Like the Stars Above
Whipping Star (ConSentiency, volume 1)
By Frank Herbert
1970’s Whipping Star is the third piece and first novel-length work in Frank Herbert’s ConSentiency series. I hope I’ve worked out how I am going to number Whipping Star by the time I post this review.
The ConSentiency spans the Milky Way. While faster than light drives exist, all are too slow for galactic travel. What made the ConSentiency practical was the jumpdoor. Jumpdoors allow people to step from the surface of one planet to the surface of another. Jumpdoors were so clearly useful that nobody questioned their enigmatic Caleban creators too closely about how exactly they worked.
Jumpdoors have some interesting undocumented features. For example, someone who knows their jumpdoors can use them to kill an astonishing fraction of the population of the ConSentiency in one go.
Jorj X. McKie is an unlikely saviour. Jorj works for the Bureau of Sabotage and it’s his job to be sand in the gears, to prevent government from functioning too efficiently. Jorj is so well-suited to his job, he’s sabotaged all fifty-plus of his own marriages. An odd choice, therefore, to be the man who has to prevent the murder of the Caleban calling itself Fannie Mae and consequently every being who ever passed through a jumpdoor. Which would be virtually every adult in the ConSentiency and a lot of the kids.
It does not take Jorj and the rest of the gang at BuSab long to work out who (plutocrat sex pervert Mliss Abnethe), how (she talked Fannie Mae into a very unfortunate contract and Calebans always deliver on their contracts, even if it will kill them) and why (Indulging Mliss’ sadism without triggering the unfortunately-too-specific mental blocks placed on her by the government.). It should be easy to fix this except for one thing: Mliss has not quite broken the law.
Preventing omnicide depends on understanding the Caleban. Only problem? The alien Caleban are incomprehensible.…
Herbert’s laboured prose, filled with characters grimly sieving through every utterance for subtext, is exquisitely mockable. As is so often true, David Langford got there first.…
If you’ve been looking for a book in which a kinky woman threatens the universe with weaponized spanking, this may be the book for you! Although not if you object to the words “bitch” or “shrew,” or if you want apocalyptic spanking and sympathetic women; there are scarcely any women in this novel and Jorj does not seem to care for any of them1. Mliss is not so much delightfully kinky as violently sadistic. She took to omnicide because Calebans are so alien that hurting them doesn’t produce the pain cues she was conditioned not to tolerate in others, while the wave of deaths that will follow Fannie Mae’s death will be so fast nobody will suffer. She cannot cause suffering, but, boy-oh-boy, can she cause painless murder!
The justification for BuSab seems so classically John W. Campbell:
Once, long centuries past, con-sentients with a psychological compulsion to “do good” had captured the government. Unaware of the writhing complexities, the mingled guilts and self-punishments, beneath their compulsion, they had eliminated virtually all delays and red tape from government. The 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 spent in a fortnight. New bureaus for the most improbable purposes had leaped into existence and proliferated like some insane fungus.
Government had become a great destructive wheel without a governor, whirling with such frantic speed that it spread chaos wherever it touched.
In desperation, a handful of sentients had conceived the Sabotage Corps to slow that wheel. There had been bloodshed and other degrees of violence, but the wheel had been slowed. In time, the Corps had become a Bureau, and the Bureau was whatever it was today — an organization headed into its own corridors of entropy, a group of sentients who preferred subtle diversion to violence … but were prepared for violence when the need arose.
Imagine my surprise when I (re)discovered that this Herbert series never had anything to do with Astounding. None of the stories ever appeared in Astounding. The editors who purchased the series were Hans Stefan Santesson (Fantastic Universe), Fred Pohl (Galaxy), Ejler Jacobson (Worlds of If), and Jim Baen (also Galaxy).
BuSab gets stuck with the job of confounding Mliss. However, the government has been so successfully hobbled that they cannot simply arrest Mliss as soon as they realize she’s plotting to commit omnicide. BuSab is steadfast enough in their purpose that they don’t immediately write themselves a loophole. Better to risk mass death than to risk governmental overreach. I mock but having gone through a generation of post 9/11 “the ends justify the means,” it’s interesting to see an organization hew to its principles to the bitter end.
You may ask “if the government is so steadfast in limiting itself where personal choice is concerned, how is it that a sadist who owns five hundred planets was forced to submit to conditioning?” I don’t have an answer. Still, if Mliss has been left alone to beat freely contracted victims, she might not have tried to kill everyone in the universe.
The science in this is, as one might expect from Herbert, mostly bafflegab and hand-waving. Herbert rejects suspiciously humanoid aliens in favour of what TV Tropes calls Starfish Aliens [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StarfishAliens]. He embraces the plot potential of inter-species communication difficulties, an interesting change of pace from some of his other works. The detail that really surprised me was that Jorj saves the day in large part thanks to The Cosmic Power of Love. Not a detail I expected from the fellow who brought us the gom jabbar.…
Whipping Star is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: Yes, yes. Jorj is a dick who turned being abrasive and unlikable into a career, but, all the same, he seems to disapprove of women more than he does men. Hard to say whether this hints at authorial misogyny, of course, but I do note that one of the weapons BuSab uses against Mliss is denying her beauty treatments.
It is true that Fannie May acquires the pronoun “she.” I am willing to grant it’s only human women who come off badly in this book. Fanny May is many things — a transportation system, a hyper-dimensional extrusion of a godlike being, a living star, a naïf with a crush — but she’s definitely not human.