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Sudanna, Sudanna by Brian Herbert

Published by Berkley Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Reading a badly written piece of fiction is never a pleasant experience, for the simple reason that there are so many other things you could've been doing in that period of time. However, I'm inclined to be forgiving when it's clear that the author has talent but just hasn't mastered his or her craft yet. The story in which there are occasional flashes of brilliance amidst pedestrian prose may be frustratrating to read, but particularly when it's the author's first or second book and there's a good possibility that their skill levels may improve. One needs only look at Tom Kratman's freshman novel, A State of Disobedience, and compare it to his more recent works such as Caliphate to see that an unpromising start should be forgiven if the author shows improvement in subsequent works.

By contrast, I'm far more likely to be harsh and condemnatory when I know that a writer is capable of excellent writing but just doesn't seem to be producing at that level on a given book. That was why I found Jacqueline Carey's The Sundering duology so annoying -- after reading and loving all six of her Kushiel novels, I knew she could write novels that sucked you right into her world -- and her attempt at high fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien simply failed to do so.

I'm also very likely to become impatient with the endless parade of sequels that read like they've been cranked out solely for the money, like some of the later Pern books have been. I had the same feeling about the various Dune sequels, prequels and interquels that Frank Herbert's son Brian has been turning out with the assistance of Star Wars novel writer Kevin J. Anderson -- and it was even worse because I know that he's capable of better work than those pitiful novels that felt far more like the stereotypical fanfic written by someone long on enthusiasm for a beloved fictional world and short on writing skills, because I'd read one of his original-universe solo efforts and loved it.

I originally encountered Sudanna, Sudanna quite by accident, almost a decade before its author would turn his hand to churning out endless uninspired extensions of his father's most famous creation. When I read it, I was simultaneously struck by the sheer extent of both the similarities to and differences from his father's work. There are the obvious superficial parallels in structure and technique, such as the use of brief epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter to simultaneously impart upon the reader important background information and to increase verisimilitude and the sense of a world extending beyond the boundaries of the story through feigned documentation. However, the tone of the narrative could hardly be different -- while the father's most famous novel is a grand and sweeping epic of heroic action and philosophical meditation on the role of religion and the peril of a Leader, this novel is a pungent satire of arrant stupidity, gross legalism, and overweening tyranny.

The world of Ut is a tiny peanut-shaped body more like an asteroid that is locked into synchronous orbit over its mother planet. Its inhabitants, the vaguely humanoid but cytologically vegetal utpeople, have existed for fifteen million years under the bizarre and oppressive automated legal system that was established by the mysterious U-Lotans, scientist-philosophers who conquered Ut as part of an experiment in reshaping societies. When the U-Lotans vanished without a trace, the systems they established have ground along with a life of their own, until the utpeople are almost entirely dependent upon earnings from attending classes on the intricacies of the multitudinous rules under which they live and turning in the locations of items left behind by the Entrapment Details that continually test the ability of utpeople to follow the rules in the face of temptation.

The system is absurd, as are the time scales given in the novel, but they're not intended to be taken literally as self-consistent worldbuilding. Instead, their purpose is to establish a sense of alienness and multigenerational oppression on a grand scale to tell the story of the Careful Man and the Rebel.

Hiley OIV is almost obsessive in his attention to the details not only of rule compliance, but also of every possible hazard to life as an utperson. His daughter Maudrey thinks he's being ridiculous, so she's gotten into the habit of giving his admonishments lip service while going her own way as soon as she's away from home.

Thus she comes into contact with the rebellious Prussirian BBD, an orphan since the death of his parents and the sole support of his sister. He's been taken with dark, resentful thoughts of late, and has defied the ancient U-Lotan prohibition against music by removing the stringed flute or Zuggernaut from the unlocked case within his home where the robotic authorities put it as part of the program to tantalize the utpeople with the wherewithal to break the rules.

However, he's hiding all that while he attends a rules class with Maudrey. After that dreary necessity is done, they go together on a trip to Playland, a carnival of amusements that can be bought with the credits one gains for following the rules. In doing so, he pulls Maudrey into his orbit, infecting her with his rebellious and forbidden thoughts.

Two weeks later Prussirian decides not to report for his semi-annual Truthing Session, an activity something like a cross between a police interrogation and a Catholic confessional by which forbidden thoughts and actions are ferreted out and smoothed away by blasts of laser light. Instead he lights out on a flight into the wilderness that will open to him the most ancient history of Ut, from before the U-Lotan conquest, and the utpeople's origins on the now-ruined planet it orbits.

However, his rebellion arouses a response almost absurd in its disproportionate degree from the robotic police system. So energetic is it that it brings about the long-anticipated breakdown of the ancient U-Lotan systems of enforcement, but they get their man -- but they haven't eliminated his rebelliousness, as we see in the final scene, in which Hiley casts his cautiousness to the wind and engages in his own act of rebellion.

It's particularly noteworthy that in this novel Brian Herbert avoids one of the besetting sins of the satirist, namely, the urge to turn didactic. Unlike Robert A Heinlein, whose Stranger in a Strange Land is marred by the author's midway shift from mockery to preaching, Brian Herbert offers his absurd world on its own terms, without any attempt to turn it into a Message beyond the irony inherent in the final scene.

Review posted August 20, 2012

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