Sunday, September 23, 2007

Prophet of Dune

I'll be gone for a fortnight, so to occupy any readers (hah!), here's a lengthy revival of what Frank Herbert had to say about environmental concerns and global warming over 35 years ago... still tragically pertinent today. (Al Gore? double hah!) I conducted this interview long before Herbert's world renown, the multiple Dune sequels, his journeys to Mexico and finally Hawaii (partly due to success and movies, partly seeking possible cures for his wife Bev's diagnosed cancer). The old intro first:

The two most influential science fiction writers are, more than likely, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. Just a notch below them in terms of recognition and acceptance among the current audience is Frank Herbert, who in Dune and Dune Messiah has given us a book-world of scope and event. Both are episodic semi-Biblical narratives of exciting incident and intriguing possibility. Herbert's world, in and out of books, has much the same feel.

"We haven't learned to live with our world yet--just on it. We tend to act before thinking out the whole chain of consequences. That's the real test of an ecologist--that he understands all the consequences."

The speaker is Frank Herbert. Newspaperman, photographer, family man, author of the renowned under/above-ground classic Dune (plus 15-20 other fiction novels as well), Herbert knows whereof he speaks: among a whole host of subjects, Dune is most of all a book about ecology--about survival in an alien environment; about man remaking the whole surface of a planet; about deep reverence for all the myriad forms of life. It may just be that Dune and planetary ecologist/sci-fi novelist Herbert can tell us something about our own beleaguered world of the Seventies.

America's trip may be conspicuous consumption and ridiculous waste, but on the planet Arrakis (Dune) the people use and re-use everything carefully and wisely and well. Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni may visit Death Valley and come away empty-handed, but Frank Herbert invents a world of Death Valleys--of awesome deserts, sand-churning monster worms, and harsh Fremen existing in their midst--and in so doing creates one of the most splendidly imagined universes, and best novels, science fiction or otherwise, of this century.

For Dune, coupled with its recently published continuation, Dune Messiah, is an extraordinary piece of work. Multi-layered, multi-faceted, the novel simultaneously combines fantastic adventure, complex characterization, dense detail, literate style, metaphysical and psychic investigation, economic speculation, messianic psychology and, of course, ecological awareness and invention.

The novel's origins are deceptively simple. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service were running a test station among the dunes on the Oregon coast," says Frank. "This was back in the mid-Fifties. They were developing ways to control sand dunes, and the program was so successful that people from Israel, Argentine, Chile, and other nations were all there to see how they did it.

"I went there to do a magazine article about the program--and in the course of the visit, I got this flaming idea in my head: what would it be like on an entire planet like the most severe of our deserts? What would go into the eco-systems on a planet like that?"

That was the beginning. But, Frank goes on, "Concurrently I'd been thinking about the origins of messiah myths in our society and others. I saw that as a motif to run through this non-existent novel, because a good story is more about people than things. Then I just began doing what I always do for a story--collecting folders of information, building the characters in my mind, and so on. It was probably six or seven years before I actually began putting words down on paper."

By 1963 when Herbert completed Dune, his novel had grown to more than 500 pages. One publisher rejected it as too long, but John W. Campbell at Analog knew a major property when he saw it; his magazine ran Dune in two three-part segments in 1964. Chilton's hardcover edition appeared that winter, and the Ace paperback in 1965.

There's been no looking back since. Winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction novel of the year, Dune gradually gained a word-of-mouth reputation among hip young people as well. Now, says the author, there are way over 300,000 copies in print, and many campus-area bookstores can't keep the book in stock.

"I pre-supposed a dialectic or a growth pattern," says the author, "birth, death, regeneration--and I deliberately wanted that poignancy of looking back on good times, in Dune Messiah. You see, the whole Dune sequence is written in layers--it's plotted in depth as well as in a linear direction. The action, the lyric poetry, the metaphysical, psychological and ecological, they're all deliberately layered in.

"In many respects," he goes on, "it was a gamble on my part. I didn't know if that sort of layering would make its point with the American reading public, because it's not seen much in science fiction. So I get a great deal of pleasure out of the fact that people are actually enjoying Dune. I'm happy to have done it. But it's like a pool shark who says, 'Six ball in the corner pocket.' To tell you the truth, I wasn't sure that the cue ball wouldn't go right in after it."

A longtime resident of the Bay Area, Herbert now lives in Seattle, on the top floor of an old mansion--presently subdivided into several apartments--on Queen Anne Hill, overlooking the ferryboats and the chilly waters of Puget Sound.

"I'm really a native of this area," he explains, "and I was missing it. There are things you can do here with a small expenditure of time that take a great expenditure down south. Up here I can be in the wilderness in an hour. In terms of relative degradation of the environment, Seattle's getting there--but it's as much better than San Francisco as San Francisco is than Los Angeles."

Seated in his living room, Frank talks about his life and his own vision; looming behind him are several ceiling-high bookcases, packed for the most part with non-fiction reading, including whole shelves devoted to desert ecology volumes with titles like Arabia Felix, The Land of Gilead, and Black Land, Black Land.

