Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Destination: Void by Frank Herbert

Shiploads of techno-speak and psychobabble
Science fiction author Frank Herbert is best known for the six novels in his Dune series, but in between writing those novels he also composed another multi-volume series known as the Pandora Sequence or the WorShip series. The first book in that series, Destination: Void, was originally published in Galaxy Magazine in 1965 and released in book form the following year. Herbert revised the novel in 1978 before publishing its three sequels.

An experimental space ship is launched from Earth to colonize a planet in the Tau Ceti star system. This is the seventh attempt at this mission, the first six ending having ended in disaster. The population of the ship is comprised entirely of clones, who are the expendable lab rat slaves of this future Earth. Thousands of passengers are suspended in hibernation while a handful of crew operate the ship. The voyage is expected to take 400 years. As the novel opens, the ship is somewhere around Saturn. Three of the crew are dead; three remain alive and awake. The ship is too complex for the crew to operate alone, so the vessel’s systems have been hardwired directly into three disembodied human brains. As we join the story, however, these three brains have all gone insane and committed suicide, leaving the crew to their own devices. Their only hope of survival in the far reaches of space is to do something that’s never been successfully done before: create an artificial consciousness from electronic hardware and software. If they succeed, however, what will be the ramifications of spawning the first fully conscious artificial intelligence?

With Destination: Void, somehow Herbert manages to craft a very thrilling novel even though the average reader will have difficult understanding much of what’s going on. The problem of consciousness is an intriguing puzzle, and the crew have many interesting debates about what constitutes consciousness and what an artificial consciousness might require. For example, does a conscious being need to feel pain? Does it require a sense of guilt? Of love? A desire for self-preservation, and consequently, a killer instinct? The crew back up their arguments with psychological theory, some of which is probably authentic scholarship and some of which is a product of Herbert’s fictional future. After such speculations, the crew must then figure out how to implement these traits using computer hardware, and that’s where Herbert really indulges in the sci-fi gobbledygook. The “Ox,” as they call their mechanical Frankenstein’s monster, is made up of a cockamamie almagamation of circuits, wires, pipes, plastic blocks, neuron fibers, eng multipliers, tape loops, and more. You’d have to be a neuroscientist or an electrical engineer to figure it all out, but I suspect Herbert just made a lot of it up as he went along. At least three quarters of the novel is jammed with this nonsensical techno-speak. The amazing thing, however, is that the reader still cares about the characters and remains invested in the plot.

Herbert wrote Destination: Void by himself, but he collaborated with poet Bill Ransom on the remaining novels in the series. Those three sequels—The Jesus Incident, The Lazarus Effect, and The Ascension Factor—comprise a trilogy of sorts. Destination: Void is more of a prelude to that trilogy. Because it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, it doesn’t really feel like a complete novel but rather the lead-in to a larger story. I wouldn’t classify Destination: Void as one of Herbert’s best works, but it does provide the foundation for the Pandora Sequence, which as a whole I think is a worthwhile read. As in the Dune series, the multi-volume arc allows Herbert to take a deep dive into world-building and thoroughly explore some philosophical issues of interest to him. At times he can get too esoteric, but the intellectually challenging nature of his work is also part of the attraction. Herbert fans will like Destination: Void, but don’t expect to understand it.

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