third and last one, which will probably turn out to be as long as Dune. How soon I can finish it, I don't know, because life and other immediate and urgent jobs keep intruding. But I'll get to it and I'll get it out, probably this year.

VERTEX: Do you have a title for it?

HERBERT: No. I have a working title, but I try not to talk about work in progress. My advice to any writer is not to use the energies of creation in talking about what he's working on; put it into the typewriter. You use the same energies to talk about your work that you use to write it. So I'm very cagey on these things, very secretive, and I hold all this back and then when I sit down at the typewriter it sort of pours out.

VERTEX: Talking about your technique, are there any special requirements that you use to write? For instance, do you need special environments?

HERBERT: Oh, I think we all need special environments for various things we do. A writer needs time, uninterrupted time, with the tools of his trade: paper and a writing instrument of some kind. Jack Vance uses pencil or pen. I think he has a rather interesting technique. He uses various colored pens; he has a dish of them beside him. When he gets tired of blue he writes with green, or red, or orange, or black. I use a typewriter. I think that's the newspaper training. I learned to type at about age fourteen and I touch-type. You train the thoughts to come out of the ends of your fingers in this particular mechanical way. I think you get a kinesthetic link right through the body. The thought comes into your head and goes right through your hands onto the paper, you see. So I need a place where I can sit down and not be interrupted for at least four hours a day, or six, and often much more.

VERTEX: Do you write long hours when you get inspired?

HERBERT: Oh, I don't wait for inspiration. I just sit down and work at creating the thing that has interested me from the start. The three books of the Dune series still interest me very much because of the way these impulses form in the organism we call human society.

VERTEX: There've been a lot of changes in our human society, our human culture, since you first wrote Dune. Are you incorporating these changes?

HERBERT: Oh, yes. The book is being changed by experience. A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You're there now doing the thing on paper. You're not killing the goose, you're just producing an egg. So I don't worry about inspiration, or anything like that. It's a matter of just sitting down and working. I have never had the problem of a writing block. I've heard about it. I've felt reluctant to write on some days, for whole weeks, or sometimes even longer. I'd much rather go fishing, for example. or go sharpen pencils, or go swimming, or what not. But, later, coming back and reading what I have produced, I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, "Well, now it's writing time and now I'll write." There's no difference on paper between the two.

VERTEX: That sounds like it might stem from your early newspaper experience, where you had to write regardless of the conditions or how you felt.

HERBERT: Yeah, you sit down and you just have conditioned yourself to: now it's writing time and you have a deadline sitting out there somewhere and you're going to do the very best you can right here at this moment: and so you do it.

VERTEX: What other things are you writing now, besides the last of the Dune novels?

HERBERT: Well, I've been doing the narrative script for a documentary about the navy demonstration flight team, the Blue Angels. It attracted me because it wasn't a conventional documentary; it wasn't just 'here we're going to do some groovy things flying.'' I am a pilot, so I was interested from the flying point of view, but I was also interested because here were these fellows flying very hot aircraft and doing extraordinary things with them, and it struck me that they didn't really know what they were doing. They knew flying; they knew they were doing a great thing and they were getting all this elation out of it, but they didn't understand their relationship to themselves and the airplane and the rest of the world. What they were demonstrating to people was that a human being could actually do these really extraordinary things: flying two aircraft towards each other, for example, at a closing speed of eighteen hundred feet a second. You think about that, eighteen hundred feet a second. And pass within three feet of each other. They train themselves so that the aircraft flies them as much as they are flying it, only we had to tell them that they were doing this. They thought they were controlling the aircraft, you see. The idea of absolute control is a hang up of Western culture. It is built into our language; it's part of the verb to be: "Well, you either do it or you don't!" It's the old Cartesian dichotomy--the separation between body and mind. Well, there is no separation between body and mind .

VERTEX: You talked earlier about the world culture, a composite of all the cultures on the Earth. Apparently you've thought about this at some length. Do you see lines, trends, things that are common to all cultures, a trend that this culture is following now?

