The Dosadi Experiment is about a planet set up as a grand but cruel experiment to test how a harsh environment can improve one’s abilities to read those around you and set yourself up for enhanced self-preservation. But it took me a while to figure that out. In fact, it took me 3 or 4 weeks to get through the first 20 pages of this book. It felt impenetrable—which is the same feeling I got when reading the first parts of Dune. Herbert loves to throw a foreign (but completely realized and internally consistent) universe at you and make you pick up on the new nouns, concepts and history slowly and in parallel with the main story. This was hard for me to get past, but once I got past page 20 or so, the story unfolds in a thoroughly intriguing way.
The story is about Jorj McKie, a human from the Bureau of Sabotage sent to investigate the planet Dosadi. Keila Jedrik is human living on Dosadi about to make a huge bid for power and control. There are several interesting aliens that make up the ConSentiency of Herbert’s Dosadi universe—the Gowachin, frog-like beings who’s peculiar form of Law is the focus of several chapters of the book—the Caleban, who manifest themselves as stars and have given the ConSentiency some important technology (Jump doors and a strange communications technology that allows for arbitrarily long distance telepathic-like communication)—and the Wreave, who are not discussed too much, but play a key role at the conclusion.
This book reminded me a lot of Dune—the people of Dosadi (especially those in power) have a unique ability to read people, see what they are thinking, what their next move should be, and then act on it to force the hand of an opponent. The phrase “feint within a feint” is used both in this book and Dune and represents the subtle yet complex nature of mass power plays. This is what Frank Herbert does best and is the most enjoyable part of the book.
That isn’t to say that the rest of the book is not enjoyable. The characters were all great—their progression through the story was exciting and the way they grew as people was fulfilling. I liked the way you couldn’t be sure of the real motivations behind some of the characters until the end—where it turned out to be satisfactory. Characters who started off cold showed that they had delicate emotions underneath it all and I liked that.
So, despite my slow start to this novel, I enjoyed it immensely. If you’ve read Dune and liked it, then you will also like this book. If you enjoy science fiction and sprawling political maneuvering then you will also like this book. Just be sure to get past the first 20 pages before you give up.