Clubhouse: reviews of two obscure Frank Herbert novels

Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986) is best known, of course, for “Dune” and its sequels. I never much cared for them, though the protagonist of “God Emperor of Dune,” a half-human giant sandworm, rather appealed to my political tastes (been offering to be Emperor of Canada for over fifty years now but as yet no discernable groundswell of public support). Most of his other works are noted for their extremely detailed visualizations of intelligences more advanced than our own. Definitely a thinking fan’s writer, sometimes over-complicated and even convoluted in his writing, but always interesting.

In person he was delightfully enthusiastic and eager to share his enthusiasm. He was VCON 3’s author guest of honour in 1974 and enjoyed it so much he asked to come back again as Toastmaster and later on just as an attendee. I think the predominantly literary nature of VCON back in the day is what appealed to him. Yet he was far from being serious or pretentious, his shining enthusiasm for any topic he addressed made him entertaining as hell. One of our more popular GoHs.

Here I review two of his more interesting novels.


By Frank Herbert – Published 1956. This cover Avon Books, fourth printing 1967.

This is a damned odd book. I imagine it shedding readers with every page turned, yet it holds my interest to the very end. What gives?

It first appeared in Astounding SF Magazine in 1955 under the title “Under Pressure.” The next year Avon Books published it with the title “21st Century Sub.” The latter hints broadly that it constitutes hard military SF which is a popular subgenre (pun intended) but not everybody’s cup of tea. The first title is perhaps more accurate. Not for nothing does the back-cover blurb on my edition read “The enemy in the deep. The shattering silence of the sea without! The silent shattering of men’s minds within!” Here we see an early manifestation of Herbert’s lifelong focus on the possibilities and problems associated with intelligence.

First, I address the hard SF aspects of the novel. It takes place in the near future where a state of slow nuclear war exists between America and the “EPs,” or “Eastern Powers.” The war must have been fast and furious to begin with, Great Britain having been reduced to a heap of radioactive slag, but some sort of stalemate now exists as if both sides are hoarding their few remaining nuclear weapons.

America’s biggest problem is lack of access to oil. The premise is that American scientists have developed the means to siphon oil from the EP continental shelf oil fields without the Eps catching on. A class of “Subtugs” has been developed to tow mile-long “Slugs,” essentially underwater barges filled with one-hundred million barrels of purloined oil, back to the States.

Herbert certainly did his research on the existing nuclear submarines of his time. In fact, “To the ‘special’ men of the United States Submarine Service—chosen as crewmen on the first atomic submarines—this story is respectfully dedicated.” The military adored this book. The relatively small subtugs—only 140 feet long—are lovingly described in minute detail and appear an entirely plausible extrapolation of nuclear technology of the 1950s. Even better, the concept of the “Slug” was entirely new, I believe.

At VCON 3 Herbert quietly and modestly boasted that the US Navy gave him credit for envisioning a workable underwater towing mechanism which, by 1974, was actually in use. On my quick rereading for purposes of this review I didn’t come away with a clear idea of how it works, other than it is reminiscent of surface tugs playing out or pulling in the tow line depending on sea conditions, but with added problems of hydrostatic density underwater that the subtug skipper has to compensate for at a moment’s notice lest the slug drag the combination off course, too deep, or blast to the surface at an awkward moment, such as when EP subchasers are around.

In general there is an incredible amount of technical info provided on a constant, virtually every-page basis which appeals to Grognards but I suspect would be off-putting to readers who don’t care about such things. I imagine some readers give up in disgust at varying points in the book.

Certainly the technical details are important, for “There is no such thing as a minor accident on a submarine.” Lots of accidents take place. Too many. Sabotage is suspected. And the enemy keeps trying to blow up the sub, with the result that futuristic countermeasures are deployed and important tactics described, such as hiding from sonar under a cold current of water. If you love the movie “Run Silent, Run Deep,” you’ll love this book.

I’m a bit suspicious of the effectiveness of treatment for massive radiation overdoses though. Scouring the body with detergent and replacing one’s entire blood supply doesn’t sound like much of a cure to me. Lot of wishful thinking back in the day, methinks.

Now let me turn to the mental aspects of the book. (Hmm, doesn’t sound quite right, but close enough.) The crew number exactly four psychopathic spies, which is to say all are under suspicion. You’ve got your too-perfect bible-thumping Commander Harvey Sparrow, his second-in-command Leslie Bonnett who had been raised in a “Home for the Unwanted” and hero-worships Harvey, a nuclear engineer and all-around gadget guy named Garcia, and the main character, a BuPsych electronics expert named John Ramsey who is trained to be as paranoid as possible.

