The Herbert Experiment

Book synchronisation crisis resolved. I finished A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin on Kindle with a little of my current audiobook, Reamde by Neal Stephenson, still to go. This means that when I have polished off the final half hour of the latter I will be able to go straight on to A Dance with Dragons, the next book in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, on Audible.

In the meantime I can start something new on my Kindle. NOT I might add another Neal Stephenson. The next “proper” read will probably be The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, but I am filling in with an old Frank Herbert book, Whipping Star, which dates back to 1970.

I did have a little dabble with On Basilisk Station by David Weber, the first in the Honor Harrington series. This was only because Steve Gibson, host of “Security Now!” on the TWiT podcast network, has made such a fuss about it. It is unreadably trite. The writing style is so cliched and infantile as to be stomach churning. I know there are legions of fans of this series but I cannot read it.

There is a pattern here. To date I have not enjoyed a single book recommended by Steve Gibson and I’ve tried a few. From now on I’ll take it that any book praised by Gibson can immediately be written off to the “avoid like the plague” pile.

The Frank Herbert book is, well, typical of Frank Herbert. Which makes it the extreme opposite of the sort of books Steve Gibson likes. With Herbert you have to keep your wits about you. His works can be dense and invariably involve leading characters who are on such a high plane intellectually that they fasten on to and read hidden meanings into subtle nuances of cultural interaction that lesser beings would miss completely. Herbert can have two characters meet and have what to a casual listener sounds like a trivial discussion about their favourite breakfast choices, but which at a far deeper level has complex repercussions for the fate of the universe. And the “tuned in” leading lights of the story disdain the fools around them who lack their ability to read these subtle references. This is as true of say Dune as it is of Whipping Star or for that matter most of Herbert’s books.

A simple example from Whipping Star:

“Putcha, putcha, putcha,” the Taprisiot said. “This is a remark which I will now translate in the only way that may make sense to ones like yourselves of Sol/Earth ancestry. What I said was, ‘I question your sincerity.'”

“You gotta justify your sincerity to a damn Taprisiot?” one of the enforcers asked. “Seems to me…”

“Nobody asked you!” Furuneo cut him off. Any probing attack by a Taprisiot was likely a greeting. Didn’t the fool know this?

Another favourite wheeze of Herbert’s is to start chapters with obtuse quotes from books or texts which only exist in the universe in which the story takes place. So while in Dune we get quotes from “A Child’s History of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan, in Whipping Star we get a quote from the Bureau of Sabotage Manual:

“A BuSab agent must begin by learning the linguistic modes and action limits (usually self-imposed) of the societies he treats. The agent seeks data on the functional relationships which derive from our common universe and which arise from interdependencies.” etc. etc.

You get the picture. Whipping Star does show its age a bit but is still an instantly gripping and challenging book. I’m certainly going to stick with this one.

I should mention that I originally set out to re-read another Frank Herbert book, The Dosadi Experiment, which I originally read as a teenager.  It made an impression on me. But when I realised it was a kind of sequel to Whipping Star, which I had never read, I decided to start with the latter instead.


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