The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert

Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert (1956)

First published as Under Pressure in Analog Magazine (November and December 1955, January 1956) and by Gollancz in the UK.

206 pages

Science Fiction Book Club edition (UK) read; 1960.

Review by Mark Yon

Recently the SFFWorld Forums have been looking again at Dune, the book that pretty much dominated Frank Herbert’s life after its publication.

The discussion got me thinking: what of Frank Herbert ‘pre-Dune’? Surely there were stories and novels that showed where Herbert was going as a writer before Dune appeared (in 1963/64 in Analog and 1965 in novel form)?

And I thought of this one. Funnily enough, this was one that my late father had on his bookshelf, although unlike Foundation, I didn’t read it. Dad liked war books as well as SF, and this one, looking at the cover, looked like ‘a submarine book’. (Foundation, with its iconic Chris Foss covers, didn’t.) In my skewed view of the world at about eleven or so, I was past that, so it was therefore summarily dismissed.

That was perhaps unfair. Though at that young age, I doubt I would’ve ‘got it’, even if I had tried to read it. It is a psychological thriller, one that is more about the claustrophobic confines of the submarine as it is about fighting and conflict set in a future in decay.

Being from 1956, the book is imbued with that 1950’s Cold War paranoia, despite being set in the 21st century. Parts of the world have been in a nuclear war. The remaining Eastern Power and the US are involved in a battle over oil reserves, as they continue to overuse their reserves. The tale begins when Ensign Ramsey of the Bureau of Psychology is drafted in to join a super-tug submarine crew involved in secret raids, siphoning off much-needed oil from the Russian’s – sorry, Eastern Power’s  – reservoirs. The past twenty raids have led to their crews not returning. Heading off to a location under the marginal seas of the Eastern Power’s continental shelf, Ramsey’s job is to decide whether this is because of the actions of the Eastern Power or simply that the stress of the work is causing the crew to fail.

It’s difficult not to be carried along by this tale. There’s the tension created by Ramsey’s hurried training and departure, the risk of Ramsey being discovered as an observer of the crew and the claustrophobic environment of the sub itself in the vast deeps of the ocean, swept along by fast-flowing cold ocean currents. The crew have to deal with sleeper agents, sabotage and the odd dead body along the way. There’s lots of issues with atomic power and radiation, as was typical of its time.

True, some parts have not dated so well – there’s a bit of good old-fashioned info-dumping, and the tension suggested between the superpowers in the 21st century strangely seems a little out of step today. The characters also can be a little stereotypical, though that would be typical of its day. The Captain (coincidentally named Sparrow, these days recognised more as Johnny Depp) has a touch of the Captain Ahabs, if not Queeg, quoting the Bible when the need takes him, but generally is a likeable fellow, bearing in mind the tense circumstances. Ramsey is our likeable, if a little priggish, hero, the proverbial good guy with a difficult job to do. Generally the limited range of characters can be rather ‘stiff upper lip’ (if the Brits had been involved!), not to mention the odd cliché that has been parodied since the book’s publication. (At one point, a character exclaims, ‘Great Grieving Freud!’)

But here’s the thing: despite these reservations, it’s a tighter, more focused novel than Dune.  There’s half a dozen main characters at most and their actions are predominantly aboard a claustrophobic submarine. Consequently there’s a lot of angst, a lot of psycho-analysing and a lot of internalising comment (as you might expect), which adds to that feeling of spending too long inside your head.

By the end, it’s quite a tense thriller.

From this Cold War beginning I can see the introduction of Herbert’s ecological concerns and perhaps how Dune evolved. (Many a critic has pointed out that if you swap oil for spice in Dune, its relevance to Earth geopolitics becomes clearer.) There’s an interesting discussion made throughout Dragon on religion and faith as a means of spiritual survival that can conceivably be broadened to the multifaceted religions of Dune.

Dune is a bigger, broader, grander work than this. This is clearly not Dune. But to miss this would be a shame. It’s worth a read if you can handle the historical context. A minor work, but a worthwhile read.

Mark Yon, Jan/February 2011.

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