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Protip: authors, never give your novel a title critics can run with. Everyone knows there's nothing jerks like us enjoy more than to show off how clever we think we are, so it's easy to imagine some of the quip-happy reviews this book has coming. Hellhole: "Boy, is it ever!" Hellhole: "Please find me one I can chuck this book into!"

Yessiree, is Hellhole ever mad cheesy. After a while, I just threw up my hands and went with it. It isn't science fiction, it's sci-fi, if you take my meaning. The book's characters are uproariously arch, it swipes concepts wantonly from every source it can think of (yeah, even the Duneverse), the magic aliens are so awful they're awesome, and the prologue has some of the most howlingly hilarious — of the unintended variety — writing you're likely to find this side of a Stan Lee comic book from the early 1960's. Still, as potboilers go, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't rich with entertainment value. Of course, I'd say the same thing about Sharktopus and Glenn Beck's concept of what constitutes objective reality. You just have to know what you're getting into beforehand.

Several space opera axioms are helpfully reinforced in this book. First is that no interplanetary empire can ever be benevolently or competently run, because that would be ever so boring. I mean, sure, such an empire might enjoy a wonderful quality of life, an endless progression of glorious scientific and cultural achievements, and billions of people would enjoy the added perk of not being horribly killed in planet-demolishing wars.

But who wants to read stories about that? The Constellation is just such a boredom-free empire, comprising twenty core planets known as the Crown Jewels and a scattered host of 54 colonized worlds of varying desirability out in the Deep Zone. The opinions of any the Crown Jewels' citizens regarding the fact they live on planets named after a euphemism for human genitalia are not recorded by the authors. The hissably evil supreme ruler of the Constellation is the dowager Diadem Michella Duchenet, who clings "to her position of power with cadaverous claws." I'm guessing those are worse than regular claws, but whatever the case, they sound like something I'd want to keep away from my crown jewels.

Diadem Michella's nemesis is the rebel General Tiber Maximilian Adolphus. No man born with a name like that would ever grow up to be a CPA or taxi driver. He probably went straight into service as a general, to avoid the absurdity of being a mere private under CO's with names like Joe Smith. Adolphus's rebellion against Michella's rule looked all but in the bag, until Michella's own military genius, Commodore Percival Hallholme, decided to play dirty, and vanquished Adolphus in orbit over the Constellation's homeworld, Sonjeera. On the advice of scheming Lord Riomani, Michella exiles Adolphus to avoid making him a martyr. He and his remaining loyal followers are shuffled off to a bleak, asteroid-wrecked world deep in the deepest Deep Zone, and Michella adds insult to injury by naming it after the man who handed Adolphus his ignominious defeat. But no one calls the planet Hallholme. Hellhole is the dumping ground for the Constellation's losers, criminals and malcontents, the place you go when you have nowhere else to go.

To be fair, after a dozen Dune novels under their belts, Herbert and Anderson know a thing or two about multi-character plots involving space wars, political backstabbing and intrigue. Even if they don't move too far beyond the clichés of such plots, they can assemble one with precision craftsmanship. None of their characters is developed much beyond what you absolutely need to know about them to get the story going, but it's enough. With a manageable ensemble cast, everyone having an agenda of their own, it allows Herbert and Anderson to produce some fun plot complications and scenes that are pretty darn good on the whole. It's enough to hint at how strong this book could have been had some really dippy storytelling choices not been made. Such as: at one point, we discover that Hellhole has a species of flesh-eating flying insect that no one ever saw before. But after they're introduced, they're never seen again, nor do any of the characters suggest that it might be a smart idea to do something about the swarms of flesh-eating flying insects. Really, I'd get on that.

Adolphus has done pretty well on Hellhole in the 15 years of his exile. As it turns out, a number of highly placed people are still sympathetic to him (including Hallholme himself, guilt-ridden over the sleazy way he pulled off his victorious upset), providing him with supplies on the down-low. A relatively thriving colony exists — and behind the scenes, Adolphus has plans for yet another rebellion, to make the Deep Zone worlds free from Constellation rule, not to mention the ruinous tributes Michella demands. See, there's a form of faster-than-faster-than-light travel made possible by the mining of a rare natural resource called mélange — whoops, I mean iperion. Allies of Adolphus's on other Deep Zone worlds have been mining secret stashes of the stuff for themselves, all with the intent of cutting off the official interstellar routes linking all inhabited worlds to Sonjeera, and allowing the DZ worlds to trade amongst themselves independently. Many problems arise. For one, a coup within the Constellation to take over the main Crown Jewel world that produces iperion ends up, for personal reasons, turning Michella's hopelessly naive daughter, Princess Keana, against her mother. Circumstances will bring her to Hellhole herself, for which she is utterly unprepared.

