Worlds of Frank Herbert, The by Herbert, Frank, 1970

Worlds of Frank Herbert, The by Herbert, Frank

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Inside of the on-line circles that I usually travel in, Frank Herbert is regarded as a god. I'm pretty sure that I have mentioned before that the reason I got on line in the first place was because I wanted to find some fellow fans. But as I have broadened my circles a bit I found plenty of fellow SF fans who love Dune but have pretty much ignored everything else that Herbert put out. I think a lot of those people would be surprised at how good some of Herbert's non-Dune work is. Today's review is of one of his four collections of short stories. Most of the stories in this particular volume I read for the first time in the last week. I was struck by how similar they were to Dune - not in terms of quality, but in perspective. Just about all of these stories involved a re-engineering of a pulp era motif or theme, viewed through Herbert’s informed philosophical lenses, and which were peopled by strong female characters. Herbert has an uncanny way of writing strong women who at first appear to be nothing more then men in womens clothing, but later turn out to strongly voice feminine issues from a feminine perspective.

Personally I found this work to be pretty strong, but I have no illusions about turning new readers onto Herbert’s non-Dune works. Given the complexity of Herbert’s style and his estate’s focus on new Dune books (to the detriment, I believe, of Frank’s works), I fear that most of his non-Dune work will soon be forgotten. Consider: Most of what he wrote, Dune included, was very dense. He had a habit of ignoring traditional plot development, and even his throw-away characters had some sort of secret motivation to them that the reader had to figure out. Herbert was also a major ball-hider. Don’t look for him to explain much in his stories. In just about all of these stories Herbert drops the reader into some social transaction that is already underway, then lets that reader sink or swim on his all. Such seems to be the purview of the brilliant, I have noticed.

The Tactful Saboteur, by Frank Herbert, 1964, originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction: This story is one of the rare short stories in Herbert’s McKie/Consientency sequence, about a government-employed saboteur named Jorj McKie. Surprisingly McKie was not employed to sabotage the enemies of the state. His purpose was to sabotage the state itself and its many institutions. The social philosophy of that day, which takes place at the end of the sixty-ninth century (according to another story called A Matter of Traces (soon to be posted here), in which McKie appears briefly, holds that obstructive processes in government are the chief vehicle by which human rights are protected. Otherwise the government would grow strong and efficient, and then turn tyrannical.

Herbert’s non-Dune novels are generally regarded as B-level efforts not only because some of them are inherently flawed, but probably more because they are incredibly complex and difficult to read. The McKie stories are no exception (they include this short story and the one mentioned above, and the novels The Dosadi Experiment and Whipping Star). Most evaluators consider them to be critically opaque, and I tend to agree that from a plot standpoint, they are. One day I will do a legal review of the entire sequence, as I think that Herbert has a lot to say about justice and civil rights in them. The Tactful Saboteur falls in the middle of the opacity spectrum, however. It’s the story of the salvation of the BuSab, or Bureau of Sabotage, which is the government arm that makes sure that the rest of government does not get too big for its britches.

In The Tactful Saboteur the BuSab is revealed to pick its leaders only from those who sabotage their predecessor. McKie, as a master saboteur, has become concerned over the disappearance of a co-worker named Bildoon. While McKie met with Watt, his supervisor and the administrator of BuSab, Watt was struck with a device called a jicuzzi stim, which altered his appearance in a horrifying way. Everyone, including Watt, thought that McKie was the attacker, but it turns out it was actually Bildoon who attacked from a distance. Bildoon, it turns out, was a Pan-Spechi: a member of a race that were “pentarchical,” which meant that individuals in that society of aliens each had five independent humanoid bodies, all of which were conscious at the same time, but only one of which carried the individual’s ego. They were a form of hive creature, and each hive was made up of five beings. Bildoon, when he attacked Watt, carried the ego. But after the attack the ego was transferred to another of the pentarchical creatures named Bolin. The first part of the story tells of the attack on Watt, McKie’s search for Bildoon and his eventual confrontation of Bolin. The second part of the story details a civil trial of Bolin for the assault on Watt, at the behest of a shadowy group of BuSab's foes called the Tax Watchers. The BuSab made the decision to open the courtroom up to the press for that trial, so everyone learned the BuSab’s process for picking a new leader. The court ruled that Bildoon’s attack on Watt was attributable to Bolin, because it was essentially the same being, and Bolin took Watt’s position as the head of BuSab. As a result of the openness of the proceedings the citizens were reassured that the BuSab was in capable hands and would continue to work to preserve their interests.

There’s an anecdote in this story that I think perfectly sums up Herbert’s approach to character interaction. If you’ve ever read Herbert, I’m betting you will get it right away.

