I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that expected me to learn so much in so little time.
I found my copy amidst old volumes in a used bookstore. I’d never heard of it. This copy tore itself apart as I read, because the simple act of turning a page was enough to fragment the stiff paper. It held itself together just long enough for me get to the end. By that time, the final sections were barely bound, with the preceding pages having fallen out as the spine progressively withered.
The plot is intense. Our protagonists approach an alien sphere, interact with the most mysterious creature in the known universe, and learn that every life in the galaxy is about to die–all of this at the very start. Like drinking from a fire hose, we crash into the rest of the setting as the plot unfolds, meeting fascinating aliens and intricate political situations only long enough to know they exist before Frank Herbert rushes us to the next baffling sentence.
iO9 explains it as well as one can:
Herbert’s Whipping Star takes place in the far future after humanity has made contact with several other extraterrestrial civilizations. Together, they form the ConSentiency — a kind of intergalactic government akin to Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. But this system proves to be too efficient for its own good, enacting knee-jerk laws that disregard their own downstream consequences. In turn, a shadow organization is created to disrupt the system and slow it down.
The Whipping Star universe appears to be as well thought-out as any sprawling sci-fi series, but this enormous story has been crammed into a tiny paperback. The world-building is as engrossing as it is overwhelming. The plot moves at breakneck speed, with nearly surreal details that often made me stop and wonder if I understood what was going on. As another blogger so well put it:
Frank Herbert had an imagination quite out of this world, and this is perhaps his weirdest whim. The one Caleban left is called Fanny Mae – seriously – and she is the manifestation of a star – a sun. And what she manifests as is an enormous beach ball.
That’s just one piece of the insane puzzle.
Another facet provided by Wikipedia:
Fannie Mae agreed to the contract with Abnethe in return for education. Calebans have great difficulty understanding and communicating with the more limited species of the ConSentiency (and vice versa), but Fannie Mae is curious. Abnethe’s wealth provides the best tutors in exchange for Fannie Mae’s agreement to take the whippings. Abnethe has an insane sadistic streak, but a court-mandated Clockwork-Orange-style conditioning session leaves her unable to tolerate the suffering of others. Abnethe needs a Caleban to take the whippings because she still craves a way to satisfy her sadistic urges and Calebans do not broadcast their pain in a way that is easily recognized by other species.
Still, I loved it. And I’m not alone, based on reviews I’ve read. It’s a plot so complex Tolkien couldn’t follow it, but the blinding, bizarre narrative is compelling to the last word.