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Whipping Star by Frank Herbert

Published by Ace Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In Dune Frank Herbert took the subgenre of space opera with its galaxy-spanning vistas and transformed it from cheap action-adventure into a canvas upon which one could produce a soul-searching epic of religion, sociology, ecology and the human condition. However, the Dune universe was not the only space-opera universe Frank Herbert created.

While the Dune universe was notable for the complete absence of technologically-advanced alien sophants, the universe in which Saboteur Extraordinary Jorj X. McKie operates is filled with a multitude of alien species, each with its own unique biology and customs. While another writer might use aliens as window-dressing to create a sense of "not in Kansas any more," or use them as stand-ins for human cultures and ethnic groups, Frank Herbert makes the biological differences in the aliens critical to their cultures and their relationships with Earth-derived humans.

On the very first pages of the novel we meet a Taprisiot, a member of an alien species that resemble sawed-off lengths of tree limb and which serve as facilitators of interstellar communications. They have a wry and sometimes pungent sense of humor, and are believed to be related in some way to the mysterious Calebans which create the jumpdoors by which interstellar travel is conducted.

Another striking difference between the universe of Whipping Star and the Dune universe is the near ubiquity of robotics. Whereas Dune and its sequels (other than some of the later works by Frank Herbert's son Brian, which seem to be getting an infiltration of Star Wars worldbuilding elements from coauthor Kevin J Anderson) is set in a society that has rejected all but the simplest of automation in favor of the hyperdevelopment of human mental potential, the humans of the Confederated Sentients relies upon robots for every mundane task from robogreeters at the door to the robot judge in the telecourt in which McKie obtains his divorce from his latest wife.

As the novel begins, the chief of the Bureau of Sabotage is calling McKie via Tapriosot for a very special assignment -- Calebans are dying, all over the galaxy. As each Caleban dies, all the people who passed through jumpdoors it generated have died or gone irrevocably insane. Given that almost everybody uses jumpdoors, it's a matter of time before these mysterious aliens' disappearance destroys all sentient life, everywhere. And the boss wants McKie to bring his special talents to bear in ealing with this situation.

The Bureau of Sabotage is an agency created to slow the wheels of government and prevent tyranny. established after an ancient government established a nightmarish tyranny reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." For the most part the agents of the Bureau of Sabotage prefer to accomplish those ends subtly, gumming up the works here and there rather than actually damaging them. But if there is no other way to accomplish their ends, they will resort to violent action..

McKie is given one vital clue -- an incredibly wealthy woman has hired a Caleban for unknown purposes. Because this woman was a notorious sadist with a penchant for floggings, she was given a treatment that made her unable to tolerate the sight of another's suffering -- but did nothing to alleviate her desire to experience it. As a result, it appears she's found some rules-lawyering way around that stipulation.

But how does it relate to the mysterious disappearances of Calebans all over the galaxy into non-being, or the Caleban "beachball" that suddenly appeared and embedded itself into a rocky outcrop? This is the mystery McKie is called upon to solve, with almost nothing to go on.

McKie's first order of business is to examine the Caleban beachball, to which he gains access after all previous attempts have failed. Within he communicates with a Caliban that identifies itself with the human name of Fanny Mae and tries to gain an explanation of why this horrific situation is developing. However, his efforts are stymied by an inability to find common referents by which to communicate anything beyond the simplest concrete concepts.

However, he gets a breakthrough when he's able to compel the Caleban to open a sort of window onto the place where Mistress Abnethe's torments are taking place, and then captures the whip along with the severed arm of the alien performing the torment. He's tossed briefly into a pre-technological village on an unknown world that appears to be prisoner of Abnethe's scheming -- but returns to civilized space with no useful information.

Meanwhile, the situation is growing steadily worse as the last surviving Caleban's ability to tolerate Abnethe's mad scheme steadily fades. Worse, there's growing evidence that whatever is going on involves energies and physical operations believed to be impossible, perhaps even time travel.

All seems hopeless until McKie uses his knowledge of xenopsychology to extract incriminating information from a Palenki chieftan, a member of a species that is relatively new to galactic society and widely scorned as barbarians. Even then it's not enough until he pierces the secret of the true nature of the Calebans, a discovery that changes everything.

And it turns out that the answer to the puzzle is right there in the title of the book -- the Calebans are in fact self-aware stars, or perhaps stars are the part of their existence that interposes itself most obviously into the universe of carbon-based lifeforms' experiences. And that discovery explains so much that was previously incomprehensible about the Calebans. Even something so simple as why the interior of a Caleban beachball becomes so hot if the entrance door is closed, or why it is so difficult for them to communicate effectively with humans. Even their relationship to the jumpdoors makes sense -- the enormous gravitational fields of stars warp space, and a sentient star's consciousness probably operates on principles similar to the quantum connectedness that Travis S. Taylor explores in his novel The Quantum Connection.

Review posted August 20, 2012.

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