Franklin Patrick Herbert Jr. (October 8, 1920 – February 11, 1986) was an American science-fiction author best known for the 1965 novel Dune and its five sequels. Though he became famous for his novels, he also wrote short stories and worked as a newspaper journalist, photographer, book reviewer, ecological consultant, and lecturer.
The Dune saga, set in the distant future, and taking place over millennia, explores complex themes, such as the long-term survival of the human species, human evolution, planetary science and ecology, and the intersection of religion, politics, economics and power in a future where humanity has long since developed interstellar travel and settled many thousands of worlds. Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, and the whole series is widely considered to be among the classics of the genre.
Frank Herbert was born on October 8, 1920, in Tacoma, Washington, to Frank Patrick Herbert Sr. and Eileen (McCarthy) Herbert. Because of a poor home environment, he ran away from home in 1938 to live with an aunt and uncle in Salem, Oregon. He enrolled in high school at Salem High School (now North Salem High School), where he graduated the next year. In 1939 he lied about his age to get his first newspaper job at the Glendale Star. Herbert then returned to Salem in 1940 where he worked for the Oregon Statesman newspaper (now Statesman Journal) in a variety of positions, including photographer.
He served in the U.S. Navy’s Seabees for six months as a photographer during World War II, then he was given a medical discharge. He married Flora Parkinson in San Pedro, California, in 1940. They had a daughter, Penny (b. February 16, 1942), but divorced in 1945.
After the war, Herbert attended the University of Washington, where he met Beverly Ann Stuart at a creative writing class in 1946. They were the only students who had sold any work for publication; Herbert had sold two pulp adventure stories to magazines, the first to Esquire in 1945, and Stuart had sold a story to Modern Romance magazine. They married in Seattle, Washington on June 20, 1946, and had two sons, Brian Patrick Herbert (b. June 29, 1947, Seattle, Washington) and Bruce Calvin Herbert (b. June 26, 1951, Santa Rosa, California d. June 15, 1993, San Rafael, California, a professional photographer and gay rights activist.)
In 1949 Herbert and his wife moved to California to work on the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. Here they befriended the psychologists Ralph and Irene Slattery. The Slatterys introduced Herbert to the work of several thinkers who would influence his writing, including Freud, Jung, Jaspers and Heidegger; they also familiarized Herbert with Zen Buddhism.
Herbert did not graduate from the university; according to his son Brian, he wanted to study only what interested him and so did not complete the required curriculum. He returned to journalism and worked at the Seattle Star and the Oregon Statesman. He was a writer and editor for the San Francisco Examiner‘s California Living magazine for a decade.
In a 1973 interview, Herbert stated that he had been reading science fiction “about ten years” before he
began writing in the genre, and he listed his favorite authors as H. G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson and Jack Vance.
Herbert’s first science fiction story, “Looking for Something”, was published in the April 1952 issue of Startling Stories, then a monthly edited by Samuel Mines. Three more of his stories appeared in 1954 issues of Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories. His career as a novelist began in 1955 with the serial publication of Under Pressure in Astounding from November 1955; afterward it was issued as a book by Doubleday, The Dragon in the Sea. The story explored sanity and madness in the environment of a 21st-century submarine and predicted worldwide conflicts over oil consumption and production. It was a critical success but not a major commercial one. During this time Herbert also worked as a speechwriter for Republican senator Guy Cordon.
Herbert began researching Dune in 1959. He was able to devote himself wholeheartedly to his writing career because his wife returned to work full-time as an advertising writer for department stores, becoming the breadwinner during the 1960s. He later told Willis E. McNelly that the novel originated when he was supposed to do a magazine article on sand dunes in the Oregon Dunes near Florence, Oregon. He became too involved and ended up with far more raw material than needed for an article. The article was never written, but instead planted the seed that led to Dune.
