Title: The Dosadi Experiment
Author: Frank Herbert
First Published (in the UK) in 1978 by Victor Gollancz.
The Dosadi Experient is one of Frank Herbert's finest works. It is on a par with "The Dragon in the Sea" (also known a "Under Pressure") in terms of intensity and complexity. I personally think it is right up there with, or even better than Dune. To my knowledge this book is out of print in both the UK and USA at present but still if you can find it, it is well worth it.
The Caleban were discovered by Jorg X. McKie in "Whipping Star" when he saved the life of one of their kind. They are huge organisms that appear to mere humans as stars. Their awareness seems to be of the paths that sentience takes through the universe rather than the universe itself. They often refer to lifeforms as nodes as though the lifeform itself simply performs the function of concentrating sentience. The descriptions of the way Calebans see the universe are one of the most interesting aspects of the book.
Calebans also allow other lifeforms interplanetary travel through the use of jumpdoors which they control. They are immensely powerful lifeforms capable of destroying entire planets but they have little in the way of cunning or indeed human style intellect. They always tell the truth and they always keep their promises although, typically for Frank Herbert's characters, interpretation of the information they provide is an art only the most gifted can perform.
These tree like aliens seem to be the little cousins of the Calebans. They provide the interplanetary communications for the rest of the inhabitants of the universe. This is pretty much their only function but it is an important one as the only way you can get in touch with a Caleban is using one of these creatures.
These aliens are modelled after humanoid frogs. They are notoroiously brutal and will chase their tadpole-like young around the breeding pools snapping up the weaker ones "for the good of the species". The Gowachins are the legalists of the Dosadi universe and a good proportion of the book takes place in one of their courtrooms. True to the brutal nature of this species the life of a loser in the 'CourtArena' belongs to the winner.
It is these aliens that set up the Dosadi Experiment in the first place and it is an environment every bit as brutal as their species' personality would suggest.
As you might guess from the name, the Pan-Speci can take the form of any of the species in the universe. The Pan-Speci have a strange home life; each individual has a litter of brothers and sisters that have no personalities of their own. The personality is held for a specified length of time by one of these creatures and then given up to one of its creche mates. You can recognise a Pan-Speci in the form of any species becasue they all have faceted silver eyes.
Wreaves are a young dangerous species. They are to a certain extent modelled after preying mantises and other insects. These creatures are not the brightest species but they are vicious. They are extremely loyal to their mates and to each other as a species and the entire species will hunt down and kill anyone who harms one of these creatures.
Humans are as you would expect. They are included in this list for completeness and because they are the other species, along with the Gowachins, that are imprisoned on Dosadi. The leading character is a raffish Saboteur Extraordinary named Jorg X. McKie.
The Planet Dosadi
This planet is an experiment in desperation created by the Gowachins. Its only habitable area consists of a single massively overcrowded city. The rest of the planet is extremely toxic. The planet is closed off from the rest of the universe by a Caleban created blanket that allows nothing in or out except the occasional person with the help of the Calebans.
Dosadi is a brutal place in which only the most devious minds can survive. The reason for its creation is two-fold: first it is an experient about Gowachin/Human interaction under pressure the purpose of which is accelerated evolution of deviousness and strength genes for the benefit of the Gowachins off planet. Second it is a breeding ground for strong bodies into which the personalities of the controlling Gowachins and humans can be put as a kind of immortality.
The reason for its impending destruction is that it has suceeded and had created individuals so devious they are a threat to the outside universe.
It all starts when the BuSab (Bureau of Sabotage) starts to receive reports of the imminent destruction of an entire inhabited planet by the Gowachins. The problem is that no-one except the Calebans know where this planet is and they are bound to silence by a contract. McKie is charged by the BuSab chief with finding out where the planet is and stopping its destruction if possible.
McKie manages to get around the Caleban imposed restrictions by observing that transporting a person to the planet Dosadi does not break the contract as the person still cannot tell where he is. This is the first in a long line of creative interpretations that allow McKie to succeed on Dosadi and in the CourtArena.
When he gets to Dosadi he is very quickly found out. He is the most devious mind in the outside universe and he succumbs very quicky to the Dosadi trained minds. Fortunately for him he is just a pawn in a race among the top Dosadi inhabitants to escape the planet and seek sucess and freedom in the outside universe.
He adapts to life on Dosadi very quickly and is soon playing the game like a master. The person who captured him, Jedrik, quickly realises his true value and she and McKie create a formidable team fighting for the survival of the planet. They become lovers both of them opening themselves to someone else for the first time in their lives.
Together they find out about the personality swapping and undergo a swap with each other that will allow them to escape. At the last moment, as they are escaping the planet the Gowachins who are running the experiment sweep down and kill Jedrik. Just before she dies the Caleban that McKie saved in "Whipping Star" transfers her personality into McKie's body. After a short period of adjustment this leaves them both in a much stronger postion as they now have access to each others thoughts and can work more closely together.
The CourtArena is McKie's area of expertise and he wins his case against the opposing Wreave exposing the Gowachins and humans who were set to benefit from the experiment. The only problem is that he cannot perform his duty to kill the opposing council as the winning Legum. Faced with death at the claws of the rest of the Wreaves in the universe McKie does the only thing he can to survive, he wriggles out of his untennable position by interpreting both the alien laws of the Gowachins and the alien personalities of the Wreave to his advantage.