The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert Review

The Dosadi Experiment is set in the same universe as Whipping Star, which has recently been reissued by Tor. After reading that book I just had to reread The Dosadi Experiment as well. First published in 1977, seven years after the first ConSentiency novel, I consider it to be Herbert’s best non-Dune work, although I have to admit there are still a number of his novels I haven’t read yet. It is also a very densely plotted and inaccessible novel.

Frank Herbert

That plus the fact that every other work Herbert wrote tends to be buried under the enormous success of Dune makes it a somewhat underappreciated book in my opinion. For the basic idea of the ConSentiency I am going to refer to the Whipping Star review, otherwise this review will be excessively long.

Many generations ago a number of powerful individuals the the Gowachin species, 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 exposed them to highly toxic and hostile conditions. 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.

Neither the Dosadi themselves nor the rest of the ConSentiency is supposed to know about this experiment. Somehow the Bureau of Sabotage has noticed something shameful is about to happen and Jorj X. McKie, saboteur extraordinary and Legum of the Gowachin Bar is sent to investigate. The Gowachin are considering destroying Dosadi and everyone on it. McKie needs to find out what it is, the Gowachin are so desperate to get rid of, or as some would put it, are afraid to set loose on the universe.

On Dosadi in the mean time, people are not as ignorant as their captors would like to believe. Many have worked out the fact that their species did not originate on the planet for themselves. The God Wall is a religious icon to some and a barrier to the wider universe to others. One ambitious Dosadi, bent on escaping her prison in Keila Jedrik. Through carefully manipulated tension between the species she sets of a chain reaction of violence aimed to gain control over the planet, and ultimately, break out of the prison.

What I provided here is the merest outline of a plot, it doesn’t really do the novel justice. In just three hundred pages Herbert creates such a tangle of motivations, driving forces, philosophical ideas and social science that is is very hard to summarize. To make sure the reader does not get completely lost in this tangle Herbert provides brief quotes from various sources to allow the reader insight in the various parties in the conflict. Often these contain biting social commentary. One of the chapters is headed by this quote for instance:

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?

Now that is an interesting question on many levels at the moment. Do not make the mistake of assuming the author thinks any of these are actually true though, they are often presented as axioms or aphorisms and these don’t always agree with each other. Where the previous quote, a decidedly ConSentient way of looking at things, stresses a legal concept, informed consent, a couple of chapters later we find the following quote:

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.

Why yes it is, but the way it goes about regulating is not something I would like to observe too closely. The Gowachin have their own ideas on legal matters, their brand of justice plays an important part in the finale of the novel.

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.

What these quotes do is show along which lines the parties in this novel think, as such they can be a great help to the reader puzzling out the leaps in understanding the characters make. Herbert does not explain, he provides the clues and lets the reader figure it out for themselves. This is something he does in almost all his novels but in The Dosadi Experiment and the final two Dune novels it is most apparent.

I guess you could say the main part of the novel is spent on exploring the psychological differences between Dosadi and ConSentiency citizens. Exposing a population to extremely hard conditions to harden them is an idea Herbert used in his Dune series as well. And inevitably the “civilized” part of the universe underestimates them, sees them are barbaric. From Jedik’s point of view McKie, supposedly ConSentiency’s best, is transparent, soft and childishly easy to manipulate until he assumes the Dosadi mode of thinking. The speed with which McKie overcomes the shock of what he finds on Dosadi and learns to see the universe as one of the natives is of course where his real talent’s lie. In a way the Dosadi underestimate McKie and the ConSentiency as well.

The Dosadi way of thinking is not the only thing the reader has to deal with. Much of the battle between McKie’s Bureau of Sabotage and those running the Dosadi Experiment takes place in what the Gowachin call the Courtarena. As the quote above shows, their view on legal matters differs greatly from what we would consider justice. The inter-species tension and constant threat of violence in these confrontations in the Courtarena, the way McKie must delve into the culture of an alien race the have any chance of survival, makes for a very good finale of this novel.

It is possible to read The Dosadi Experiment as a standalone but the book does give away the ending of Whipping Star. I also think to fully appreciate the role the Calabans play in the Dosadi conspiracy you need to read the previous book. I read Whipping Star for the first time recently and during this reread I encountered a number of things I missed in my first reading of The Dosadi Experiment. Tor’s decision to reprint the Dosadi Experiment first does not make a whole lot of sense to me in this light. I would also have liked to have a copy that is a bit more durable than the mass market paperback I own now.

After this reread I am more convinced than ever The Dosadi Experiment is a masterwork of science fiction. If you are one of the few who liked the last two Dune novels you will want to read this. Not all of Herbert’s novels have aged well, but this one certainly is still recommended reading.