Frank Herbert’s first novel has been published under three different titles. The least common, “21st Century Sub”, would have given it an SF branding, since it was published in 1956, but its otherwise pretty bland. This was the title of the first paperback version. The title “Under Pressure” puts it more in the realm of mystery or thriller, de-emphasizing the science fiction element, which is after all not that prominent to begin with. Interesting since this is the title under which it first saw print, when it was serialized in Astounding magazine. The most frequently used title, “Dragon in the Sea”, a biblical reference that seems to bear only a tenuous connection to the story, makes at least by modern standards sound more like a fantasy novel. But this is the title that was used in the first edition hardcover, and is used in current printings today. These varying titles to promote the same thing show the inherent difficulty in categorizing this novel.
Everything Herbert published outside of the Dune universe must inevitably be compared to Dune. Arguably no other SF writer has had such a seminal work come seemingly out of left-field, and been burdened so much by its success. All of Herbert’s subsequent work that wasn’t Dune related was largely ignored, and even his subsequent Dune books were more controversial, as they became more introspective and less plot-driven. So Dragon in the Sea is the only novel Herbert published prior to Dune, and gives us some sense of where he was looking for ideas before the Dune universe took over his career.
The year of Dragon in the Sea is approximately 2030, which makes sense when you consider that is about 75 years in the future from the time it was published. This is sufficiently near future that technology, politics and human interaction are still recognizable. The Dragon in question is the 21st century sub of the original title, a nuclear submarine (actually named “Ram”), and an undercover mission to tap into enemy underwater oil fields. This book was published only a year or two after the Nautilus became the first nuclear powered submarine. I hadn’t really thought about it before as to why submarines needed to be nuclear powered, but the whole idea was a fuel source that did not require oxygen to burn. This allowed the submarine to stay submerged for weeks at a time, which it only needed to do if it was sneaking around in places it wasn’t supposed to be. Russia has ended up with more of a nuclear sub fleet than theUS ever had, and as a result has also had the preponderance of sub accidents over the years. But a futuristic novel set on a nuclear sub can take care of several story elements at once: the close quarters of working there, as well as a necessarily small cast (although a real sub has more than 5 people on it, I would expect); the whole nuclear thing, with the specter of radiation a constant threat; and then the espionage plot of skulking about the sea floor trying not to be noticed by the enemy.
Herbert puts all of these elements to good use, starting with a convincing command of submarine technology. I have no idea whether any of the submarine controls he describes exists, or ever existed, but there’s no reason to doubt his descriptions. Obviously from a 1950’s point of view there are no computers controlling anything, so the complex mechanical nature of the submarine means there is always a lot to keep track of, and any number of things that can go wrong, and the point is made clear that anything that goes wrong on a submarine is potentially fatal. There are many things about working on a submarine that I hadn’t thought about, such as a certain amount of pitch and roll as the sub navigates through the sea, as well as the different currents it can encounter at different depths that can affect its navigability. In many respects, the book is really a series of crises that the submarine crew must deal with, many of them having to do with either eluding detection by enemy subs and/or dealing with radiation leaks or the bends. Herbert doesn’t worry too much about conveying a sense of claustrophobia, there is too much for the crew to do.
The plot involves an illicit retrieval of crude oil from enemy territory, which is stowed in a giant bladder that the sub tows back to its underground port. The part of the story where this actually happens doesn’t take up that much space; Herbert doesn’t seem that interested in the mechanics of portable underwater oil drilling, probably because its not that plausible. But also its because this isn’t really the plot anyway. The newest member of the crew, Ramsey, has been sent by the Bureau of Psychology to determine who on board is a secret agent, and at the same time psycho-analyzing the captain, Sparrow, to determine how submarine commanders function. Herbert’s own interest in psychology is plainly evident as a result, and this prefigures Dune as well as elevates the story beyond a basic submarine thriller. Most of the text is dialog, and while you don’t get into every character’s head there are definitely some indications of Herbert’s signature devices of internal monologue, including thinking one thing and saying another. There are only two other crew members, Garcia and Bonnett, as the fifth member, Heppner, is found dead of radiation poisoning shortly after the mission begins. So the number of possible suspects for the enemy mole is fairly small, but Ramsey seems more interested in keeping his own ulterior motive secret than in determining who the mole really is.
One failing of this book has to be that the characters are too undifferentiated. Given the level of psychological insight Herbert brings to the story, this seems to be just because of his own inexperience. All the pieces are there, and by the end of the story you know who is who, but there could have been a lot more done with them. This is not at all unusual in SF of the 50’s, but somewhat surprising given what was to come in Dune. 75 years in the future, there are still no women on the sub or anywhere in the military command structure. The 50’s also reflects on the author’s attitude towards radiation, as something that is deadly only if you don’t get treated for exposure quickly enough, otherwise its just a nuisance. One crew member is given multiple blood transfusions to flush radiation from his system, while at the same time receiving a shot of morphine to ease the pain (wouldn’t the morphine get transfused out with the blood?). In less dire circumstances they just take shots to offset the radiation’s effects, and expect to feel unwell for a few hours or days.
Most of this is merely unfairly judging the book by today’s standards. What’s really interesting about the characters centers on their overtly Christian religious beliefs, something you rarely see in novels of this era. Herbert postulates that these people who must live so much of their lives in constant survival mode must need a strong religious underpinning to get them through, and part of Ramsey’s findings involves trying to play up this religious conviction for the sake of future missions. It seems that submarines must operate at least in some part on faith, so the more faith a crew member has the better.
Herbert also plays around with the notion of sanity, questioning what it means to be sane, whether a submarine captain can be considered sane by conventional standards, and whether a submarine is essentially its own reality where different qualifications are required that don’t correspond to the normal world. He also tries to make connections between the submarine leaving its underground port and the act of giving birth. Both of these ideas are interesting, but not really developed or resolved enough in the end.
The secret agent is ultimately revealed, without much foreshadowing that I could see, although his motivations are disappointingly pedestrian. Herbert only plays around with the prose style in one section where Ramsey has been exposed to radiation, but I’d hardly call it New Wave. In the edition I read, there are no chapters at all, just one continuous narrative; I’m not sure I agree with that decision, as it makes the constant succession of crises seem a bit monotonous after a while. But on the whole this is a very compelling story, not too long, with a small cast that makes it easy for the reader to fit right into the submarine setting, with just enough psychological insight to keep it interesting both for its own sake and as a precursor to Herbert’s most celebrated work in Dune.