Dune took six years of research and writing to complete and it was much longer than commercial science fiction of the time was supposed to be. Analog (the renamed Astounding, still edited by John W. Campbell) published it in two parts comprising eight installments, “Dune World” from December 1963 and “Prophet of Dune” in 1965. It was then rejected by nearly twenty book publishers. One editor prophetically wrote, “I might be making the mistake of the decade, but …”.
Sterling E. Lanier, an editor of Chilton Book Company (known mainly for its auto-repair manuals) had read the Dune serials and offered a $7,500 advance plus future royalties for the rights to publish them as a hardcover book. Herbert rewrote much of his text.Dune was soon a critical success. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1965 and shared the Hugo Award in 1966 with …And Call Me Conrad by Roger Zelazny.Dune was the first major ecological science fiction novel, embracing a multitude of sweeping, interrelated themes and multiple character viewpoints, a method that ran through all Herbert’s mature work.
Dune was not an immediate bestseller. By 1968 Herbert had made $20,000 from it, far more than most science fiction novels of the time were generating, but not enough to let him take up full-time writing. However, the publication of Dune did open doors for him. He was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s education writer from 1969 to 1972 and lecturer in general studies and interdisciplinary studies at the University of Washington (1970–1972). He worked in Vietnam and Pakistan as a social and ecological consultant in 1972. In 1973 he was director-photographer of the television show The Tillers.
I don’t worry about inspiration, or anything like that…. later, coming back and reading what I have produced, I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, “Well, now it’s writing time and now I’ll write.”— Frank Herbert
By the end of 1972, Herbert had retired from newspaper writing and become a full-time fiction writer. During the 1970s and 1980s, Herbert enjoyed considerable commercial success as an author. He divided his time between homes in Hawaii and Washington‘s Olympic Peninsula; his home in Port Townsend on the peninsula was intended to be an “ecological demonstration project”. During this time he wrote numerous books and pushed ecological and philosophical ideas. He continued his Dune saga, following it with Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune. Other highlights were The Dosadi Experiment, The Godmakers, The White Plague and the books he wrote in partnership with Bill Ransom: The Jesus Incident, The Lazarus Effect, and The Ascension Factor which were sequels to Destination: Void. He also helped launch the career of Terry Brooks with a very positive review of Brooks’ first novel, The Sword of Shannara, in 1977.
Success, family changes, and death
Herbert’s change in fortune was shadowed by tragedy. In 1974, Beverly underwent an operation for cancer. She lived ten more years, but her health was adversely affected by the surgery.:436 During this period, Herbert was the featured speaker at the Octocon II science fiction convention held at the El Rancho Tropicana in Santa Rosa, California, in October 1978. In 1979, he met anthropologist James Funaro with whom he conceived the Contact Conference. Beverly Herbert died on February 7, 1984, the same year that Heretics of Dune was published; in his afterword to 1985’s Chapterhouse: Dune, Frank Herbert wrote a eulogy for her.
In 1983, British heavy metal band Iron Maiden requested permission from Herbert’s publisher to name a song on their album Piece of Mind after Dune, but were told that the author had a strong distaste for their style of music. They instead titled the song “To Tame a Land”.
1984 was a tumultuous year in Herbert’s life. During this same year of his wife’s death, his career took off with the release of David Lynch‘s film version of Dune. Despite high expectations, a big-budget production design and an A-list cast, the movie drew mostly poor reviews in the United States. However, despite a disappointing response in the US, the film was a critical and commercial success in Europe and Japan.
After Beverly’s death, Herbert married Theresa Shackleford in 1985, the year he published Chapterhouse: Dune, which tied up many of the saga’s story threads. This would be Herbert’s final single work (the collection Eye was published that year, and Man of Two Worlds was published in 1986). He died of a massive pulmonary embolism while recovering from surgery for pancreatic cancer on February 11, 1986, in Madison, Wisconsin, age 65.
