Benjamin Duffy's Reviews > Whipping Star

Whipping Star by Frank Herbert
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's review
Nov 24, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy-sci-fi
Read in November, 2009


Like a lot of Herbert fans, I was introduced to Frank Herbert through Dune and its original quintet of sequels. And like a lot of Herbert fans, I kind of stopped there. It was only later, years later, that I bothered to read some of his other books. And while the Dune saga still represents his most complete vision and best storytelling (at least through the first four books), and is deservedly his best-known work, I've started to realize that some of his most truly impressive feats of imagination and intelligence lie within his books outside of the series. Destination: Void, with its penetrating insights on the nature of consciousness, is one such book. The Dosadi Experiment (actually a sequel to Whipping Star, but which I accidentally read first), which takes a much more detailed look than Dune at exactly how humans might evolve in a hyper-hostile environment, is another. And Whipping Star is absolutely in that same class.

Here's just one example of Herbert's genius: One thing that was shocking to me, in reading Whipping Star, is how deeply Herbert approached the idea of communication between humans and aliens. Extraterrestrial contact is such a basic staple of science fiction that it's amazing how little some SF authors seem to think it through. On the shallow end of the depth continuum you have the Star Trek and Star Wars universes, where the vast majority of aliens are just humans with weird bumps on their heads, and most of them happen to speak English as a second language for your convenience. Certainly there are cultural disconnects as humans deal with Klingons and Wookiees, but they're roughly on a par with "Crocodile Dundee making his way through New York City" in their severity. Slightly better thought through than those examples might be Larry Niven's aliens in Known Space: clearly, they think differently than humans, and understanding is rarely perfect, but everyone seems to have magic translator boxes and once again, the real problem of interspecies communication is hand-waved away. Closer yet to a realistic treatment would be Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, where the Mars-raised human, Valentine Michael Smith, knew the words and syntax of English, but that was no guarantee of clear communication because his whole way of thinking and set of experiences was so vastly different than an Earthling's.

Heinlein is the first SF author who appears to have honestly thought the thing through, and Herbert takes it to a whole different level in Whipping Star. As the protagonist, Jorj X. McKie, attempts to communicate with the mysterious Caleban, the basic breakdown in understanding is evident, and the characters' frustration is palpable and believable. Herbert makes the reader think of what it would be like to deal with a creature that's as intelligent as a human, maybe more so, but not at all human. The dialogue between McKie and Fannie Mae alone makes this book worth the price of purchase, and the book is filled to bursting with other ideas besides that, in spite of being short and fast-paced. For one, it takes a unique and plausible stab at FTL travel and time travel.

An enormously impressive and enjoyable book. I give it four stars instead of five only because, much like Destination: Void, the story is a ramshackle thing, mostly meant to convey Herbert's ideas from Point A to Point Z. It's still more than worth the read, though, if you're into science fiction that makes you think.
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message 1: by Ric (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ric Nice review. Referencing this for the Classic SF group's discussion.

Benjamin Duffy I'm flattered. Cheers!

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