Dragon in the Sea, The by Herbert, Frank, 1956

Dragon in the Sea, The by Herbert, Frank

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Dragon in the Sea, by Frank Herbert, 1955, originally published in Astounding Science Fiction: The Dragon In the Sea (alternatively The Dragon Under the Sea), aka Under Pressure, aka (unauthorized in novel form I believe, save for one printing by Avon) 21st Century Sub, is by my best reckoning Frank Herbert's first novel length work. As best I can tell this work was originally published in Astounding, and can be found, in addition to its own individual printings, in The Best of Frank Herbert and Eye. This little book gets 4 our of 5 from me.

Much has already been written about the development of Herbert's style and prose as exhibited by this novel. The novel is about a sub-tug called the Fenian Ram that is crewed by 4 persons. This particular tug is tasked with secreting into enemy territory to steal oil from a secret rig drilled by the American government without the knowledge of the Eastern Powers ("EP," which seems to be made up of Soviet Russia and a satellite of nations taking up all of Western Europe save for the UK which has been reduced to radioactive slag), who are our enemies in a long lasting and bitter war. The problem is that the EP has developed an extensive network of well placed spies that will stop at nothing to sink this sub, just as all of the last 20 sub-tugs that have attempted this same mission. Not only that, but one of the crew of four may be a sleeper spy. During the voyage Ramsey, who was placed on the sub as a last minute replacement by the BuPsych (Bureau of Psychology) has been charged with monitoring the emotional responses of the stoic captain of the sub-tug, Sparrow, with a variety of instruments and psychological tools. Ramsey's original mission is to figure out why this particular crew is so effective, but as soon as the sub is launched, Ramsey is equally diverted by trying to find out who, if anyone, the sleeper is. Herbert develops the story very well by putting the sub and its crew into a wide variety of deadly situations that are resolved only with quick and outside-of-the-box thinking and superior experience.

The most interesting aspect of this book to any fan of Herbert is how he used and refined some to the ideas and tools found in Dune. For example, Herbert not only uses water as a source of stress for the characters in each of the books, but he uses the quest for a vital resource as the basis for conflict. This isn't exactly a new idea, but Herbert's treatment in the two books of spice and oil is virtually identical, in that they are both highly valued prizes that serve to heat up what are essentially political wars over real estate and the power to govern, the only real difference being that financial considerations seem to drive the enemy in Dune much more than in Dragon. In the context of the meta-causes of and reasons for war, the need for this one resource drives combat in that without them, or after having lost them to the other, the ability to fight in any way other than as a guerrilla is removed, and the war will essentially be over.

Another tool that one can see Herbert developing in this novel includes the use of religion. In Dragon the crew of four have different religions, but Sparrow has developed a sort of hybrid religion for group prayer before battle that is a little bit more than a typical non-denominational service. The hybrid is based on Christianity, and in fact Sparrow turns out to be a bible-quoting semi-pastor who says a prayer every time he sinks an enemy. Sparrow uses his knowledge of the bible to bring his crew together to do a flawless job every time they go out, in a way reminiscent of Muad'dib's use of religion. In Dune, Muad'dib capitalized on religion beliefs put into the Fremen by the Missionaria Protectiva to convince the Fremen that he was their Madhi, but once he had them, he created his own religion to send them into battle, and onto Jihad. Other interesting similarities pop up too, such as Sparrow's hawk-like features, the use of plasteel, and the use of secret names for individual warriors once they have proven them selves in battle, but the most obvious ones seemed to me to end there.

The only real negative thing I saw in this work has to do with something I have noticed others love. Specifically, with how Herbert built stress and carried the reader along. It is true that Herbert put the crew through some harrowing experiences. And, the action is very well developed and described. But part of Ramsey's job was to monitor Sparrow through an EKG type devise that got a readout from an implant in Sparrow. Virtually every time things on the sub got hairy, Sparrow remained perfectly calm and in control. That did not take away from the individual excitement from each scene, but to me it robbed from the potential excitement and fear as the book as a whole progressed. The book would not have been the same had this aspect of it been different, especially since it causes Ramsey to strongly consider Sparrow as the sleeper, but some emotional reaction would have added to the sense of impending doom that Herbert was trying to build.

All in all the way I choose to look at Dragon is as a little work of Herbert's informing a much bigger and more important one, rather than providing direct influence or guiding principles. That, and the truly interesting story that this book tells make it worth reading it if you can get it.Military, Ecology, Psychology; 4 Stars

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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