Published on January 16th, 2013 | by Erik Hanberg13
Son of Tacoma, father of Dune
He wrote one of the bestselling science fiction novels ever. He won both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards – the two most prestigious awards in science fiction. NASA has officially approved the naming of geographic features on Saturn’s moon Titan after words coined by him.
He’s from Tacoma, but no one here seems to know it.
The man is Frank Herbert, and he is the author of the science fiction classic Dune, as well as five sequels set in the world that book imagined.
Frank Herbert was born in Tacoma on October 8, 1920 – his mother’s 19th birthday. His binge-drinking father rarely held a steady job. At the time of Frank’s birth, his father operated a bus line between Tacoma and Aberdeen. Among other jobs, he later sold cars, managed a dance hall, and worked for the Washington State Patrol.
Frank Herbert had the kind of childhood that would cause statewide news alerts today, filled with tales that sound more like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rather than anyone’s actual experiences.
At the age of nine he rowed from Burley on the Kitsap Peninsula to the San Juan Islands alone, often hitching rides with tugboats by holding on to their hulls.
In his youth, he went hunting (alone) and brought back game for his family to eat.
At 14, he swam across the Tacoma Narrows (there was no bridge until 1940).
Shortly thereafter, he and a friend sailed nearly 2,000 miles round-trip to the fjords of British Columbia.
In Brian Herbert’s biography of his father, Dreamer of Dune (which provided many of the details in this article) he writes that on the Puget Sound, “Frank Herbert developed a deep respect for the natural rhythms of nature. The ecology message, so prevalent in much of his writing, is one of his most important legacies.”
Frank Herbert loved the Puget Sound, and anytime he traveled or moved away for a job, he always returned, calling the Sound his “Tara,” a reference to Scarlett’s refuge in Gone With the Wind.
Herbert’s feats weren’t all in the natural world, however. At 12, he read the complete works of Shakespeare, and gobbled up Marcel Proust and Herman Melville. Like many avid readers, he tried his own hand at writing, and at 14 he was given his first typewriter.
“One day my father went for advice to a writer living in Tacoma who had sold a couple novels and several short stories,” writes Brian Herbert. “The response: ‘Work like hell, kid.’”
Herbert took this counsel to heart. His writing career included work as a journalist, a political speechwriter for a US Senator from Oregon, and as a short story writer before he was finally able to devote himself to writing his novels full time.
When reviewing the life of Frank Herbert, one gets the impression that he was trying to live in every part of Tacoma and do all things quintessentially Tacoman. At various points, he lived on Day Island, in Dash Point, Browns Point, and on the Eastside. He attended Stewart Middle School and Lincoln High School. He wrote for the Tacoma Ledger and the Tacoma Times. At age 21, he and his sweetheart fell in love in Salem, Oregon, where they were then living. On a whim, they drove to Tacoma to get married, because he thought it would be meaningful to have the ceremony in his hometown.
In 1955, Herbert had a budding family in Tacoma and needed a car for them. Being short on funds, as writers often are, he found a sweet deal on a used car: $300 for a funeral home hearse. He enjoyed wearing his darkest suit, impersonating a funeral director, and pulling his hearse up next to carloads of teenagers. Herbert would leave them sobered, giving them a dark scowl and intoning a significant “Drive carefully,” and then peel rubber as he drove away.
The origins of the novel Dune came to Herbert while visiting the sand dunes of Florence, Oregon. But the idea of a world destroyed by environmental catastrophe and the environmental theme at the heart of Dune, draw directly from Herbert’s life in Tacoma.
Brian Herbert reveals the connection to Tacoma in Dreamer of Dune:
In a conversation with Dad, [his lifetime friend] Howie told me he said angrily, “They’re gonna turn this whole planet into a wasteland, just like North Africa.”
“Yeah,” Frank Herbert responded. “Like a big dune.”
By the time Dad said this, the elements of his story were coming together. He had in mind a messianic leader in a world covered entirely with sand. Ecology would be a central theme of the story, emphasizing the delicate balance of nature …
Dad was a daily witness to conditions in Tacoma, which in the 1950s was known as one of the nation’s most polluted cities, largely due to a huge smelter whose stack was visible from all over the city, a stack that belched filth into the sky. The air was “so thick you could chew it,” my father liked to quip. The increasing pollution he saw all around him, in the city of his birth, contributed to his resolve that something had to be done to save the Earth. This became, perhaps, the most important message of Dune [emphasis added].
In other words, Tacoma’s pollution was so bad, primarily due to the ASARCO smelter, that it inspired Herbert’s message of conservation. It may not be a legacy that Tacomans want, but it is a legacy nonetheless.
The growing environmental awareness of the 1960s, of which Dune was very much a part, led to environmental reforms and regulations to put a stop to the most egregious assaults on the environment. ASARCO shut down its smelter, and on January 17, 1993 – exactly 20 years ago this week – its stack was demolished.
Just as the iconic stack is gone without a trace (save for remnants of its toxic plume), it seems all memory of Frank Herbert has disappeared from Tacoma as well. How could a Tacoma artist with his fame, literary significance, and quirks of character have so little recognition in his hometown?
Thea Foss has a waterway. Murray Morgan and Dale Chihuly both have bridges. Where is the Frank Herbert Bridge or Frank Herbert Park? Dune Boulevard? The Frank Herbert Center for the Literary Arts?
The tourism slogan we currently use to promote Tacoma is “Where Art and Nature Meet.” That describes Frank Herbert to a T.
It’s time to embrace the boy who swam the Narrows, who fished on Tacoma’s beaches, and who grew up to be one of the most influential science fiction authors of all time.
Erik Hanberg is a Commissioner on the Metro Parks Tacoma Board, elected in 2011. He is also the author of The Saints Go Dying and The Marinara Murders and will be publishing his first science fiction novel in 2013.