Hitting the quality barrier, and bouncing back. Sorry, Frank.

Frank Herbert’s 1968 novel The Santaroga Barrier starts off as a great tantalizing mystery, a puzzle of the strange and unknown, drawing the reader in through the burning desire to find out just what’s going on. Then you start to get some answers, and they’re not very interesting ones, and alas, before the book is over it decays into a confused jumble of psycho-babble and philosophical gobbledygook. In other words, I was not impressed.

The book starts with psychologist Gilbert Dasein traveling to the Santaroga Valley; he has been hired by a conglomerate of business interests to investigate the valley and its people due to some bizarre circumstances there. In a nutshell, the people of Santaroga are strange. They apparently have zero incidence of juvenile delinquency or mental illness; they don’t leave their valley for long — they may go to college, or do a stint in the military, and then move back home; they seem totally immune to advertising; and they won’t spend one penny at any outside business that moves in. This last part simply can’t be tolerated by the business world, so they send in Dasein to investigate. Dasein goes in with the knowledge that two previous investigators died through apparent “accidents” in the valley. He may have one advantage, though: his ex-girlfriend Jenny lives in Santaroga. Jenny was a student in Dasein’s department at college, but suddenly moved back home after getting her degree, leaving Dasein after he wouldn’t agree to her strange demand that he move there with her.

When Dasein arrives in the valley, he soon hears constant references to a substance called Jaspers, which seems to be in most of the food and drink. This substance begins having an effect on Dasein, and it soon becomes apparent that Jaspers is the reason for the valley’s behavior; it sharpens people’s minds, heightens their awareness of humanity’s flaws, and gives them a subconscious group solidarity. The question then becomes: what is Jaspers, exactly? Through various discussions, investigations, and adventures, Dasein finds out Jaspers is a drug based on some kind of fungus growing in some nearby caves (and apparently nowhere else in the world). There are several passages of Dasein tripping on this drug and having deep trippy pseudo-philosophical insights as he does so. To which I can only respond: “whatever.”

I have three major problems with this book:

1. Dasein can’t ever make up his mind what he wants to do — finish his investigation and report back to those who hired him, or settle down in the valley with Jenny and go native. His constant flip-flopping is very annoying.

2. Science fiction writers are, in my opinion, far too obsessed with the concept of drugs as a pathway to enlightenment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no pious anti-drug crusader; people should be free to put whatever they please in their own bodies. I’m just not of the opinion that drug use does anything positive for you, including expanding your mind. I may be a bit hypocritical here, since some of my favorite sf novels include such drugs playing a central role — Herbert’s Dune and Silverberg’s A Time of Changes come to mind. However, I think the idea is vastly overused in the genre in general. It’s far too easy an answer, a kind of deus ex machina. You want your characters to have extraordinary thoughts or existential insights or other special qualities? Oh yeah, just make up some drug to provide them.

3. Another thing I’m disappointed to see so many sf writers eagerly embracing is the silly (and obviously wrong) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I don’t know why linguistic determinism appeals so much to sf writers, but apparently it does, and Herbert uses the idea here:

We sift reality through screens composed of ideas. These idea systems are limited by language. That is to say: language cuts the grooves in which our thoughts must move.

Come to think of it, I believe Herbert had Leto II saying something similar in one of the chapter headings in God Emperor of Dune — a tiny flaw in that otherwise fantastic book.

And that brings into focus just what The Santaroga Barrier has taught me: that there is quite a range of quality in Herbert’s writing. I consider the Dune series to be the absolute pinnacle of science fiction, and his ConSentiency books are also mighty fine. On the other end of the scale are books like this one, which hardly even seem worth the time spent reading them. Either I’m missing something deep this book is trying to say, or Herbert was just “slumming” with this one.

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4 responses to “Hitting the quality barrier, and bouncing back. Sorry, Frank.

  1. I was never too crazy about this one either, and I share your reluctance to embrace the idea that drugs open up consciousness or create new opportunities or abilities in the way that so many New Wave authors wrote them to do. Herbert was stuck in that rut in quite a few of his books. But by the later Dune books he was not playing up the role of drugs quite so much, and had colored even melange with darker hues. But this one is from 1968, only a few years after Dune was published, so I suppose he had not quite figured it out yet. Maybe he changed his tune when he saw what drugs and alcohol did to his two kids, Brian and Bruce, both of whom had addiction problems?

  2. I always think of this one as FH’s small town America 1950s alien invasion mashup novel, and in that respect I think it succeeds really well. I’d argue that FH tried to hard on a prose level when writing Dune, and failed more often than he succeeded. But when he wasn’t trying to be so clever – as in this one and The Green Brain – he produced better writing at the sentence level.

  3. Actually, I’m quite enjoying this particular Herbert novel for what it is. Light fluff in between heavier works (remember, this is 1967-68, after the first Dune novel but still before Dune Messiah and the rest in the series). Clearly, Herbert is not writing on the same level as he is with Dune, a masterwork. Marking time, and as such a reader into Herbert’s work should see “The Santaroga Barrier” in this context. It is kind of a folksy novel, a piece of americana…Herbert is clearly into America’s historical development (his intriguing views on environment and economy of America, for example) and shows especially in the early part of the novel. His interest in psychology is also evident here. At any rate, it’s simply not Dune and, since reading his non-Dune work one by one, I’m going to take this approach all the way through.

  4. Paul, that sounds like a reasonable approach. Looking back at this review, it looks like I was in a much less forgiving mood when I read the book, for whatever reason.

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