The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert
Published by Ace Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Even if The Dosadi Experiment were a novel by a complete unknown, it would be worthy of note. The author has created a universe populated by a variety of alien species who are not merely human beings in funny suits, but are truly alien in thought and biology as well as surface appearance. Furthermore, he makes that difference central to the story, delving into an alien legal system that can seem like the adversarial system has gone mad and been turned into a parody of itself.
The Gowachin are froglike, both in their outward appearance of wide bachtrian faces with gaping mouths and bulging eyes and in their lifecycle, beginning life in an aquatic form that resembles a tadpole. Every Gowachin home has a pool known as the Graluz within its hidden depths, and there the tads live and develop into their land-dwelling form. While they are in their aquatic phase they are subject to brutal weeding by the adult males, and the survivors remember their struggles to escape and their siblings who did not survive. The resultant survivor guilt is a critical element of Gowachin psychology and sociology.
Unlike the telecourts where robot judges administer human justice, the Gowachin legal system centers upon the Courtarena, where trials can become bloody spectacles in which anyone -- defendant, prosecutor, even witnesses -- can end up dead as the result of the strange workings of Gowachin justice, which centers upon the concept of "respectful disrespect." The protagonist is the sole human to have ever been admitted to the Gowachin bar as a Legum and has risked his life to argue cases in this mindbending system.
However, when one considers the fact that The Dosadi Experiment was written by Frank Herbert, it becomes natural to look at it in the light of his most famous work, Dune. We see a number of commonalities of theme, even as there are notable differences in the worldbuilding of the two fictional universes.
The most obvious difference is of course the presence of alien sophants in the universe of Jorj X McKie, whereas the Dune universe was human-only. However, Dune was about human problems and the development of human potential, so alien societies and civilizations would've been a distraction. By contrast the stories of Jorj X McKie and the Bureau of Sabotage are about a society in which the Other is biologically alien and cultural differences flow from those fundamentals, such that governance has to take into account the wide variety of lifeways that range from the telepathic ability to occupy multiple bodies to the utter alienness of the self-aware stars who use their space-warping gravity wells and their quantum consciousness to provide the jumpgates which connect the various worlds of the ConSentiency.
However, once one gets past that initial novelty of a variety of very alien species, one can see how there are actually more similarities than differences at the level of theme and ideas. Most importantly we have in both novels the theme of the population of an isolated planet with extreme conditions, such that high mortality rates lead to extraordinary physical and mental toughness combined with a burning desire for revenge upon a galaxy perceived as culpable for their situation, whether by direct oppression or merely the complicity of indifference. In Dune Arrakis was a world of extreme aridity, where the slightest carelessness with one's water supply could be fatal, and it tempered the Fremen into a culture of holy warriors. The titular world of Dosadi in this novel is instead a toxic one, similar to the world of Grayson in the Honor Harrington universe.
However, unlike Grayson which was founded by a religious group on a slowship, Dosadi was founded by a mixed group of humans and Gowachin apparently collected under questionable premises and subjected to selective memory erasure, then delivered to their new home by a jumpdoor created by a Caleban under contract to keep them isolated and unable to leave the planetary surface. As a result, there will be no orbiting agro-stations -- instead, all safe food is grown within the single city of Chu, built within a river canyon. Its inhabitants live in conditions of incredible overcrowding and brutal competition, where the slightest misstep, the least hint of weakness, can result in one's betrayal and death. Beyond the walls of Chu live the Rabble of the Rim, breeding at a frantic pace in hopes that a few of them may survive.
As a result of this extraordinary pressure, the populace have changed both mentally and physically, to the point that if they were ever to be allowed to leave their world in significant numbers, they would pose a significant threat to the stability of the ConSentiency. As one of the Gowachin masterminds of the project put it, they'd created a monster they could no longer control. And thus they were willing to destroy the entire planet and everyone upon it rather than risk having it run wild.
The theme of drugs and addiction is woven through both books. However, while in Dune drugs were typically used to expand one's consciousness and obtain access to higher levels of awareness, drugs in Dosadi society seem to have no real positive function, instead being little more than levers by which the elites can better control their subordinates, particularly those entrusted with important secrets that involve the elite's vulnerabilities. Some of this may be the result of the different stories Mr. Herbert was telling, but it's also possible that the changing portrayal of the role of drugs in the fictional societies was the result of shifts in Primary World attitudes toward drug use and addiction. When Frank Herbert was writing Dune, in the 1960's, there was a great deal of interest in the scientific community and society in general in the possibility of using psychotropic drugs to explore the nature of human consciousness and provide easier paths to enlightenment. A decade later society's attitudes had shifted away from its experimental attitude toward the view that drug use was destructive a form of bondage rather than liberation.
Finally, in both novels the protagonist is an outsider who comes into their society and uses his extraordinary abilities and specialized training to successfully navigate a deadly environment and gain acceptance. Although McKie doesn't spend as long on Dosadi as Paul Atreides does among the Fremen of Arrakis, but he is never cut off from his position among the elites of the outer universe the way Paul was after the Harkonnens took back Arrakis. All the same, there is a strong parrallelism in the climactic scenes of both books, with Paul besting Feyd-Rautha in single combat and McKie entering the Gowachin Courtarena to settle the matter of Dosadi according to the peculiarities of Gowachin justice.
Given the intricacy of his imagined society in this novel and its prequel Whipping Star, it is in many ways a shame that Frank Herbert never wrote any other stories of Jorj X. McKie and the ConSentency. One can only wonder what he might have achieved had he taken the time and energy he put into his last two Dune books (Heretics and Chapterhouse) and instead devoted them to a third novel of the ConSentiency, his underappreciated space opera universe.
Review posted August 20, 2012.
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