Whipping Star by Herbert, Frank, 1970

Whipping Star by Herbert, Frank

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Springing forth as a continuation of two tales written early in Herbert's career, A Matter of Traces and The Tactful Saboteur, the ConSentiency tales tell the story of one of the author's best known characters, Jorg X. McKie. This week's review is of the first of two ConSentiency novels, Whipping Star, a rollicking detective story that relies heavily on discussions on the nature of intelligence, particularly the intelligence of other races, and general semantics theory. As Herbert's non-Dune novels go the ConSentiency are generally regarded as the most accessible; a sentiment I agree wholeheartedly with. Those of you who have read Herbert's Dune but nothing more and are intimidated by his reputation for producing dense philosophical ruminations, these novels (especially this one) and his short story collections are excellent starting points for the rest of the author's oeuvre.

The ConSentiency is a universal government of the far future composed of multiple sentient races, of which humanity is a member. The government, despite its enormous reach, had evolved to become so efficient that an unusual infrastructure was produced to control it.

(T)he 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 sent in a fortnight. New bureaus for the most improbable purposes had leaped into existence and proliferated like some insane fungus.

Society obviously needed a mechanism of control for such an efficient government, as governmental actors are just as capable of delivering tyranny as they are good governmental services. Imagine what a nightmare a highly efficient and tyrannical government would be, and the need for some sort of protection should be fairly obvious. The Bureau of Sabotage or "BuSab," was conceived as a check to the uncontrolled ability of government to outstrip even the fastest sentient mind. The Bureau was given jurisdiction only to slow governmental processes by whatever means necessary, and whatever tools available to it under the laws of the ConSentiency. The Bureau was revealed to the citizens of the ConSentiency in The Tactful Saboteur, where it was also demonstrated that those who run it and work for it were men and women with unwavering senses of duty, unshakable morals and unimpeachable integrity. Jorg X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinaire, embodied all of those laudable qualities in a hideously fat, stout and ugly body. As the story begins we learn that McKie has been assigned the task of finding out what has been happening to the members of a race called the Caleban. Only 83 members of the race were known to the ConSentiency, but their importance to the survival of the culture of sentient races could not be understated. The Caleban had an ultra-high biological technology that allowed them to make "jumpdoors," or portals to other parts of the universe. In short, they were living platforms for instantaneous transmittal/teleportation. The Calebans gave jumpdoors in large numbers to The ConSentiency, and as a result the society became highly centralized. Entire planets dedicated themselves to single projects or industries, such as automobile manufacture, or skiing, because jumpdoors allow anyone to jump in a moment without cost. Even the BuSab had its own single administrative planet. People have taken jumpdoors for granted, and society developed unique approaches based solely on their existence.

During his investigation McKie learned that all but one of the Caleban were dead. As the prior 82 known Caleban died the psychic shock that accompanied their deaths killed thousands and thousands of sentient beings across the universe. The BuSab feared what would happen as more of them died, so Bildoon, Busab's supervisor, assigned McKie to find out what was going on. McKie also learned that an extremely wealthy criminal, Lady Mliss Abnethe, had hired the last known Caleban and now effectively owned the "S'eye" jumpdoor that it could create with its mind (the Caleban can make and distribute jumpdoors, but they also have an innate ability to jump things without that equipment). McKie had been trying for years to meet Mliss' Caleban without success. Nobody had actually ever seen a real Caleban; only spoon-shaped avatars that they used to communicate with other sentients and the "beachball" spheres that those avatars travelled around in. One evening McKie received a call from a BuSab station chief on a distant, back-water planet called Cordiality. A dented and shoddy looking beachball craft had washed ashore on a beach there. McKie went to Cordiality immediately and gained access to the beachball. Inside he and the station chief, Furuneao, met and spoke with Mliss' Caleban, who called herself Fannie Mae.

The Caleban confirmed that she was the last survivor of her race, and that she was bound to Mliss by a contract that allowed Mliss' minions to whip her frequently. Mliss was a convicted and rehabilitated criminal and a sexual deviant. She had been convicted of beating other sentients during her kinky games, and was sentenced to under go aversion therapy as part of her rehabilitation. Despite strong aversions to causing any creature pain, Mliss could justify having the Caleban whipped because Caleban did not experience pain; thus Mliss could satisfy her sexual cravings without driving herself mad. The Caleban told McKie that even though it felt no pain, the whippings were taking their toll. The Caleban was at risk of dying. Concerned for the well being of the Caleban and willing to help if he could, McKie soon learned that another reason existed for stopping Mliss: The S'eye technology that ran the jumpdoors did something to sentients whenever they used it. As sentients travelled through the jumpdoors something inside them changed that forever after bound them to the Caleban. If the race of Caleban ever died, any sentient in the universe who had ever used a jumpdoor would die too! Since Fannie Mae was the sole surviving Caleban that meant that just about every sentient creature in the universe would perish if she was killed.

Fannie Mae was weakened to near death when McKie found her, so she stayed where she was on Cordiality for the entire book. McKie, on the other hand, spent the rest of the book jumping from planet to planet gathering evidence as he tried to make sense of Mliss's plot and find out where she was operating from. He also spent a lot of time talking with Fannie Mae, trying to figure out how to stop the mass deaths from occurring if the Caleban died. He soon found out that Mliss was opening jumpdoors so that her masochistic hirelings, the Palenki, could whip the Caleban from their home base. McKie alerted all of the section heads of the BuSab so that they could put their heads together and stop Mliss. McKie tried to get the Caleban to tell him what was going on, but it was honor bound to restrain from any breach of the contract at all, so it couldn't. Long passages of the book were dedicated to McKie's conversations with Fannie Mae, and his attempts to make sense of what she said to him.

