Monday, May 11, 2020

Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert by Brian Herbert

But first, more about me . . .
The subtitle of Dreamer of Dune is deliberately misleading. This 2003 nonfiction book is not so much a biography of Frank Herbert as it is an autobiography of Brian Herbert. The first half of the book is really quite engaging, and you do learn a lot about Frank Herbert. At times, however, it comes across a bit too much like a memoir that genealogists write about their parents and grandparents for other family members to read, in which every story Dad ever told is taken as the God’s-honest truth, and Daddy could do no wrong in the eyes of his son. The only negative comments Brian has about his super-dad is that Frank was dismissive of his young children and sometimes practiced corporal punishment, as many fathers in the 1950s did. The way Brian speaks about his parents’ marriage is even more sweetly idealized. Mr. and Mrs. Herbert apparently shared the greatest love since Romeo and Juliet, never had a fight, and treated each other like saints. It’s hard to take such one-sided romanticized portraits seriously. To his credit, however, Brian does seem to have done some diligent research into his father’s early writing career.

The second half of the book takes a major turn for the worse. Frank Herbert is absent from much of it as Brian concentrates on his mother’s illness, his own writing career, and his own wife and kids. At one point Brian became an obsessive journaler, and it shows, as he feels the need to tell us every bottle of wine the family drank at dinner, what they were wearing, or the fact that on two occasions Brian was eating a banana while talking to his father. The reader sympathizes with Beverly Herbert and her battle with cancer, but Brian thinks you need to know the tedious details of every doctor’s appointment she ever had. On the other hand, he doesn’t even bother to interview his stepmother, who was with Frank for the last year of his life and was present at his death.

One thing that surprised me while reading Dreamer of Dune is the remarkable number of similarities between the life of Frank Herbert and that of Jack London (who also wrote science fiction). Both were born to humble beginnings and developed a love for the outdoors and boating. At the age of 9, Herbert was making solo sailing trips around Puget Sound, just as young London was doing in San Francisco Bay a half century earlier. Both lived largely nomadic lifestyles in their young adulthood, sometimes experiencing extreme poverty as they struggled to sell their short stories. Both worked as journalists to supplement their income and hone their craft. Both adventured to Alaska as young men, and both fell in love with Hawaii later in life. Both divorced their first wives before finding their soul mates. After achieving success, both became public intellectuals and traveling lecturers on social issues—London on socialism and Herbert on environmentalism. Both dabbled in experimental farming and spent their authorial earnings on expensive yachts and quixotic construction projects that never reached completion. Despite great financial success, both spent money faster than they earned it.

From reading Dreamer of Dune, one gets the impression that it was written for two reasons. The first is Brian Herbert’s natural desire to be a dutiful son to the father he loved. The second reason, however, is less admirable. This book seems to be a calculated attempt by Brian Herbert to justify his inheritance of the Dune franchise, implying that because Frank taught him everything he knew, he has a right to milk the Dune universe for all its worth, and he’s every bit the science fiction writer his father was. If Dreamer of Dune is any indication of Brian’s talents as a writer, however, the acorn has fallen far from the oak. A hundred years from now, when scholars are researching Frank Herbert’s life and literature, this book will be a source that they consult, but it won’t be THE source. That biography has yet to be written.

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