Two practitioners of the art of mental healing, so the story goes, passed each other every morning on their way to their respective offices. They knew each other, but weren’t on intimate terms. One morning as they approached each other, one of them turned to the other and said, ‘Good morning.’ The one greeted failed to respond, but continued toward his office. Presently, though, he stopped, turned and stared at the retreating back of man who’d spoken, musing to himself: ‘Now what did he really mean by that?’

Part of the difficulty in understanding Herbert lies in the dichotomy that he likes to bestow upon his characters in their speech and thought. Characters have been known to go for entire novels without once saying anything honest or repeating what was in their minds. Coupled with his penchant for unusual twists of plot and dense philosophical musings, Herbert at his best, as he is here, can be a rough read.

I started reading Herbert’s other works mostly so that I could better understand Dune, and while this work has some bits of his masterwork in it (chairdogs and trials-by-fire for potential leaders), The Tactful Saboteur has its own legs and deserves to be read for its own merits. Civil Rights Law, Mystery, Hive Intelligence; 4 Stars

By the Book, by Frank Herbert, 1966, originally published in Analog Science Fiction -> Science Fact: Ivar Norris Gump ("Ing") is a semi-retired engineer/trouble-shooter for an enormous company that runs a project on the Moon called "the Beam." Ing's former bosses have had serious trouble with the Beam recently, so they asked him to travel to the Moon to take a look. The Beam is a 900 foot tunnel caved vertically into the Moon. The tunnel is used to squirt data to remote colony probes that were launched from Earth hundreds of years ago: The technology will allow a normal light-speed transmission to communicate instantaneously with the probes. Euphemistically the scientists and engineers on the Moon say that the beam they shoot through the tunnel "turns the corner," presumably past Einsteinian space. The Colony probes are loaded with rabbits that carry zygotes of a whole host of Earthly creatures, from bees to cattle to men. Once the colony ship lands on its target world robots and artificially intelligent computers will build the infrastructure needed to birth the colonists and their animals, and set up farming for when food ultimately is needed to feed them all. The problem is that the Beam is not working, and the first colony ship is approaching a planet called Theta Apus IV. The story could adequately be called hard SF, though I note that it’s full of so much techno-babble that it appears as if Herbert may be merely trying to dress an ordinary tale up with hard-SF accouterments. The tale is also told in a very traditional manner. Ing is presented with a unique problem which he resolves by applying a very rigid set of tools, mainly aphorisms that the company teaches all of its trouble-shooters. Personally I found the story to be formulaic and a bit boring, but by examination of the aphorisms I think I learned something about Herbert himself. Herbert is famous for his aphorisms. Lots of them sound deeply philosophical, and even when given in a fleshed-out context can be somewhat confusing. Here's something Herbert put into this story:

"Program going in," Washington said. "I wish I knew what you hope to find by this."

"I quote," Ing said, "The objective worker makes as large a collection of data as possible and analyzes these in their entirety in relation to selected factors whose relationship to a questioned phenomenon is to be investigated."

"What the devil's that supposed to mean?" Washington demanded.

"Damned if I know," Ing said, "but it's right out of the Haigh Handbook.

I’m pretty sure I've said the same thing about Herbert's philosophy a few hundred times myself. FTL, Colonization, Scientists, Accidents; 2 Stars

Committee of the Whole, by Frank Herbert, 1965, originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction: This story started out as a legal-themed SF story, but took a very, very hard right hand turn into the realm of libertarianism, practically without warning. In it a young, brilliant cattleman from Oregon named Custer testified before a U.S. Senate committee that was preparing to rewrite the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The senators in charge of the committee, led by Senator Tiborough, wanted to add some urban residents to the committees that decided on land use rights on grazing lands. The cattlemen rightly saw this as the government's way of making the land more profitable at their expense, so they organized. Custer, in addition to being a cattleman, was also an inventor. He brought one of his inventions to the hearing to show the senators what they were up against. Before Custer could pull the device out of his bag a soldier from the Pentagon stepped up to the dais and advised Tiborough that Custer probably had a weapon with him. When confronted with this Custer asked to remove the devise and show them why he brought it. The device turned out to be a rather powerful laser device that could literally be made out of household components, including simple quartz crystals. With such a device a man could dig holes, fell trees, and kill predators, but he could also destroy a tank or knock an airplane out of the sky. Custer revealed to the senate that he had foregone a patent, and had spread the plans across the globe. The senators were shocked.

"So you set yourself above the government?"

