Sidney’s Comet by Brian Herbert
A lot of Brian Herbert‘s bibliography consists of collaborations with other authors. There is Man of Two Worlds, written in collaboration with his father Frank Herbert, the Dune sequels, written with Kevin J. Anderson, and a couple of books written with Marie Landis. I haven’t read Man of Two Worlds yet, although I do own a copy signed by Brian Herbert. I have read a stack of the Dune sequels, which range from entertaining to horrible, and I can’t say I liked Hellhole, set in a universe created by Herbert and Anderson, a whole lot. I did like the bibliography Dreamer of Dune, on the other hand. All in all, a bit of a mixed record, so I wanted to read one of Herbert’s books that he wrote solo to see what he is capable of.
Sidney’s Comet (1983) is Brian Herbert’s first novel. Herbert had written two non-fiction books before that of which I know nothing other than the titles. This novel is set in a far future where the world is divided in three nations. One of the three lives by the creed of a prophet known as Uncle Rosie, who advocates extreme levels of consumption and full employment to combat all problems of society. The mountains of garbage that are created by this rabid consumer society are deposed of by simply slinging it into space. One day a comet is spotted on a direct collision course with Earth. It appears to be made up of all the garbage that has been flung into space over the course of the centuries. The government denies its very existence, but behind the scenes, a plan is worked out to deal with the threat.
Herbert is clearly aiming for satire with this novel. His economic system is completely absurd and the author uses it to create a string of humourous scenes. The entire economy is run by the state, which arranges for full employment. Any activity that can be taken over by a product (which, in turn, allows for more jobs to be created) is discouraged. This includes such basic things as walking. Exercise is only encouraged in government-run fitness facilities. Jobs are cut into tiny pieces to allow as many people as possible to have a job, and a sprawling system of government bureaus, each with their own procedures and miles of red tape, have been established. What I found interesting about his economic system is that it can be read as social commentary on the materialistic 1980s US society as well as a condemnation of the failing planned economy that existed in the USSR at the time. Herbert seems to have combined the evils of both to come up with this scenario.
Economics are fused with religion in Sidney’s Comet. Uncle Rosie, the man who founded the current system, is worshiped and his writings are held sacred. The idea that consuming makes one happy and free is a key element in this way of thinking. It goes so far as to say there is no higher honour than to die as a result of product failure. In fact, products are designed to fail at multiple points so they can be replaced and thus offer more jobs to be filled. To die as a result of product failure guarantees a place in the happy shopping ground. It’s a ridiculous concept, but people appear to buy it (no pun intended).
The main character of the novel is, fittingly, an anti-hero. Sidney’s the biggest loser you could ever come across in science fiction. He’s overweight from overconsumption and a passive lifestyle, has a girlfriend who only keeps him around until something better comes along, has fantasies of being an astronaut that have come to nothing, and a meaningless job in a government agency that processes forms for reasons unknown to any of the characters. In other words, not someone you’d want to trade places with. He is pretty mercilessly mocked throughout the novel but is only partly aware of it. I suppose he is the right character for this kind of novel but I can’t say I enjoyed reading his sections very much.
The novel contains so many impossibilities and absurdities that the only way for it to work is for the satire to grab the reader. For me, it didn’t. I got the impression that Herbert was aiming at something of a cross between Kafka and the kind of humour his father employed in his novelette “The Tactful Saboteur”, maybe with a little Douglas Adams thrown in for good measure. The fact is that most of the book isn’t funny enough to pull this off. For most of the novel the exaggeration and ridicule is there, all right, but the comical element that would have turned it into a good satire failed. Maybe Herbert was shooting at too many targets. Religion, capitalism, consumerism, government, democracy… he takes on quite a lot. Sidney’s Comet is an ambitious debut, I have to give him that, but in the end I didn’t think it was a very good read.
As I was reading your review I kept thinking of the movie “Wall-E.” And I thought all the space-garbage was going to slow down the comet, but Herbert saw his way around that one.
Whereas I kept thinking of the Futurama episode “A Big Piece of Garbage,” in which Earth is threatened by a giant ball of garbage!
Yes, that works too. (I don’t watch Futurama.)