The Dragon in the Sea, by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert’s non-Dune novels tend to receive mixed reviews; many are criticized as pulp, or as incomprehensible think-pieces. I suppose any of these books are going suffer in comparison with Dune and the Dune series, but the ones I’ve read demonstrate elements I tend to appreciate in vintage SF: intellectual ambition and plots that feature the unexpected.

Whipping Star is a good example: the premise and principal characters are so strange that evaluating the logic of the plot almost seems pointless. However, it works as an allegory of the partially-nationalized, partially-privatized institutions that are supposed to support a major part of our domestic economy (not to mention the mush-mouth explanations we always get about how these institutions operate). The non-genre Soul Catcher looks like another example, where Herbert describes how religious beliefs can get twisted to serve political ends (I haven’t read this one, yet). Herbert is willing to think through contemporary issues and put them in a story, no matter the strange or uncomfortable the end result.


Cover art from Paul Klee’s “Underwater Garden” for Penguin.

The Dragon in the Sea (1956) is Herbert’s first SF novel, and appears to enjoy a better critical reputation than much of his other non-Dune work. It has appeared under the alternative titles Under Pressure (good) and 21st Century Sub (bleh). It describes a mission undertaken by a future submarine crew to sneak into foreign oil fields and siphon fuel from our future Cold War adversaries. Spies and spy-devices abound, compounding the psychological pressure for the submariners. I couldn’t resist featuring the colorful Klee cover, which fits the constant guesswork the characters must make when evaluating their underwater surroundings.

The setting of TDitS is an impressive future Cold War scenario: after nuclear fallout has endangered or destroyed much of the planet with radiation (including the waters around the British Isles), the United States is running desperately short of a most precious resource – oil. The military sends out armed submarine-tugboats, or subtugs, to penetrate distant waters for covert drilling. They’re trying to sneak under the defenses of the Eastern Bloc and drink their milkshake, in other words.

The Fenian Ram might be the last of these subtugs, as the last several missions have ended in total failure. Espionage is ascertained, and a special Security agent, Johnny Ramsey, is recruited by the high brass to join the crew and, with the aid of a new generation of electrical equipment, sniff out the traitor along the way.

Ramsey was busy cataloguing his visual impressions of the three men in the flesh. It seemed strange to be meeting these people for the first time when he felt that he already knew them. And that, he knew would have to be concealed. Odd bits of knowledge about the personal lives of these men — even the names of their wives — could not be in the memory of a new man.

Skipping past the rather generic stock characters (easily angered naval officers, the wife left behind, and the quirky intelligence officer who controls Ramsey’s career), the bulk of TDitS focuses on the four-man crew of the Ram. Besides Ramsey, who is mistrusted as a late replacement for the previous “signal-man,” there are:

  • Captain Orwell Sparrow, a cerebral sort with a history of successes on subtug missions. Navy regulations require him to be outfitted with a set of telemetry transmitters, whose psycho-generative signals are monitored by Ramsey. This metering of the human mental state must have been right up the alley of John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding who first serialized the novel.
  • Jose Garcia, a devout Catholic from Argentina. His international background appears to be the reason why Ramsey is told to initially suspect him as the spy.
  • Leslie Bonnett, who has a backstory as an unloved orphan, but is essentially there to say and do whatever the more defined characters won’t.

Together, this crew navigates hostile waters while pulling a “slug” built to hold pressurized oil. Surface ships and enemy submarines abound, but the greater challenge appears to be the multiple attempts at sabotage planted inside the equipment:

“Get a signal snifter,” said Sparrow, speaking over his shoulder to Ramsey.

Ramsey turned to the rear bulkhead, pulled a snifter from its rack, tuned it as he rejoined Sparrow. The instrument’s speaker buzzed in rhythm to his neck pellet.

Sparrow turned left; Ramsey followed. The sound of the snifter went up an octave.

“Spy beam!” said Garcia.

There is also an episode where a potentially fatal fault was created in the nuclear fuel compartment. The crew’s discovery of this plot, and why it failed, was simultaneously grim and at first glance, overdramatic. However, it has the feel of a wartime story that Herbert might have heard or read about when researching.

Herbert spends a surprising amount of space on the details of the analog equipment used or repaired by Ramsey and the crew. He must have anticipated an audience being as interested in resonators, relays and vacuum tubes as he was, but these sections tend to bog down the proceedings. They are interesting to a point. While the use of signals and signal shielding as adroitly conveyed, but the assumption that mood states could be read with precision looks very dated.


John Schoenherr cover for Avon.

Another major element of TDitS is Captain Sparrow’s use of religion in his leadership. He acknowledges that his crew comes from a variety of religious backgrounds (diversity in 1956 terms, anyway), and frequently quotes the Bible as a way of communicating his way of dealing with pressure and fear:

On the pier, Sparrow turned to look across the mooring basin at a string of moving lights. “Here comes our tow, Les.”

“Do you think we’ll make it, Skipper?”

“We always have.”

“Yes, but –”

“‘For now is our salvation nearer than we believed,'” said Sparrow, “‘The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.'” He looks at Bonnett. “Paul wrote that to the Romans two thousand years ago.”

“A pretty wise fellow,” said Bonnett.

