Brief book review: Whipping Star – Frank Herbert

McKie began reflecting on his role of sentiency. Once, long centuries past, con-sentients with a psychological compulsion to ‘do good’ had captured the government. Unaware of the writhing complexities, the mingled guilts and self-punishments, beneath their compulsion, they had eliminated virtually all delays and red tape from government. the great machine with its blundering power over sentient life had slipped into high gear, had moved faster and faster. Laws had been conceived and passed in the same hour. Appropriations had flashed into being and were spent in a fortnight. New bureaus for the most improbably purposes had leaped into existence and proliferated like some insane fungus.

Government had become some great destructive wheel without a governor, whirling with such frantic speed that it spread chaos wherever it touched.

In desperation, a handful of sentients had conceived the Sabotage Corps to slow down that wheel. There had been bloodshed and other degrees of violence, but the wheel had been slowed. In time, the Corps had become a Bureau, and the Bureau was whatever it was today – an organisation headed into its own corridors of entropy, a group of sentients who preferred subtle diversion to violence… but were prepared for violence when the need arose.

Whipping Star – Frank Herbert

Whipping star: 3 out of 5 stars

Whipping star was picked up in a second hand store. An impulse purchase; I’m a big fan of Herbert’s Dune series, and have enjoyed the first two books of the Pandora Sequence (reviews are here and here).  This one was ok – it’s a solid sci-fi book, but didn’t rock me.

Like (I suspect) all Herbert books, this one has a strong theme; Frank isn’t subtle and he has a tendency to constantly raise the theme throughout the book. In this one, the theme was about communication – specifically the difficulties of communication between humanity and other similarly focused sentient species with the Calebans – ‘aliens’ who present as vague shifting colours and heat, whose speech is more like radiation, and who have difficulty in understanding the same frames of reference for reality. The Calebans are responsible for bringing instant teleportation to the universe via the S’eye door system, but due to the communication difficulties, no-one has ever figured out how the system works.

The story is based around one man’s (McKie) desperate effort to communicate with the last Caleban and hopefully save its life, which is under threat from an unfathomably wealthy and incredibly sadistic woman. The Caleban has entered into a poor contract with the woman – in exchange for learning, the woman is allowed to have the Caleban whipped – eventually to its death. Unfortunately, if the last Caleban dies, so does every single sentient who has ever used the S’eye door system; essentially every sentient creature in the galaxy.

This is a fine science fiction story that I suspect lots of people will enjoy more than I did. For me, too much was taken up with the difficult conversations with the Caleban, meaning loads of nonsensical or complex sentences and frustration on the part of the other sentients. I like the idea of nearly insurmountable conversation barriers between us and aliens, but personally I think this would have been better served by a short story (and this wasn’t long at only 222 pages). It’s a theme that isn’t as powerful or interesting as those running through Dune or the Pandora Sequence novels.

I was disappointed that the Bureau of Sabotage (BuSab) wasn’t explored in more detail. The quote above is from very early in the book, and sounds almost like a parody of an extremist libertarian view – an effective and efficient government is a terrible thing and must be fought against. Its a funny concept, and I wondered if this book was originally intended to be humorous. I’d read a whole series about this sort of institution working both within and against government to keep it from getting powerful – its a cynical and clever take. But shortly after the ideas are introduced the BuSab seemed indistinguishable from any other investigative organisation. It was basically just a galactic FBI.

I also found this book borderline sexist (and I’m not particularly sensitive to it) – there are two identifiable female characters I can remember from this book, a Bureau of Sabotage agent who is present for all of three paragraphs (I recall she was attractive) and the main villain, who disappointing. This supposedly incredibly rich and powerful woman seemed weak, insipid, vain, and entirely reliant on her aide, who I consider the actual bad guy here as he seems to really drive the action forward.

I thought the book was solid, but its probably just for your serious Herbert fans. There is a second book set in this universe, the Dosadi Experiment – reviews suggest this is a much better book, so I shall keep my eyes out for it.

Cheers

KT

If you are interested in other books I have read and reviewed, please check out my Bibliophagy page.

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