Ramsey, newly added to the crew as a replacement for a guy who went bonkers, is supposed to figure out which crew member is going to blow next. After all, the previous twenty subtug/slug missions were sunk by the EPs, so the crew of this particular subtug are under considerable psychological pressure as they head off to almost certain doom. Besides, it’s assumed one or more of them are EP sleeper agents. Everybody suspects everybody.

The book is structured rather oddly. It’s basically a single chapter stretched to infinity with one suspicious and/or dangerous incident after another interspersed with half-voiced questions never answered. It’s like being trapped in a conversation where neither speaker can figure out how to end. It just goes on and on. This aspect more than any other is enough to drive some readers out of the book. I, on the other hand, found this approach curiously addictive. Kept on reading.

One particularly brilliant touch is the name of the subtug, “The Fenian Ram.” This was the name of the first modern submarine invented by John Holland. He built it in 1881 for the Fenians, an Irish-American movement dedicated to conquering Canada and exchanging it for Ireland’s freedom. (In the Peace Tower War Memorial in Canada’s Parliament building you can read the names of the Canadian soldiers who died defending Canada from the Fenian Invasion of 1866.) The Fenians had the vague idea they could use the submarine to attack British shipping. All Holland was looking for was money to build his prototype and prove to the world his design was feasible. The sub actually worked, but made such a nuisance of itself bumbling about New York Harbour bumping into ships the port authorities seized it. You can view the Fenian Ram on display at the Paterson Museum in New Jersey. Point is, it’s the perfect name for a subtug on a mission that just bumbles about from one unexpected near-catastrophe to the next.

The main problem I have with the book is the number of times Ramsey begins to question this or that action or motivation of the other crew members but doesn’t articulate what he suspects. He’s obviously thinking something, but Herbert withholds his thoughts from the readers. It’s a good method to enhance suspense and tension, but I find this sort of authorial tease very annoying.

Overall, I find the book too long, too detailed, and too repetitious, yet hard to put down. The mark of a good writer, I guess.


By Frank Herbert – published 1966 by Ace Science Fiction.

Herbert’s second novel “Dune” (1965) quickly established him as a major genre novel. However, it is his lesser-known third novel, “The Green Brain” which I describe below.

The first chapter is certainly unusual. Antonio, who “looked pretty much like the bastard offspring of a Guarani Indio and some backwoods farmer’s daughter” is painfully stumbling through bandeirantes territory hoping to pass through checkpoints into the “Green zone,” the safe area for humans. He makes it past the “barrier,” hides in a small cave by a river bank, and allows his body, composed entirely of minute insects, to disintegrate. “He turned onto his back, scattering the dead parts of his legs and back, exposing the queen and her guard cluster to the dirt beneath his chitinous spine.”

Turns out he is the first of thousands of infiltrators to come. Their purpose? “Difficult humans—their slavery to the planet would have to be proved to them … dramatically, perhaps.”

All right! Now that’s an opening chapter. Certainly got my attention. The second chapter was less exciting, being the introduction of the three main human characters meeting at the Cabaret A’Chigua which has an atmosphere best described by these lines “Tonight I take a pink table for luck. It is the color of a woman’s breast, no?”

As gradually revealed through the first few chapters, the entire world, with the exception of the United States, Canada, and of all places, Ireland, has embarked on a massive project to exterminate all insects everywhere in a desperate bid to maintain enough agricultural production to feed the world’s burgeoning population. In other words, the crop-eating competition has to go! Land infested with insects are known as “Red Zones,” zones being fumigated are referred to, at least in South America, as Bandeirantes territory (Bandeirantes being the roughneck mercenaries who form the first line of assault), and safe areas utterly free of insects are known as “Green Zones.” Can you spot the flaws in this project? The insects have.

Anyway, the three main characters are: Dr. Rhin Kelly, a red-haired, green-eyed Irish lass (just once I’d like to read about a green-haired, red-eyed heroine for a change), the new Field Director of the all-powerful International Ecological Organization despite her government’s disapproval; Dr. Travis Huntington Chen-Lui of China, District Director and all-round paranoid; and the “brutally handsome” Joao Martinho, self-proclaimed leader of the Bandeirantes and all-round drunkard, bar-fighter, and seducer. Needless to say, they constitute the fundamental love triangle within the plot.

