Monday, November 11, 2013


Interview by Jean Marie Stine

(This never-before reprinted conversation was originally published in an issue of the L. A. Reader in mid-1984 (at the time of the Dune movie's release). During our post-interview conversation Frank, who was on his way to climb the Himalayas with Sherpa guides, mentioned that he had just written the outline for what would be the final Dune book and he and an attorney had put a copy in a safe deposit box until he returned just in case anything happened to him. On his way to the Himalayas, Frank was diagnosed with a fast moving cancer, and passed away a few months later. Twenty years on, I discovered that no one in the Herbert family had known of the outline, and that its existence had only recently been discovered.)

JMS:  The First Dune book (the one the movie was based on) taken by itself seems pretty straightforward good guys vs. bad guys stuff, with the good guys triumphing at the end.  But in the second book you question a number of assumptions you led the reader to make in the first book and you reveal a much more complex and meaningful design than was apparent in the first book alone.
HERBERT: The first three books were one book in my head.  I wrote parts of the second two before I completed the first.  In fact I wrote the last chapter of the first one before I finished it.  I did develop the other two a bit more because I thought of new stuff.  But when I finished that third book I thought I was through with it.  I had a theory.  Charismatic leaders -- not necessarily Messiahs, but Messiahs included -- tend to create explosive upheavals in human societies which are very dangerous to individuals and to the societies themselves, because they create power structures.  So you get these centers of power and it doesn't matter a damned bit how pure and good the hero is.  By just being he creates a power structure and so it's like a magnet: the iron filings, the corruptible, come in and things are done in the name of the leader -- as they were done in Christianity, in Islam, in Buddhism, in all major religions and lesser religions.  Things done in the name of the leader are amplified by the members, who follow without thinking, without questioning, and you wind up in Guyana drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.  So I wanted to create a charismatic leader (Paul Muad-Dib, the hero of the novel and film), a Messiah you would follow for all of the right reasons.  He is loyal to his people, he's honorable and he's true to his friends.  Every characteristic that you could possibly think of, including the prince in search of the Grail, is there in that character -- you would follow him right into Camelot.  And there is the power structure that grows up around him; that's what we deal with in the second book.  That shook a lot of people.  Here was a hero who didn't make everything all right * He created a power structure.  He did it just by being there. 
JMS: In the Dune books, you seem to question a number of other cultural assumptions.  One of them is the belief that the establishment of a democracy necessarily addresses all of humankind's problems and needs.
HERBERT:  One of the things I noticed as a reporter -- I was a journalist longer than I've been on this side of the table -- is that in all the marching in the streets in the '60s, the people who were shouting "Power to -the People" didn't mean power to the people.  They meant "power to me and I'll tell the people what to do."  When you questioned them it was confirmed at every turn.
Power to the people will really happen when the people wake up to the fact that you can't separate economics from politics, when they wake up to their own motivations, what they want, what can be sold to them.  Because the real pitfall of democracy is that it is demagogue-prone.  We like to have people stand up and tell us what we want to hear.  I have conditioned myself so that the minute I hear a politician standing up there saying nice things that sound good to lot of people my alarm signals go off and I say, "Why, you damned son of a bitch, you're just another damned demagogue.
I don't think there's a fucking bit of difference between a bureaucracy that is instituted by a democratic regime, a state; socialist regime, a communist regime or a capitalist regime.  Take a look at us right now.  We have created a bureaucracy in this country which is completely out of the hands of the people.  Your votes do not touch it.  One day when I was working in Washington, D.C. as a speech-writer for a U.S. senator from Oregon, I was at a meeting of the Department of Commerce and a very, very high department official, a lifetime bureaucrat, was talking about another senator, who was giving them some trouble.  And this high bureaucrat called this senator a "transient." And sure enough, that senator was defeated in the next election.  So he was a transient.  But the bureaucrat was, still there, and he retired on a separate retirement system for the federal bureaucracy.
People ask me what I think about Reagan, or "Ray-gun," as I tend to call him.  Well, you know, he has several good things going for him.  Number one, we know he's an actor.  We tend not to think about other politicians as actors.  But they all are.  Mondale's an actor.  I have good reports, accurate reports on him offcamera.  Offstage he can be a real bastard to his people.  You never see that when the smiling man gets up in front of the camera.  He depends on his analyses to tell him what people want to hear.  The other thing about Reagan is that I think he's pretty much beyond the age where he's easily corrupted.  His foreign policy scares the shit out of me, but as long as he's paranoid of the bureaucracy I'll stand aside and applaud.  And say, "Focus on that baby!" For that much I like him.
JMS: How do you feel we could put the power in the hands of the people?
