Like Leonard Nimoy who despite everything else he has done or tried to do, will still be known as Spock to the day of his death, Frank Herbert was known primarily for one thing, Dune. Nevertheless Frank Herbert authored a variety of other novels, all reflecting his preoccupation with the idea that the environment shapes humans, an idea that also underlay Dune. For the most part these novels such as The Dosadi Experiment, The White Plague or Whipping Star never enjoyed much public attention.
Paradoxically some of Herbert’s novels such as The White Plague or The Santaroga Barrier were far more mainstream than the exotic environments and characters of Dune. The Santaroga Barrier in particular is a fairly mainstream thriller with the usual 60’s preoccupation with mind expanding drugs and cloyingly isolated small towns. Herbert of course overlays this premise with his own preoccupation with ecology, but though ecology shaping humanity is a major factor in the premise, it is rarely spelled out in any way that makes sense.
The basic plot of The Santaroga Barrier involves Dr. Gilbert Dasein, a social scientist and psychologist hired by a network of mall operators to find out what is going on in Santaroga and why no one there will do business in their stores or with outsiders in general and why no one from the valley permanently leaves. Several previous investigators have already died on the job, but Dr. Dasein has an advantage, his recent ex-girlfriend Jenny is a resident there.
Naturally as in most of these thrillers, Dasein makes an incredible pest of himself even as the residents there attempt to bring him into the fold. He winds up unconscious almost a dozen times in the fairly short novel and repeatedly finds his way to hospital beds. The secret turns out to involve a special fungus referred to as Jaspers’, being added to all the food, which fosters a kind of collective consciousness that includes a limited form of telepathy or empathy and clarity of thought along with the occasional psychedelic hallucination. Meanwhile accidents by a kind of communal collective consciousness continue stalking Dasein. By the end Dr. Dasein has undergone a Big Brotherish metamorphosis on taking a sizable amount of Jaspers and himself participates in the ‘accidental’ death of Dr. Salvador, his teacher.
By the end Frank Herbert has failed to explain much about Jaspers or even the condition of the people in the Santaroga Valley or the dark monster that Dasein occasionally sees within his subconscious. Instead he leaves us with the mildly haunting image of Dasein looking forward to his beautiful life with Jenny in the Santaroga Valley.