Eye: For dedicated Herbert fans only

Eye by Frank Herbert SF book reviewsEye by Frank Herbert science fiction book reviewsEye by Frank Herbert

Eye is a short story collection by Frank Herbert and is one of his last works. Published in 1985, the same year his sixth Dune novel Chapterhouse: Dune was published, Eye covers most of his career. I guess you could consider this a “best of” volume. Herbert was not a prolific short fiction writer, especially in his later years, but quite a few stories are still missing from this collection. Like many SF authors he began his career publishing in the genre’s big magazines, and quite a few of these stories ended up in this collection. I thought Eye was something of a mixed bag; some of the stories don’t achieve the depth many of his novels have, and more or less lean on an interesting technological concept to carry the story. On the other hand, there is some very interesting stuff here as well — the two stories that kicked of the ConSentiency universe, for instance. For the real fan this collection is worth reading, but I wouldn’t suggest it as an introduction to Herbert’s work.

I own a lovely UK hardcover published in 1986 that I found in a secondhand bookstore in London in 2003. It contains thirteen pieces of fiction and an introduction. Unlike most introductions to collections such as these, the introduction to Eye is noteworthy. It focuses mostly on David Lynch’s motion picture Dune, which was released the previous year. Herbert seems to correctly predict it will gain something of a cult following. Personally I enjoyed that movie a lot, but plot-wise there is an awful lot wrong with it.

The opening story in the collection is “Rat Race.” The story is about a detective who stumbles upon irregularities in a morgue on a routine job. On nothing but a hunch he investigates and finds a truth beyond his wildest suspicions. I liked the theme of this story. Superior alien beings using humans as lab rats is hardly original but Herbert handles it well, especially the bit on the morality of animal testing and what it would mean if your subjects turn out to be self-aware. It’s a good opening to this collection, and makes you wonder what Herbert thought of animal testing.

The second story is “The Dragon in the Sea.” It’s the short version of a novel, The Dragon in the Sea, published in 1956. It originally appeared in three parts in Astounding Science Fiction in 1955 and 1956. This version is far more limited; it ends when Ramsey weathers the first crisis and gains a measure of respect among the crew. Shorter, but still quite interesting. I noticed a few changes Herbert made in the long version. If you are going to read “The Dragon in the Sea,” though, go for the novel.

Story number three is “Cease Fire,” published for the first time in 1958. It’s a bit dated. The story is set in a near future so we’re probably way past it by now. It’s about a soldier who in a flash of inspiration invents a new technology that he thinks will put an end to all wars. His superiors know better, of course; it will just change the nature of warfare. It would have been an interesting concept if Herbert had written about the effects this technology has on war. I thought the story ended just when it was getting interesting. The story looked promising but in the end I feel it fails to deliver.

A Matter of Traces” is an important story to Herbert’s career. This story introduces Jorj X. McKie, the main character in his later novels Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment. The ConSentiency universe, as this creation is known, is one where government has become so efficient that it rolls right over the individual citizens and has to be slowed down by Saboteurs such as McKie. I found the acceptance of the acts of sabotage committed by McKie as a matter of procedure very humorous. I’m not sure if this story works for people who don’t know a bit about this particular universe, though, which is a bad thing as this is the first story written in that environment.

In “Try to Remember,” an alien race descends on the Earth and demand that humans try to communicate with them. If they succeed, the rewards will be great; if they fail, the annihilation of the human race is imminent. As a warning they show their considerable power and clear a Pacific atoll off the map. The world panics and sends their best linguists to solve the alien riddle. Language, both written and spoken, the emotions it carries and the influence it has on the human psyche, are frequent subjects in Herbert’s novels. This story focuses entirely on the subject. I liked this one a lot, and thought the conclusion was interesting. It’s one of his early works, nad he obviously built on this idea later on. One of the highlights of this collection.

The Tactful Saboteur” is the second story in the ConSentiency universe. It has McKie as a main character this time and describes how he manipulates the change of power in BuSab, the agency that sabotages government to keep the speed at which it operates manageable. The story cumulates in a high-tension scene in court where McKie succeeds in bringing about the change of leadership in BuSab. It’s not as interesting as the court scenes in The Dosadi Experiment but definitely is an interesting story. ConSentiency works are not light reading though, you have to pay attention to what Herbert is saying or you’ll get hopelessly lost in the story.

