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.
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.
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.