Santaroga Barrier, The by Herbert, Frank, 1968

Santaroga Barrier, The by Herbert, Frank - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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It'll be a beautiful life, he thought. Beautiful . . . beautiful . . . beautiful.

Frank Herbert's 1967 novel The Santaroga Barrier is probably best interpreted as a utopia novel, though there are strong psychological and drug use themes that run through it too. As a utopia, I cannot imagine anyone concluding that it is anything other than another ambiguous utopia. Santaroga tells the story of Gilbert Daesin, a UC Berkley psychologist during a visit to a Northern California community nestled in the fictional Santaroga Valley. Daesin was hired by a conglomerate of businesses to go into the valley and find out why no chain stores survive there; every time one is opened, it died in a very short time for a near total lack of customers. There was something about the Santarogans that made them able to avoid marketing messages, and the corporations wanted to find out what it was and kill it.. But Daesin also had another reason for visiting the valley. His grad-school love, Jenny Sorge, lived there, and he longed to reconcile and rekindle their lost romance. After getting there and reconnecting with Jenny, Daesin was told that if they are to be together, he must move to Santaroga permanently.

Before going into the valley Daesin was advised that the community has some odd characteristics. Nobody could be found that had ever emigrated from the valley permanently. No products grown outside the valley were sold there. They had no record of ever having a psychological problem or insanity, or even truants. There was no juvenile delinquency. No houses were ever offered for sale or rent to outsiders, and so on. Santaroga was an entirely self sufficient farming community that produced all of its food through a co-op that specialized in beer and cheese. Daesin also knew that two prior investigators had been dispatched to Santaroga, and both of them had met with unforeseeable fatal accidents while in the valley. Naturally, Daesin's dander was up. Once in town Daesin was treated as he expected he would be treated; as an undesired outsider. But soon the people in the town realized that this was the Daesin who "their Jenny" had been going on and on about since returning home. Reunited quickly the two pledged their love for one another, but Daesin had work to do. Although the town's folk opened their doors to him and promised him openness, they did not go out of their way to explain what was going on, so Daesin resorted to sneaking around at night. What he found was that all of the food in Santaroga, particularly the local beer and cheese, was permeated with a mildly stimulating substance that the locals called Jaspers. They called it a "consciousness fuel" that made the community tighter-knit than any other in the world. What it really did was subtly link the people's minds and create a low-level hive-mind of sorts, so that the people of the town who had consumed enough Jaspers could feel emotional energy coming off of other citizens. Not exactly telepathy, and certainly not a form of slavery, the Santarogans were interconnected in a very subtle way with one another. Because of this they were well balanced mentally and happy; they each had enormous emotional resources at their disposal. Since Jaspers was a unique, local phenomena (it was a fungus that grew in a cave) and spoiled very easily it was not something that could be exported. The Santarogans, protective of their happy community and unable to ship Jaspers, were naturally insular in their outlook.

The conflict in the book naturally concerned Daesin, an outsider. Once he entered the town his exposure to Jaspers began. As time went on he breathed and ate more of it, until he realized that he was so saturated with it that he was becoming a Santarogan. Despite his misgivings about that he was in love with Jenny, and knew that unless he let himself be consumed, he would lose her. But Daesin was also a very honorable person, and felt it was his duty to complete his report and get it back to Dr. Salador, to whom he reported for the conglomerate. More, despite the fact that Daesin essentially did allow himself to become a Santarogan, he still rebelled against the notion that his choice had been taken from him. These conflicting feelings, given manifestation by Daesin's inability to control his thoughts and emotions, drove some Santarogans to embrace Daesin and others to push him away. Interestingly though Daesin also had to deal with the town itself. As a defense mechanism the people of the town had worked out the ability to subliminally set traps for outsiders who would not leave. It was not a conscious decision; rather it was the collective fright of all of the Santarogans that caused individuals to "make mistakes" and create "accidents" that would claim the lives of outsiders. Especially after Daesin learned what Jaspers was and what was going on in the town, and because he outwardly resisted becoming Santarogan, the town did what it could to deal with the problem. Daesin became paranoid as Santaroga worked on killing him. Fortunately he survived a long series of misadventures of the type that killed the last two investigators, but he was wounded in a service-station fire saving an innocent man. While he recovered he gave in and took a massive dose of Jaspers, the final step to becoming wholly Santarogan.

