Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Frank Herbert: The Exploits of Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinary

Frank Herbert
Whipping Star  a novel

Once, long centuries past, con-sentients with a psychological compulsion to "do good" had captured the government.  Unaware of the the writhing complexities, the mingled guilts end self-punishments, beneath their compulsion, they had eliminated virtually all delays and red tape from government.  The great machine with its blundering power over sentient life had slipped into high gear, had moved faster and faster.  laws had been conceived and passed in the same hour. Appropriations had flashed into being and were spent in a fortnight.  New bureaus for the mos improbable purposes had leaped int existence and proliferated like some insane fungus.

Government had become a great destructive  wheel without a governor, whirling with such frantic speed that it spread chaos wherever it touched.

In desperation, a handful of sentients had conceived the Sabotage Corps to slow that wheel.  There had been bloodshed and other degrees of violence, but the wheel had been slowed.  In time, the Corps had become a Bureau, and the Bureau was whatever it was today--a organization headed into its own corridors of entropy, a group of sentients who preferred subtle diversion to violence. . . but were prepared for violence when the need arose.  

This, of course, goes against conventional wisdom which insists that slow, inefficient governments, those that are bound up with red tape, are bad governments.  It even suggests that slow and inefficient governments provide more freedom for its citizens than do fast and efficient governments.  It's an interesting question to meditate on. 

So what keeps the BuSab from turning into a juggernaut? Their promotion policy. The way you get promoted is to sabotage your boss.  The Bureau of Sabotage therefore slows itself down and makes itself more inefficient by regularly replacing its management. 

The Whipping Star is one of two novels that feature the exploits of Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinary.  The other novel is The Dosadi Experiment,  one of my favorite novels by Frank Herbert, second only to Dune.  In addition, there are two short stories:  "A Matter of Traces" and "The Tactful Saboteur."   While none of the stories are sequels, they are all set in Herbert's ConSentiency Universe, which include a galactic government in which humans and aliens are equal, something a bit unusual for a story first published in the late 50s and early 60s.

Jorj X. McKie is the protagonist in all four stories, and he clearly is not the typical handsome heroic Anglo-Saxon hero found in most SF at that time.He is described as a "squat little man, angry red hair, face like a disgruntled frog."   If a film were to be made of one of these stories, I wonder who would play McKie.

The sentient races of the ConSentiency Universe  have been blessed by the appearance of the Calebans, an alien race that apparently looks like or possibly inhabits something like a beach ball.  Yet, this race provides the sentient races with a means of travel, the jump doors, that ignores the limitations posed by the speed of light.  What is most surprising is that, as best as anyone can figure, there are only 83 of them.  Well, there were 83 when they were first encountered, but they have disappeared lately so that now only one remains.  McKie's assignment is to track down the last one and find out why the others have disappeared.

This sounds simple except for several minor details.  The last Caleban has signed a contract with Mliss Abnethe,  a woman who has an obsession with whipping things.   Since she is one of the richest people in the galaxy, she was able to escape imprisonment for capturing and whipping other humans, but she had to agree to sin no more.   She took that to mean that she couldn't go around whipping humans, but there was no mention of aliens.  So, she decided to practice her obsession on a Caleban.

The other minor detail is that Calebans can't communicate too well with other sentients.  In fact, nobody is certain that there's any communication at all.  The parts I enjoyed most in the novel occurs when McKie meets up with the remaining Caleban and attempts to question him? her? it? about the fate of the other 82 Calebans.  When the Caleban speaks, I can't help but wonder if those really are coherent rational statements or words that were just randomly assembled.

When McKie finally locates the last Caleban,  he learns that the situation is much worse than he thought.  The whipping in some way reduces the Caleban's life force.  In fact, another five to ten whippings will destroy it, the last Caleban.  When that happens every being who has ever used the Caleban's jump doors will die.  Since everybody uses the jump doors regularly, including McKie, this means the end of sentient life in the Galaxy, or perhaps the Universe. 

What I enjoyed also was something that didn't appear.  Herbert didn't spend several chapters going into Mliss Abnethe's obsession, in other words a long-winded treatise how this obsession related to certain traumatic events in her childhood, something many contemporary writers find it necessary in order to expand the length of the story.  Nor did he provide us with pages of excruciating detail on why McKie had racked up over 50 divorces so far.  These were givens.   This is an SF novel and not a psychoanalytical case study.

I think you might enjoy the story as long as you don't spend too much time trying to understand the pseudoscience.


  1. The storyline sounds very interesting indeed, although I shudder at the thought of life being reduced to the efficiency of the DMV.

