Review: The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert

The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert (Doubleday, 1956, hc, 192pp.)

Four men in a sub (to say nothing of the God).

During a war with the Eastern Powers, the nuclear sub Fenian Ram‘s job is to cruise into enemy territory to steal a cargo of oil. “Ensign” John Ramsey has been assigned to the four-person crew as the new electronics officer. However, he really works for “BuPsych” and his true mission is to find out why the last electronics officer went insane. As if this weren’t tense enough, the failure rate of these missions is shockingly high, the insanity may be the commanding officer’s fault, a dead body is found on the sub, and the killer spy may be one of the crew.

In the course of the mission, Ramsey struggles with both wanting and not wanting to fit in, experiences debilitating fear, has several near-death experiences, and gets to know Engineering Officer Joe Garcia, First Officer Les Bonnet, and the overtly religious and rigidly self-controlled Commander Harvey Sparrow (whose last name is likely another Biblical reference). It culminates in his getting to know himself and learning something about the nature of the world and sanity within it.

This was serialized in late 1955 in Astounding as Under Pressure (which is a good title) and has been reprinted as 21st Century Sub (which is not) but its original book publication was as The Dragon in the Sea which is taken from Isaiah 27:1. (“In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea”.)

Though it took me awhile to get around to it, I was inspired to read it after re-reading Arthur C. Clarke’s excellent The Deep Range years ago and wanting another undersea adventure. That’s really about all the two have in common, though, with this being focused on religion and particularly Freudian psychology, though it does also have the nuts and bolts of existence in a sub in wartime. It has more in common with several of Herbert’s other books which have a psycho-religious focus but something that sets it apart is its style: Herbert’s often strikes me as clotted and heavy but this was pleasantly spare and straightforward. On the other hand, an annoying aspect of the book (perhaps meant to reflect a continuous and inescapable voyage) is that there are no chapters and not even all that many blank lines dividing sections. My main reaction is that, while I can’t wholeheartedly endorse the book as it is, I could endorse the novella it should have been. With four main characters, one main objective, and one main (though complex) theme, and an atmosphere of pressure, it would have worked superbly as a “Nerves”-like novella. As a novel, it took me a long time to read because it was very easy to put down, but it has its good parts and the ending is very compelling and provocative.

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