Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Dosadi Experiment - Frank Herbert

The Dosadi Experiment is part of a series on Saboteur Extraordinary Jorj X. McKie consisting of two pieces of short fiction, A Matter of Traces (1958) and The Tactful Saboteur (1964) and two novels. The first novel is Whipping Star, which appeared in 1970. It was followed seven years later by this book. The books and stories can be read independently - in fact, that is what I did first time around - but, I after reading the novels in the proper order I have to say you get a bit more out of them that way. The Dosadi Experiment is a very dense piece of writing, revelations and insights follow each other in rapid succession. With the background on the species and the universe provided in Whipping Star it is a bit easier to read. Personally I think it is one of the best Herbert has written. It features many of the themes that are common in his work. The quality of the writing however, and this too is common in Herbert's oeuvre, leaves something to be desired at some points. For some readers, it can make this work impenetrable.

Many generations ago a number of powerful individuals among the Gowachin, one of the species that makes up the ConSentiency, started a  secret experiment. On the planet Dosadi they imprisoned a group of  humans and Gowachin and thus exposing them to highly toxic and hostile conditions on the planet. To prevent their escape a veil across the sky was put in  place, known by the Dosadi as the God Wall. While the Gowachin looked on a society developed, packed into the one city on the planet where a  relatively toxic free environment could be created. Even with the staggering population density this city maintains, there is only a place for so many. A great many more humans and Gowachin eke out a short  living outside the city, a place referred  to as the Rim. Now, the bureau of sabotage has caught wind of this experiment that goes against many of the laws of the ConSentiency. It will cause acute embarrassment to the Gowachin, a species that value the law above all else. BuSab's top agent Jorj X. McKie is sent in to find out why this experiment had to remain secret and what the Gowachin hoped to gain with it.

As I mentioned before, Herbert uses a number of themes in this novel that readers of his other works will recognize. In the early stages of the novel in particular, human survival and our evolution as a species is being discussed. Dosadi is like Salusa Secundus or Dune, a place to harden the human species, a place where the environment demands both physical and psychological adaptations in order to survive. We see a number of these survival tactics in The Dosadi Experiment too. It is one of those adaptations that make the Dosadi an acute danger to the ConSentiency. Their struggle for survival is so intense that they see everything in terms of how it will impact their position, their chances of survival. In fact, when asked what drives the Dosadi: McKie answers: "the power to change your condition." When everything is treated as a threat to, or an opportunity to improve upon, your condition, people become very transparent indeed. Dosadi has peeled away all the games, all the veils that hide such motivations in societies where survival is not an issue. Where others are constantly confused by such misdirection, the Dosadi see what lies underneath.

Unfortunately this way of thinking has a drawback. Most of the characters from Dosadi are pretty much interchangeable. They all think alike and while their station in society may differ, their driving forces are the same. That sameness takes something away from sheer Machiavellian power struggle that unfolds on the planet. The key players are not really that interesting as characters, in fact, they are bordering on being sociopaths most of the time. Herbert is playing this game on a higher level and does not invest in them too much.

One of these levels Herbert is interested in is the intersection between power, politics, economics and religion. Like the Bene Gesserit in Dune, the Gowachin that designed the experiment put in place certain religious restrictions to keep the experiment moving in the direction they desired. This use of religion is more of a sidenote in the story though. Herbert has more to say on leadership, power and justice in this book. One quote that remains frightfully relevant in these times of economic stagnation states:
Does a population have informed consent when a population is not taught the inner workings of its monetary system, and then is drawn, all  unknowing, into economic adventures?
I guess many business moguls, bankers and politicians wouldn't like to consider this question in detail at the moment. While this question seems to challenge the current western economic system, Herbert doesn't assume the alternative to be much better. Keep in mind this novel was published in 1977, cold war thinking was still very relevant at the time. The fall of the communist economic block was still some years in the future.
Communal/managed economics have always been more destructive of their societies than those driven by greed. This is what the Dosadi says: Greed sets its own limits, is self-regulating.
Herbert constantly challenges and questions the use of power in politics and economics. He poses uncomfortable questions about what drives our own society and how the way it functions impact the individual. With all these thoughts in the back of his head, Herbert then moves on to another central concept in this novel: justice.

This is where the novel gets really alien. McKie is not only and agent of BuSab, he is also an expert in Gowachin law. In fact, his is one of the few non-Gowachin ever to be raised to the bar. Gowachin law is a very different beast from law that is being practiced in our society. Herbert of course draws contrasts with the American (and by extension Anglo-Saxon) system, but it will work for places where current law is based on other legal traditions too. Gowachin court cases are potentially lethal to all participants. Keeping this in mind, it is not surprising that one of the tenets of practicing law on their home planet is that litigation is to be avoided at all cost. One of the snippets of text Herbert uses as an introduction to a new chapter puts it like this:
No legal system can maintain justice unless every participant -  magisters, prosecutors, Legums, defendants, witnesses, all - risks life itself in whatever dispute comes before the bar. Everything must be risked in the Courtarena. If any element remains outside the contest and without personal risk, justice inevitably fails.
One may question if this is true of course, but it certainly cuts back on frivolous lawsuits. It also puts tremendous pressure on the few cases that do end up in the courtarena. Litigation among the Gowachin can easily turn into a bloody spectacle.

Herbert uses all these ideas he puts in the novel to create an extreme and very dramatic scenario of course. He does do so in a way that can be seen as commentary on many things that go on in our society. The questions Herbert asks about the use of power, economic systems and justice are, and as far as I can tell will be for some time to come, dreadfully relevant. Thematically Herbert condensed many of the ideas that he had been writing about in the previous two decades into one novel. In a way that is quite an achievement but the result will feel too dense for comfortable reading to many people. I've read this novel twice before the read I did for this review, and I still found quite a lot of links to his other works I had missed. So many in fact that I fear that if I read it again in a few years time, I'll see even more.

My opinion that The Dosadi Experiment is Herbert's best non-Dune book has remained unchanged. It is a novel that summarizes many of the themes that can be found in his works but also highlights some of the problems with his writing. The lack of character development, the constantly changing viewpoints and the cognitive leaps that characterize the novel keep it from being a great work. Herbert's grasp of the ideas he wants to discuss is unrivaled in science fiction but the way he translates them to the plot is less so. Personally, I can live with Herbert's shortcomings as a writer though. I wouldn't recommend anybody new to Herbert to start here, but if you like his style this is certainly a novel you'll not want to miss.

Book Details
Title: The Dosadi Experiment
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 310
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-34253-7
First published: 1977


  1. Nice review, or putting it another way, I agree. I was thinking of rereading it and thought I'd see how it had been received into the canon. If it was cut for publication (entirely speculation on my part) it'd be nice to see the original.

  2. I have read this book many a time and seldom tire of it. In fact it refreshes me every time I do so. I could only wish for more of its ilk.