THE DOSADI EXPERIMENT – Frank Herbert (1977)

The Dosadi ExperimentOkay, I urgently need to reread the entire Dune saga. In my mind Dune is the best series I’ve ever read, and the two final books (Heretics and Chapterhouse) are the best of the series – contrary to a popular opinion the series became bad after Children Of Dune. The thing is I’ve read those books at the onset of my adult rediscovery of speculative fiction, and my mileage wasn’t high at the time: maybe I was too easily awed?

Popular opinion also has it Frank Herbert didn’t write much else that’s good. Both Whipping Star and The Santaroga Barrier proved to be utter pulp indeed. Yet The Dosadi Experiment is supposed to be one of the few books still worth reading.

The Dosadi Experiment is set in the same universe as Whipping Star, but it’s a very different book: it doesn’t feel as absurd & cartoonish. It’s not really a sequel either, so you can read them independently. As usual, Val’s Random Comments does a great job summarizing the basic premise of the novel, so I won’t dwell on that too long: basically Dosadi is a planet with extreme living conditions on which some conspiracy secretly put inhabitants to see what such conditions would do to their society, in order to gain insight in politics and power systems.

That gets me to the million dollar question already: yay or nay?

Well  …nay.

The Dosadi Experiment‘s basic problem is that the reader can’t really partake in its supposedly deeply intellectual plays. An important part of this book is courtroom drama: the main character, Jorj X. McKie, is not only a top notch secret agent, coincidentally he is also the only guy in the universe who was accepted at the bar of the Gowachin court – the Gowachin being frog like aliens who have a legal system with intricate, changing rules and high stakes, the courtroom being an arena.

Herbert tries to convey all this by passages like this:

They provide legal ways to kill any participants – judges, Legums, clients … But it must be done with exquisite legal finesse, with its justifications apparent to all observers, and with the most delicate timing.

Yet, the pocket is only 300 pages long, and these 300 pages simply aren’t sufficient to make the reader a Gowachian legal scholar too, so we can’t really appreciate or judge the “exquisite legal finesse” displayed by the characters. It’s like watching a game of cricket without knowing the rules. Or to use a review trope: Herbert tells a lot about finesse, but doesn’t show any.

It sucks the joy out of the reading. The book takes some time to get going – the first 80 pages drag and feel random – and when it does get interesting, it also becomes obvious quickly that Herbert will stick to his guns, and won’t solve that problem. In the end, I just kept on reading to follow the plot to its conclusion, but that felt like being led, not something that engaged my mind actively, as I had not enough information to do so.

I have to admit the story itself was interesting, but this same mechanic also takes the joy out of the plot twists. There are conspiracies inside of conspiracies, and the pacing’s brisk, so it’s not an easy read. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention, but again, I very much feel the main problem is that Herbert didn’t provide me with enough data.


On a thematic level, Herbert tries to tackle quite a lot of themes familiar to those who’ve read Dune: religious engineering, breeding systems that enhance the offspring, power, violence, mind melting. But those of you thinking you might learn something about politics or power systems, look elsewhere. It’s all pretty standard fare and poorly worked out at that too. For example, the people set on Dosadi evolve to be both extremely perceptive and quick thinkers, as their violent living conditions are ruthless to the meek and the slow. Similarly, the Gowachin are focused on individual excellence, and are outright elitists. The philosophical foundation of this novel boils down to simple social Darwinism. It might have still been interesting in the late 70ies, but in 2017 it just gets a ‘meh’ from me. Moreover, it’s unclear what Herbert’s own position on the matter is in this book.

In the typical introductions to each chapter – snippets from fictional histories, scientific reports, alien aphorisms – Herbert does utter thinly veiled criticism at bureaucracy and militarism, both Soviet totalitarianism and USA imperialism. Some of them are interesting, and some of them are bland and chewy. You be the judge.

Law must retain useful ways to break with traditional forms because nothing is more certain than that the forms of Law remain when all justice is gone.

&

Does a populace have informed consent when a ruling minority acts in secret to ignite a war, doing this to justify the existence of the minority’s forces. History has already answered that question. Every society in the ConSentiency today reflects the historical judgment that failure to provide full information for informed consent on such an issue represents an ultimate crime.

&

Communal/managed economics have always been more destructive of their societies than those driven by greed. This is what Dosadi says: Greed sets its own limits, is self-regulating.

A theme The Dosadi Experiment has in common with Whipping Star is communication. But in both books it’s handled quite silly. In Whipping Star Jorj X. McKie needed to teach the godlike Caleban to communicate as a human, resulting in pages looking like gibberish. In this book, McKie meets the Dosadians, who have extreme command of body language and verbally limit themselves to “the nonemotional essentials”, “compressed communication”. The problem is Herbert builds up so explicitly to the Dosadi abilities – they are dangerous monsters with superpowers, if they are let lose on the universe it will be an utter disaster – that when it becomes clear what their powers actually are, the sizzle soon becomes a hiss.