Daesin's most shocking revelation came at the end of the story when he realized that Salador and the conglomerate did not just want to understand Santaroga; they wanted to smash it. I think that this book sprung out of Herbert's frustration with the modern advertising culture. At least to me it seems that Santaroga itself seems to be an attempt to throw those chains of control off. In that sense it's a pretty interesting thought experiment It is also because of that, however, that the utopic elements of the book present an unresolvable conundrum. The people of Santaroga preach individualism as the key to success and happiness, but it is only in the context of mass-media messages and the looming mass-cultural hegemony that those messages have any significance. Other than in that context, they are nothing more than words to define what the Santarogans are against. The reality of their existence is that they are all nodes in a hive-mind that can take control of them as it wishes. Remember: Santaroga had a nasty way of taking care of intruders who would not leave. Daesin learned also at the end of the story that nine prior investigators - not just two, as he had been told - had met with "accidental" ends in Santaroga prior to his arrival. Daesin himself suffered through a long series of events that would have led to his own "accidental" death, and they did not stop until the Santarogans convinced themselves that he not only meant no harm, but that he was addicted to Jaspers and could not leave even if he wanted to. Those accidents were the unconscious will of the Santarogans, given physical manifestation by some psi-force that was only accessible to collective intelligence. None of the Santarogans were even aware that this was going on, despite a long series of over a dozen accidents that happened to Daesin, and the nine corpses they had accumulated prior to his arrival. That alone is pretty difficult to overlook, and I think that self-delusion is another important indicator that all was not as it seemed in Santaroga.

As a utopia, I think that Santaroga falls far short. Consider this: why is it that people respond so strongly to marketing messages? Why are producers and marketers so apt at manipulating consumers into doing what they want? There is one reason, really: FEAR. People go out and buy products because they are afraid of what will happen if they don't. "I could smell bad and repel girls!" "I won't look right at my office party if I'm not wearing a nice suit!" "Hilda-Mae will never marry me unless my hair looks this way!" Modern marketing really is the management of fears. The Santarogans defined themselves differently. They said "we will not succumb, because our state of existence provides us the peace of mind we need to ignore your fear messages." When in fact, that really was not the case. The Santarogans experienced fear just as much as you and I do. If they didn't then they would have felt more comfortable letting outsiders in, and they would not have reached out to kill when outsiders threatened them, or merely walked into their boarders. To turn the tables a bit, I think Herbert imbued Santaroga with a long term perspective; they were waiting patiently for the outside culture to fail. They felt that any culture that let marketers make so many important decisions for them could not last long, and there may have been some truth to that. But the emotional conditions that led to the problem in the first place had not been eliminated from the Santarogan experience by the creation of the hive-mind, so I don't think that I can say that they were living in a utopia. I think their days were as numbered as the days of the outsiders, because the fear that drove outside culture also drove theirs.

Nevertheless, I cannot hit Herbert too hard for this. The Santaroga Barrier is a deeply philosophical novel about the definition of seflhood. The novel encapsulates many different schools of thought, and even the characters are mouthpieces for continental philosophers. And as with any real philosophical questions, there are no answers here; only more questions. There is also a very interesting business aspect to this story that I have never seen analyzed eslewhere. It has to do with the fact that the major conflict in this story was really between a huge multi-national conglomeration of corporations and a small local cooperative. The scales were tipped in the favor of the locals by virtue of the fact that the Santarogans had access to a vital local resource that the conglomeration could not get. But that analysis is probably going to have to be for another day, and certainly someone with different training than I.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)

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