Frank Herbert started out working as a journalist, and throughout his career -- whether he was writing another "Dune" book, inventing a solar and wind cooling system for his home on Maui or explaining computers to two-finger typists -- he thought of himself as a journalist.
If he was "covering" things that will happen 10 or 20,000 years in the future, then so be it. His perceptions of current politics translated neatly into his futuristic history of the desert planet Arrakis ("Dune") and its heroes and antiheroes. He had what he liked to call a "unified theory of Watergate." It isn't power that corrupts, he would say; it is that sk,2 sw,-2 power always attracts those who are corrupt anyway. He often said Richard Nixon was his favorite president "because he taught us to mistrust government."
Frank Herbert died Tuesday at the age of 65, at the peak of his success. A consummate storyteller, he had helped lift the art of science fiction writing out of the pulps and into a genuine literary form.
He was a man of boundless enthusiasm and optimism, with a great and ready sense of humor, directed, as often as not, at himself, at humanity, at human institutions such as government and religion, both of which come in for some heavy, albeit futuristic, drubbing in his books.
He was an inveterate champion of the underdog and once cut short a book-signing at a busy downtown discount bookstore to make an unexpected appearance at a small, list-priced science fiction specialty bookstore around the corner.
But he loved being a star, being featured in a People magazine article, ssociating with the stars of the 1984 movie made of "Dune" -- Silvana Mangano on the one hand, Sting on the other. He loved pampering his highly educated palate for fine wines. (He was a wine columnist and education writer in his journalism days.)
After about two dozen published books, Herbert had established himself as one of the world's leading science fiction writers and a success by any measure. "Dune" itself, published in the mid-1960s, was firmly ensconced as one of the world-class science fiction novels of all time -- translated into 14 languages and selling more than 12 million copies. But it was on the crest of the 1980s science fiction boom that Herbert books -- including the last two of the six published Dune books -- became automatic best sellers on all the major lists.
Herbert's wife of more than 35 years died after an illness that had made her a semi-invalid for several years, just as his success was bursting into full-fledged celebrity. Somewhat to his own surprise, he would confide to friends, he fell in love with a publicist for Putnam (his publisher) some 40 years his junior, shaved off a Santa-like beard he had sported for years, and married her last year.
Only a few months ago, in a quick visit to Washington, Herbert, loquacious as usual, talked happily about his life with his new wife, Theresa, their Palm Springs condo, the new Dune book he was writing with one of his two sons. He spoke about their plans to move East and was excited about a farm in New Hampshire he had just bid on. There was, he said, even a possibility of turning the movie version of "Dune" into a mini-series.
Despite its critical failure in this country, the Dino De Laurentiis movie was a box-office hit overseas -- in Europe and especially in Japan, Herbert said. Because the first fifth of the novel took up about four-fifths of the movie, much of the complicated and intricate politicking and most of Herbert's own philosophy ended up, as they say, on the cutting room floor. He dreamed of restoring the outtakes -- and the essential credibility of the novel -- if not for television, at least for videocassette rentals, as was done with the movie "Once Upon a Time in America."
His agent told the Associated Press yesterday that he had just signed an agreement for the filming of Herbert's "The Green Brain," a deliciously chilling early novel about a vegetable superintelligence.
His concern with ecology -- first reflected in "Brain" and one of the major themes of "Dune" -- grew out of a newspaper article he wrote on desert ecology. Whatever he learned he absorbed, and whatever he absorbed he eventually used.
He embraced the high-tech world with alacrity and enthusiasm, although with some mixed feelings. By the time of "Dune," high tech is banned as an obscenity. But for his colleagues of today, Herbert wrote possibly the most lucid handbook -- no fiction about it -- for those needing to adapt to computer bytes and chips. Its title says it all: "Without Me You Are Nothing." It may turn out to be his greatest legacy.