HERBERT: Well, I don't see trends if you're thinking of "where are we going,'' but I see many, many influences which are going to be mutually interactive, creating something new. Of course, you can talk then about certain things that are going to happen. I think that, barring a tremendous breakthrough in energy sources, which is always a possibility (it's our hope, our belief in miracles, you see), we are going to see animal dieback in human populations in some areas of the world. Specifically, in at least one area, I have other areas in mind, but the island of Java, which I visited last summer, now has a population of more than 80 million effectively living on land which is about the size of one-third of the state of Washington . . . 80 million people . They have urban density in the countryside. Now, they do not occupy all of the available land on Java, all of the available surface, but some of it is non-usable for human purposes under present circumstances. So, again barring some tremendous breakthrough in energy and food sources, an animal dieback will happen there because they are doing nothing about their growing population. They still have one of the largest population growth rates in the world. Now, and let's be conservative about it, if they double their population before the year 2000 that land will not be able to support them with present energy sources. It is barely able to support them now. So they are very close to a crash, to a population crash. Now, I think that the rest of the world will effectively be helpless in the face of it. You could not get enough food there and if you did you would only exacerbate the problem if you just gave food.

VERTEX: Why is that?

HERBERT: Because the pressures on a society, the pressures of danger, including the pressures of starvation, tend to increase the population. There is a thrust of procreation.

VERTEX: That's what happens during war times.

HERBERT: Yes, we come out of a war with more population than when we go into it, despite the losses in the war. So I am predicting that Java is going to experience a population dieback, a population crash, within at most fifteen years. That's going to have one hell of an effect on the rest of the planet. Not just the inability to cope with it in conventional terms; that is, produce food and give it to them, or whatever. But people are then going to look inward, at their own populations. Whole societies are going to look inward at their own efforts. I really believe that what we popularly call 'the change in morality' that is, sex as recreation rather than procreation, is a social effort to cope with the necessity to limit the population and still deal with sexual drives.

VERTEX: So it's a high speed evolution.

HERBERT: Yes, I see it that way. Japan has been able to deal with its rate of growth rather dramatically. I see the same sort of thing happening in the United States. I do not see the same sort of thing happening in Muslim countries or in Latin America. Latin America is another area we want to look at in this respect, where the potential of population crashes exists because they are failing to deal with the problems in the face of the necessity to do so. If they do not limit population they must find other ways to deal with the increase, you see.

VERTEX: To get back to science fiction, what do you feel is the role of science fiction? Do you feel that science fiction can help, or is helping to solve some of these problems?

HERBERT: I think science fiction does help, and it points in very interesting directions. It points in relativistic directions. It says that we have the imagination for these other opportunities, these other choices. We tend to tie ourselves down to limited choices. We say, "Well, the only answer is...." or, "If you would just. . . ." Whatever follows these two statements narrows the choices right there. It gets the vision right down close to the ground so that you don't see anything happening outside. Humans tend not to see over a long range. Now we are required, in these generations, to have a longer range view of what we inflict on the world around us. This is where, I think, science fiction is helping. I don't think that the mere writing of such a book as Brave New World or 1984 prevents those things which are portrayed in those books from happening. But I do think they alert us to that possibility and make that possibility less likely. They make us aware that we may be going in that direction. We may be contriving a strictly controlled police culture. B. F. Skinner worries the hell out of me. He is right out of Huxley. He is standing there like a small boy saying, "Please let me have a world like this because I feel safe in it!" He is saying, "I want to control it." He may be very accurate in his assessment that our total society is going in that direction and that maybe he is opting for the lesser of numerous evils, in his view. But what kind of a society would that produce?

VERTEX: We'd like to touch on some of the personal aspects of your life. You mentioned earlier that some of your hobbies included electronics. What are some of the other things that you do for recreation?