These quotes and responses, and there are many from the crew, do not seem to illuminate the relationship between the characters as much as intended. Sparrow’s rank seems to get in the way, or Herbert’s odd way of inventing dialogue. But that’s only my perspective: in the biography Dreamer of Dune, Herbert received praise from submariners about his depiction of the crew evolving under the prolonged stress of a wartime mission. Certainly, the use of religion in TDitS anticipates both the composite Orange Catholic Bible and the inspirational leadership of the Maud’Dib in the Dune series.

TDitS has some opacity, some indifferently drawn secondary characters and a prepossession with odd details. Nonetheless, its twin themes of physical and psychological pressure do come through, and Herbert makes interesting use of his ideas concerning ecology and religion. Those who have read Dune will find several themes and devices of that masterpiece in earlier, less polished forms. It is an interesting and worthwhile first novel from a major American talent. 6/10.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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7 Responses to The Dragon in the Sea, by Frank Herbert

  1. fredfitch says:

    I had a chance to read this when I was young (in hardcover), and somehow never did. I would just read Dune again.

    I didn’t know about the oil angle, and it seems problematic. How much oil could they steal that way, and how much do they need if they’re advanced enough to have nuclear subs? (Fun fact: The Nautilus–the US Navy’s first nuclear sub, named after Nemo’s–began sea trials in January 1955–first installment of this book appeared in Astounding in November of that year). Herbert knows the tech is going to be a lot better a lifetime into the future. Still, they had nuclear power plants as early as the 1940’s.

    The whole reason you burn fossil fuels is that they’re cheap and easy to get at. If you have to burn nuclear fuel to get fossil fuel from an enemy’s turf–and wouldn’t there be undersea oil on our turf? Is that explained? The main argument against nuclear energy would seem to be moot in a Post-WWIII environment. I would have gone with a different McGuffin. But like most SF authors then, Herbert is writing to the market–and the editors–the future can take care of itself. I guess nuclear war seemed survivable in the 50’s. Duck and cover, Jimmy!

    All submarine stories are bottle stories, created to test personalities, bring out psychological conflicts, tensions between people trapped in in a metal tube together. Sounds to me like this didn’t need to have an SF hook, and that’s just how Herbert sold it to Campbell, before it got turned into a novel. As previously discussed, here and elsewhere, Campbell liked some kind of psi-angle, though nobody here has any weird mental powers, sounds like.

    The interesting thing, as you say, is to see what Herbert does with this material that another writer wouldn’t. Glimpsing the writer he later became in this early effort, that I have in fact read many good reviews of. But for whatever reason, I never read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      The volume of oil involved does pose a problem. I’m working under the assumption that is would be used in small, but essential, quantities. Of course, these days we both discover and consume mind-boggling amounts of the stuff.

      The biography I mentioned is interesting, regarding this book – it was Herbert’s first significant sale, and with the money he:
      1. bought a hearse
      2. attempted to relocate his family to Mexico, where he and his wife could cover the lower cost of living by being full-time writers

      The Mexico thing didn’t work out. There was also mentions of how Herbert lost out on possible patents, but I really don’t think he invented container shipping logistics with this novel.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Um–a hearse? As a family car? Maybe he should have sued the creators of The Munsters, a few years later. 😉

        Money was a huge driving factor in everything Herbert wrote. I suppose that’s true for any writer who doesn’t have an independent source of income (and people like that rarely write much of anything), but with Herbert there always seemed to be some family-related emergency that his writing would somehow find the money to address.

        One reason I always find his love stories interesting is that sense he has of the conflicts between ambition and romance. Between fulfilling your potential and protecting those you love. Herbert had a huge drive to succeed, this vast overarching vision, but there’s always this personal element there in his best stuff. Personal loyalty is a big thing for him, which works great for a military setting–or a futuristic medievalist one.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. fredfitch says:

    Belatedly wondering–how many Paul Klee covers did Penguin do for its SF imprint?

    Far as this page tells us, two. But plenty of other modern artists got into the act.

    No Max Beckmann? Seems a missed opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I’m not sure how comprehensive this site is for cover art, but we can see that Klee’s work made in onto a few covers:
      To be honest, I was hoping for more. Cover art has gotten so timid in recent decades.


      • fredfitch says:

        It’s gotten cheap, is what it’s gotten. It’s not even art most of the time, it’s graphic design, whipped up on a computer.

        I know better than most, working in a library. All the new books cross my desk, and painfully few ever have original cover art. They just look for some striking (and often confusing) way to display the title. Academic books often find some work of art they don’t have to pay a licensing fee for, and use that. Almost never 20th century art, though.

        There was a time when it was common for really good art to DEBUT on book covers.

        When you think about it, though, that was partly because people still went to book stores to get their reading material. Or, in the case of the genre paperback, a newsstand, or a drug store. Eye-catching art was a way to draw in the consumer’s eye, seduce him or her. That art was, you might say, a form of sexual selection, evolved along similar lines to a Bird of Paradise–maybe it was impractical, served no useful purpose beyond getting you to buy the book, but a thing of beauty is a joy forever (or until the bird goes extinct). And while very good art might appear on the covers of very bad books, I would say that the more interesting works did often get slightly better art–because the editors, and perhaps the artists, knew this was special, and put in a bit more effort.

        These days, when I buy an ebook of some old paperback thriller, I hope for them to just recycle the original art.

        Shout-out to Hard Case Crime, which still does it the right way, but it’ll never be what it once was. But as the author of that New Yorker piece says, the kids still get decent cover art sometimes–because they still need to be seduced.

        The rest of us are taken for granted.


  3. Pingback: Soul Catcher, by Frank Herbert | gaping blackbird

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