THE WORST PART, BY FAR, of the Harvard admissions process is the interview: the deal goes down, kid, and it's time to sell yourself to some state supreme court justice or investment banker or used car magnate. Throw out those board scores, yardage totals, thespian notices--square those shoulders, steel those eyes, or lay your body down.
And there comes a time, in every interview, a lull in the questioning. Then my interviewer pawed the sheet in front of him and snorted, "Well, what books have you read recently?" and then appended, "Why did you waste your time on all this science fiction crap?" and looked up at me expectantly through his reading glasses.
I froze. My adam's apple beat wildly against a seldom-worn and imperfectly-tied tie: "Well, sir, it's like some people read historical novels, they want to live in the past--I want to live in the future." I was sliding through it, wiping Vaseline on the pants leg of my best double-knits. The interviewer fixed me with a stern, approving smile, and I smiled back just as firmly behind set lips, because on important mornings you can forget to brush your teeth, and I wasn't taking any chances. And it came to pass that I entered Harvard, duly taking a folklore and mythology course (Hum 9b) where I read Dune, Frank Herbert's science fiction novel of ecology and political intrigue, for the fourth time.
Dune was written in 1965, won the Hugo and Nebula awards as best science fiction novel of the year, and rapidly became an underground cult classic. In 1969, a sequel appeared, Dune Messiah, the further adventures of Paul Atreides, Muad'Dib, and Emperor of the Fremen. Now Herbert has presented us with another, final tale of Arrakis, the Dune planet--a sort of a sequel to a sequel. Like most sequels, Children of Dune recalls the worst things about the first two books.
THERE CAME ABOUT in the early 1960s a "new wave" in science fiction, much as there had 25 years before when science fiction broke away from Buck Rogers--Flash Gordon space opera. On the crest of the wave--which demanded that science fiction be less technically oriented and more an examination of what human life and relationships would be like in the future--was Herbert's Dune. Dune is a swashbuckler of a novel built around the desperate plight of the imperial family, the Atrides, on Arrakis, and their attempt to win the emperor's throne. With this novel, Herbert created a masterful pastiche of Fremen, the inhabitants of Arrakis and the best fighters in the universe, Mentats, human computers, and the royal witches of the Bene Gesserit. Dune follows Paul Atreides as he becomes leader of the Fremen, wins control of the addictive spice-drug melange, which gives longevity and prescient vision to its users and is only found on Arrakis, and wins an intergalactic empire, all in best Errol Flynn fashion. But it also accurately and believably details the training and reserve one must acquire to become an emperor and the political intrigues one must initiate to remain one. In 1975 it was voted as the best science fiction novel of all time by the readers of Locust, a New York City-based "fanzine," ahead of classics like Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. It is good popular fiction; by which I mean it rates with the best of Eric Ambler.
Herbert followed his blockbuster with trite, undistinguished science fiction hack work before turning to the second Dune book in 1969. Dune Messiah was a less entertaining book than Dune, but something more important than mere entertainment value was missing--it seemed an element of humaneness had gone out of Herbert's writing.
The sins of the fathers weight heavily on Children of Dune. The worst faults of the first two books are abundant in the present volume--clumsily crafted writing, intellectual pretentiousness--which the achievement of a writer creating his own universe and abiding by its rules does not offset.
But the most disturbing thing about the book is its lack of compassion. The charm of Dune lies in showing how an emperor can remain human despite the demands his work places on him. In Children of Dune the protagonist, Paul Atreides' son, takes the road his father would not, and following the visions shown by the spice, forsakes his humanity completely. For some science fiction writers this device has worked admirably: the hero who loses everything to save the race, notably in Cordwainer Smith's "The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdahl," but it falls singularly flat here. It seems that Herbert is repudiating the movement he helped start, that nothing can ultimately remove humanity from humans, no matter how distant in space and time.
All of which leads to speculation about Herbert. The dust jacket states cryptically that he is an exnewspaperman, and shows a large bearded man smiling rather disdainfully at the camera. One hopes that Herbert will quit the pop anthropology of Children of Dune with its pretentious Carlos-Castaneda-like musings for the more insightful style that marked the first book, and chalk up Children of Dune as a book that paid for the groceries.