Hellhole by Kevin J. Anderson & Brian Herbert
After a failed rebellion against the corrupt regime of the Constellation (an interstellar empire that spans dozens of worlds) General Tiber Adolphus is exiled to the newly colonized and extremely hostile planet of Hallholme. Because of the harsh conditions of this world, it is quickly awarded a nickname: Hellhole. His rebellion may have failed, but Adolphus still commands the loyalty of much of the population. Despite attempts by the ruler of the Constellation, Diadem Michella Duchenet, to make sure his attempt to settle Hallholme fails, he survives the first years there. Now, more than a decade later, Adolphus is at the point where he once again has the support and resources to undertake action against the tyrant Duchenet. And this time he means to succeed.
Hellhole is without a doubt, one of the worst books I’ve read in the past few years. Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert manage to paint just about every character in the book in black and white, starting from the very beginning. The prologue chronicles the final confrontation in Adolphus’ rebellion and outlines the general as a noble victim of circumstances rising against the tyranny of a corrupt and decadent empire. He refuses to fire on the people being used as a human shield by the empire, thereby losing the final battle. Apparently Adolphus, a man who’s had leadership thrust upon him, neither foresaw nor planned for this desperate tactic of the empire. Although he keeps the moral high ground, he also fails his people miserably by allowing his revolution to collapse in a single blow. Adolphus is heroic, noble, and holds to impeccable moral standards, but nowhere in the novel is he actually seen to inspire the loyalty he seems to command. In short, he is a cardboard character and one of many in the novel.
I guess you could see this tale as a retelling of the American Revolution. A corrupt empire is burdening its colonies with unrealistically high taxes, refuses to listen to the arguments of the colonists, and uses the taxes mostly to support their luxurious lifestyle and support a large and mostly superfluous military machine. To complete the moral bankruptcy of the empire, it is revealed to be rather wasteful with its excess of noble-born children. On the other hand, the rebels strive for self-determination, a meritocracy, and above all, a chance to properly develop their planets. To remove any moral ambiguity that might be left, the natives of the planet Adolphus colonizes have already been removed centuries earlier. They perished in a catastrophic meteor strike.
One of the attractions of Hellhole was that Herbert and Anderson were striking out on their own instead of working in the Dune universe. Much to my dismay, Hellhole borrows quite heavily from Dune. There is the harsh environment of the planet (a feature found in several Frank Herbert novels; besides Dune it appears in The Dosadi Experiment and several books in the Destination: Void universe), a corrupt and stagnating empire run along feudal lines and lacking any outside threat, and of course the one noble in the empire who has understood the meaning of the concept and actually takes proper care of his people. All things considered, Herbert and Anderson seem to be reluctant to let go of a proven formula for success.
The spice in Hellhole is not a drug but a substance that allows interstellar transport. It is a mineral that can only be mined in meaningful quantities from one planet in the empire and is used to mark paths through space: an interplanetary trail of breadcrumbs, safe passages where spaceships can reach enormous speeds and thus cross vast distances in practical time spans. Apparently in the Herbert and Anderson universe, planets don’t move relative to each other. Not surprisingly, the planet where this stuff is mined is subject of a lot of scheming and intrigue. Herbert and Anderson also wonder what would happen if the monopoly on interstellar transport would be broken (this is not actually in Dune but one of Frank Herbert’s later Dune books). At one point, I wondered if all Herbert and Anderson meant to do with Hellhole was mix Frank Herbert’s concepts up a bit, since the inclusion of an alien civilization is one of the few elements not borrowed from Dune.
Perhaps it was a bit too much to hope for a fresh start from these two writers but I certainly hadn’t expected them to come up with something that’s so derivative. That being said, it is not a completely boring read. Herbert and Anderson sacrifice a lot of character development and world building, electing instead to flit from planet to planet and character to character in order to keep up the relentless pace of the story. We’re shown the bare outlines of what is going on, usually with enough history of the character to determine whether we’re dealing with a good or a bad guy, but not much beyond. I really can’t find many redeeming qualities in this novel. I suppose that if you are looking for mindless entertainment this novel might be palatable. For me, it was a major disappointment.
Well, it’s my opinion that Brian Herbert is not a good writer, but I thought Kevin Anderson might have saved him. Looks like that didn’t happen.
Hmm, Anderson strikes me as someone who prefers quantity over quality but I never read anything by him he didn’t write with Herbert.
In some ways this book was so hilariously bad I’m almost tempted to recommend it, if only for the magic aliens who were too stupid to notice the extinction event asteroid barreling down onto their world.