Frank Herbert died February 11, 1986, at a rather youthful 65 years of age, and at the height of his commercial success as a science fiction writer. His epic novel Dune and its five sequels have continued to enjoy commercial success, to the extent that they have become a sort of franchise. Beyond movies and merchandising, that franchise includes a set of "prequel" books produced by Frank's son Brian Herbert and co-author Kevin J. Anderson, and this volume: Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert..
Dreamer of Dune apparently grows out of Brian Herbert's personal journal, kept between about 1978 and 1986, which Brian credits as part of his process of cultivating an adult relationship with his father. Brian's connection and access gives the book a number of touching moments, such as this one, where Brian describes his father spreading his mother's ashes near his parents' home in Hawaii:
"He told all of us to wait on the deck on the water side of the main house, and at a little before 2:30 he went off alone to the kamani tree several hundred feet below us, just above the craggy shoreline. He wore dark blue pants and a blue Hawaiian shirt with white flowers on it, and in his right hand he carried a bag that bore the urn containing my mother's remains. [. . .]
"As the music played, Dad opened the bag and removed the urn. I saw him spread a thick dusting of ashes beneath the tree. Tears blurred my vision. I watched Dad moving around the tree, and then I looked down to the expanse of grass and old lava rock Hawaiian walls between the house and the tree. [. . .]
"With the music still playing, I watched Dad walk back up a tire-tracked area of the grass. As he reached the edge of his landscaped yard, a huge wave hit the rocks behind him, just beyond the kamani tree, sending white spray high in the air. It was spectacularly beautiful, this place my mother had chosen. I understood why she wanted to die here, refusing to go to a hospital."
Frank Herbert's path to becoming self-supporting as a professional author was both lengthy and tortured, running from his declaration on his eighth birthday that he wanted to be "a author" to the point in his fifty-first year when he was finally able to quit his outside job and write full-time. He spent a surprising amount of that time stubbornly scaling the wrong side of the mountain -- finishing stories at non-commercial lengths and refusing to play to the market. Even his enormously successful novel Dune struggled to find a hardcover publisher after being serialized in John Campbell's Analog, and was finally published by Chilton Book Company, a publisher otherwise best known for its automotive repair titles.
Despite a refusal to play closely by the rules, however, Frank Herbert's devotion to his writing career was intense, and nearly always his first priority. For his devoted wife Beverly, this was a matter met with humor, understanding, and considerable self-sacrifice. For his many creditors it was a matter of intense and lengthy frustration. For his children, it was a competition for attention and respect that they could never win:
"Frank Herbert was not always a heroic figure to me, for I did not get along well with him in my childhood, and only grew close to him when we were both adults. My attempt to understand him became an odyssey that went on not only during his lifetime but afterward. It continues to this day, as I learn new things about him each time I read one of his stories, and each time I speak with someone who knew him and saw a different aspect of him than I did."
Frank Herbert's reaction to his considerable commercial success is equally fascinating -- consisting in no small part of a mad struggle to collect book advances quickly enough to cover his ever increasing spending -- and on this material Brian Herbert brings adult memories and perspective to his journal material. At least equally interesting is Frank Herbert's tender, determined, and deeply supportive care for Beverly Herbert during her battle with lung cancer, and her subsequent battle with the damaging effects of the radiation therapy upon her heart. Those sections are probably the best material in the book:
"Dad spent entire days in the hospital with Mom, except for errands, such as an hour and a half to go get a haircut. One day he had to return [home] for things they had forgotten, clothes, books and other articles that Mom wanted. It was no small task going back and forth to Port Townsend, with the main bridge being out of commission, but when it came to doing things for my mother, Dad knew no bounds.
"In her hospital room they talked, read and played the two-handed version of Hearts that they had made up during their honeymoon. It seemed fitting to me that these people who loved one another so fiercely played a game called Hearts, and a special version of it no one else in the world knew.
"When we visited Mom one evening, Dad was seated in his usual place beside her bed eating Cha Shu Bao -- steamed Cantonese barbecued pork that he had picked up at a delicatessen near the hospital and heated in the nursing station's microwave. Another day when he went to a friend's house for dinner, he called the hospital every hour to check on Mom. Some nights he stayed with her in her room, sleeping in the chair by her bed. It was exhausting for him, and he wasn't able to write at all."
All of that said, Dreamer of Dune is the sort of flawed work that will probably be of interest only to those who are fans of Frank Herbert and the Dune series. The book suffers from a lack of effective editing that turns parts of it into deeply annoying, repetitive reading. The worst of this problem is in the early chapters, and it is flawed to the extent that the section of the volume labeled "Book I" in the table of contents, which consists of the first seventeen chapters, contains only one chapter (chapter 14, "The World of Dune") that I can genuinely recommend. The balance of the volume, though, improves substantially, and there is simply no other published source for the information in Brian Herbert's journal.
It is, of course, unfair to expect Brian Herbert to assume a critical, scholarly perspective on his father's life, and it is perhaps more realistic to appreciate the substantial material he has left for future biographers of Frank Herbert. Even so, subtitling the book as "A Personal Memoir," rather than as "The Biography of Frank Herbert" would have been more commercially honest. For fans of Frank Herbert, though, that may be a small point.
Copyright © 2003 Brian Peters
Brian Peters is Managing Editor of Strange Horizons.
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