Criticism of government
Herbert was a strong critic of the Soviet Union. He was a distant relative of the Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he referred to as “Cousin Joe”. However, Herbert was appalled to learn of McCarthy’s blacklisting of suspected Communists from working in certain careers and believed that he was endangering essential freedoms of citizens of the United States. Herbert believed that governments lie to protect themselves and that, following the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon had unwittingly taught an important lesson in not trusting government. Herbert also opposed American involvement in the war in Vietnam.
In Chapterhouse: Dune, he wrote:
All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.— Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune:59
Ideas and themes
Frank Herbert used his science fiction novels to explore complex ideas involving philosophy, religion, psychology, politics and ecology. The underlying thrust of his work was a fascination with the question of human survival and evolution. Herbert has attracted a sometimes fanatical fan base, many of whom have tried to read everything he wrote, fiction or non-fiction, and see Herbert as something of an authority on the subject matters of his books. Indeed, such was the devotion of some of his readers that Herbert was at times asked if he was founding a cult, something he was very much against.
There are a number of key themes in Herbert’s work:
- A concern with leadership. He explored the human tendency to slavishly follow charismatic leaders. He delved into both the flaws and potentials of bureaucracy and government.
- Herbert was among the first science fiction authors to popularize ideas about ecology and systems thinking. He stressed the need for humans to think both systematically and long-term.
- The relationship between religion, politics and power.
- Human survival and evolution: Herbert writes of the Fremen, the Sardaukar, and the Dosadi, who are molded by their terrible living conditions into dangerous super races.
- Human possibilities and potential: Herbert offered Mentats, the Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilax as different visions of human potential.
- The nature of sanity and madness. Frank Herbert was interested in the work of Thomas Szasz and the anti-psychiatry movement. Often, Herbert poses the question, “What is sane?“, and while there are clearly insane behaviors and psychopathies as evinced by characters (Piter De Vries for instance), it is often suggested that normal and abnormal are relative terms which humans are sometimes ill-equipped to apply to one another, especially on the basis of statistical regularity.
- The possible effects and consequences of consciousness-altering chemicals, such as the spice in the Dune saga, as well as the “Jaspers” fungus in The Santaroga Barrier, and the Kelp in the Destination: Void sequence.
- How language shapes thought. More specifically, Herbert was influenced by Alfred Korzybski‘s General Semantics.Algis Budrys wrote that his knowledge of language and linguistics “is worth at least one PhD and the Chair of Philology at a good New England college”.
- Sociobiology. How our instincts unconsciously influence our behavior and society.
- Learning, teaching, and thinking.
Frank Herbert refrained from offering his readers formulaic answers to many of the questions he explored.
Status and influence on science fiction
Dune and the Dune saga constitute one of the world’s best-selling science fiction series and novels; Dune in particular has received widespread critical acclaim, winning the Nebula Award in 1965 and sharing the Hugo Award in 1966, and is frequently considered one of the best science fiction novels ever, if not the best.Locus subscribers voted it the all-time best SF novel in 1975, again in 1987, and the best “before 1990” in 1998.
Dune is considered a landmark novel for a number of reasons:
- Dune is a landmark of soft science fiction. Herbert deliberately suppressed technology in his Dune universe so he could address the future of humanity, rather than the future of humanity’s technology. Dune considers the way humans and their institutions might change over time.
- Dune was the first major ecological science fiction novel. Frank Herbert was a great popularizer of scientific ideas; many of his fans credit Frank Herbert for introducing them to philosophy and psychology. In Dune he helped popularize the term ecology and some of the field’s concepts, vividly imparting a sense of planetary awareness. Gerald Jonas explains in The New York Times Book Review: “So completely did Mr. Herbert work out the interactions of man and beast and geography and climate that Dune became the standard for a new subgenre of ‘ecological’ science fiction.” As popularity of Dune rose, Herbert embarked on a lecture tour of college campuses, explaining how the environmental concerns of Dune’s inhabitants were analogous to our own.