In conclusion – this is indeed Herbert’s best non-Dune novel I’ve read so far. But the competition isn’t exactly stiff. If anything, this book needed 300 pages more. In those 300 pages, Herbert could’ve taken the time to set things up properly, so that we readers could have had the time to be able to care for the characters, and care for that damned legal system. They might have also provided the time & space to inject some of that epic feeling Dune had, because that’s severely lacking here.

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11 responses to “THE DOSADI EXPERIMENT – Frank Herbert (1977)

  1. Ah,, I’m unreasonably fond of this novel. It is certainly true that Herbert packs in too much. I always figured this book is probably incomprehensible to most readers if you haven’t read a few of his other novels.There are so many links with his other books it is basically Herbert’s oeuvre in condensed in 300 pages.

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    • Yes, I saw you’ve read it three times! That urged me to say I maybe didn’t pay attention enough, but then again, you say it’s difficult too. That makes me wonder: how did you experience the court scenes in the light of what I’ve written?

      Very much agreed on the many links (there’s even a Goodreads review that makes a fairly interesting case seeing this as being in the Dune universe, but ages before), but all those links an sich weren’t enough for me.

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      • I think you mentioned pretty much all the elements Herbert put into the Gowchin. It has been a while since I read this book but what stayed with me of those scenes is how their legal system is basically a reflection of their ecology. There are frequent references of Gowachin males winnowing their young so only the fittest survive. In court, not of the parties involved is certain of survival. Only those most skilled in the legal process will make it out unharmed and thrive. It is almost Darwinian in nature. Kinda like watching a dramatised wildlife documentary about the Serengetti. Drama, struggle for survival and entertainment rolled into one.

        The Dosadi take this struggle even further. Population pressure has something to do with it of course. Members of your own species are your fiercest competitors. Without the Gowachin influence I doubt Dosadi would have developed in the way it has though.

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      • Agreed.

        What I liked best about the Gowachin is their “respectful disrespect” for the law. They are both the ultimate bureaucrats and anti-bureaucrats. It’s a great idea, but I’d have liked Herbert to have worked it out more properly, and practically too.

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  2. I’m almost certain I did read this one, but the intervening decades have erased any memory of plot and characters (although reading the name “Gowachin” did stir something in my sluggish brain cells…): the premise sounds fascinating, but it saddens me to learn that Herbert sort of glossed over what could have been a fascinating description of these two societies.
    Still, I think I need to re-acquaint myself with this one 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!

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  3. I thought the court arena was one of the easier parts to understand and the more basic drama parts. Other things like the phylums and Mckvies history and relation to BuSab and the like are more uncertain.

    I mean, yeah, we don’t have all the background on the court arena before being shown it, but it all makes sense and flows in a way that is enjoyable plot wise and just sort of seems to hang. Like in some Heinlein novels (the good ones), we don’t know all the specifics of things the narrator mentions in passing, but they seem reasonable and are mentioned in a way that you can posit if you knew the details, it would be fine.

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  4. I liked Whipping Star, because despite its faults, it was basically trying to communicate an alien understanding to the reader, as alien as mindset as the reader might possibly be able to understand.
    Also, if you haven’t read “The dragon in the sea” you really should, it’s early Herbert and proper SF.
    I agree that the book should have been a bit longer, the court scene was a bit rushed. However it’s not merely social darwinism; the point is made also that groups are important, and the Dosadi are not supermen but humans with some specific differences which then makes them rather predictable. Herbert was often rather subtle in his ecological analogies.
    Another thing that readers don’t get, and perhaps Herbert didn’t explain it well enough, is that the Consentiency is a fairly dull well run quiet sort of place, a bit like western europe during the triumph of neoliberalism. Then the Dosadi people arrive, which would destroy the nice peacefulness; it’s as if America had gone from President Carter to president trump.
    The bit that I want more explanation about is the DemoPol, which as far as I can gather from various places is a kind of polling device that asks some of the public about things in order to gauge things.

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    • Agreed that communicating an alien mindset isn’t easy, and authors today still fail at it. Recently I was reminded of Banks’ Minds, although they’re not really alien alien, I think throughout the series he does a good job capturing their complexity, using different techniques. Herbert remains stuck in using only verbal communication.
      Haven’t read The Dragon… I saw a copy once in a second hand store, and thought it was a submarine novel, not really SF, but my memory of the blurb is sketchy.
      I don’t remember the group thing, but social darwinism doesn’t exclude group dynamics. Still, good that he included that.
      Interesting point about Consentiency.
      Viz. DemoPol: this kind of thing actually is a reality already in marketing. I’ve also read something very similar fairly recently about a kind of instant democracy, but I can’t remember wether that was in the context of a non-fiction proposal, or the review of some other SF-book I haven’t read. It was basically every citizen got a few policy question in its inbox each morning, and what got decided by those polls was put into law.

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