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Frank Herbert – Whipping Star

Title: Whipping Star
Author: Frank Herbert
Year: 1970

Frank Herbert is most certainly best known for his best-selling and award-winning novel Dune and it’s sequels, all of which I have enjoyed immensely. Published in 1970, Whipping Star comes after Dune Messiah, but predates Children of Dune by six years. Even though the novel is unrelated to the Dune series, I still think chronology is highly relevant, because it reveals that the author is perfectly capable of writing fantastic novels. Naturally, that increased my expectations when I first began reading my first non-Dune novel written by Frank Herbert.

Whipping Star has a somewhat bizarre basic plot. A species of extremely powerful beings, the Calebans,  appeared in the universe not long ago and introduced jumpdoors, which allowed for instant communication and transport across the universe. However, when these strange beings begin to withdraw from the scene, madness and death follows in their wake. Soon there is only one left, bound to stay and die by an arcane code of honour, doomed to be whipped to death by the psychotic human Mliss Abnethe. If the last Caleban dies, so will all sentients who have made use of the jumpdoors, which means total apocalypse because that includes almost everyone alive. In this mess, Jorj X. McKie tries to reverse the process and save the Caleban and thus the universe. The problem is that he has to cooperate with the only remaining Caleban, a being so alien and strange that it is dubious if true communication is even theoretically possible.

To begin with, I do not find this setup convincing. As soon as the novel gets going, I have no problem tagging along, but that is only assuming that I ignore the fundamental weirdness of the situation. Why has the Caleban entered into such a deal which will end in total discontinuity (death)? I find the story rather simple, straightforward and, to be honest, not very interesting. Neither are the main characters. However, giving this novel three snails is not a mistake, even though what I have said so far might give the impression that the grade ought to be abysmally low.

This novel is focused on communication in general, and communication with strange, alien beings in particular, a theme that has been explored many times before, but seldom to any great success (Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris being an exception). I feel, however, that in Whipping Star, Frank Herbert succeeds with this difficult feat. He manages to focus on this communication and makes it come alive. Although realism is of course not on the menu, the credibility rating is pretty high. When I read the dialogues taking place between McKie and the Caleban, I can feel the alieness. Very inspiring, very good. Another merit of this novel is the emotional impact of the Calebans; their existence is so unlike ours that their activities have big, sometimes even fatal, effect on the emotions of nearby sentient beings. Although not employed to any  great extent in this novel, I have already a few ideas of my own sprouting from the concept of the Calebans.

Whipping Star is somewhat difficult to sum up, because as I have described, the novel is mostly humdrum, but with some beautiful sparks of genuine creativity and imagination. I have decided to make some sort of compromise. I would give four, or possibly four and a half, snails for the presentation of the Caleban, but only one and a half or two for the rest. Combined, three snails will have to do.This is of course an enormous disappointement compared to the Dune novels, which I have given an average of 4.2 snails.

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