The Santaroga Barrier


Frank Herbert is one of my heroes, for a number of reasons: his incredible commitment to portraying the whole ecology of a fictional environment, his sly allusions to philosophy, the overwhelming headiness of his work, his Northwest roots. This devotion, however, is entirely based on the commanding Dune series, which, as it has for many people, radically changed my approach to this genre; The Santaroga Barrier is the first non-Dune Herbert novel I’ve ever read.

The Santaroga Barrier is a Heideggerian trip steeped in a deep tradition of Pod People, Puppet Master, Freudian “uncanny,” Wicker Man, and Body Snatcher story archetypes: in a small town, everything seems normal, but something is undeniably off, otherworldly. In this case, it’s Santaroga, a Northern California valley town that resists outside influence with maddeningly self-satisfied intensity. Market researchers refer to it as the “Santaroga Barrier;” enter Gilbert Dasein, a psychologist sent to expose the real reason why outside businesses fail in the region and Santarogans never leave their valley. On arrival, Dasein finds out that he is only the most recent in a series of investigators, all of whom have died in bizarre, but explainable accidents. The vibe is tense, weird, and hyper-normal. People resist his inquiries at every turn. He finds himself acting irrationally, climbing onto the roof of his hotel and sneaking through factories in the dead of night, fueled by a creeping sensation of something wrongness. Quickly, he discovers “Jaspers,” an additive in all Santarogan food; Jaspers is a consciousness-enhancing drug, fungal in nature, which makes all Santarogans creepily alert and fosters some kind of subconscious group mind. Dasein begins to narrowly avoid fatal accidents, one after another, and finds that his presence as an outsider has offended the group mind, the communal id, of Santaroga: he must integrate, or be killed unwittingly.

Santaroga itself is an enticing community (“we take care of our own,” everyone says) and integration presents a significant dilemma. Would Dasein be happy to tune in and drop out forever, lulled by the Jaspers into a communal small-town life, or can he hold out long enough to return to “reality,” a world of pronounced individualism? As the novel progresses, we begin to lose steam, forget the benefits of the real outside world — I don’t think I would have lasted a day in the Santaroga valley.

The notion of a consciousness-enhancing drug is evidently an obsession of Frank Herbert’s, and it’s not difficult to see traces of Dune’s “The Spice” in the “Jaspers” of the Santaroga valley. Here is a society entirely controlled by a single rare and dangerous psychoactive. The question for me is, was Frank Herbert exploiting a late-60s fascination with psychedelia in order to sell books which were essentially about Being and transcendence, ecology and human evolution; or was he just really into acid?

My bet is on the former. The drug, be it Jaspers, Spice, or LSD, seems to be just a physical justification — a tool — for philosophical inquiry; Herbert named the Santaroga drug after Karl Jaspers, a German psychiatrist who wrote that all individual authenticity required a joining with the “transcendent other,” traditionally God, but which, in The Santaroga Barrier, is something else entirely, the communal identity, the Being.

The distinction between the outside world and the world of Santaroga is one of beings and Being. In Gilbert Dasein’s outside life, he is one of many beings, with individual needs and desires; in Santaroga, however, he tastes the Jaspers and begins to understand himself as part of something larger, as part of Being itself, the “transcendent other,” of Karl Jaspers. To boot, Gilbert Dasein himself is named after a term from Heidigger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), in which we find a very Santarogan definition of existence: “‘Being’ is not something like a being… Being is what determines beings as beings, that in terms of which beings are already understood.”


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3 Responses to The Santaroga Barrier

  1. This sounds great. Was it before or after Dune?

  2. Claire Evans says:

    After, actually! 1968!

  3. Paul Galfano says:

    Good analysis. Herbert showing displaying his kee interest in psychology, and continuing with the whole economy/ecology trick of Dune, except with a little more small town/American thrown in. In “Santaroga,” Herbert is marking time, stopping off at the little town around 1967-68, between Dune novels. Nothing great, but – – being Frank Herbert – – always interesting and worthwhile.Best,Gil Dasein (Paul Galfano)

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