HERBERT: I like to do cabinetry; I like to do things with my hands when I'm not writing. I feel that I'm getting as far away as I conveniently can from the activity of sitting at a typewriter and putting words on paper by doing these other things. It's helpful to me; it's a kind of a catharsis. I garden. I have six and a half acres in the northeast corner of the Olympic peninsula in the state of Washington. I am in the process of developing what, I hope, will be a demonstration plot of land in which the demonstration will be that one can live a relatively high quality of life without an enormous, irreplaceable energy drain. I am going to do some hand work on the land. I shovel dirt and move rocks. I am in the process of creating a very small lake/pond/marsh combination by staggering the depth of it. I am going to plant wild rice and a new upland rice which has been developed for high altitude use in the Phillipine Islands. I am not one of those people who believes in the "hot" gospel of ecology that man should keep his hands off the land. I believe that when he changes the land he ought to do it with an eye to the future, and with a little loving care so that when he has finished changing the land something is there that is more sustaining than what was there before. I will be able to plant trout in this pond and frogs and that sort of thing. It will attract birds that feed on the rice. That's why I'm planting it there. I'm going to build a kind of meeting house there--a guest house for friends to come m and have seminars and that sort of thing so that we can rap and exchange ideas. I hope to build it out of stabilized adobe, which is a very fine insulating material. As I dig the adobe out of the ground it will provide me with a basement in this guest house. Some of the land we scoop back for this lake-cum-pond will also provide us with adobe. I felt I had to put my hands where my mouth was. I was going around speaking about these things and it's one thing to say, "We ought to be doing," and it's another thing to just go ahead and do it a nd say, "Well, this is the way I think we ought to do it and here is the example. I wasn't right about this aspect of it. I found that to do this particular thing my original approach had to be modified this way." This is what we always find out when we get our hands dirty. The element of doing it always teaches us much more. That is one of the hangups of education. You wanted to know more about my personal life I've been teaching at the University of Washington up until the last quarter. Now I've taken a two year leave.

VERTEX: What courses were you teaching?

HERBERT:I was teaching a lecture course called Utopia/Dystopia, which was an examination of the myth of the better life; how we carry it in our heads. We don't do anything without resorting to this myth: growing hair on our faces, our choice of friends, the clothing we wear, the kind of government we choose, who we say is the best leader, who we say is a bad leader. We don't go into a voting booth without taking this myth with us.

VERTEX: Have you developed the course materials for this?

HERBERT:I developed the course materials. It struck me that academe is far gone down this long road of "education can be done with power." Now, all of academe is not down there. We have many, many beautiful people in education who manage to work in spite of the administrative power intrusions. But when you come right down to it, a school is a "person" who has information which works. He can demonstrate that it works and it is people who want to do what this person does. They want to learn how to make things work that way.

VERTEX: Do you enjoy teaching this course?

HERBERT: I enjoy it. I teach it on the basis of pass/fail. I have to grade for the system, but I give everybody an 'A'. Grading intrudes on education. It's quite obvious that we are an unique and different species. That being a sexually reproduced species , we are not all equal. Not in our abilities, our desires, or anything else. Each of us is one-of-a-kind. This happens in a class too. There are people with certain capabilities in one direction which, if you developed a measuring system in that direction, you could say are better than others; but this effectively blocks what you can learn from everyone in the class. Class ought to be a place where teachers learn, too. I have what I think is a very effective way of measuring whether people are getting anything that I have to give in a class situation, and that's whether I'm getting anything from them. If I'm learning from them I know they're learning from me. Now, I am not saying by this that we should immediately start medical students on a pass/fail system. Don't read me wrong on this. We have developed a set of parameters for a certain thing. But, we ought to recognize what we're doing, how we have developed those parameters, and how tightly we constrict them so that the end products are supposed to be stamped out the same. Really, this effectively stops development. Somewhere down the line, you have to have a man who can do something that others cannot do and can demonstrate this capability. He will say, "What I can do is this...."

VERTEX: He would be transferring that information.

HERBERT: Yes. "Here's how I do it." Now, obviously, this might not be the only way to do it for all time. It may not be the best way. We may develop far more effective ways of doing these things. But, under a power-oriented society, power adheres to people who have knowledge of how a thing works, no matter how temporary that "working" may be.

VERTEX: And the power seldom goes away afterwards.

HERBERT: Well, yes. Power tends to attract power, so that it effectively constricts avenues of development.

VERTEX: What would be a way out of that? How could you widen those avenues of development?

HERBERT: Well, if you're not to go to a completely chaotic society, with all the problems inherent in that, and that's not the answer, then we need ways that test the most outrageous concepts.