In-between various attempts at assorted manipulations we learn that the cleansing effort in China has backfired, what with crops no longer being pollinated and all, that giant, mutant insects keep popping up in Bandeirantes Territory, and that Dr. Chen-Lui believes these mutants are laboratory creations designed to discredit the efforts of the IEO. Dr. Chen-Lui wants Dr. Kelly to seduce Joa to find out his secrets and prove the Bandeirantes are betraying the IEO project, though in the long run he also wants to seduce Dr. Kelly who is attracted to and repulsed by both men. Got it? This be the starting point of their rather complex relationship.

Someone runs into the Cabaret and informs Joa a three-foot chigger has appeared in a nearby park. Good a reason to leave a bar as any, I suppose. The third chapter details our three IEO employees watching the authorities attempt to kill the chigger, a task somewhat complicated by the emergence of a gigantic stag beetle from a trapdoor in the grass. Incredibly, both insects escape down the tunnel. Even more incredible, both Dr. Kelly and Dr. Chen-Lui agree the acid-throwing chigger was merely an automaton, and the stag beetle a man in a suit. But we know better, don’t we?

Long story short, all three main characters, all convinced something’s not quite right about modern bugs, wind up in a truck pod floating down a tributary of the Amazon River, hoping to make it to civilization and safety. They rarely dare to open the hatch because the bugs might get ‘em. Humanoids made up of collective insects keep pace with them along the river banks. Swarms of flying insects keep watch. Dr. Chen-Lui is quite smug as his paranoia has been justified, though not quite in the manner he anticipated. Worst of all, the air conditioning is broken. This state of affairs begins about a third of the way through the book.

Oh, for Ghu’s sake, this is the same basic set-up as “The Dragon in the Sea,” only taking place in a truck pod much smaller than the “Fenian Ram” submarine and involving just three characters instead of four. The atmosphere is even more claustrophobic. Herbert utilises the same techniques in the same frustrating way, suspicions barely articulated, unexpected difficulties, complicated and convoluted ever-changing self-justifications, etc. Probably the most striking similarity is that everyone spends more time arguing with themselves than with each other. The only “new” touch is the matter of ongoing sexual tension.

Did I care about these characters and their eternal internal self-doubts? Not one whit. I kept wanting to scream at the book “Get on with it!” I mean, come on, humans and insects are at war! If I’m going to read a book about trench warfare in WW1, I don’t want the bulk of the book to be about three guys trapped in a buried bunker arguing over who gets what rations. I’d rather see it opened up a trifle along the lines of “All quiet on the Western Front.”

But no, Herbert’s primary interest seemed to be questioning the very nature of human intelligence through their doubts and obsession with self-esteem threatened by petty nuances of other people’s ever-fluctuating opinions. I can’t imagine anything more boring. I don’t read science fiction to explore human nature at its most mundane level. I’m searching for something to stir my sense of wonder. Wasn’t finding it here.

Wait, not quite true. There is another similarity to “The Dragon in the Sea,” namely a prominent fourth character, “The Green Brain” of the title, “… a mass about four metres in diameter and half-a-metre deep, knowing itself as a ‘Supreme Integration’ filled with passive alertness, yet always more than a little irritated by the necessities which kept it anchored to this cave sanctuary.” Insects attend it “… inspecting, repairing, giving special foods where needed.” The brain is the leader of the insects. It telepathically communicates with little gnats who fly off to deliver its instructions. Sounds formidable.

When we first meet the brain it is listening to a radio and complaining to itself that the television is no longer working. Ahh, ummm. A wee bit too human, perhaps. It has set itself a most interesting task, to convince humanity not to destroy the natural balance of the world ecology but it sometimes wonders, or so it is implied, that maybe it would be better and easier to kill off the human race.

Yep, you guessed it, the brain is self-conflicted, like the idiots in the pod, and the more information it gets the more confused it becomes and the more it argues with itself. Personally, I like my non-human intelligences to be reasonably self-assured, confident and purposeful, not candidates for a psychiatrist’s couch.

To sum up: the failure of the expectations raised in the first chapter makes this book something of a bitter disappointment to me. Perhaps if I had not recently reread “The Dragon in the Sea,” the two books being so similar, I would be more charitable, but I doubt it. I really can’t stand this kind of infernal whinging. Lots of good writing and clever lines but to no good purpose, in my opinion.

For what it is worth, the book has a happy ending. Too late for me, though. I’ll never read it again.

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  1. No less odd and obscure, I found, were his “Destination Void” (1966), “The Santaroga Barrier” (1968), “The God Makers” (1972), “Whipping Star” & “The Dosadi Experiment” (1977)–in fact, pretty much everything else of his I ever read, “Dune” (1965) excepted.

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