Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Dragon in the Sea - Frank Herbert

Past time to make some more progress on my project to read and review all of Frank Herbert's books not set in the Dune universe. The Dragon in the Sea is Herbert's first novel. It first appeared as Under Pressure in serialized form in Astounding in 1955 and 1956. A slightly reworked novel version appeared in 1956. To make matters confusing, there are also novel editions with the title Under Pressure and in 1961 someone thought it was a bright idea to rename the novel 21st Century Sub. I sincerely hope they fired whoever was responsible for that disaster. My copy is the 2008 Tor reprint with the original title, which I snatched up and read just as soon as it became available. The Dragon in the Sea was quite well received back then and it always remained a bit of a mystery why Herbert struggled for another ten years before his career as a writer really took off with the publication of Dune in 1965. His published work in the years between these two releases consist of a handful of short stories. The Dragon in the Sea is usually considered one of Herbert's better novels, an opinion I share completely.

In the mid 21st century, the world is locked in a never ending war between the West and the East. With oil resources becoming increasingly scarce, the west have developed a technique to steal oil from the Eastern Powers using nuclear powered submarines leeching oil from existing wells and dragging it back to the west in huge bags referred to as slugs. The submarines play a cat and mouse game with the enemy and right now they are loosing. Of the last twenty ships sent out, none returned. It is up to psychologist John Ramsey to find out why. He is to join the crew of one of the subs to monitor events. To put even more pressure on the mission, one of his crew members is suspected of being in infiltrator and the captain's mental stability is questioned. Four men in the confined space of a submarine, cut off from the outside world and surrounded by enemies and the hostile environment of the deep sea. Ramsey is under pressure indeed.

Although the conflict between East and West didn't quite last as long as Herbert imagined (mind, he never once refers to communism in the book), it is a prophetic work in some ways. Scarcity of resources such as oil is not something that turned up too often in science fiction back then. The consequences of a serious lack of oil would not be felt in the west until the oil crisis of 1973 and the theory of Peak Oil, proposed by M. King Hubbert, was published in the same year as the novel. Although the theme of dependence on a single, increasingly scarce resource does occur in other novels, I've never found a link between Peak Oil and Herbert's novels. It would have been interesting to find out what he thought of it.

The concept behind the story may be fascinating, the novel shows it's age in the details. The submarine for instance, which would have been stacked with all kinds of digital technology from one end to the other these days, seems to be filled with 1950s technology. Everything is controlled manually, with old fashioned meters, valves and electronics. It runs at a depth that not many subs could take even these days, but other than that, it didn't strike me as particularly 21st century. There is a fair bit of technobbable in the book about how the submarine works but most of it serves to emphasize the pressure the crew experiences.

Psychological pressure is the main theme of the novel I suppose. Herbert describes a world where tensions run high but no real release can be offered. Being stalked by an enemy you can't see, in a vessel from which there is no escape. Submarines are a claustrophobe's nightmare and more than one novel has made use of that particular fact. The Dragon in the Sea takes that theme into a direction I haven't come across before. It examines the adaptations of the crew that allow them to operate in such an environment. Again a theme that Herbert would use in later books. Adaptations to pressure in The Dragon in the Sea, the adaptations to the highly toxic environment on Dosadi or the presence of spice and the absence of water on Dune, they are all driving human development or sometimes human evolution into realms that we can scarcely imagine. Herbert's belief in what the human mind can accomplish with the right pressures and motivations show in most of his work but The Dragon in the Sea is a particularly fine example.

Herbert had many interests and psychology is one of them. In this novel it is almost as apparent as in The Santaroga Barrier (1968), which deals with the effect of a mind altering substance on an isolated population. I must admit I'm not familiar enough with the field to point out Herbert's influences here. He names Jung, there is probably some Freud as well and I would be very surprised if there were not a few more. There is an obvious link between psychology and religion in this book, again an element that will show up in his later work. The title is a reference to the bible, Isaiah 27:1 to be exact, and religion comes up more than once as the thing that holds the crew together and offers a way of dealing with the unceasing pressure the men are under. It's role in keeping the crew operating is examined from a psychological point of view and Herbert points out the links between the two in various places. The psychology is definitely the most complex part of the story. One may wonder how well the theories that are the inspiration of the novel hold up these days, they do make for a very good story.

Herbert's first novel shows a lot of elements that he would return to in his later work. It is not as complex or conceptually rich as Dune or The Dosadi Experiment but it is certainly a novel that is still well worth reading. It's fairly short but very intense and more action packed than many of his later novels. Quite a few later novels by Herbert don't hold up as well as The Dragon in the Sea does. If anything I like it even better after this reread. There are a few books by Herbert I would rate higher but not many. One warning though, if you do decide to read it try not to think too much of the unfortunate choice of name for the Captain. Herbert really could not have known.

Book Details
Title: The Dragon in the Sea
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 268
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1774-2
First published: 1956

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