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Something Beyond the Chaos

By (December 1, 2014) No Comment

The Collected Stories of Frank HerbertCollectedHerbert
By Frank Herbert
Tor, 2014

No one is surprised to hear that a new science fiction book has been published by a Herbert. But the Herbert in question, on this occasion, comes as both a surprise and a relief: it’s Frank Herbert, coming before us again in a posthumous collection of his short stories. Since Frank’s death, the Herbert banner has mostly been carried by his son, Brian Herbert. Or, more accurately, that banner has been dragged through the mud. Most of Brian Herbert’s books have cannibalized the world of Dune, his father’s greatest creation. Dune is the best-selling novel in the history of the genre. For many avid readers of science fiction like myself, the memory of reading Dune marks both an initiation and a climacteric in our experience of what the genre can be — as a source of gripping tales, as a medium for philosophical reflection, and as a catalyst for that genre-defining emotion of wonder. But the son’s terrible prequels and sequels fail even to approximate that standard. They are bloody-minded without being imaginative, almost completely devoid of interesting ideas, and more likely to produce embarrassment, in light of their literary forebear, than wonder. So, for the despairing reader, The Collected Stories of Frank Herbert represents an opportunity to become reacquainted with an inimitable voice too long poorly imitated.

Beyond the sheer pleasure of its existence, I am glad to report that this collection is organized chronologically. Chronological short story collections reveal the course of a writer’s development. The stories together mark steps in a larger story, the story of a writer’s birth from the ashes of his own early failures. And what strikes the reader beginning The Collected Stories of Frank Herbert is just how bad he was in the beginning. The chasm between the author of “Looking for Something?” — the first story in the collection — and the author of Dune seems unbridgeable. But the collection’s chief pleasure is that it allows us to cross that distance in person.

At first, Herbert did nearly everything badly: dialogue, description, plot.

His dialogue was an awkward and unpersuasive vehicle for his science fiction ideas. “Looking for Something?” is the story of a hypnotist who begins to wonder whether everybody is being hypnotized by mysterious puppet-masters who are using us for their own benefit. Because this is science fiction, his paranoia turns out to be prophecy. In the story-world, a race of aliens farms the human race for “korad,” an unexplained substance ensuring their own immortality. They do this using deeply planted hypnotic controls. Our human hypnotist begins to suspect in the middle of one of his shows — for no apparent reason but that it’s convenient to the plot. Afterward, mulling over his idea in a dressing room, the girl he’d been hypnotizing on stage comes rushing backstage to talk to him:

“I got to thinking while my friends were talking to me. I got to wondering. What if all this–” she gestured around her– “our whole lives, our world, everything we see, feel, hear, smell, or sense in any way is more of the same. A hypnotic delusion!”
“Precisely!” Paul exhaled the word.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“I said, ‘Precisely!'”
Paul turned toward her and rested his left elbow on the dressing table. “Because,” he said, “at the very moment I was telling you what you would do when you awakened, at the moment I was giving you the commands which resulted in your hallucination, I got the same idea.”
“My goodness!” she said.

And with this implausible, awkward, speechifying exchange, they’re off. Paul convinces the girl to go back into hypnotic trance where, he claims, they can discover if she possesses any other hidden hypnotic commands deep in her psyche.

In the early stories, this clumsy style defaces more than just dialogue. In “Operation Syndrome,” in the middle of a simple descriptive paragraph, we find the following classic of beginner’s overreach: “The breeze of the bay carried essence of seaweed, harmonic on the dominant bitter musk of a city’s effluvia.” Or, in other words, a character smelled sea stink and city stink at the same time. In fairness, this kind of overwriting is not just a symptom of Herbert’s inexperience — he remained guilty of such sentences even into his Dune prime — but the general level of diction rose to make them stick out less. Moreover, his mastery of certain other techniques made them forgivable.

As for the early plots, they are unambiguously hard-SF formula stories. In most of them, a scientist of some sort is faced with a world-threatening problem and solves it by inventing something. In “Operation Syndrome,” a psychiatrist averts world catastrophe by building an ESP machine. In “The Gone Dogs,” a biologist averts the viral extinction of all canines by smuggling a few puppies off-planet and engineering immunity. In “Cease Fire,” a futuristic Arctic war is ended by a chemist who thinks of a way to neutralize all explosive weapons by — you guessed it — building a machine. In these stories, the hero is usually American and always male. Women are scenery, or damsel-in-distress plot motivators. The only pall permitted to a happy ending is the premonition that the hero might have to be awesome again, sometime in the future. This is science fiction at its most barren: literally the story of a man using a tool to fix something.

