Book Review: The Worlds of Frank Herbert, Frank Herbert (1970)

(Paul Alexander’s cover for the 1977 edition)

3.25/5 (Collated rating: Vaguely Good)

I have long been a fan of Frank Herbert.   In my youth I scarfed down Dune (1965) and all its sequels and cried (metaphorically) when his son Brian Herbert made  a mockery of his vision.  I even read the more dubious novels in Herbert’s canon: from The Green Brain (1966) to the co-written (with Bill-Ransom)  novels of the Pandora sequence i.e. The Jesus Incident (1979), The Lazarus Effect (1983), and The Ascension Factor (1988).  I have found many of his non-Dune novels worth reading (Destination: Void (1966) and The Dosadi Experiment (1977), etc).

More recently I have started to read/review the handful of his novels I missed as a child—so far the solid and unexpectedly complex The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966) and the lesser The God Makers (1972).

Except in the form of fix-up novels, I had not read any of his short fiction.  Unfortunately, only four of the nine mostly light-hearted 1960s stories in The Worlds of Frank Herbert (1970) are worth reading:  “The Tactful Saboteur” (1964), “By the Book” (1966), “The Featherbedders” (1967), and “Escape Felicity” (1966).  I found the others, although readable, lacking in the insight and art that Herbert is capable of.

Recommended with reservations for Herbert completists (like myself) and fans of 60s short SF.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

“The Tactful Saboteur” (1964) 4.25/5 (Good) is Frank Herbert’s best known short story that takes place along with “A Matter of Traces” (1955), Whipping Star (1970), and The Dosadi Experiment (1977), take place in the ConSentiency Universe.

The novelette follows Jorj X. McKie, a professional saboteur for the Intergalactic Government’s Bureau of Sabotage.  The Semantic Revision to the Constitution posits that “the need for obstructive processes in government having been established as one of the chief safeguards for human rights, the question of immunities must be defined with extreme precision” (1).  Thus, the Bureau of Sabotage, sends its agents to obstruct.  Of course, it too can be sabotaged.  And, there seems to be a Pan-Spechi alien agent with a “five-phase life cycle” (3) doing just that.  And it’s up to Jorj McKie to uncover, and do a little sabotaging himself, the agent.

The novelette moves at a brisk pace and Herbert’s descriptions of the intriguing Pan-Spechi race and his witty jabs at bureaucracy are the highlights of the tale.

“By the Book” (1966) 4/5 (Good), one of the best stories in the collection, combines a fascinating hard science fiction concept (hurling small colony seeding containers via an unpredictable interstellar transportation device called a “Beam”) with a traditional but moving story of Ivar Norris Gump, a semi-retired troubleshooter who oversees the destructive forces of the “Beam” and volunteers for a dangerous mission.  Recommended.

“Committee of the Whole” (1965) 2/5 (Bad):  In the near future the big landowners and ranchers are college educated.  Custer—with a PhD in philosophy, math, and electronics (76)—develops a powerful laser beam with normal ranch materials.  At a trial regarding his cattle grazing rights, he calculatingly spills the secret to the construction of the all-purpose laser tool that can serve as devastating weapon.  Of course, before the crews can shut off the TV cameras the world knows the new super weapon.  Now the “mass man” (94) can no longer be manipulated by the government because they all can build a super weapon!  A strangely misguided/simplistic to a fault commentary on government control/the arms race…

“Mating Call” (1961) 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good) is a fun and light-hearted biologically themed SF problem story.  The interplanetary Social Anthropological Service—an institution recovering  an earlier disaster that resulted in the complete annihilation of an alien species after improper use of pesticides causing planet-wide ecological imbalance—sends Laoconia Wilkinsons (a rather unintelligent ham-fisted senior SocAnth agent) and the younger highly intelligent Dr. Marie Medill who holds a PhD in music to the planet Rukuchp.  The Rukuchp egg-shape natives have a peculiar problem, they cannot reproduce after humans introduced music.  It’s up to Marie to uncover the role music plays in alien sex and prevent Laoconia ruining Rukuchp-SocAnth relations.

“Escape Felicity” (1966) 4/5 (Good): Roger Deirut, a member of the D-Service, can feel “the bars where they had been dug into his psyche” (118), a helpless implanted compulsion called The Push. D-ship pilots like Deirut head out in their small spaceships—“two hundred and fifty meters long, crowded from nose to tubes with the equipment for deterring if a planet could support human life.  In the sleep-freeze compartment directly behind him were the double-checks—two paris of rhesus monkeys and ten pairs of white mice.” and seed alien planets” (120).  They go as far as possible until The Push kicks in and they head back to base.  Deirut resolves to go as far as possible without succumbing to The Push.  And then he crashes on an alien planet….

“The GM Effect” (1965) 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good) contains a fascinating concept which deserved a more concerted analysis of its ramifications.  In a series of experiments Dr. Valerie Sabantoce and her science colleagues accidentally discover Genetic Memory (GM), the ability to access the memories of all ones ancestors.  Of course, this has startling ramifications for historians who suddenly know how it really was (impossible of course considering the skills of interpretation utilized by historians, but that is beside the point).  Suddenly the grand narratives of the America past are called into question causing the government to resort to drastic action.  Few SF authors engage with memory to the degree of Herbert.  But, this story is all too hasty and unrealized to be effective.

“The Featherbedders” (1967) 3.75/5 (Good) is a fun take on hiding out aliens on Earth trope.   The group of Slorin, formed from pupae and nudged along by the mind cloud, have crashed on Earth.  The story istTold from the perspective of Smeg–“I am Sumctrozelunsmeg, he reminded himself.  I am a Sloring of seven syllables, each addition to my name an honor to my family.  By the pupa of my jelly-sire whose name took fourteen thousand heartbeats to pronounce, I shall not fail!” (162).  Smeg and his offspring Rick, who can approximate human shape, set out across rural America to find a renegade, or potentially injured, Slorin who has infiltrated a rural community.  Smeg quickly realizes that strange powers are at play….

“Old Rambling House” (1966) 2/5 (Bad) is by far the worst story in the collection.  Ted and Martha Graham, trailer owners, want to own a house before their child is born.  A mysterious couple offers to exchange their remote house for the trailer—with intergalactic ramifications.   “Old Rambling House” has the feel of a 1930s-40s pulp magazine story.  Dull and unoriginal.

“A-W-F, Unlimited” (1961) 3/5 (Average): A genuinely comical satire about filled with Freudian scenarios and relationships.  In the future women are generals and astronauts and the most important players in the ad industry.  A world of monthly religions, for example the “Reinspired Neo-Cult of St. Freud,” (211) and landscape filled with advertisement.   Gwen, “48, unmarried, and a prime mover in an industry that’s strangling the universe” (208), is thrust into her most difficult challenge yet:  the WOMS (Women of Space) are faced with a declining enlistment.  The problem: unsexy spacesuits that cannot be removed for the duration of spaceflight.  Gwen has a solution, and, it reaching it will solve her own personal problems.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

(Jan Parker’s cover for the 1970 edition)

(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1971 edition)

16 Replies to “Book Review: The Worlds of Frank Herbert, Frank Herbert (1970)”

  1. Great review Joachim, always a pleasure to read your thoughts on books I have on my shelves but haven’t yet read. My copy is the 1970 edition.

  2. I highly recommend “The White Plague” which I consider one of his most overlooked books.  I read it just as the HIV virus was coming into the news from San Francisco and had the chilling notion that it was a designer virus like the one he wrote about so compellingly.

    1. I found The White Plague a hard read. I agree with you that it is overlooked and definitely recommended due to its theme and ideas, but I really struggled to get through it.

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