"I was born in Tacoma," he says, "and raised in and around Puget Sound. My father had several different businesses, but he lost a fortune in the Depression. In 1928, for example, in the heyday of dance halls, he built the Spanish Castle down in Highline." (Rock history footnote: during the Fifties and into the early Sixties, Spanish Castle--located about midway between Seattle and Tacoma on Highway 99--was the biggest local rock 'n' roll emporium; a young black man later known as Jimi Hendrix used to make it to Spanish Castle on Saturday nights to watch such outasight Northwest groups as the Wailers and Little Bill and the Blue Notes. Remember "Spanish Castle Magic" on Axis: Bold as Love?)

"I went to the University of Washington," says Frank. "I met my wife there at a writing class. But I dropped out of the U because they wouldn't let me do what I wanted, which was to cross department lines. To hell with requirements, I didn't want a degree--all I wanted was to pick and choose courses, like in a cafeteria line."

Like every other writer you've ever read about, Herbert's done the fascinating-ways-of-earning-a-living routine; his book-jacket bio lists "lay analyst" and "oyster diver" among several others. But for more than 30 years, most often he's been a newspaperman; nowadays for love rather than money. Herbert works as Higher Education Editor for Seattle's Hearst newspaper, the Post-Intelligencer.

"The successful-writer mystique carries over into this job. It gives me the leverage to say to the P-I, 'This is the kind of newspapering I want to do.' Newspaper work keeps you right on the edge of what's going on--it sensitizes you to current change. I do things as a newsman that I know damn well I wouldn't be doing at my typewriter."

There's a short break for strong, dark tea served by Frank's wife Bev...

((A perfect place for me to break this long interview article into two sections. Take a breath, take a walk, come back when ready...

And to resume:))

During the pause Bev also exhibits his major awards for Dune: the Hugo is a polished silver rocket; the Nebula, a crystal cube with a glittering, seemingly swirling galaxy floating within. Comments the author, "The Hugo is kind of a fan award, and it means more at the box office. But the Nebula represents a mail-poll of fellow craftsmen, the Science Fiction Writers of America."

At 49, Herbert looks considerably younger: short, stocky, barrel-chested, with crewcut fair hair and a greying, reddish beard; his mustache juts pugnaciously and his blue eyes twinkle just enough to make you think of an old fishing-boat skipper or a good-natured anarchist. He gestures a lot when he talks; and that continues now, as Frank warms to the tea and the subject:

"We science fictionists are pragmatic idealists," he says. "Our stories are usually anchored in something that's going on right now--given this, what if... We create whole worlds that are sort of caricatures of the existing thing, and we use them to throw the present thing into bas relief."

Surely Dune fits into that category?

"I'm damn hipped on this environment thing," answers Herbert. "I don't think we should ignore the legislative approach, but I don't really believe we can solve it legally. I'd feel better if something like the churches ((organized groups, that is; he didn't mean today's overheated fundamentalists)) were involved instead of some government agency; I try to get to those soft spots and apply leverage. That's one reason I accepted this P-I job: it puts me in direct contact with university level people. If we're going to solve all these environment problems, it's going to take strong action from that segment of the populace. That's what I mean about applying leverage to the system."

Herbert doesn't really belong to any citizens' environmental groups, but he is one of about a thousand steam-engine car owners in the country. He explains, "There's no name to our organization, no by-laws, no dues. Every member is a bishop and can swear in as many new members as he likes. All you have to do is raise your right hand and swear, 'Never again will I buy a new internal combustion engine.' If we put enough of this kind of pressure on Detroit, they'll solve the auto pollution problem for us.

"Same thing with gasoline. We've got to stop burning tetra-ethyl lead in our gasoline. But for now the Ethyl Corporation's got us by the balls--while the sky becomes more and more of a sewer."

Frank picks up an orange and holds it out dramatically. "If you take this and paint it with shellac, that thin coat of shellac is the equivalent of our atmosphere. And there's no cleansing process built into it...

"Our ecologists say we're only about twenty years away from irreversible effects on the environment. But it could happen a lot sooner than that. Wreck just one tanker carrying defoliants to Vietnam and you destroy seventy per cent of the bio-systems on the surface of the ocean--and most of our oxygen renewal depends on the oceans. If one jerk in the Pentagon can put the whole population of the earth in peril, that means the government's power is all askew. It clearly shouldn't be in the hands of those who've demonstrated they keep making the same mistakes again and again.

"Or take those Rhine River time bombs of DDT. We've really got time bombs like that all around us--if one of them finally rusts through, we've got a biological disaster."

Herbert frowns, then adds, "Underlying all these things we're talking about is the idea that we can invent a better world." Think of the ecological and philosophical texture of Dune and you'll understand that Frank Herbert is talking to himself too when he concludes, glumly, "That could be a fiction..."

So far, there's not much in the environment of the Seventies to be optimistic about. But perhaps the world will muddle through. Merely by its existence--but especially as its number of readers grows--the science fiction masterpiece Dune suggests the small but hopeful possibility that man can learn from his ecological mistakes. I'd rather believe the author of Dune when he writes, in that rich, exciting, wondrously beautiful novel, "Life--all life--is in the service of life."

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Bev and Frank both died in the Eighties (I think), and their son Brian in the new century continues to write more sequels to his father's towering work. The world goes on, coughing and fretting and sweltering more and more as the earth continues to heat up. Al Gore and the scientists who believe continue to press for action, but nothing gets done. Who will save us?

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