- Dune is considered an epic example of literary world-building. The Library Journal reports that “Dune is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy”. Arthur C. Clarke is quoted as making a similar statement on the back cover of a paper edition of Dune. Frank Herbert imagined every facet of his creation. He lovingly included glossaries, quotes, documents, and histories, to bring his universe alive to his readers. No science fiction novel before it had so vividly realized life on another world.
Herbert never again equalled the critical acclaim he received for Dune. Neither his sequels to Dune nor any of his other books won a Hugo or Nebula Award, although almost all of them were New York Times Best Sellers.
Much of Herbert’s work makes difficult reading. His ideas were genuinely developed concepts, not merely decorative notions, but they were sometimes embodied in excessively complicated plots and articulated in prose which did not always match the level of thinking […] His best novels, however, were the work of a speculative intellect with few rivals in modern science fiction.
Posthumously published works
Beginning in 2012, Herbert’s estate and WordFire Press have released four previously unpublished novels in e-book and paperback formats: High-Opp (2012),Angels’ Fall (2013),A Game of Authors (2013), and A Thorn in the Bush (2014).
In recent years, Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert and author Kevin J. Anderson have added to the Dune franchise, using notes left behind by Frank Herbert and discovered over a decade after his death. Brian Herbert and Anderson have written three prequel trilogies (Prelude to Dune, Legends of Dune and Great Schools of Dune) exploring the history of the Dune universe before the events of the original novel, two novels that take place between novels of the original Dune sequels (with plans for more), as well as two post-Chapterhouse Dune novels that complete the original series (Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune) based on Frank Herbert’s own Dune 7 outline.
- Allen, L. David. Cliffs Notes on Herbert’s Dune & Other Works. Lincoln, NE: Cliffs Notes, 1975.ISBN 0-8220-1231-6
- Clarke, Jason. SparkNotes: Dune, Frank Herbert. New York: Spark Publishing, 2002.ISBN 1-58663-510-7
- Grazier, Kevin R., ed. (2008). The Science of Dune: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science Behind Frank Herbert’s Fictional Universe. Psychology of Popular Culture. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books. ISBN 978-1-933771-28-1.
- Herbert, Brian. Dreamer of Dune : The Biography of Frank Herbert. New York: Tor Books, 2003.ISBN 0-765-30646-8
- Levack, Daniel JH; Willard, Mark. Dune Master: A Frank Herbert Bibliography. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1988.ISBN 0-88736-099-8
- McNelly, Dr. Willis E. (ed.) The Dune Encyclopedia. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1984.ISBN 0-425-06813-7
- Miller, David M. Starmont Reader’s Guide 5: Frank Herbert. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont, 1980.ISBN 0-916732-16-9
- O’Reilly, Timothy. Frank Herbert. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
- O’Reilly, Timothy (ed.) The Maker of Dune. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1987.
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- Official website for Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson
- Frank Herbert SF Hall of Fame induction (Kevin Anderson report with his speech)
- “Frank Herbert biography”. Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
- Interviewer: Paul Turner (October 1973). “Vertex Interviews Frank Herbert”. Volume 1, Issue 4. Archived from the original on May 19, 2009. Retrieved April 16, 2005.
- 1984 interview with L. A. Reader: part 1, 2, 3
Biography and criticism
- Frank Herbert biography at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
- Arabic and Islamic themes in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels
- Study by Tim O’Reilly of Frank Herbert’s work up to the Jesus Incident; one of the more in-depth studies of Frank Herbert’s thoughts and ideas
- Article on the inspirations for Dune
- “Frank Herbert, the Dune Man” -(Frederik Pohl)
Bibliography and works
- Works by Frank Herbert at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Frank Herbert at Internet Archive
- Works by Frank Herbert at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Frank Herbert at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Frank Herbert at the Internet Book List
- Frank Herbert at the Internet Book Database of Fiction
- Works by Frank Herbert at Open Library
- Frank Herbert at Library of Congress Authorities, with 69 catalog records