"Abnethe offered you something of value, Fannie Mae?"

"I offer judgment," the Caleban said. "Abnethe may not be judged friendly-good-nice-kindly . . . acceptable."

"Is that . . . your judgment?" McKie asked.

"Your species prohibits flagellation of sentients," the Caleban said. "Fannie Mae orders me flagellated."

"Why don't you . . . just refuse?" McKie asked.

"Contract obligation," the Caleban said.

"Contract obligation," McKie muttered, glancing at Furuneo, who shrugged.

"Ask where she goes to be flagellated," Furuneo said.

"Flagellation comes to me," the Caleban said.

"By flagellation, you mean you're whipped," McKie said.

"Explanation of whipping describes production of froth," the Caleban said. "Not proper term. Abnethe orders me flogged."

"That thing talks like a computer," Furuneo said.

"Let me handle this," McKie ordered.

"Computer describes mechanical device," the Caleban said. "I live."

"He meant no insult," McKie said.

"Insult not interpreted."

"Does the flogging hurt you?" McKie asked.

"Explain hurt,"

"Cause you discomfort?

"References recalled. Such sensations explained. Explanations cross no connectives."

In fact, much of the resolution of the story turns on what the Caleban is trying to say to McKie. It makes constant references to "connectives," which does nothing but confuse other sentients. But by examining other sentient races who use energy in similar ways to the Caleban, such as the Beautybarbers, who can alter any other sentient's appearance, and the Taprsiotas, who act as telephone operators that can put one mind in communication with another over intergalactic distances, he figured out that the Caleban was trying to tell him that they accessed "spiderwebs" of connectivity between different places in space/time, not merely in space alone. After further investigation McKie learned that Mliss and her compatriot Cheo (who was really in control) believed that Fannie Mae has created them a solar system outside of the space/time that our universe occupies, and that when the last Caleban died all sentients would also die except for them and the occupants of a few Neolithic villages they founded on their planet to produce a future stream of torture victims.

The story is resolved after McKie, who has resolved every other mystery that has presented itself, resolved the final one. He learned that the Caleban exist in our dimension as stars; actually, stars are the digestive system only. Fannie Mae actually was an avatar for a sentient star in the Pleiades called Thyone. McKie figured out that what was killing the Caleban was not a consequence of repeated physical beatings, but instead the destructive emotions in the mind of the Caleban's torturers. Being that the Caleban were "creatures of pure emotion," any manifestation of emotion near them had an effect on their health. Fannie Mae had fallen in love with McKie, and McKie returns that love to strengthen the Caleban. He also opened up a jumpdoor on to feed Thyone with hydrogen. In literally the final moments before her death, Fannie Mae grew strong again: McKie saved her life. Shocked at his defeat, Cheo killed Mliss, only to realize that they were not in another dimension, but only on a planet that was the creation of Mliss' imagination. Once she died the dimension ceased to exist and everyone in it died too.

Certainly Whipping Star is plot intensive, but that is not the only thing it has going for it. Herbert's specialty is in designing playgrounds for the mind, and this novel certainly is a fertile playground, but its strongest element has to be the characterization of McKie and to a lesser degree the characterization of the other BuSab agents. These creatures serve as a wish-fulfillment vehicle of sorts for Herbert, if one is to gauge that potential on the content of his other writings. It is a governmental agency that is dedicated to its charge, staffed with honorable, brilliant and capable men and women, all of whom were practically incorruptible. Ordinarily characters whose traits are expressed as extremes, much as I just did with McKie's, turn me off. But not Frank Herbert's characters. A lot of Herbert's career was spent in a prolonged literary examination the costs of a charismatic and competent leader. When he wrote of one who has those qualities yet exercised restraint in their application it comes off as the real deal. Consider Mliss' conversation in private with Furuneo as evidence of that; Mliss offered Furuneo a chance to go back in time to live with his now-deceased wife; a beautiful soul-mate who died before her time. Furuneo was of course tempted to jump, but once he thought about it he realized that he would be unable to abide with himself if he allowed Mliss to destroy every sentient race in the universe, and suspected that his wife will feel the same way. When he refused he was murdered by Cheo, passing up a chance at recapturing happiness for a cold death.

McKie's task in Whipping Star is to solve several mysteries, and to overcome himself and his own limitations so that he can communicate effectively with the Caleban. The latter is no small task, and the former is accomplished only in fits and starts. McKie is held back by his feelings for other people and sentients. He knows no love, though its not for lack of searching. McKie had been married many times at the start of the novel, presumably for a variety of reasons, though one may assume he has become a major cynic because of the circumstances of his last marriage. In his search for the last Caleban McKie learned that one of Mliss' friends was available, so he swooped in, courted her and married her so that he could better arrange a meeting with Mliss and the Caleban. His wife turned out to be too smart for him. She divorced him once she suspected ulterior motives and McKie just moved on, perturbed but apparently none the worse for wear. But one of the factors in the relationship between Fannie Mae and McKie was love; the Caleban, for reasons of its own, loved McKie, and in the end McKie grew to love it. The love was not only nourishing, but it bridged the slight remaining communication gap that McKie and Fannie Mae just could not cross together.

Like I said above, if you are looking to get into some non-Dune works by Herbert, this is probably the best way in, as things definitely get significantly weirder from here on out. This one is weird enough to whet the novice's whistle without overloading the brain circuits. In my opinion the next book, The Dosadi Experiment is a natural second, though it takes its topic a bit more seriously, and delves deeply into the legal proscriptions on BuSab activity, though from a foreign legal perspective. A review of that one is forthcoming.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)


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