    Sounds like Mliss Abnethe needs a sound whipping herself. I'm now going to rummage through my husbands part of our library and see if he has this book.

    Oh, and I agree with you about this attempt at creating "complex" characters by giving them "tragic" pasts. Some people are mean because they like to be mean and will continue to be mean as long as they can.

    1. Sharon,

      Chuckle. . . Well, it could be worse.

      If he doesn't have this one, then I would suggest _The Dosadi Experiment_, as it has the same leading character, and I think it's a better book.

  2. It sounds like Herbert argues that government is a necessary evil, meaning government is both necessary and evil. Is he also suggesting that intelligent lifeforms are both necessary and evil? I guess I'm not very adept at unpacking all the suggestions within the Herbert excerpt and your interesting discussion. But I do wonder about governments, Calebans (Calibans?), and the reasons I always feel as though S/F is far beyond my intellectual grasp.

    1. R.T.,

      Yes, that would appear to be the case, evil but necessary. No, I don't think he would say lifeforms are both necessary and evil. They are necessary but they wouldn't have to be evil, although it seems that there will be some who are evil.

      I also wonder about the Caleban and Caliban, but so far I haven't been able to come up with any linkage.

      I believe your problem, if any, with SF is due more to unfamiliarity with the assumptions, themes and terminology than to it being beyond your grasp.

    2. Although I'm not a huge fan of Government (having Anarchist leanings) I do believe that we are a LOT better off with a government than without one. You only have to look at places where governments have spectacularly failed to know what that would be like. It's a true nightmare....

    3. RT: i laugh out loud at "both necessary and evil" you do have a knack for putting the gist of a concept into a very few words...

    4. CyberKitten,

      Yes, definitely, a very necessary evil, the lesser of two evils.

  3. Like you 'The Dosadi Experiment' is one of my all time fave reads so thanks for the memories. I just *loved* the idea of BuSab and all it stood for. I might just have break a long habit and to re-read it.....

    1. CyberKitten,

      Whipping Star had been on Mount TBR for a long time, so I decided finally to read it. Now, having been reminded of The Dosadi Experiment, I really itching to dust if off and do it again.

    2. Not 100% sure I've read Whipping Star. I *probably* have [muses]. I might schedule it in after my upcoming batch of Hard Boiled Crime novels......

    3. CyberKitten,

      Who's in your batch of "Hard Boiled Crime novels"?

    4. Yes, CK, I'm also curious.

    5. It's 10 books - 5 modern and 5 classic. The classics are:

      Stop This Man! by Peter Rabe (1955)
      Nightwalker by Donald Hamilton (1954)
      Fright by Cornell Woolrich (1950)
      Blackmailer by George Axelrod (1952)
      Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block (1964)

    6. CyberKitten,

      Haven't read any of them. Interesting. Lawrence Block and Cornell Woolrich are the only authors on your list that I have read.

    7. They're all books in the Hard Case Crime series - a mix of modern and classic 'Noir' novels. The classics tend to be pretty good. The modern ones are very hit & miss.

    8. CyberKitten,

      Who are the modern writers?

    9. The more modern books are:

      Little Girl Lost by Richard Aleas (2004)
      Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas (2007)
      The Guns of Heaven by Pete Hamil (1983)
      Deadly Beloved by Max Allan Collins (2007)

    10. CyberKitten,

      Pete Hamill is the only familiar name, but I don't know why. I must have read something by him, but I lost a lot of files way back when, so I can't go back too far.

  4. "corridors of entropy" i thought about this for quite a while; still wonder if it actually means anything, tho... it's an amusing and euphonic phrase; my favorite kind...
    Mrs. M read both the novels serially some time ago and tried to get me to read them but i didn't partly i thin because i was into something else and partly because of my feelings about torture.... she like them a lot, tho...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      The whipping scenes are incredibly brief: the portal in the beachball opens, an arm reaches through, the whip flashes, the arm and the whip withdraw, the portal closes. That's it. It happens so quickly that those who are there to stop it are unable to and it's over before anybody can move.

  5. Herbert had such a fertile imagination. Though it has been a long time since I have read The Dosadi Experiment or Whipping Star both books seem fresh in my mind.

    I think that when it comes to big organizations, sometimes a little gum in the machinery, slowing things down can be a benefit. This sometimes I wish that there was a Sabotage Corps around.

    1. Brian,

      Yes, he was a very creative writer.

      I've been intrigued by that idea, for before reading Whipping Star, I had accepted the conventional wisdom that a faster, more efficient government was to be desired. I'm not exactly on the other side now, but I no longer unquestioningly accept the value of a fast, efficient government.