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Frank Herbert

frank herbert.
Frank Herbert, author of Dune

Thoughtprints in the Sand

The best-selling author of Dune, with 12 million copies of that book alone in print in 14 languages, was fascinated by ecology. But, as John Elkington explains, his views on the environmental prospect were far from orthodox.

It's almost exactly five years since I enjoyed a memorable breakfast with Frank Herbert and his wife Bev in London. Cancer has since claimed them both. She died in 1984, he on 12 February 1986. Many of the things they said that morning still reverberate around my brain. But we started off with one of those odd coincidences that sometimes turn up in conversation.

We were talking about one of Herbert's lesser-known books, Soul Catcher, which was rooted in the culture of the Indians of the American North West, where he was born in 1920. Several weeks earlier, on a massively duned beach along the Oregon coast, my wife, Elaine, had found an ancient Indian arrow-head just above the surf line. Herbert, it turned out, knew the beach intimately, indeed it had been the inspiration for Dune itself.

"It goes back to when I was working on papers like the San Francisco Examiner and the Seattle Star," he explained. "I went down to Oregon to do a magazine article about the US Department of Agriculture project there, where they were stabilizing the sand dunes. The dunes were walking across towns and covering roads, houses, trees. I never did write that article, because in the process of researching it I realized that I had the perfect setting for a science fiction story."


Dune was published in 1965 and its themes of ecology and planetary engineering coincided remarkably well with the interests and concerns of the rising environmental generation. The central theme of the book was the conversion of the arid, religion-soaked desert planet Arrakis, later Dune, into a world of water, plants and forests. The book, as science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke put it, was "unique among science fiction novels in the depth of its characterisation and the extraordinary detail of the world it creates." It even had an appendix on the ecology of Dune.

Later, inevitably, the sequels poured forth: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapter House Dune. Though the quality was sometimes uneven, the evidence of a towering imagination was everywhere. Sadly, a film made in 1984, starring Max von Sydow, Sian Phillips and Sting, lead singer of the rock group Police, failed to capture the essence of the world which Herbert had created.

"I have a particular interest in ecology," Herbert told me, "starting back in the late forties with that visit to Florence, Oregon. My interest is multi-pronged. Ecology is a very attractive platform for demagogues. It is also a very complex subject, very complex. One of our problems in dealing with ecology, as in dealing with a lot of things, is that careers tend to be tied to decisions. What we ought to be able to do is to change direction quickly, even dramatically, without attaching stigma to the people who made the decisions we are now changing."

Above all, he fiercely resisted the linking of ecology with simple-minded preservation. "I was interviewed on the radio the other day," he continued, "and the interviewer said: 'You're an ecologist, Mr Herbert', and equated the term with preservationist. I called him on that and said that ecology doesn't deal with the kind of preservation you're talking about. Ecology teaches us how to understand the consequences of what we do. And perhaps that could even lead us to strip-mining, if that were found to be preferable to some other way of extracting a mineral."


Not for him the unreal purism of some political 'ecologists'. "I look upon our involvement with the environment - and, by the way, all of man's intrusions into the environment are totally natural phenomena - as a continual learning process," he said. But, he warned: "Whatever we do causes change, and we can cause gross disruptions to our surroundings as a result of small-order determinations." Indeed, by the time the reader spans the 3,000 years to God Emperor of Dune, that original decision to introduce water to Dune has all but wiped out the individualism of the planet's inhabitants.

Unlike most science fiction writers, Herbert was not an addict of technology for its own sake. In his view, twentieth century has "a tiger by the tail in technology". But instead of dismissing technology out of hand, as did many of his most avid readers in the 1960s and 1970s, he argued that we must humanise technology, that an understanding of ecology can help us develop new tools which are environmentally benign.

Describing himself as a "techno-peasant", he lived with his family on the Oregon Peninsula, in America's heavily forested North West. Here he had turned what the US Department of Agriculture described as "poverty soils" into productive earth, installing renewable energy devices of his own design atop and around his home.

But he was far from convinced that self-sufficiency was the answer to the world's problems. "My view of the environmental concerns in the States - and I think the pattern is the same in Europe," he argued, "is that the back-to-the-land, self-sufficiency movement has taken over the mythology of the South Seas island, where the brown-haired maiden drops coconuts in your mouth."


The evening before I met the Herberts, I had returned from five weeks spent criss-crossing America, at a time when the new Reagan administration was tearing the heart out of the Environmental Protection Agency and many other organisations set up to 'green' the United States. Frank Herbert had seen it coming.

"I was warning about this backlash quite a while back," he recalled. "You have to adjust your ecological concerns to the long-term needs of capital investment. I personally am a capitalist, but for a very strange reason. I believe that capitalism tends to go down with its mistakes."

By contrast, he suggested, managed economies "have two things against them. Number one, they need a large managerial bureaucracy. Managerial bureaucracies of that type inevitably become autocratic aristocracies. You can se it happening in the Soviet Union, very dramatically. And the second thing is that if you're managing and fixing, you're locking down today, you're not getting into tomorrow. You're preventing tomorrow."

But no-one knew better than Frank Herbert that tomorrow cannot be prevented. It can only be changed, for better or for worse, by what we do today.