DuneBut even in these early stories, a discerning eye notices elements of what will come. In an introduction by Frank Herbert (written in 1975, prior to all but the last four stories in this collection), he notes that, “to write science fiction, you make a connection between technology and the myth-dream of human immortality.” Human immortality is certainly the central obsession of Herbert’s fiction all along. For him, the problem is not just how to avoid or return from death, but the way in which immortality or the things we substitute for it – reproduction, fame, gnostic insight – can create their own problems. Secret eugenics societies and shadowy power-structures that outlast governments; experiments in longevity and cloning; even the sublimated, species-wide drives that express themselves in moments of forgetfulness or passion – such variations on the “myth-dream of human immortality” come increasingly to form the substance of his stories.

Already in that very first story, the korad-farming aliens note that “we can go on draining the immortality of others — but only as long as we maintain constant vigilance.” Immortality creates problems because it becomes an excuse for domination, both interpersonally and socially. The social form of immortality is, of course, the institution — be it company, dynasty, religion, or regime. One of Herbert’s favorite subjects is the cycle of regimes, how one regime gives way to another. Consequently, his heroes tend to fight within a system whose bureaucratic inertia contains the seeds of its own destruction. His villains tend to be well-meaning blow-hards unable to adapt institutional policies to emergencies. They are villains because of an excessive dedication to the immortality of a system. The chemist hero in “Cease Fire,” for example, is almost stymied by his superior officers’ disbelief in the possibility of a war-ending invention. Hulser, the chemist, tries to explain his idea to Major Lipari, but

“This man is under arrest, sergeant,” said Lipari. “Take him back to area headquarters under guard and have him held for a general court. On your way out send in my orderly.”
Chamberlain saluted. “Yes, sir.” He turned, took Hulser’s arm. “Come along, Hulser.”
Lipari turned away, groped on a corner shelf for his aspirin. He heard the door open and close behind him. And it was not until this moment that he asked himself: Could that crackpot actually have had a workable idea? He found the aspirin, shrugged the thought away.

This sort of thing happens repeatedly in the early stories. The only real obstacle between Herbert’s scientist-heroes seeing a problem and solving it is the stupidity of their own superiors. But this kind of conflict is also the seed for the complex institutional politics that enrich his best works, like Dune, where a realistically fragmented yet functional society is represented as the struggle, not between humans but between institutions, to achieve a kind of immortality.

Herbert’s transformation from clumsy, promising amateur, to sure-handed professional, confronts the reader in this collection with unusual clarity. The shift comes in a quartet of stories forming a series a third of the way into the collection. Each of these stories is set in the same imaginary future. This future is neither particularly inventive nor particularly plausible. Humans have colonized the galaxy, but subsequently destroyed their multiple-planet civilization by the internecine “Rim Wars.” Roughly half a millennium later, a new galactic government is rising from the ashes. Two important bureaus bulk large in its government: R-R (Rediscovery and Re-education) and I-A (Investigation and Adjustment). R-R finds technologically decayed human remnants, tries to discover if their societies have developed belligerent tendencies, and, if they haven’t, slowly reintroduces them to galactic-level technology. I-A comes in when R-R suspects belligerence, tries to figure out its source, and either eliminates that source or destroys the population. Each of the four stories also features the same protagonist, Lewis Orne.

In the first story, “You Take The High Road,” Orne is an R-R agent who has called in I-A on a hunch. The society he’s studying seems peaceful, but they don’t have much of a sense of humor. He has a bad feeling about them. An arrogant I-A officer marches him around, insultingly criticizing the vagueness of his hunch. Orne feels worse and worse, beginning to suspect he has pushed the panic button for no reason. But then the reversal! (Which every reader knew was coming.) All the things that made him unaccountably uncomfortable, by the I-A rulebook are proof positive of belligerence. Orne listens to the explanation and says,

“I should’ve thought of that.”
“You did,” said Stetson. “Unconsciously. You saw all of this unconsciously. it bothered hell out of you. That’s why you pushed the panic button. […] I think you’ll make a pretty good I-A operative.”