Herbert also includes a short story in his Dune universe. “The Road to Dune” is written in the form of a guide for visitors to Dune during the years of Paul’s reign. The text itself is not remarkable, as it takes us along a number of scenes the Dune reader knows from the books. It is marvelously illustrated by Jim Burns, though. This story is not to be confused with the book posthumously published by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.

By the Book” is a story about a troubleshooter. In the far future, humanity is trying to expand to other worlds by sending forth containers holding whatever is necessary to seed a planet, including human embryos. Now, nine centuries after beginning the program, the containers are reaching their destination — perfect timing for the “Beam,” the device that propels them to their target, to fail. Time to bring in troubleshooter Ivar Norris Gump, the best in the history of the project. He soon realizes he can fix the problem but the price will be high. Again, the concept of this story is interesting, but the story didn’t really satisfy me.

Seed Stock” may well be related to “By the Book” in some way. It is set on a planet recently settled by humans. They are putting all their effort in transforming the ecosystem into something inhabitable, but for some reason all their efforts are failing. The colony is struggling to survive. While the scientists and leaders of the colony struggle in vain, the solution appears to be coming from an unlikely source. I liked the way Herbert deals with intuition a lot. The colony has to overcome what has been accepted as the way of the world to survive in this hostile environment.

In “Murder Will In,” we meet an alien species that inhabits the body of sentient races and completely takes over the mind of its host. The host has no control but it does live considerably longer. When the host body is approaching the end of its lifespan the alien entity jumps to a new host, discarding the dying body. New hosts are only susceptible when experiencing strong emotions. A favoured method is having the new host kill the old one. Unfortunately for our alien, society has progressed a lot since his last move and appears able to predict violence before it actually takes place (an interesting concept; Herbert uses something like it in his novel The Godmakers). The alien’s manipulation of his old and new host was not predicted and thus brings unwanted attention. To keep himself hidden he is forced to make an unprecedented compromise. Very good story, but you do have to pay close attention to what you are reading. Herbert packs a lot of ideas in 20 or so pages here.

How do you smuggle a Steinway grand piano aboard a spaceship where every ounce of weight is carefully rationed? This is the central question in “Passage for Piano.” Again, this is a story dealing with the colonization of other planets. A group of colonists is in the final stages of preparing for an interstellar trip to their new home. In the family of the colony’s ecologist a problem arises, though. His son is very attached to the Steinway his grandfather played. The boy has a gift for music and is depressed about having to leave the instrument behind. So depressed, in fact, that he may not survive. His mother is not about to let that happen and thinks of a way to get the Steinway on board. A very moving story, not at all what you’d expect of Herbert, really.

Death of a City” leans on another concept Herbert developed, aimed at keeping a society healthy. A City Doctor is a person responsible for keeping the development of the human species on the right track. The powers of a Doctor include forced relocation and obliteration of cities if they deem that to be in the interest of the species. The city Bjska is looking at is not doing well. He is about to make a decision that will influence the lives of countless people. I didn’t really like this story. The concept seemed a bit far-fetched and how Bjska reaches his decision remains nebulous.

Frogs and Scientists” is a very short story about two frogs observing a human female bath. One tries to explain her behaviour in a scientific way to the other and he reaches some interesting conclusions. It’s a very funny story, and should be required reading for all scientists.

All in all, quite a few ups and downs in this collection. I suppose “The Tactical Saboteur” was the highlight for me, but “Try to Remember,” “Seed Stock,” and “Passage for Piano” are also strong stories. On the other hand there are quite a few stories that are not all that great. If you are familiar with Herbert’s work you will enjoy this collection for the way he tries out various concepts and themes he uses in his novels. In general though, I think he needs a little more space than a short story offers to really do his writing justice. I enjoyed reading this but I don’t think it’ll be up for a reread in the near future. It has reminded me I really need to get my hands on a copy of the first ConSentiency novel Whipping Star, though. Eye is for the real fan only.

Published in 1985. Eye features the startlingly original collaboration “The Road to Dune,” a walking tour of Arakeen narrated by Frank Herbert and illustrated by acclaimed British artist Jim Burns. Also included is an introduction by Herbert describing his personal feelings about the filming of David Lynch’s movie version of Dune; Herbert’s own favorite short story, “Seed Stock”; and tales from throughout his career, some never before collected.

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ROB WEBER, a regular guest at FanLit, developed a fantasy and science fiction addiction as well as a worrying Wheel of Time obsession during his college years. While the Wheel of Time has turned, the reading habit that continues to haunt him long after acquiring his BSc in environmental science. Rob keeps a blog at Val’s Random Comments.

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