"I'm probably wasting my time," Custer said, "but I'll try to explain it. Virtually every government in the world is dedicated to manipulating something called the 'mass man.' That's how governments have stayed in power. But there is no such man. When you elevate the non-existent 'mass man' you degrade the individual. And obviously it was only a matter of time until all of us were at the mercy of the individual holding power."

"You talk like a commie!"

"They'll say I'm a goddamn capitalist pawn," Custer said. "Let me ask you, Senator, to visualize a poor radio technical in a South American country. Brazil, for example. He lives a hand-to-mouth existence, ground down by an overbearing, unimaginative, essentially uncouth ruling oligarchy. What is he going to do when this device comes into his hands?"

"Murder, robbery and anarchy."

"You could be right," Custer said. "But we might reach an understanding out of ultimate necessity - that each of us must cooperate in maintaining the dignity of all.

I really enjoyed this story a great deal. In my mind Herbert does a great job with social science fiction, especially when he melds it with a pulp era motif. Consider his epic book Dune, in which he melded sixties social consciousness issues onto a pulp adventure story. Here he did essentially the same thing by melding a political consciousness story that made strong use of the gadget motif. Despite those rose-colored glasses that Custer views the world through, this one made me think a lot after reading it. Social SF, Libertarian, Gadget, Law, Politics; 3.5 Stars

Mating Call, by Frank Herbert, 1961, originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction: Three women are on a research station on an alien planet. They are Laoconia Wilkinson, a militant and pushy field agent for the Social Anthropological Services, Marie Medall, a musician and Dr Fladdis, the station's administrator. The planet, Rukuchp, hosts a race of beings that resemble large Easter eggs that interact with each other by song. Humans are unable to communicate well with them, but we believe that one of them, Gafka, told us that the introduction of human music has affected their mating patterns, and the problem is growing. Wilkinson has only recently been assigned to Rukuchp. She is impatient with the aliens and wants to dive right into the problem. She pushes Medall to press Gafka for an invitation to a ritual called the "Big Sing." Medall thinks that Gafka has warned that the ritual poses some risk for humans, but she's not really sure if she has interpreted it correctly.

Medall was assigned to Rukuchp long before Wilkinson, and in an attempt to save the locals had spent considerable time teaching about Earth music. By the time of the Big Sing, Gafka and others had Earth music down. Medall and Wilkinson went to the location of the Big Sing and set up a broadcast station so that other scientists on their ship could listen in. When they started playing music, it was one of the Earth songs. By the time the song was over, all of the women within listening range realized a shocking truth.

“The whole universe listened to that music,” said Laoconia. “Some smuggler monitored the ship’s official transmission of our recordings. Rebroadcast stations took it. Everyone’s going crazy about our beautiful music.

“Oh, no,” breathed Marie.

Laconia (sic) said: “Everyone on the ship listened to our recordings. Helen said she suspected immediately after the broadcast, but she waited the full half hour before giving the Schafter test.” Laoconia glanced that the silent hump of Gafka standing beside Marie. “Every woman on that ship who could become pregnant is pregnant.”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” asked Marie. “Gafka’s people have developed a form of group parthenogenesis. Their Big Sing sets off the blastomeric reactions.”

Another interesting story built upon a rather pulpish framework. Here Herbert took a shot at a story about synthesis with a pretty far-out concept, and was only marginally successful. Aliens, First Contact, Reproduction, Music, Scientists; 2.5 Stars

Escape Felicity, by Frank Herbert, 1966, originally published in Analog Science Fiction -> Science Fact: Roger Deirut is a single ship pilot out near Capella. His job is to explore, but he has been conditioned by the BuPsych so that he does not wander too far away. There are many other single ship pilots out at Capella. They are exploring a gaseous cloud called the Grand Nuege. Roger is going crazy from loneliness, and one day decides to escape. He points his ship outwards and hits the gas. Ninety-four days later (a record) he happened across three stars, one of which had a planet with intelligent creatures on it. At first the race seems to be primitive, but after some investigation Roger learns that the culture is approximately twenty-five million years old. This story has some interesting anthropological elements to it. It feels a lot like something that Chad Oliver could have written. Anthropology, First Contact, Aliens, Psychology, FTL; 3 Stars

The GM Effect, by Frank Herbert, 1965, originally published in Analog Science Fiction -> Science Fact: The “GM” in the title stands for “genetic memory.” There’s another Dune connection for you. In this story scientists, who were trying to cure obesity, stumbled across a formula that gave the consumer access to the memories of every ancestor in their genetic heritage. Once the formula was taken, everyone in that person’s line kind of woke up. At first the ancestors were pretty quiet. Rather then chattering uncontrollably, they let the individual visit whatever ancestor they liked, kind of like Leto II did it. Eventually though they started to assert themselves.