So Orne is conscripted, and the next two stories regale us with his adventures as an undercover I-A agent. These first three installments of the Investigation And Adjustment Stories are gimmick stories – the first an elaborate joke, the next two painful imitations of a Sherlock Holmes mysery. But the fourth story is something else. After “The Priests of Psi,” every item in the collection is identifiably the work of the same author responsible for Dune. This story is unaccountably richer, deeper, and more stylistically assured than anything which came before it. I suspect the breakthrough is both a natural outcome of artistic development and also the fortuitous consequence of writing a series. Herbert had to run through a number of cliches and gimmicks in the I-A universe before he could produce something really good.

All the world’s religions have been headquartered together on one planet, Amel. For some reason, the usually fractious religious leaders who populate Amel have managed to combine their political influence in an effort to get I-A absorbed into R-R. They have also demanded that Orne be sent to them, because they have somehow cottoned to the fact that he is a “psi focus” — essentially, a potential miracle worker. They wish to put him through some sort of barrage of tests, and his I-A handlers want him to figure out, while he’s there, why Amel is gunning for their bureau. This double mission, source of the story’s tension, is already something new in the Herbert corpus. What we have at stake is not a world-crisis that can be solved with a new machine or a clever deduction, but rather a mysterious journey involving the conflicting interests of secretive, powerful institutions. Even the language loses a certain jocularity, a certain clipped, comical tinge which was characteristic of the pulp science fiction in the earliest decades of the 20th century and colors all of Herbert’s stories up to this point. Instead of humor, an ominous strangeness, allusive yet alien, becomes the affect Herbert intends to provoke. He succeeds.

The transport’s ramp commanded a sweeping view [of Amel]: a fantastic scratchwork of towers, belfries, steeples, monoliths, domes, ziggurats, pagodas, stupas, minarets, dagobas. They cluttered a flat plain that stretched to a horizon dancing in the heatwaves. […] Staring out at the religious warren, Orne experienced an abrupt feeling of dread at the unknown things that could be waiting in those narrow, twisted streets and jumbled buildings.

“The Priests of Psi,” breaks out of the formulas of Herbert’s previous stories — and arguably, out of the formulas of the entire genre thus far — in more than prose style. The plot follows the dramatic pattern of the mystical test rather than the scientific triumph.

This genre, if it originates in written literature at all and not in the inaccessible depths of oral tradition, grows from the religiously devoted lives of monks and hermits who retire from society to struggle with their own desires and thoughts. The early Christian version of the genre is best exemplified in the sayings and stories about the “abbas,” or desert fathers, of Egypt – in books like John Cassian’s Institutes, or the hagiographic life of Anthony of the Desert which inspired Augustine to convert to Christianity. In these stories, hermits seeking purity and solitude to worship their god are extravagantly tempted by demons, debate with their own evil tendencies, undergo visions, face extremes of privation and pain, and acquire strange spiritual gifts of foresight and insight. But Herbert’s probable inspiration was the similar tradition of tales and sayings from Zen Buddhism, a tradition which fascinated him and to which he eventually “converted.”


Whatever the source of his appreciation for the mystical quest, in “The Priests of Psi” Herbert throws himself zestfully into the form. Before Orne gets to Amel, he gets a taste of what it means to be a “psi focus” when he has an experience of prescience (a topic to which Herbert would eventually devote whole books):

Orne felt something tingling in his neck. There was a vacant sensation in the pit of his stomach. “Prescience?”
“You’d recognize it at first as a kind of fear… a peculiar kind of fear. Sometimes it’s like hunger even though you’ve just eaten. Something feels like it’s lacking… inside you, or in the air you breathe. If you feel it, you’ll recognize it. It’ll always be a warning of danger.”

This is utterly characteristic of Herbert at his best. In the midst of a very worldly story about politics and personalities, he jerks his reader suddenly into an imaginary encounter with what the comparative religionist Rudolf Otto called, “the numinous.” Somehow Herbert does this while maintaining an utterly deflationary view of religion, writing about it as an amalgamation of power games and confidence tricks. In “The Priests of Psi,” Herbert puts into one of his character’s mouths a definition of religion which explains why the phenomenon interested him so much. It had to do with his preexisting fascination with the problem of immortality: “A religion is the faith that something will endure beyond the apparent chaos surrounding us.” Such a faith can be found instantiated in a scientific society just as much as in the high Middle Ages. Thus a book like Dune could be a messianic narrative even while it was as a science fiction novel. As Herbert explains in the introduction,

We think our ancestral gods no longer awaken mysteries in our minds. We have the myth of the endless personal story, denying visions of the older mysteries in the hope of finding new scientific answers. Thus we deify science and its offspring, technology. Science fiction has become a special toy to those alerted to this spectrum. It unfolds the monsters of awareness which lurk in our mutually-created vision of eternity. We know there are things in this eternity which we don’t want to see, but like children peering past the protective legs of an adult, we seek a safe glimpse of the monster.

