This week, Brian Herbert released a collection of his late father Frank’s unpublished short stories. It’s an odd, genre-spanning assemblage from creator of Dune, filled not only with science fiction tales, but mysteries, thrillers, “men’s adventure stories,” and more. It’s an intriguing look at the unheralded work of one of the most influential authors of the 20th century—proof that success in publishing doesn’t mean everything you’ve ever written will be a success, and another reminder the when you write one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, everything else you’ve done suddenly becomes a footnote.
The phenomenon hardly stops with Herbert’s short fiction. Both before and after his signature series took off, he wrote thoughtful, mind bending sci-fi novels that you probably haven’t read, or even heard of, that deserve (almost) as much praise as Dune. Here are five worth tracking down.
One thing Star Trek tends to gloss over is how difficult it is to communicate with alien life. Linguistic and cultural barriers are a challenge, but what if a species doesn’t experience reality the same way we do? The Calebans in 1970’s Whipping Star are the perfect example: they look like stars to our squishy little eyes, and the concepts of linear time and occupying a singular position in space are completely foreign to them. When one of the Caleban needs help from a human, communication is an instant problem. Whipping Star treats us with a firsthand account of this puzzle, feeding us nearly nonsense dialogue until its ideas slowly start to make sense. It’s one of those books that gives you a solid “Ah ha!” moment, independent of the storyline.
Dealing with artificial intelligence seems a little trite by today’s standards, but in 1965, it was still a hot topic. In Destination: Void, mankind has succeeded in creating AI, but the results were disastrous. Scrap that plan, then, and let’s use disembodied human brains as computers! Oh, and lots and lots of human clones. Destination: Void gives us a ship full of human copies on a mission that seems like it was designed to fail. The clones catch on pretty quick, but in typical Herbert fashion, humanity does betrayal in layers. The book lobs deep philosophical questions back and forth on every page. The material almost reads like a textbook excerpt instead of a novel, but somehow Herbert turns it into an irresistible read.
The Santaroga Barrier
One of Herbert’s more accessible novels, The Santaroga Barrier ditches space age themes and giant worms for a quaint southern California setting. The reclusive people of Santaroga never leave their sleepy little town. They refuse to do business with outsiders, and just won’t shut up about their Jaspers brand food and drink. Psychologist Gilbert Dasein is sent to figure out what’s going on in this wonky town, but as soon as he tries the cheese, the trap is sprung. Dasein is one of them now, but is that necessarily a bad thing? The Santaroga Barrier asks some serious questions about consciousness and self-identity, all without breaking its gripping narrative. Plus, if you’ve ever thought you’d seen everything in SF, you want to make sure that includes the book about semi-sentient cheese.
The White Plague
Though written in the early ’80s, The White Plague’s plot is at home among the 21st century’s finest thrillers. A terrorist has unleashed a deadly virus that only targets women. The kicker is that men are the carriers. Awkward, right? The White Plague looks at the social and political impact a large scale terrorist attack of this nature would have. How will governments deal with the threat: nuclear bombs and mass burnings, or calm and rational quarantines? Spoiler alert, it’s (mostly) the former, which makes for some exciting reading.
Have you ever watched a colony of ants and thought “Hey, we should be like them!”? A group of scientists in Hellstrom’s Hive thought the same thing, only they went so far as to genetically engineer people to think as a group. While they live their secluded, classist lives, the America as we know it is a dystopian police state, corrupt from street to shore. The two worlds eventually meet, but Herbert doesn’t let anything play out like you would expect. Hellstrom’s Hive is told from the point of view of the hive, not the individualistic Americans. In other words, we’re the villains, and the Borg are the heroes. Spooky.
What’s your favorite other novel by a sci-fi master known for a single book or series?