WHIPPING STAR – Frank Herbert (1970)

whipping-starI 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.

Click here for my other Herbert texts: long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune & Chapterhouse: Dune, and more regular reviews of Destination: Void, The Santaroga Barrier, Soul Catcher & The Dosadi Experiment. I’ve also tackled Hunters of Dune & Sandworms of Dune, and wrote about Villeneuve’s 2021 film Dune: Part One.

Consult the author index for all my reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature, and here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews.


29 responses to “WHIPPING STAR – Frank Herbert (1970)

  1. 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.

    No exaggeration, I had to read that five times to make sure I had it right. This is the SF equivalent of plotting my Mad Libs, right? Although it sounds just crazy enough to be a Nicolas Cage movie, so on those grounds I’ll keep it in mind when I’m out book-hunting…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah I couldn’t get that more concise and clear. I tried, but Frank didn’t want to cooperate.

      Cage would be an excellent lead! I’m not sure about who should play Mliss Abnethe though. Maybe Cage as well, under heaps of make up.

      Liked by 2 people

    • To follow the development of the protagonist, Jorj X. McKie
      through Herbert’s works, start with the novella “The Tactful Saboteur”, then read “Whipping Star”, followed by “The Dosadi Experiment”. ‘Saboteur’ also introduces McKie’s employer, that branch of government known as the Bureau of Sabotage.

      One large glaring error, in the above review. Only those sentients who had used the interstellar transportation ‘Jumpdoors’ provided only by Fannie Mae were at risk of death, should Fannie Mae die.

      Like many other authors, some of Herbert’s works seem better than others. I believe many would enjoy “The Dosadi Experiment” much more than “Whipping Star”.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Yes I know, but I didn’t want to make the summary more complex, as it is hard to follow already. For all practical purposes, nearly all sentients would die, as they’ve nearly all used those portals, as is repeated multiple times in the book.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with your assessment, this might be one of my least favorite Herbert novels — your phrase “cartoonish” embodies what I felt. If you want one which really does try to, and rather more successfully, get into the psyche of the characters and speculate about deeper themes, check out Destination: Void. You’ll need to make a decision if you want the earlier publication without the short invented books blurbs at the beginning of each chapter (à la Dune) or the later version where they were restored.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds really weird.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yeah, sounds weird. What is the alien in the sequel called – Goldman Sachs?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I always felt it was meant to be a bit over the top. He basically approaches bureaucracy from an entirely different angle than he does in the Dune novels. More satire, not as serious.

    The Dosadi Experiment is quite a different novel. It’s one of my favourite novels by Herbert outside the Dune universe. He refers to Whipping Star a few times but basically they can be read independently.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I loved the Dune Chronicles and enjoyed the White Plague, but every other Herbert novel I’ve read has left me wondering how the person who wrote Dune could write “that”. So this sounds about par 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “Weird” does not even start to cover it… This is the first time I heard this title (while “The Dosadi Experiment” sounds quite familiar) but I’m not certain I would enjoy this story: it certainly looks quite the opposite from the deep and multi-faceted “Dune”, and I’m starting to believe, like you, that Herbert gave his best to his masterpiece, and there was not much left afterwards…

    Liked by 3 people

  8. The pulp nature of this story is probably what allowed me to like it when I read it. Like Joachim, I found The Green Brain and Hellstom’s Hive the least satisfying (along with The Heaven Makers). These non-Dune books make me sad that he didn’t spend more time on them, because the ideas are really interesting, but their development is mostly poor.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Hi

    I loved your review. I am doing a Herbert Re(read) and I was dreading this one. I enjoyed the Dosadi Experiment and the Tactful Saboteur was interesting but I was not sure if I wanted to reread this, much less try to do a post on Whipping Star. The first time I read it the fact that the whip was a bullwhip not an astronomical phenomena was fairly disconcerting. Goofy probably does sum it up.

    Herbert was an author that sometimes seemed to plot books to prove some point or other, Hellstrom’s Hive was definitely one where he wanted to work with the ideas in the Hellstrom’s Chronicle by Wolper. I am not sure that added to the success of the work as a novel however. What he was thinking here is not clear to me at present. But you definitely identified the best cover illustration. I have been hoping to come across this one in my travels to used book stores but no luck so far.

    Happy Reading

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks! I found this edition quite easily online for a few euro’s.

      I think here Herbert wanted to write something on communication, the possibility of other dimensional states/beings & burocracy. It didn’t turn out to be a great combination.

      Liked by 3 people

      • The name Fannie Mae cannot be an accident; the Fannie Mae corporation was started as part of the New Deal in 1938, and became listed in the public stock exchange in 1968. I don’t know enough about what kind of press this received, since it was still essentially an arm of the government – who owns the company, shareholders or the people?

        Fannie Mae’s essential business model was to borrow at low rates from the federal government (not available to other companies), and invest that money into bundles of mortgage debt. This way, the company boosted home ownership by essentially “guaranteeing” high quality household debt (owed by people with jobs).

        This all started to change when the government pushed the idea of increased home ownership, allowing Fannie Mae to “guarantee” mortgage debt of lower (subprime) quality. By hiding their increased risk and growing their investments to obscene levels, CEOs of Fannie Mae made obscene amounts of money for themselves in the early 2000’s. I’ll spare you the end of the details, but this all collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008.

        Did Herbert know about Fannie Mae’s role in supporting, as if by magic, the housing market back in 1970? It’s possible, given that it was a public company. The alien Fannie Mae enhances, as if my magic, the lives of many species by allowing them to travel across interstellar distances. In exchange, the existence of all these species depends on the well-being of Fannie Mae. It’s a perverse situation brought about by the stuff-for-free bargain taken by all of those individuals. Given Herbert’s talent for thinking things through, it’s at least a possibility that he read or heard about Fannie Mae when it got listed on the NYSE, and warned us all – in a very weird way – that abuse of this institution would cause the magic to run out. It certainly did in 2008.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I had linked the name to the institution that bankrupted in 2008, but I wasn’t aware of its history in the 70ies, and I always wondered why Herbert picked that reference. During my reading in preperation for this review, I haven’t come across any attempt at explaining it. Your theory seems very plausible, at least the interdependency part. Whether Herbert was also an economic visionary who tried to warn us: possible, but someone should reread the book looking for clues/more proof with that in mind.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. I remember enjoying this book. Probably because of its pulpy nature. One of Philip K. Dick’s most pulpy books – Vulcan’s Hammer – I also found extremely readable.

    So there you go. Some useless information. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: The Dragon in the Sea, by Frank Herbert | gaping blackbird

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