The Santaroga Barrier
by Frank Herbert

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Berkley: New York, 1968

255 pages August 2003

The safe embracing refuge

The sun went down as the five-year-old Ford camper-pickup truck ground over the pass and started down the long grade into Santaroga Valley. A crescent-shaped turn-off had been leveled beside the first highway curve. Gilbert Dasein pulled his truck onto the gravel, stopped at a white barrier fence and looked down into the valley whose secrets he had come to expose.

... There was a sense of quiet about the place, of an island sheltered by storms.

The Santaroga Valley is a Northern California enclave, rather like Shangri-La in James Hilton's Lost Horizon. Instead of monks isolated by distant and almost inaccessible mountains in High Central Asia, pleasant Santaroga is right down the highway, but mentally at one remove from the familiar American countryside. Physically, the little town is right there: you can drive through it, even stop to buy gas or a meal. But if you don't belong there, you should keep traveling on.

In his science fiction novel The Santaroga Barrier, Frank Herbert applies a different slant on psychoactive drugs than in his earlier Dune, written at the beginning of the 1960s. You may find this novel more pleasant on the surface. Santaroga we may interpret as Holy House — or perhaps Holy Coaxing as we shall see — and rather like Shangri-La it is a smallish community defined by tightly shared values, a refuge against the modern world and its materialistic distractions.

As in Eric Frank Russell's Sinister Barrier, Santaroga's protective barrier isn't a wall of any kind; ignore any book-cover illustrations which suggest a barrier that you can see. What a visitor notices if he tries to hang around, as university psychologist Gilbert Dasein attempts to, is a quiet hostility to outsiders, a social insularity that extends even to culture-lag. All businesses in the Santaroga Valley are locally owned. National marketing makes no impression on Santarogans. They do not own televisions.

The Jaspers cheese-trap

Yet Santaroga is not faraway Shangri-La, or Pitcairn Island that the Bounty mutineers found in the South Pacific. Physically in plain sight, but mentally, it's around a bend. The critical factor in Santaroga is the cheese, specifically the unique ingredient in Jaspers cheese. As Dasein enters the town,

His road wound upward beneath an arch:
"Santaroga, The Town That Cheese Built."

Jaspers cheese provides the defining and pervasive element, rather as townspeople in Medieval Europe might say that Christianity was the vital constituent of their lives. The psychoactive ingredient in Jaspers cheese provides to those who eat it, the mental and emotional sense of community, as Christian spirituality provided a time-and-space-and-all community in the High Middle Ages. The Jaspers Cheese Cooperative dominates Santaroga as a cathedral dominated its European town when its Christian world-view was taken for granted by almost all its inhabitants. Jaspers cheese has molded the inhabitants of Santaroga, and continues to do so. If you live in Santaroga, you will eat Jaspers cheese, and you will be a Santarogan.

All sane together: Being stifles Becoming

For Gilbert Dasein, this is a weirder challenge, and a more enticing opportunity, than he had imagined. There are physical dangers — the reclusive Santarogans are quite capable of using force — and eating Jaspers cheese sooner or later forces a scary mental and emotional transition. But the bait in the trap is the temptation to join the cozy, homey Santarogan life inside the communal barrier. To share in their warm and comfortable society, to be family, to belong. — Or stay in the outer world, the lonely and soulless society of isolates where one's point ultimate is a private indifference, as in Albert Camus' The Stranger.

So is becoming a Santarogan a sane thing to do? Would one still be oneself, still be sane by outer-world standards? Gilbert Dasein's name is a deliberate twist on that of Gilbert Gosseyn, hero of A. E. van Vogt's The World of Null-A. We may consider Null-A as a technique for individual sanity, antecedent to society's state of mind; while Santaroga's challenge is communal from the start, mutual awareness and partially shared sentience. You needn't go toward sanity, simply eat Jaspers and be.

Shared intoxicants, and conformity

In our world, decisions of conformity, whether deliberate, traditional, or subconscious, are taken all the time. There are a myriad of shared communities, many boundaried by clear biochemical rituals. (See Ceremonial Chemistry by Thomas Szasz.) For instance, drinking alcohol socially is commonly taken for granted. If you expect to join in grownup social fun, the high road is via beer or cocktails, whiskey or tequila, aligning your mood and consciousness with a transient community of intoxicators. A few alcoholic drinks, cheap wine or fancy brandy, and you're one of them. Party time.

But have you ever been at a party where someone wanted to fight with you because you weren't drinking? A friend, even? I have been, more than once; and that puts a stark illumination on the barrier ritual. Chemistry and ritual reinforce one another. But up to a certain point with most intoxicants you can pull back, walk away. Santaroga's discovery is more efficient, and warmly wholistic. Is the special mold in Jaspers cheese powering a chemical community-hug or a chemical straitjacket? Turn on, tune in, and drop in — to belong and to stay.

Come home to stay

The subtlety in the Jaspers cheese-trap is that Santaroga is not an Alice in Wonderland, topsy-turvy place full of Mad Hatters. If you grew up happy in a small American town or pleasant neighborhood (as I did), this is the place you could go back to, the good old place still unchanged — and you can belong even more thoroughly. If you didn't, but wish you had, come to Santaroga. At the hotel restaurant, ask for Jaspers cheese.


© 2003 Robert Wilfred Franson

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