Saturday, February 11, 2006

7. Whipping Star by Frank Herbert

Whipping Star pictureGot a nice old paperback copy of this as a birthday gift. I've read Dune and quite enjoyed it but didn't have much of an overall understanding of Frank Herbert. Whipping Star started out like a classic of 60s sci-fi (silver age?), with a lone male character in a situation, using a language style very much from that period. However, quite quickly, it heads into a pretty bizarre metaphysical direction. It spends most of the time there. There is a plot about the end of all living creatures and it does come up with some narrative tension at the end, but really most of the book is about species trying to communicate with other species whose perspectives and existences are so different that they barely have a frame of reference to compare anything.

I know I'm sounding really vague, but it's hard to explain Whipping Star because the plot is contingent on so many ideas. Very basically, the galaxy is full of civilizations that use these jump doors to hop from planet to planet. Nobody really understands how they work. The jump doors were introduced by the Calebans, creatures that live in these metal beachballs and are so mysterious that you can't even sense them properly. The Calebans are disappearing and the last one is discovered by the protagonist, who learns that an evil woman is flogging it (for her own bizarre reasons) and every time it's flogged, it slowly weakens. When it finally "dies" (though it calls it "discontinues" and it means something very different), anyone who has ever used a jump door will die, because of some previously unknown connection between the jump doors and the existence of the Caleban. Thus, the end of most of the sentient world.

The protagonist McKie, an agent from the Bureau of Sabotage (a whole other thing to explain!) must try to communicate with this Caleban, who barely understands human existence and is only just learning to communicate, find out why it is being flogged and stop it before the world is over. So you can see there is a very high-level plot. But most of the book is McKie talking to the Caleban. It's such a different and theoretical world, and there is no real character development, that I found myself a bit removed from the process. This is not to be critical, because I think Herbert intended this book to be an exploration of these ideas and he didn't want to spend a lot of time and effort on those more lower narrative elements. It's a book for people who like interesting ideas of the way species could interact.

There is also not tons of explanation of the world, giving you the sense that Herbert had thought a lot of it out already. It turns out that this is part of a mini series of books all taking place in the same universe. Two short stories and another longer novel called The Dosadi Experiment, which I also got with Whipping Star. I'm intrigued enough to see how the longer book develops this pretty wild setup.


Unknown said...

Frank Herbert has lots of respect in the classic scifi community but I have never really read much of his stuff.

The way you describe the vagueness turns me off a little but if I had to describe the world of IM Banks it might be the same.

Thanks for the review!

Crumbolst said...

Sounds interesting but I tend to want a good deal of lower narrative elements.

What is that on the cover?