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Review of Dreamer of Dune by Brian Herbert

Dreamer of DuneDreamer of Dune is the biography of Frank Herbert by his ‘Number One Son’ and sometime collaborator Brian Herbert. Frank Herbert shouldn’t need any introduction, but he is, of course, author of, possibly the best and most famous science fiction novel, Dune, its five sequels, a number of other sf novels and short stories, and one straight fiction novel (Soul Catcher). Brian Herbert is also a science fiction novelist, and is probably best known for the range of Dune sequence prequels and sequels written with the hackish Kevin J Anderson.

In a way, this biography is a long string of anecdotes, spanning the whole of Frank Herbert’s life. Towards the beginning of the book, as details are scant and outside Brian Herbert’s lifetime, the anecdotes tend to be very short – one paragraph about this, one paragraph about that. Towards the end, the stories of Frank Herbert’s life gain the emotional colouring of Brian Herbert’s own experience of the events recounted – while still remaining quite short. There is a certain bittiness to this book, but I think this reflects the honesty of the author wanting to include as much relevant material as possible and not wanting to pad out the anecdotes with possibly fictionalised detail.

Frank Herbert was born in 1920 in Tacoma, Washington State. His father had numerous jobs and both his parents were alcoholics. This, combined with the Depression, meant that Frank’s childhood was marked by poverty and a lack of stability. Consequently, Frank, an intelligent, adventurous child, became very mature very quickly. Several of the most striking tales of his childhood concerned his many boating trips. As a young teenager – perhaps younger – he would go out by himself into the lakes and rivers and even out on to the Pacific. Frank would venture into shipping lanes and hitch his boat to the back of passing tugs, thus travelling hundreds of miles. At the age of fourteen, he and seventeen year old friend made a two thousand mile round trip to Alaska by themselves. Frank’s education came more from household duties (milking the cow, collecting firewood and so on), hunting trips with his father and uncles and his own independence than from attending school.

Children in town didn’t have to go to school on their birthdays. In October 1928, on the morning of his eighth birthday, Frank Herbert went downstairs to a breakfast of sourdough flapjacks and real maple syrup, favorites of his that had been prepared specially for him by his mother and paternal grandmother. After the breakfast dishes were cleared away, he climbed on top of the table and announced to his family, in a very determined tone, “I wanna be a author.”

That morning he wrote his first story, entitled “Adventures in Darkest Africa,” which he read to his family. Crayon drawings accompanied it.

Frank Herbert married and had a baby girl shortly before joining the navy in 1942. His wife filed for divorce while he was away at sea the following year. Subsequently, he had an accident and was discharged without having seen combat.

He wrote on and off for much of his early life, but quite often other things got in the way. He remarried, this time to Brian Herbert’s mother, Beverly, worked for newspapers and for politicians seeking election (none of them succeeded). Frank Herbert and his own family moved around a lot, never settling in one place; they even spent two periods living in Mexico (one of these times, they drove there in a hearse) for the purpose of allowing Frank the time and space to write – a plan that never fully worked out (at least in terms of making a living as a writer).

Brian Herbert is quite honest about the negative aspects of his father’s personality. Whilst being an outgoing, intelligent, jovial man, always ready to hold court and tell stories and jokes and expound his opinions, Frank Herbert had no patience for children. He demanded absolute quiet when he was writing, and expected his two sons from his marriage with Beverly to do exactly as they were instructed. Brian Herbert reports that he was an intimidating figure – and he even used a lie detector on his children.

In his early writing career Frank Herbert published a few short stories, but never on a regular basis – either because he was pursuing other interests or simply because the stories he wrote weren’t accepted. His first novel, The Dragon in the Sea (also entitled Under Pressure for its serialisation – and 21st Century Sub as a paperback) was published in 1956. As Brian Herbert points out, this story prefigures some of the themes in Dune, especially the idea of a precious and scarce commodity (in this novel it’s oil, in Dune it’s both the spice melange and water).

Despite this success, Frank Herbert would not begin to make it as a writer for another decade. His family lived on the edge for much of this period. Frank Herbert had a practice of signing up for as many mailing lists as possible, then using the resulting deluge of junk mail as fuel for heating. This practice was rethought when, later on, he accidentally burnt a royalty cheque. One of his journalistic tasks took him to a project to halt desertification by planting poverty grasses. This was one of a number of threads that, over several years, were weaved into the story that became Dune. Another was the idea of dangerous heroes – Frank Herbert disliked John F Kennedy because of the cult of personality he had engendered.

Even when Dune was eventually written and published in 1965, it took several years for it to take off and starting earning enough money for the Herberts that Frank could finally become a full-time writer – well into his forties. The success of Dune and its sequels snowballed over the following two decades, such that many of the Dune sequence books set new records for advances and sales, as did some of the other major Frank Herbert novels, such as The Dosadi Experiment and The White Plague.

Despite their financial success, the Herberts still had money problems – Frank and Beverly were impulsive buyers, always purchasing new things by mail order. They finally bought a house to settle down in in Washington State, and Frank Herbert used the property to start constructing ‘EDPs’ – Environmental Demonstration Projects, such as wind and solar power generation. In some ways, although I don’t doubt Frank Herbert had many ideas he wanted to explore in the Dune universe, the continual production of sequels to that seminal novel were a way of financing his increasingly expensive lifestyle.

In the 1970s, Frank Herbert’s wife, Beverly, developed inoperable lung cancer. The subsequent radiotherapy damaged her heart, however, and, while she survived the lung cancer, she was left greatly weakened, and she died in 1984. Beverly’s long, drawn-out illness and death were a huge blow to Frank Herbert. Throughout their marriage, the two were as affectionate for each as honeymooners and were dependent on each other in many ways. Although he married again, Frank Herbert died two years after his wife – not of the cancer which had been afflicting him at the time, but of a pulmonary embolism.

Brian Herbert’s simplicity and honesty in describing the latter part of his father’s life make it a moving read. The overwhelming impression is of the reliance of Frank on Beverly and vice versa and that without one, the other is nothing. Frank Herbert survived only just long enough to fulfil a number of promises to his second wife – including finishing the sixth Dune book, finishing the novel he and Brian co-wrote, Man of Two Worlds, and even remarrying. If Beverly had not died, Frank would not have died, and science fiction readers would have had more great novels to savour.

So, Dreamer of Dune is a consistently fascinating and readable account of the life of one of science fiction’s most important authors. The fact that it is written by his son gives it an added emotional dimension and it’s a worthwhile read for anyone remotely interested in Dune.

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