Really, the seeds are here for the sort of book that really could have been fantastic, even on a purely escapist level. Too bad the magic aliens had to screw it all up.

No, you read that right. Seriously. There are aliens. Magic aliens. Extremely dumb magic aliens! Not just dumb conceptually. We're looking at a race of genuine, pants-on-head idiots.

It's like this. Adolphus has been aware of relics that hint of a long-extinct civilization, doubtless wiped out by the asteroid that slammed Hellhole ages ago. But events quickly move beyond "hints" to "confirmation" when two prospecters discover pools of a liquid called slickwater, which contain the stored memories and personalities of the planet's original inhabitants, the Xayans. Accidentally falling into one of the pools, young Fernando Neron finds his mind linked to that of an ancient Xayan. After revealing the wonders of the Xayan race to Adolphus, and proving its existence beyond all doubt by helping the colonists dig up a sealed chamber including four real Xayans, people begin flocking to Hellhole in their thousands to immerse themselves in the slickwater as if it were some sort of religious experience. And it pretty much is. Old infirm bodies are healed, and minds linked with alien minds are capable of great feats.

Okay. Several issues here. It's one thing to throw some indistinguishable-from-magic supertech into an SF novel, but it's another thing entirely to just hand me a bunch of magic aliens and expect me to consider them all wise and zen and stuff because they are blissfully concerned with little more than meditating and becoming star-children. The primary goal of the Xayans is to achieve a state of transcendence they call ala'ru, which will let them become noncorporeal spiritual entities or something. The benefits are hazy, but "no more killer asteroids" may well be a biggie. While I find the idea of a whole race of slug-like alien Deepak Chopras not terribly appealing, I must add that "wisdom" is not an attribute I'd assign to any race so immersed in their own navel-gazing that they failed to notice the monstrous extinction-event asteroid barreling toward their planet until it was too late.

Xayan technology, such as it is, is pretty much an insult to the reader's intelligence. The four surviving Xayans in the chamber, for instance. What kept them alive and hibernating for millennia? Well, they were immersed in alien goop. A fifth Xayan didn't make it. I guess they didn't check the shelf date on his goop.

The Xayans demonstrate their magic powers by making many things levitate. It's called telemancy. They can also smash things to smithereens and repair them as if they had never been broken, a power that's stunning in its pointlessness. For some reason, Adolphus is sufficiently impressed to think that all this would give Hellhole a strong military home-field advantage when the Constellation inevitably declares war. But you're never sure how, and even the Xayans admit their combined powers weren't enough to deflect the asteroid. Does Adolphus believe they will just flick thousands of incoming missiles aside?

Moreover, their idiocy is dazzling. (What several of them do at the climax, with Adolphus's approval, is so spectacularly moronic it's enough to make you root for Michella on general principles.) The Xayans apparently build their cities using telemancy, constructing buildings with the pure power of collective thought. But if anything breaks their concentration — such as one of their number getting killed — entire buildings come crashing to the ground. Really now, if I had telekinetic powers, I'd want to have fun with them too. But if your whole race is so dependent on them that you fail to develop such material skills as engineering and architecture, well guys, you've failed to launch. What good is a civilization if you experience earthquake-like catastrophes whenever someone stubs a toe? At least the Xayans were smart enough not to invent an insurance industry. Those guys would be broke in a week.

The good parts of Hellhole, and there are enough of them, make me wish I could see what a stronger space opera talent — Hamilton, Reynolds, Drake, Bujold, an in-his-prime Weber — might have done with it. The silly bits make me yearn for a commentary track by Crow and Tom Servo. Anything to get me through this hell of a hole!

Followed by Hellhole: Awakening.


Macmillan Audio provided me with a copy of their 15-CD unabridged audiobook of Hellhole. Veteran Dune reader Scott Brick gives Herbert and Anderson's occasionally overripe prose ("The general's teeth ached from clenching his jaw, but he stood on the bridge of his flagship, ostensibly calm and confident.") appropriately vigorous exercise. It's a impressive recording, in keeping with Macmillan's usual strong production values, and like the best-read audiobooks probably will have the effect of making the story sound better than it is.