I can’t explain how I feel about this book without this first paragraph. There are minor spoilers in it, but nearly all of them are made pretty clear early on in the novel. Whipping Star‘s plot more or less boils down to this: a sadistic, psychotic woman with vast amounts of wealth – who was obliged to undergo conditioning so she wouldn’t be able to tolerate seeing pain in others anymore – has her minions nonetheless whip (with an actual bullwhip) a godlike alien (visible to humans as a small star the size of a big football & the shape of a spoon) that has the power to transport everything across space & time in the blink of an eye. Our villain can do this because the alien shows no feelings of pain. The alien lets her do this because it willingly entered a contract with her: being whipped in exchange for knowledge about humanity. However, in the very near future, the alien (that calls itself Fanny Mae!) will die because of the whippings, and when it dies, it will cause all other sentient beings – including humanity and a host of other aliens – to die instantly. There’s a kind of government agent trying to solve the problem, but the alien has hidden the sadistic women on some planet in another dimension as part of the contract.
Well – and you thought giant sandworms were odd.
All this – and a lot more – in under 222 pages. I’m sorry to report that Whipping Star is pulp, and that’s why I chose to display the cover that most exemplifies it. It’s not that Herbert does not try for depth: there are reflections on communication, the nature of reality (indeed, we are all nodes, like More Than Human hinted at as well) and bureaucracy. Of course, as was fashionable back in the days, there’s mental communication and musings on energy and creativity being the same too. Each in itself deserving, interesting themes, but Herbert mostly just scratches the surface, and approaches these matters in a cartoonish matter.
This book is supposedly set in a vast universe with hundreds of inhabited planets (“honeymoon planets, gynecology planets, pediatrics planets, snow sport planets, geriatric planets, swim sport planets, library planets”). Humanity has made contact with a whole bunch of other species: Calebans, Chithers, Soborips, Wreaves, Pan Spechi, Beautybarbers, Taprisiots, Palenkis, Preylings. Yet the book never feels vast. While the fate of all sentient life is at stake, it never feels terrifying. This is the result of the cartoonish nature of the book: one of the alien species is a kind of turtle with one humanoid arm growing on top of its shell. Indeed.
The beginning is interesting, as the communication problem between the god-star-alien and the human protagonist, Jorj X. McKie, is something of an intriguing puzzle. But it quickly becomes clear what the plot is about, and the sense of mystery disappears. Characters keep on guessing about stuff the reader has seen pages and pages earlier. On top of that, the discussions with the alien water down to cheap mysticism with a veneer of quantum physics. Again, I guess that was the vogue of the day.
The fact that humanity – in the face of total extinction – remains so caught up in its own legalities in dealing with the evil harbinger of the apocalypse, Mliss Abnethe, doesn’t add to the book’s credibility. I guess Herbert intended this part of the plot to be satire, yet the book didn’t manage to have me smile – except when the alien introduced itself: it’s truly hilarious that Herbert chose to have the alien name itself after a mortgage company, even more so in the light of what happened at the onset of the economic crisis of 2008. In a way this book was visionary after all!
Whipping Star is definitely interesting for its goofiness. I’d even say this: as it isn’t a timeless classic like Dune, it might even be more interesting than Dune – that is, for those interested in the history of SF, and for scholars of the times in which it was published.
Frank Herbert published a book set in the same universe 8 years later. I will read The Dosadi Experiment somewhere in the future, and approach with care. You should too, if you want to try Whipping Star. I won’t advice against it, it’s a quick read, but it hasn’t aged well.
I absolutely love the entire Dune series, but at this moment, after having read Whipping Star and The Santaroga Barrier, it seems to me that Herbert poured the quality part of his creativity entirely into the Arrakis universe.