Whipping Star by Frank Herbert
Whipping Star is one of Frank Herbert’s non-Dune books that Tor has been reprinting in recent years. This 1970 novel is the first full novel in the ConSentiency universe, which up to this point consisted of only two short stories. Both of them are contained in the collection Eye and may very well be included in other short fiction collections. Like these short stories, Whipping Star features the unusually observant BuSab agent Jorj X. McKie as a main character. This universe is also the setting of what I consider to be Herbert’s best non-Dune book: The Dosadi Experiment.
Whipping Star is a far-future science fiction. The universe contains many intelligent species and to govern them the ConSentiency has been created. This intergalactic government evolved into something of a nightmare. It grew to be frightfully effective, laws were conceived and passed at such speed that no proper though could be given to their need and the effects. To slow down the machinery, the Bureau of Sabotage, or BuSab, was created. Their motto: “In Lieu of Red Tape.” A quite unorthodox approach to checks and balances, but for the ConSientients it seems to work.
At the opening of the novel, McKie is called in to work on the case of the Calabans. Calabans are a rather mysterious group of sentient aliens but also of vital importance to the ConSentiency. When they first appeared in the ConSentiency, they introduced jumpdoors which allow almost instantaneously travel between two points in the galaxy, making even the fastest spaceships obsolete. Unfortunately the mind of the Calaban seems to be beyond human comprehension, and that of any other ConSentient for that matter. Nobody knows how the jumpdoors work or why the Calabans do what they do.
Now the Calabans are disappearing and they are leaving a trail of destruction behind. Every Sentient who has ever used the services of a Calaban either goes mad or dies when the Calaban disappears. With the ConSentiency completely dependent on their jumpdoors, that means just about anybody is at risk. The crises reaches a climax when the last Calaban around is found to be in the service of one of the richest women in the universe. Bound by a legal agreement, it serves as a subject for torture for its mistress’ entertainment. The Calaban — the creature introduces itself to McKie as Fanny May — is, in her own words, headed for ultimate discontinuity. Not that anyone really understands what that means, but if the most obvious meaning is correct, the universe is in trouble. It is up to McKie to figure out what makes the Fanny May tick, and how to prevent ultimate discontinuity.
Herbert usually puts a lot of scientific and philosophical ideas into his stories. Whipping Star, somewhat atypically for Herbert’s work, is mostly focused on communication and language. How do you communicate with an alien whose view on the universe is completely different from yours? Throughout the novel, agent McKie, who is considered very good at such things, is aware of the subtle differences between the species making up the ConSentiency. Language is a tricky thing; translating one culturally-loaded concept into another culture’s framework is never a precise fit, and the problems these differences cause can be lethal in some situations. Of course McKie’s problems with Fanny May go way beyond that. As one fine example of the problems McKie faces, here he is realizing what the Calaban’s interpretation of ‘going home’ is:
“About time you called,” McKie said.
“About time I called?”
“Well, you certainly must’ve gotten Furuneo’s message quite a …”
McKie felt as though his mind had touched a grinding wheel shooting off ideas like sparks. No message from Furuneo?
“Furuneo,” McKie said, “left here long enough ago to …”
“I’m calling,” Siker interrupted, “because there’s been no sign form either of you for too damn long, and Furuneo’s enforcers were worried. One of them… Where was Furuneo supposed to go and how?”
McKie felt an idea blossom in his mind. “Where was Furuneo born?”
The conversations between McKie and the Fanny May are probably the best part of Whipping Star. The reader has to work hard to follow them, though. Herbert managed to describe an entity whose thoughts are so alien that one wonders if Fanny May really is the creation of a human mind. I thought these passages where fascinating. There are readers who think Whipping Star spends too much time on these matters but, as far as I am concerned, Herbert put in enough adrenaline-fuelled, race-against-the-clock type of action to balance the more thoughtful parts of the novel. With Herbert’s focus on the communication/language theme, it is not quite as dense in ideas as some of his other books, making it a good place to start if you consider reading Herbert’s none-Dune works. I would recommend reading it before The Dosadi Experiment in any case. Even though they can be read independently, the first McKie novel gives away the ending of the second book. Besides, Whipping Star is a good way to ease into the the ConSentiency universe — not a bad thing considering the The Dosadi Experiment is a more densely written and challenging read.
I think Whipping Star is one of Herbert’s more interesting novels. It is not a very heavy read like some of his other works, but definitely worth my time. The short-tempered McKie makes for an interesting character. There are some parallels with Lewis Orne, main character in the novel The Godmakers, as well as a number of short stories, but McKie is much better developed. His humanity gives the reader a firm anchor in the ConSentiency, with its numerous alien characters. This universe may not have the epic scope of DUNE, but it is definitely worth looking into.
I enjoyed the Bureau of Sabotage stories that I have read, but I’ve missed this one. I’ll check it out.