2013年9月22日 星期日

Frank Herbert in Review


"Frank Herbert's speculative fictions have taken the grand themes and questions of politics, ecology, overpopulation, and much more and applied them to the human drama.  His most popular works are the well-known Dune books: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and the latest, the extraordinary best seller, God Emperor of Dune.  Mr. Herbert has written more than twenty other works of fiction and nonfiction, including a recent book on home computers.  With his wife, Beverly, he maintains two homes, one in Hawaii and the other in the Pacific Northwest."


- from "The White Plague" dust jacket (1982)

At the time of writing, I have read all of Herbert's Dune novels, all of his other novels published during his lifetime, the three books he co-wrote with Bill Ransom, and the novel he wrote with his son, Brian Herbert.  I have also read two of his four short story collections, "The Book of Frank Herbert" and "Eye." 

I have yet to read the novels published by WordFire Press after his death (High-Opp, Angels' Fall, A Game of Authors, and A Thorn in the Bush), and his other two short story collections.  But these WordFire novels were written very early in his career, and with the exception of "High-Opp" all lie outside the realm of science fiction.  Given the overlap between short story collections, there are only a few of his short stories that I haven't read.

If I had to (somewhat arbitrarily) divide Herbert's books into the categories "Excellent," "Good," "Bad," and "Simply S**T," I would divide them like this:


Excellent
Good
Bad
Simply S**T
Dune Messiah
Dune
Children of Dune
God Emperor of Dune
Chapterhouse Dune
Heretics of Dune

The Santaroga Barrier





Hellstrom’s Hive




Herbert's short stories exhibit the same kind of distribution.  About equal parts Excellent and Bad, with a few Good and a couple S**T ones.  On the whole, I wouldn't say that his short story collections are worth seeking out on their own merits.  Any ideas that Herbert introduced in short story form were better explored in one or more of his novels, and those looking for a good sci fi anthology would be better advised to start with one of the many treasuries featuring the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Sturgeon, Vance, and many others.

The three novels he wrote with Bill Ransom, all set in his "Destination: Void" universe, are of varying quality.  The first of these novels, "The Jesus Incident," is excellent and compares favorably to Herbert's best books.  The second novel, "The Lazarus Effect," is pretty good and has enough interesting ideas in it to be worth the effort.  The third novel, "The Ascension Factor," was largely written after Herbert's death, and is a complete mess. 

The novel he wrote with his son, Brian Herbert, may be the worst of his novels.  It is a confusing jumble of stereotypical characters and situations, all building up to an unsatisfying conclusion.  I've read some BAD science fiction novels in my day, and this one is near the top of the pile.

All in all, Frank Herbert had moments of brilliance as a writer, and it is these moments of brilliance that keep me invested in his books.  He certainly wrote his share of crap, but he was still light years (if you can excuse the slight pun) away from Stephen King.  Whatever he did was ambitious, even if it failed.

One of the other things I like about Frank Herbert is that he was from the Pacific Northwest.  This is also a locale that features in many of his stories.  Frank Herbert grew up in Washington and Oregon, and in many of his books you will find references to Seattle, Tacoma, or even more obscure places like Grand Coulee or Florence.  Speaking as someone who also grew up in Washington and Oregon, I appreciate his efforts to put these places in his stories.

For those who haven't read Herbert yet, I would recommend starting with "Dune Messiah."  It is a good point of entry into his catalog.  For those who've read all the Dune books but not the others, I would recommend starting with the books in the "Excellent" category and working your way right if you find yourself wanting more.  For those who think Frank Herbert SUCKS, I would recommend giving another of his books a try.  You might have read the wrong one.

While I can't say that he had a command of scientific concepts to match Asimov or Clarke (both of whom were SMART), he was definitely a writer of of considerable talent, and one of the more original voices in American fiction.  While in some ways overlooked during his lifetime (his entries for the Hugo and Nebula awards were usually passed over in favor of inferior books), his Dune series enjoys an enduring popularity, and he has exercised a subtle if not generally acknowledged influence over American culture.  If you don't believe me, go see "Avatar" again.  Then read the synopsis of "The Jesus Incident" on Wikipedia.  Sound familiar?

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