Another student said: “Where’s Dr. Marmon? I understand he has a theory that the more GM we bring into contact with consciousness, the more we’re controlled by the dominant brutality of our ancestors. You know, he says the most brutal ones survived to have children and we kind of gloss over that in our present awareness . . . or something like that.”

Pretty soon though the scientists figured out that what they had was just too powerful. For example, they knew the truth of what Lincoln thought of slaves, which was not very flattering. They knew the truth of ancestral lineages of the British Crown, which did not support House Windsor. And they knew were way too many bodies were buried. One evening they met to discuss what they should do. They decided that for their own safety they would destroy the formula and never speak of it again. Too bad for them, their project was government subsidized, and the feds were keeping an eye on them. Just as the meeting ended a bunch of soldiers burst in, gunned them down and took the formula. Racial Memory, Scientists; 3 Stars

The Featherbedders, by Frank Herbert, 1967, originally published in Analog Science Fiction -> Science Fact: Very odd story about a small group of alien castaways on Earth. The aliens, the Slorin, were shape-shifters and had mind-control powers. They were on their way to Earth to colonize it when their ship exploded. Three of them made it down to Earth in an escape capsule. They landed in the wilderness and mimicked the first things they say, which were trees. Several months later they mimicked bears, and while walking around they encountered men. After taking the shape of men they set out to establish a colony and await either rescue or more colonists. As they wandered they came to a small town in British Colombia where a sheriff seemed to rule with an iron fist. After meeting the sheriff they learned that he was Slorin too, but immature. He had taken the mission of controlling the humans too far and had revealed himself to them. The sheriff wanted to leave the town, but if he did the mental control would stop and the citizens would come for him, as they had all figured out that he was an alien. The three new Slorin helped the sheriff get away. After they were gone the townsfolk reveal themselves to be a competitor alien species who are hunting Slorin so that they can colonize Earth themselves. This one is pretty twisty, but interesting. Colonization, Alien Invasion, Castaways, Shape Changers, Psi Powers; 2.5 Stars

Old Rambling House, by Frank Herbert, 1967, originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction: A pair of over-worked interstellar tax collectors are assigned to the Earth. They have been mentally conditioned to be slavish about their work. Eventually the couple breaks their mental conditioning, finds a yuppie couple who live in a travel trailer, and convince them to take their lovely house off of their hands. Unfortunately for the young human couple the house serves the main leverage by which the bureaucrats of the Rojar government enforces its mental conditioning on its civil servants. Once the couple takes possession of the home one of the bureaucrats beams in and tells them that they will have to take over the former tax collector's duties according to Rojar's dictates. The story is about the uncaring heart of big government, and how it's next to impossible for people to get out of that kind of work once they get into it. The story was choppy and characters kept coming out of the wood-work. I've read much better from Herbert. If his name were not on it, I'd hardly recognize it as his work. Bureaucracy, Civil Service, First Contact, Aliens, Government, Slavery; 1.5 Stars

A-W-F Unlimited, by Frank Herbert, 1961, originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction: Gwen Everest is a advertising executive who is growing a bit fed up with the way she and others in her position have changed the daily existence of people in public places.

(T)he private corridor to the Singlemaster, Hucksting and Battlemont executive offices were displays from the recent Religion of the Month Club campaign. She ran a gamut of adecals, layouts, slogans, projos, quartersheets, skinnies. The words. . . She was forced to walk through an adecal announcing: “Don’t be Half Safe! Believe in Everything! Are you sure that African Bantu Witchcraft is not the True Way?”

One morning Gwen arrived at her firm and found that some military people were there, threatening to lower the boom on them because the WOMS (Women of Space) recruitment program was an utter failure. The WOMS generals were holding Battlemont’s feet to the fire, offering a double rate payment if they could fix the problem, while threatening to draft every male in the firm if they couldn’t. Battlemont, an aged pudge-pot, was terrified and scared that his brightest star, Gwen, would play her usual games and either piss off the military, or refuse to help – he was afraid that Gwen would just laugh out loud at the idea of all the firm’s men slaving away on some alien planet hell-hole. But Gwen, in a deceptively bullish manner that is typical for her, takes charge of the problem, which has to do with some ridiculously designed space armor.

A-W-F Unlimited has a wonderful feminist element to it, and is a pretty fun story to boot. It’s a bit sarcastic in voice and spares the military no barb, and Gwen’s character is pretty richly drawn. The resolution of this story, which would be a crime to spoil here, is the kind that is sure to raise the eyes of a few and stir some debate about the nature of the sexes. Feminist, Advertising, Corporations, Military; 3.5 Stars

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2 star(s)


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