Frank Herbert, Whipping Star, 1969 —

To spell it out right up front, Frank Herbert’s sf novel Whipping Star is based on a very, very, very silly premise.

At the risk of repeating myself, did I mention that the premise is silly? Well, it is.

Here’s a partial synopsis — you be the judge:

  • Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinaire for the Bureau of Sabotage (BuSab) — a quasi-governmental organization whose mission statement is to prevent the rest of government from operating too efficiently — has been called in to solve a problem that’s come up on the planet Cordiality.
  • The source of the problem is Madame Mliss Abnethe, the richest woman in the known universe. In McKie’s understated words, Mliss is “a bit kinky about floggings.”
  • That in itself is not the problem, however, because Mliss has been “treated for that.” But that treatment, again per McKie, “didn’t eliminate the root of her problem. it just fixed her so she couldn’t stand the sight of a sentient suffering.”
  • No, the problem is rather that Mliss has found a way around whatever psychic blocks have been installed in her cerebral cortex, by the simple device of hiring a Caleban — not the half-human mooncalf of Shakespeare’s Tempest (that’s a Caliban), but a mysterious alien entity that lives (or has a locus of presence) in a large beachball-like artifact that has just now washed up on the shores of Cordiality’s ocean.
  • What makes the Caleban an ideal solution to Mliss’s problem is that the alien is ostensibly unable to feel pain — more: it’s unable even to understand the concept of pain. No pain, no suffering, hence no triggering of Mliss’s therapeutically imposed aversion to same while she’s getting her sadomasochistic kicks.
  • But while the Caleban may not be able to experience pain from the repeated floggings to which Mliss is subjecting it, it can die from them — and thereby hangs a tale.
  • Because the Calebans, as a species, had, long before the action of the story begins, provided the rest of the sentient beings in the galaxy with an offer they can’t refuse: a facility known as a “S’eye” (or, colloquially, a “jumpdoor”) which makes possible instantaneous travel to anywhere in the Milky Way.
  • In anticipation of the death of their fellow on Cordiality, the rest of the Calebans have fled the plane of material existence. And, if the last remaining Caleban dies by the whip, it’ll take  everyone who’s ever used a Caleban-mediated jumpdoor along with it — a category which by now includes pretty much everyone in the galaxy, period.

Pretty ridiculous, eh? And that’s just the set-up!

So, why am I troubling you with this drivel? Ah, thereby hangs a tale of a different color: one about the linguistics of incomprehensibility.

I think it’s fair to say that Frank Herbert’s prose often teeters on the brink of unintelligibility (see, for example, his masterful descent into utter incoherence in Destination: Void (1966)). Never, however, has it done so to better effect than in Whipping Star, where Herbert deploys obscurantism in the service of depicting a truly credibly-alien alien.

Take, for example, this exchange between the aforementioned Caleban and Alichino Furuneo, one of McKie’s BuSab colleagues (page 73):

“That which extends from one to eight,” the Caleban said, “that is a connective. Correct use of verb to be?”
“Identity verb,” the Caleban said. “Strange concept.”
“No, no. What did you mean there, one to eight?”
“Unbinding stuff.” the Caleban said.
“You mean like a solvent?”
“Before solvent.”
“What the devil could before have to do with solvents?”
“Perhaps more internal than solvents,” the Caleban said.

(Now, I’ve tried my hand at creating non-human characters (see Dualism, and the forthcoming Triploidy), but this is a level of well-nigh impenetrable alienness that goes far beyond anything I could ever aspire to!)

Indeed, for the very reason that the Caleban’s utterances, and the thought(?) processes behind them, are so difficult to understand, and because in consequence any attempt at interpretation becomes such a Herculean effort, the dialogue itself — and especially the unscrambling thereof — becomes a major part of the action.

One thing’s for sure: silly premise or not, NASA should put Whipping Star on its required-reading list for everyone in its First Contact Division!