Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Classic Science Fiction Stories by Frank Herbert

Not of the same caliber as his novels
I’m not a habitual reader of science fiction, but I’ve always loved the work of Frank Herbert. In fact, one reason I stopped reading sci-fi is because I couldn’t find another writer who measured up to him. His Dune books are phenomenal, and I also enjoyed his WorShip series of novels, beginning with Destination: Void. Before he achieved fame as a novelist, Herbert, like many sci-fi authors, got his start penning short stories for the pulp magazines. Three of his stories from the late 1950s (only three as far as I can tell, unfortunately) are now in the public domain, and available for free download as ebooks at Amazon or Project Gutenberg.

“Old Rambling House” was originally published in the April 1958 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. A young married couple, expecting their first child, is eager to buy a house. They find another couple who is willing to trade a house for their small trailer. When they visit the house in question, however, and see how large, modern, and luxurious it is, they can’t help but wonder, what’s the catch? The story is obviously leading to a surprise ending, and when it comes it’s even weirder than expected, but a little confusing and hard to follow.

“Missing Link” was originally published in the February 1959 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Field agents Stetson and Orne of the Investigation & Adjustment department of the Galactic Federation, land on a foreign planet. Their mission is to find a crashed Federation ship and to assess the hostility of an alien species in order to determine whether it is worthy of contact or destruction. While plenty of other sci-fi authors create alien races, here Herbert demonstrates his remarkable talent for creating fully realized alien cultures, complete with their own history, mythology, and ethics. The slang-ridden bureaucratic banter between the agents takes some getting used to. Toward the end of the story, one of the agents uses some Sherlock Holmes-style deduction to solve a mystery, but his reasoning is so convoluted that it defies belief. Nevertheless, “Missing Link” is a pretty good story and the best one out of these three.

In “Operation Haystack,” originally published in the May 1959 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, agents Stetson and Orne return. Orne has been investigating a planet where an oligarchy of women rules a slave army of males. He is seriously injured when the mission literally blows up in his face. While he’s lying in critical condition on the capital planet of Marak, Stetson uncovers a plot to overthrow the government of the Marakian League. This is the weakest of the three stories, mainly because it doesn’t contain enough science fiction. It’s like a mediocre political thriller that just happens to take place on another planet. One might see the cabal of women as a precursor to the Bene Gesserit of his Dune books, but it’s a tenuous connection at best.

These three tales are fine specimens of pulp fiction, but they don’t have the psychological, philosophical, or spiritual depth of the novels Herbert is known for. They all have a feeling of big ideas crammed into a small package, as if the short story format is too small too contain Herbert’s sweeping vision. Compared to other late-’50s sci-fi, they seem years ahead of their time, but they read as if they’re decades behind Dune, which was published only about 6 years later. Fans of Herbert can’t go wrong by reading this early work, but don’t expect to be too impressed.

Stories in this collection:
Old Rambling House
Missing Link
Operation Haystack

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