VERTEX: Do you have any idea how that can be done?

HERBERT: It was done under so-called "primitive" conditions by several avenues. The hermit could go out and do his thing. But we're running out of hermit space. The man with an idea that if you cut sections off a log and put a limb through the middle of them and put a load on the limb--you could carry a heavier load, drag it anyway, roll it--that man could just go do it. But our total society has found that if you let the physicists, say, build their wheel and cut their logs--then the resultant product becomes something that is used in a power context and, eventually, maybe a war. Eventually, maybe the destruction of the total planet. In this respect, I'm not as much worried by atomic weapons as I am by the whole structure and how it uses the products which accumulate in it. Far more dangerous to world society, in terms of springing upon us from an unknown corner, is the ability of a chemist and a pharmacist working in a basement, say, in South Africa to produce a mutated disease that would spread like wildfire throughout the world. Very cheap....

VERTEX: Just like the old science fiction stories.

HERBERT: It's very real, and a real potential in our world today.

VERTEX: We're really kind of living in a science fiction world today, aren't we?

HERBERT: Yes. I see this very clearly, that all of these things are accumulating around us. There are developments in several fields. There's no way to control these, no effective way to channel them and stop them in terms of present social directives, such as governments and social arbiters. There is no way, for example, to prevent the pharmacist or chemist from working in that basement in South Africa.

VERTEX: That's true. Well, don't we really have to find ways to do that in order to survive?

HERBERT: I think we are going at it in the wrong direction. We're thinking of controlling it rather than having a world society where people just don't want to do that sort of thing, don't want to destroy their fellows.

VERTEX: If we could learn how to do that we would have most of our problems solved.

HERBERT: It's not the answer and it's not an easy thing. Part of it is in recognizing the essential humanity, that all other humans are like me in some way. You know, when you come right down to it, a society defines that word, human. We think we know what a human being is. I begin the class by having them define human. I don't say homo sapiens, I don't say I want a medical definition, a physical definition, or anything else. I just say, define it. And, with a little gentle nudging here and there, we come to my assumption, which is that most societies define human as "like me." If they are sufficiently like me I'll let my daughter marry one. If they are not like me, they are somehow not quite human. They're Gooks, or niggers, or wops, or chinks. You know, everybody knows, they're not human . . . not quite. Or they're dirty Indians, or mixed. All you have to do is look at them to see they're not like me. They don't feel things the way I do. So that, if it's necessary, for some reason that I define, to kill off a few of them, well, the world hasn't lost much.

VERTEX: Those are hard basic assumptions to overcome.

HERBERT: Right. They are very hard basic assumptions to overcome, because they are ground into our tribal ancestry and they go so far as, say, a person who works for AT&T and has really "bought it" knows that he is better than somebody who works for US Steel. The guy from US Steel, of course, is just a little less than human, thereby.

VERTEX: There are a great many people out there who respect your writings, Mr. Herbert, and your abilities. Would you like to say something to them? . . . to all the young people, especially.

HERBERT: Yes. I would like to tell them to be very careful about finding scapegoats. Technology is not a thing out there to be destroyed, thereby solving all our problems. How far back do we cut it? Do we go back to hand saws and hand axes? Which elements of the technology will we discard? I would say to let their imaginations run free. Go ahead, try to imagine things that would be fun and humorous and whatever, things that would be interesting to make. Do it with an eye to how many ripples these things will create and who those ripples may inundate. Eventually, you have to sing for your supper.

VERTEX: Thank you very much, Mr. Herbert.

Originally published in Vertex Magazine, Volume 1, Number 4, October 1973. Published bimonthly by Mankind Publishing Company. Business offices: 8060 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046.
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Re: 1973: The Vertex (Turner) Interview, Complete Transcription

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1973: The Vertex (Turner) Interview, Complete Transcription
Well .... not so complete ...
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      Re: 1973: The Vertex (Turner) Interview, Complete Transcription

      Post by SandRider »

      thank you.
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      Re: 1973: The Vertex (Turner) Interview, Complete Transcription

      Post by ᴶᵛᵀᴬ »

      I exist only to serve :wink:
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