The Santaroga Barrier: Frank Herbert’s most underrated novel

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Santaroga Barrier by Frank Herbert science fiction book reviewsThe Santaroga Barrier by Frank Herbert

A couple of years back Tor reissued four of Frank Herbert’s novels in absurdly cheap paperback format. For some of these titles it had been quite a while since they’d been in print and despite a poor quality of the paperbacks I snapped them up as soon as they were published. Thankfully Tor realized its mistake and reissued another four novels in a somewhat more durable format a while later. These first four reissues contained what I consider Herbert’s best novel (The Dosadi Experiment) as well as the worst (The Green Brain). All four are quite different from his famous DUNE novels but in quite a few you can see him returning to themes he used in DUNE. The Santaroga Barrier is one of his more interesting novels. A deceptively simple story, really.

Psychologist Gilbert Dasein is assigned a market study of the peculiar town of Santaroga. On the surface everything seems normal but closer inspection reveals a number of strange things about the town. All businesses are locally owned. Outside businesses are allowed into the valley but quickly go belly up as none of the locals will shop there. There is no psychological disorders, no juvenile delinquency, no crime worth mentioning and no food-stuffs form outside the valley can be sold there. Something is decidedly odd about the place.

Dasein knows two investigators have tried to study the town before and neither lived to tell the tale. No violence mind you, just accidents. All together it is enough to put him on edge. He has reason to believe he will be more successful though. Dasein has met a girl from Santaroga in college and he’s still deeply in love with her. If not for her insistence of returning to the valley, they would have a future together. More than enough reason for Dasein to find out what’s so special about the place.

The Santaroga Barrier was first published in serialized from in Amazing Stories in 1967 and 1968, only a few years after his big hit Dune. Psychoactive substances were clearly still on his mind at that time. Then again, how could they not have been in an era when LSD was quite popular. There obviously is something different about the people in Santaroga and that difference is caused by a mysterious substance known to the locals as Jaspers. The effect is profound but not immediately recognizable if you don’t know what to look for. Daseis, as a trained psychologist, does know what he is looking for and he quickly notices the brutal honesty of the people in Santaroga as well as their brusque, straightforward manner and use of language. The first of many clues about the nature of Santaroga.

The effect of Jaspers is apparently based on the work of Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher best known for his 1927 book Sein und Zeit (Time and Being). He’s quite a controversial figure because of his involvement with Nazism. The main character’s last name is borrowed from one of the key concepts in Heidegger’s work: ‘dasein’. A word that consists of the word ‘da’ which could be translated as ‘there’ and the word ‘sein” which means ‘to be’. His philosophy is way over my head but one could say Heidegger’s project is to investigate the sense of being. It’s hard to pin down what makes the Santarogans different from ordinary people but if I had to try I’d say they are more aware of themselves and their community, shaper, harder to fool. This mindset has its consequences for the way the Santarogans have shaped their community.

Besides the effect of Jaspers on the individual, Dasein soon discovers there is another level of change as well. Throughout the novel there are hints of a group mind at work. This process seems to be almost entirely unconscious but several near fatal accidents convince Dasein that the town as a whole considers the outside world which he represents as a threat. It raises a suspicion bordering on paranoia in Dasein. The gradually building suspicion and the process of Dasein fitting together the clues he finds makes for some very interesting, if not particularly light, reading.

I guess one could read The Santaroga Barrier as a more or less standard science fiction story about a remote somewhat strange community hiding a big secret. On the surface it is just that. Herbert has built in an impressive deeper layer of meaning in the seemingly trivial everyday occurrences in the book. I’m not at all familiar with the work of Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, who apparently is another major influence on this novel. I would not be surprised that if you are, there’s a lot more to this novel than I have discovered.

Like a lot of science fiction novels of this era, it does not excel in great characterization. In fact, I thought that Dasein’s girl Jenny was a very poorly drawn character. She seems to be genuinely happy to see him show up in Santaroga, but other than an incentive for Dasein to stay, she doesn’t add all that much to the story. It would have been interesting if Herbert had made a bit more work of developing her character and the relationship between the two. The main character and the entire book are very focused on solving the puzzle, on defusing the crisis that is brewing. That is not something everybody will appreciate in this book.

I guess thematically and stylistically The Santaroga Barrier is a book of its time. It leans very heavily on the ideas Herbert used as an inspiration. What makes this book stand out is the depth of these ideas. To Herbert they were not merely interesting concepts. He delved deeply and conveyed part of that interest and understanding in this book. It does not have the epic scope and wide variety of themes of the DUNE saga but of all his works outside that setting, The Santaroga Barrier is probably the most underrated. It’s a short but challenging read. If you are looking to explore Herbert’s work beyond DUNE, The Santaroga Barrier would be a good choice.

The Santaroga Barrier — (1967) Publisher: Santaroga seemed to be nothing more than a prosperous farm community. But there was something… different… about Santaroga. Santaroga had no juvenile delinquency, or any crime at all. Outsiders found no house for sale or rent in this valley, and no one ever moved out. No one bought cigarettes in Santaroga. No cheese, wine, beer or produce from outside the valley could be sold there. The list went on and on and grew stranger and stranger. Maybe Santaroga was the last outpost of American individualism. Maybe they were just a bunch of religious kooks… Or maybe there was something extraordinary at work in Santaroga. Something far more disturbing than anyone could imagine.

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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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