The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert

Ten years before Frank Herbert launched himself into the SF stratosphere with Dune, he published his first novel, The Dragon in the Sea (1955), a debut good enough to garner him an International Fantasy Award. But despite the awards and accolades, future publishers saw fit to rename and desecrate the perfect title of the novel, calling it both Under Pressure and 21st Century Sub. The latter concocted title, much rarer in circulation than the former, has become a minor collectible among hardcore collectors. While I've never been a hardcore collector (or even a hardcore SF aficionado), I have been hardcorely obsessed with Frank Herbert since the early 80s, right around the time when God Emperor of Dune came out, and so spent low double digits (as in $12) one day to obtain a much-less-than-in-mint condition looking paperback copy of a book I already had two other copies of, only the two other copies, of course, were titled Under Pressure and The Dragon in the Sea. I wouldn't make such a big deal over this renaming debacle except the phrase, "the dragon in the sea," ties beautifully into the plot of the novel as Frank Herbert intended it to, while the phrases, "under pressure" and "21st century sub," do not.

Herbert made his career out of inserting individuals into some of the most brutal and inhospitable environments imaginable. In The Dosadi Experiment (1977), he placed billions on an experimental planet about the size of Rhode Island, or maybe a Manhattan high rise thereabouts, in order to comment on the consequences of Earth's overpopulation; while in The Jesus Incident (co-authored with Bill Ransom, 1979), sequel to the hard science of Destination: Void (1968), the latter of which was written concurrently as Clarke's and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see the horrifying results of an exploratory spacecraft that's been mutiny'd by a rogue computer intent not necessarily on the flight crew's destruction, but "WorShip". The computer, cousin to the eccentrically iconic HAL, apparently, but not quite as murderous, though a tad more megalomaniacal with its Catholic God complex, decides nevertheless to deposit its helpless crew in another inescapably bizarre and barren environment (the bleak, depressing setting for The Jesus Incident) dominated by brain sucking, slug-like creatures and other nefarious human-imbibing creatures intent on gaining access to mankind's innards through whatever orifice they can find. Things get so bad for the crew on land in The Jesus Incident, that half of the population eventually migrates underwater, evolving into amphibians in The Lazarus Effect (1983), the second installment in Herbert's and Ransom's Pandora Trilogy, that culminates in The Ascension Factor (1988) published posthumously by Herbert.  Has the collective effect of computers and related technology sucked our brains and ability to think critically and creatively so dry to the point that we "WorShip" technology's "genius," perhaps Herbert prophesied?  And it's a virulent prophecy mirroring Ted Mooney's uber-prescient concept of "Information Sickness" in 1981s stunner, Easy Travel to Other Planets.
Herbert got his sensational start being unforgivably cruel to his characters beginning with The Dragon In The Sea, a novel in which he mercilessly plopped his first poor characters into another man-made Hell: The claustrophic confines of a nuclear submarine. (Tom Clancy eat your heart out, Herbert did it first!) Oh how he inserts four men into what amounts to a tubular tomb; into some, uh, "highly pressurized" (see where those brilliant publishers got the idea of renaming the book, Under Pressure?) stressful and deadly scenarios.
The United States' sub's mission: Dive into enemy Russian waters both for precious oil in dwindling supply and to find out what happened to the previous twenty subs that went missing without so much as a single SOS. Sabotage or espionage are suspected, but there's no concrete evidence of either. Enter The Federal Bureau of Psychology (the FBP) for naval consultation. The FBP advises the navy generals that expert psychologist, John Ramsay, go on the next mission for oil, and work as a regular submarine crew member while covertly putting his psychological expertise to work in the hopes he'll be able to fathom with his honed skills of behavioral observation and analysis what (or who) keeps going wrong with these missions. Could there, in fact, be a traitor --a saboteur-- on board; and, if so, who? The captain? It couldn't be Ramsay himself could it? Is the U.S. Government involved in the destruction of its own subs? That would be a curveball! Is it one of the other two crew members? But which one, assuming it is? And how can Ramsay prove it without with revealing his undercover operation?

Complicating matters, the Russians, those Cold War Commies, aren't exactly thrilled seeing another U.S. nuclear submarine appear out of nowhere on their sonar. It's their oil, damnit, not the Americans'! And they've the right to protect it at any cost! Could it be that maybe there are no traitors on board the U.S. sub, though, but that maybe the Russians are simply impeccable at protecting what they believe is rightly theirs, and that they've torpedoed or somehow sunk all previous twenty U.S. subs, thus eliminating every titanium scrap and bolt of sunken, exploded evidence? But if so, wouldn't there be ungodly amounts of radiation in the sea in the areas of disappearance?, since these are nuclear subs we're talking about, and not bathtub submersibles, right? Have the Russians invented a new type of weaponry designed to destroy U.S. nuclear subs that can simultaneously contain or disguise the release of radiation and thereby eradicate any shred of radioactive evidence? Could be.  But I won't tell.

Could be too that Herbert will pull a rabbit out of his plot's hat while making his prescient political statement about the world's over-dependency on oil he fictionally forecasted over half-a-century ago. Herbert's writing per se didn't win him the International Fantasy Award or even the Hugo and Nebula he won later in his career; it was his genius ideas and environmental and political commentaries cleverly allegorized in his novels which triumphed over the pedestrian wheat and chaff pulp of the majority of his SF peers.
That the world today, on several fronts, is engaged in an ongoing, neverending war (of one sort or another) over earth's most precious commodity and resource (not over its people, no) but its oil, testifies to Herbert's prognosticating brilliance; to his seemingly innate, uncanny ability, to act as Prophet and SF Sage in an age when science fiction had virtually no respect as having anything politically, philosophically, or psychologically pertinent (remember, it was 1955, pre-Twilight Zone), to say. And he did so while also entertaining the hell out of us with his superior storytelling contained in his, granted, ho-hum (but not terrible) prose. Herbert's no Proust (ya think!?) when it comes to style -- and Herbert gets abused big time compared to his other fellow largely likewise "styleless" SF authors -- and wrongly, in my opinion -- for being so dense and "hard" to read. But I'll take Herbert over Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Dick and even Neal Stephenson any day.

Only John Brunner, among Herbert's era of science-fictionists, in his most popular works -- Stand On Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, forecasted the future more accurately. Don't read The Dragon In The Sea, or any of Herbert's books just for the writing (you'll inevitably be disappointed if you do); instead, read Herbert for his visionary constructs and world building, for his complicated architecture of ideas, and see how much of what he wrote about in the 1950s and 1960s -- as he gazed deep into his multifaceted, speculative crystal ball -- had already materialized by the dawning of the 21st Century.


  1. Fantastic piece of research Enrique thank you. You are obviously a fan. Me too, and I think there is another area of his work that has "materialized at the dawning of the 21st century". My question is, do you know if someone told him about the giant sandworms of Mars, or did he dream up the whole thing? Because I have held the theory that the canals on Mars were caused by giant sandworms since before I wrote my book, Exploring Mystery in 2011 with a chapter on Mars. I have also found them on google Moon. And then I discover on Venus that Vallis Baleris was also most likley carved out by giant sandworms too. And now, knowing what to look for, I have found evidence of giant sandworms on earth as well. All the anomalies tie in to this theory. And I want to know how Frank Herbert knew.


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