The East and the West rule the world, but the West is running out of oil. The West has been sending subtugs (specialized submarines) to smuggle oil from the East, but the last twenty missions have failed. It’s treachery! Security knows that the East has a lot of sleeper agents among their ranks, so they assign John Ramsey, who specializes in psychology and electronics, aboard the next mission in order to uncover the sleeper agent.
There are four men aboard the subtug, and since one of them is Ramsey, his search seems pretty simple. He even has fancy new technology that monitors the crew’s hormone levels. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned. The crew discovers a dead man aboard the subtug — was he a sleeper agent or the victim of one? They also find gadgets designed to give away their location. And there’s sabotage, too. (How many sleeper agents does the East have?) Worse, Ramsey struggles maintain his psychological objectivity because he wants to trust that the captain can protect his safety.
Despite its near future setting and its gadgets, The Dragon in the Sea reads more like a cross between a spy novel and a whodunit than science fiction. Frank Herbert employs an omniscient narrator that hops from one character’s mind to the next. Ironically, I found the characters opaque and flat, which was frustrating since, like Ramsey, I was trying to identify the traitor. Ramsey’s job is not easy, but the endless number of minute events the crew encounters makes it harder. A dead body is found, then sabotage, then, etc. For a novel that is marketed as a psychological thriller, I couldn’t help thinking that a little more psychological introspection and more personalized dialogue would have made for a better novel. Full disclosure, I rarely solve mystery novels before the final reveal; nevertheless, I found The Dragon in the Sea a clumsy mystery and Ramsey a limited spy.
The Dragon in the Sea is more fun if read as a tense submarine adventure novel, and I often compared it to Michael Crichton’s Sphere. Like Herbert, Crichton casts a psychologist as his hero and, like Herbert, he allows the pressure of the deep to add to the psychological strain his characters endure. Crichton, however, is better at creating tension using psychological theories than Herbert, who alludes to symbolic birth canals but does not explain how they might lead someone to betray his country. Some readers will be disappointed to find that The Dragon in the Sea is less obsessed with technical details than Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, but for what it’s worth, the method by which the subtugs steal oil is pretty neat.
Though The Dragon in the Sea more strongly recalls Isaac Asimov’s 1966 novel, Fantastic Voyage, than Herbert’s later masterpiece, Dune, there are some hints of what was to come. For example, Herbert was already worried about the automation of mundane tasks. At one point, one of the submariners recalls that:
There had been a time, he knew, when captains conned their vessels away from the dock, shouting orders through a megaphone. Now, it was all automatic — done by machines and by men who were like machines.
And Dragon’s premise — a global conflict driven by a lack of oil — especially recalls Dune’s galactic conflict driven by a threat to the spice.
Actually, it was this concern over oil in a novel written in 1955-1956 that most impressed me. While Herbert’s contemporaries were writing about a future powered by amazing wonders like nuclear garbage disposals, he envisioned a world in which progress did not simply keep on keeping on but instead created dependencies that would escalate into global conflicts. And Herbert seems especially concerned about the paranoia created by the Cold War and the Red Scare. More than once, Ramsey and his captain think about the power of Security and the air of paranoia that it fosters. Over time, Ramsey becomes skeptical that Security helps anything.
One part science fiction, one part spy novel, and one part submarine adventure, The Dragon in the Sea tries to do a lot, but it mostly reads like a typical adventure novel published in the 1950s. The premise is fun, Ramsey has gadgets that James Bond would envy, and the dialogue and characterization never get in the way. Having said that, interesting dialogue and complex characterization (not to mention female characters) would have added a lot to this “psychological thriller.” Readers that enjoy adventure novels from this period will probably enjoy The Dragon in the Sea, but others should approach with caution.