In 2003 a biography of Frank Herbert (1920 - 1986) was released by Tor. It's written by his son Brian Herbert, who has written a number of novels as well. The best known of these are probably the Dune prequels and sequels written in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson. It's not the only book about Frank Herbert or his works but most of the others I am aware of are out of print so this is probably the easiest to come by. My copy come out of a bargain bin somewhere so I'm not entirely sure how well it did in hardcover. It's been sitting on a shelve for a few years now but I never got around to reading it. After finishing The Green Brain recently I remembered I had this book somewhere, so I picked it up a couple of days ago. Just to give you all a fair warning, I've never seriously attempted to review non-fiction before so we'll see how this goes.
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 on especially he draws on what 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 becomes an important source as well. Especially the seventies and eighties, with Frank Herbert at the peak of his success are a lot more 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 extend this is inevitable, being Frank's son he must have quite a different view on his father than the general public, 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 certainly unique. Some passages like things he needed to get of his chest, the writing 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 shortcoming. It seems the great science fiction writer Frank Herbert did not have a way with children, something that alienated his son from him considerably.
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 lots of 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 rejections 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 know under the titles Under Pressure and 21st Century Sub), things stay turbulent for quite a while. Throughout the book Brian Herbert stresses the enormous support Frank Herbert's second wife Beverly gave him, both during his struggle to become a published author as well as managing his affairs after his career truly takes 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 it, theirs was certainly a special relationship.
Pretty much every piece of Frank Herbert's writing that has been published is mentioned in the biography somewhere. Brian Herbert goes in quite a lot of details on some books. Dune in particular of course, where I think he overdid it a little bit, especially since a lot of it then comes back for the release of the David Lynch film as well. A project that has quite a history it seems. Dune is inescapable, overshadowing everything else Frank Herbert has form the moment of it's conception, though 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 Dreamer of Dune does not hold back on spoilers though.
Another book that is mentioned quite a lot is The Santaroga Barrier, a book that most clearly shows Herbert's interest in psychology. As I suspected, there is quite a lot in this book I missed even on the second reading.The novel Man of Two Worlds, on which father and son Herbert collaborated, is also a book that is special to Brian Herbert. It's one the last novels Frank Herbert published, together with another collaboration, The Ascension Factor. A book that was mostly written his partner on the Destination: Void series, Bill Ransom. These are books I have yet to read. The collections of short fiction by Frank Herbert are pretty much absent though, although various individual stories are mentioned. A bit of a shame, 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 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. I read the book in four days in which I ought to have been studying a lot more than I actually did. 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 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.
Title: Dreamer of Dune
Author: Brian Herbert
First published: 2003