Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Direct Descent by Frank Herbert

Library planet under bureaucratic siege
Direct Descent is a work of science fiction by Frank Herbert, the author of Dune. Though considered a novel, the book is really a collection of two short stories, labeled Part I and Part II. Part I is based on a short story by Herbert entitled “Pack Rat Planet,” which was published in the December 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Part II was presumably created specifically for the 1980 publication of Direct Descent. Altogether the book adds up to maybe 100 pages of text. Paperback editions of Direct Descent were padded with illustrations, but the ebook edition I read was not illustrated.

The two stories, Part I and Part II, are only loosely related and do not constitute a continuous narrative. In other words, Part II is not a sequel to Part I. The stories have different characters, but both take place on the same world and build upon similar plot premises. The world in question is Earth, but an Earth much changed from that which we know. Part I takes place in the 81st century, while Part II is set at least two thousand years beyond that. Much like in the Duniverse, mankind has spread outwards from Earth to colonize the galaxy. In Direct Descent, however, the Earth is now home to the Galactic Archives, a sort of gargantuan Library of Congress for the entire galaxy. The holdings of this library are so extensive that much of the planet has been hollowed out to make room for them, right down to the Earth’s very core.

The library director informs us that “The first rule of the Galactic Library Code is to obey all direct orders of the government in power.” How can the library management be expected to follow that directive, however, when the government is antagonistic towards the library and aims to shut it down? Such is the premise of both stories. Following a regime change, the new governing power sends auditors to the Library looking to disband it due to financial or ideological reasons. Besides hoarding archival materials from all of mankind’s planets, another mission of the Galactic Library is to disseminate information, which it does by sending out thousands of broadcasts of randomly selected content from its holdings. If one were to compare Direct Descent to present-day politics, the story is less analogous to the U.S. government’s treatment of the Library of Congress than it is to the government’s treatment of the Public Broadcasting Service. When conservative administrations take power, they look to cut the funding of PBS, which they see as a liberal enterprise. Direct Descent presents two gross exaggerations of this sort of ideological squabble.

I’m very interested in libraries and their history, so I enjoyed the library planet that Herbert envisioned for this novel. I can’t help thinking, however, that a more whimsical science fiction writer—Clifford D. Simak, perhaps—could have handled the idea better. The wonders of knowledge contained in this planet-sized institution are hardly explored at all. Herbert is more interested in government bureaucracy than he is in the library itself. Both stories in Direct Descent rely on legal technicalities for their resolutions. These technicalities are so technical, in fact, that they confuse the reader and may even defy logic. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my visit to the Galactic Archives for the most part. As a work of literature, this isn’t in the same league with the Dune saga or Herbert’s other major works. It’s just a light, fun read that doesn’t require much heavy mental lifting or a major investment of time.
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