Dreamer of Dune by Brian Herbert
In 2003 Tor released Dreamer of Dune, a biography of Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986) written by his son Brian Herbert, who has written a number of novels as well. The best known of these are the DUNE prequels and sequels written in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson. Dreamer of Dune is not the only book about Frank Herbert or his works but the others I am aware of are currently out of print. My copy had been sitting on a shelf for years before I finally picked it up after finishing Frank Herbert’s The Green Brain.
Dreamer of Dune covers Herbert’s entire life from his birth in 1920 to his untimely death in 1986. Brian Herbert draws on numerous sources. Early in the text he draws on public records as well as what his parents and the people who knew them back then had to say about his father. Later on Brian Herbert’s memories and personal journal become important sources as well. The 1970s and 80s, when Frank Herbert was at the peak of his success, are very detailed.
The most striking aspect of this biography is that Brian Herbert chose a very personal approach to describing his father’s life. To an extent this is inevitable; being Frank’s son he must have quite a different view of his father than the general public would, or a biographer who had to rely on interviews and documentation to create his own image of the man. Brian has his own memories and notes to give us an insight nobody else could have achieved. I’m not sure it is more accurate, but it is certainly unique. Some passages seem like things he needed to get of his chest — the writing is almost therapeutic in some places. There are passages in the book where it feels like he does not know how to start or where he frankly admits to have stalled. Throughout the book he refers to Frank Herbert as Dad and does not shy away from mentioning his father’s shortcomings. It seems the great science fiction writer Frank Herbert did not have a way with children, something that considerably alienated him from his son.
Brian Herbert describes his father’s struggles to become a published writer, the need and enormous drive Frank Herbert had to succeed, but also the constant financial troubles, endless moving around, and different jobs Frank Herbert held throughout his life. Given the numerous attempts to sell anything, Herbert’s ambition to break into the mainstream literature market when his science fiction looked more marketable, and the steady stream of rejection letters, it really is a miracle that he persevered. Even after he sold his first novel The Dragon in the Sea, published in 1956 (which is also known under the titles Under Pressure and 21st Century Sub), things stayed turbulent for quite a while. Throughout the book Brian Herbert stresses the enormous support Frank Herbert’s received from second wife Beverly, both during his struggle to become a published author as well as managing his affairs after his career truly took off, sacrificing her own aspirations to become a writer in the process. Although I can’t help but wonder if Beverly was always as patient with Frank Herbert as Brian describes, theirs was certainly a special relationship.
Almost every piece of Frank Herbert’s writing that has been published is mentioned somewhere in Dreamer of Dune. Brian Herbert goes into quite a lot of details on some books. I think he overdid it a little on Dune in particular, especially since a lot of that same information then comes back when he writes about the release of the David Lynch film. To be fair, Dune is inescapable, overshadowing everything else Frank Herbert has written from the moment of its conception, through the 10 years it took to write the novel and during Herbert’s entire subsequent career. Another book that is mentioned quite a lot, and I must say this surprised me, is Soul Catcher. It is the only mainstream novel Frank Herbert published, which is partly inspired by the contacts Frank had with west coast Native Americans during his youth. It’s out of print and I have only recently managed to get hold of a copy recently. The book jumped up quite a few places on my to-read list as a result of Brian Herbert’s descriptions. Be aware, though, that Dreamer of Dune does not hold back on spoilers.
Another book that is mentioned quite a lot is The Santaroga Barrier, a book that most clearly shows Herbert’s interest in psychology. The novel Man of Two Worlds, on which father and son collaborated, is also a book that is special to Brian Herbert. It’s one the last novels Frank Herbert published, in addition to The Ascension Factor, a book that was mostly written by his partner on the DESTINATION: VOID series, Bill Ransom. The collections of short fiction by Frank Herbert are pretty much absent, although various individual stories are mentioned. I thought this to be a bit of a shame, since Frank Herbert was better known for his novels but some of the short stories I have read, those in the collection Eye, are very much worth reading.
Brian Herbert has received a lot of criticism for the way he has dealt with Frank Herbert’s literary legacy. Some of it is even justified given the quality of the recent Dune books. I was afraid that with a book weighing in at well over 500 pages he had gone a bit overboard on this project. Brian Herbert’s description of his father’s life is a fascinating read. He shows us a complex man, at once brilliant and clumsy, ambitious and stubborn; a man who has written some of the finest science fiction novels ever but was only a shadow of himself without his wife Beverly. It’s written in a way that will reach out and grab you, a book that will put Frank Herbert’s stories in a new perspective, and above all, a book that will leave you with the feeling Frank Herbert wasn’t nearly done with life when his time came. I should not have waited so long before reading it.
I’m glad you reviewed this and talked about the strengths and weaknesses of Brian Herbert’s view of this important canon writer. Frankly, I’d rather read a biography with a little more distance on the subject, but that’s just my taste.
There are a couple of those out there of Frank Herbert but as far as I know none of them had the cooperation of Herbert or the estate so they are limited in other ways.
Yes, that’s always the trade-off, isn’t it? Brian Herbert certainly had the best access in all respects.
This sounds interesting. Good review, thanks for posting it.