HERBERT: Well, I think there are several ways to do it.  Governments, being power centers, as I said before, attract the corrupt and the corruptible.  So we have to go after the problem of how do we design our Governments, so that we attract people who are not corruptible, or not easy to corrupt, anyway.  The Romans solved it a long time ago.  Before they got on their empire kick they went out and got a leader and said, "You're the boss for a year or two.  But that's it!"
One of the things I would do - If I could wave a magic wand - I would give us a six-year presidency, 'no re-election.  A two-term, maximum four-year senator, and a one-term, four-year congressman.  If they can't discover how the system works in Washington within a month of being there (hell, I discovered within two weeks of working for a senator), then they aren't bright enough to belong there.  It's a privilege to work for your society.  Not a right, not something earned by being there forever.  We have to keep them in for short terms, attract good people with high, pay.  And if I had my say about it, I'd make it a criminal offense with long prison terms for any military officer to accept a job with a defense after a retirement.  That's handing the fox the key to the henhouse and saying, "I'm going to be gone for the night." That's an invitation to corruption, and of course that's what we get.
We have the instruments and we have the precedents for handing power back to the people.  I think government ought to be an experience.  You know, when this government was formed it was called, worldwide, "The Great Experiment." Somewhere along the line we carved it in stone.  Experiments are things you test and find out what's wrong with them.  Right?
I would experiment with a process that is now available to us.  I would call it something like "The Great Theory." I would select at random, on the basis of those who voted in the last election (we could do this easily now with computers), a rotating core group of 13 good people to serve at all levels of government, high and low.  I would give them absolutely awesome powers, leave them in office for one year, and I would make it damn near a capital offense to interfere with the operations of this whole thing.  I would set it up so that they had a budget, a sufficient budget, but no standing support facilities, no continuing bureaucracies.  Every new committee would have to hire its own people and its own experts under a spoils system.  And, at very high levels, I would give them the power of subpoena, the power to look in any place they wanted to look without question - and the power to fire.
Now let's go down to lowered levels.  I discussed this with a member of the bureaucracy in the state of Washington, an official of the school system.  He asked me, "How would you apply this?" I said: "Well, let's go to the local school district.  Under my system any time the local school district proposes to spend over X amount of dollars, automatically such a review committee would be called into being.  The members would be selected from among those who voted in the previous election.  They'd have the power of life and death over that proposal, the power to subpoena; they could go into the school system and examine the records back to the dawn of history.  They could look at how the school system is operating, how it had been spending its money in the past."
This bureaucrat asked me, "Do you think they'll always make good decisions?" And I said, "No.  But they'd only be there for a year and if they made a mistake it'd be very apparent and the next committee could deal with it." His next reaction, I thought, was just magnificent, very telling, almost like a classic Freudian slip.  He said: "Do you think some damned housewife could understand what's going on in the school system that well?" [Laughs] I said: "You bet your sweet bippy I do!" Because if you put the responsibility on people, really put it on them, they rise to the occasion.
I would also make it impossible for any person who had served on one such committee ever to serve on one again.  Once a lifetime.  It would completely turn around what we think of as the democratic system, because it would make voting attractive.  You'd want to be in on the chance to be selected for this.  And you would know that one of you, somebody who voted, would be right in the seat of power if the need arose.  I think it would -really give power to the people, which is what democracy is supposed to be all about.  Now all of the closet aristocrats will come out of the closet when you propose this kind of thing and say, "My God!  At random you're going to get some real dopes!" And I would say,.,@$What are the statistical probabilities that you would get 13 real dopes?  Maybe you will.  Maybe the monkeys will type the great novel."
JMS: What are the odds that you would get more dopes this way than by the present system?
HERBERT: [Laughs] I'm willing to gamble.  Now I'll tell you something interesting in MY reading of history: Every time we have pulled the lid off the human desire to govern our, own affairs, to be free of government - we've had a renaissance of some kind.  We've had a social -renaissance, we've had a political renaissance, an artistic renaissance.  Every time in history we've unleashed this, we've gone forward by leaps and bounds.  So I'm saying, "All right, this is what history says to me.  So why don't we do it again?"  That's what I'm playing with in. the seventh Dune book, moving toward showing the kind of governments that finally evolve out of the situation I have created.


  1. "in all the marching in the streets in the '60s, the people who were shouting "Power to -the People" didn't mean power to the people. They meant "power to me and I'll tell the people what to do." When you questioned them it was confirmed at every turn."

    I knew a lot of those people and the majority really meant it. I think I knew a few who were as power-hungry as Herbert says, but not the majority.

  2. This needs to happen with America. Pronto!