GodEmperorofDuneThe appearance of this in “The Priests of Psi” marks a decisive turn in Herbert’s career because it seems to have defined for him his subject: the numinous, as it appears in the modern, scientific vision of the future. This is his peculiar take on “wonder,” which is often described as the affective goal of science fiction. Herbert’s best stories don’t inspire “wonder” in the staring-at-the-starry-sky-at-night sort of way, but something more like what the Greeks called deinos, which can mean wondrous but also terrible. To borrow a phrase once again from Rudolf Otto, wonder for Herbert has to do specifically with the mysterium tremendum aspect of the numinous: with the mysterious and terrifying.

At this point in the collection, Herbert has assembled almost all of the tools and topics that will enable him to write something like Dune. But he still hasn’t found a personal solution to the central technical problem of the genre: exposition. How do you clue in your reader to the necessary background knowledge about history, manners, and technology which is necessary to set up a science fictional story? Even in “The Priests of Psi,” Herbert relies too much upon info-dump dialogues. Briefing and debriefing scenes are a useful expedient, but when every story requires one, the ruse becomes apparent.

Herbert’s solution first appears in “The Tactful Saboteur,” which was written (the table of contents reveals) just one year before Dune was published. In the imaginary future of this story, Jorj McKie is a professional saboteur. That is to say, he is employed by the Intergalactic Government’s Department of Sabotage. The genesis of this satiric department is described like this:

“The do-gooders succeeded once… long ago. They eliminated virtually all red tape from government. This great machine with its power over human lives slipped into high speed. It moved faster and faster.” McKie’s voice grew louder. “Laws were conceived and passed in the same hour! Appropriations came and were gone in a fortnight. New bureaus flashed into existence for the most insubstantial reasons. […] It was like a great wheel thrown suddenly out of balance! The whole structure of government was in imminent danger of fragmenting before a handful of people, wise with hindsight, used measures of desperation and started what was called the Sabotage Corps. […] The big wheels were slowed. Government developed a controllable speed.”

But the most interesting thing about this story, from the perspective of Herbert’s development, is not its funny premise, but the dramatic method he chooses by which to explain that premise. The story is divided into the classically prescribed three acts, here three scenes. Each scene could be staged: each is a dramatic confrontation in dialogue. In the first, McKie argues with his boss. In the second, he tensely interviews a suspected criminal and instead gets arrested himself. In the last, we are treated to a trial scene. The significance of this staging is that Herbert has finally found a way to work his exposition naturally into his dramatic presentation. He still uses dialogue as his vehicle, but he has learned the principle of over-determination: every bit of a story should be doing multiple things on multiple levels. In almost no story after “The Tactful Saboteur,” do we find dialogue merely for the purpose of exposition. Instead, every dialogue is embedded in conflict. Characters seek to trick, persuade, incite, manipulate, or distract one another – and, incidentally, teach us about their world. We no longer mind the exposition that gets dropped on us in the course of these feints and parries. For example, even the lengthy monologue above, in the context of its scene, has as much significance for the outcome of a tense, conflict-ridden conversation as it does for the expository enlightenment of the reader.

With this final technical discovery, Herbert had assembled all the key elements of his best work: the subject of immortality, especially as represented by the eruption of the numinous into a scientific society, dramatically presented through over-determined dialogue. Every story after “The Tactful Saboteur” — nearly half the book — was a delight because of what it did with those elements.

I recommend The Collected Short Stories of Frank Herbert to anyone who has read and enjoyed Dune. The first half of the book is a fascinating glimpse into the development of a storyteller, and the last half is a feast of stories excellent in themselves. In a century inundated with the books of a Herbert — Brian — who capitalizes upon the excellence of his father’s work without living up to its standard, it’s so nice to hear from Frank again.

Robert Minto is an editor at Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.