Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Jesus Incident by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom

Herbert’s best world-building since Dune
The Jesus Incident
, published in 1979, is the sequel to Frank Herbert’s novel Destination: Void. In that earlier novel, a spaceship from Earth departs the solar system to colonize another star system. In The Jesus Incident, that ship has arrived at the planet of Pandora, making this novel the first in a Pandora trilogy, followed by The Lazarus Effect and The Ascension Factor. The three Pandora novels are a collaboration between Herbert and poet Bill Ransom.

In Destination: Void, the space travelers were tasked with creating not just an artificial intelligence but an artificial consciousness. In doing so, they inadvertently created a being with godlike powers. Unknown centuries have passed since the end of that last book. Their creation, Ship, seems to be omniscient. Unlike the Christian God, Ship isn’t shy about speaking directly to his subjects—straight into their minds, in fact. Ship’s powers also seem to inexplicably border on omnipotence. He captures humans from different worlds and brings them to Pandora, where he watches them act out experiments in civilization. He demands that his humans figure out how to “worShip” him, but so far no one has successfully solved that riddle. While many humans live in orbit within Ship, many others work to establish a colony on the surface of Pandora. The planet presents a harsh environment populated by savage and terrifying creatures. One species, however, the electrokelp of the planet’s oceans, shows promising signs of intelligence and may hold the key to worShip.

Though probably coincidental, there are some uncanny similarities between The Jesus Incident and the movie Avatar, which also takes place on a planet called Pandora. In Avatar, the two leads have sex by communing with the neural network of an intelligent tree. The electrokelp of Herbert’s Pandora serves the same purpose. Similarly, in both Pandoras all species in nature, from the beautiful to the savage, are connected by a universal mind that allows the apex species (tree or kelp) to influence the actions of all flora and fauna. This sort of Taoist or pantheistic conception of nature imparts an ecological message to both sci-fi narratives. Also, in both cases the hero demonstrates the unusual ability to ride a native creature by establishing a psychological rapport with it, which also calls to mind Paul Atreides riding the sandworms of Herbert’s Dune.

The Jesus Incident suffers from a pacing problem. The book is 69 chapters long, and for many of those chapters, not a whole lot happens. In chapter 69, however, everything happens, and it all happens so fast it’s difficult to figure out what exactly happened. The connection to Jesus in The Jesus Incident feels tenuous and forced. It almost seems as if Herbert came up with the title of the book first, and then had to find some way of incorporating Christ into the story. Of course, we know from Dune that Herbert is fascinated with messiahs and saviors, and he continues investigating such phenomena here. Omniscience is another favorite theme of Herbert’s, but for an ability that should be unique and amazing he sure does bestow it upon a lot of characters.

Despite all the religious subject matter, The Jesus Incident isn’t so much about Ship as it is about the humans battling each other for dominance over Pandora. In that sense, it is a lot like Dune in that it presents a psychological chess match between multiple parties with diverse self-interests. As a fictional universe, Pandora is not up to the complexity and ingenuity of Dune, but the multi-volume arc allows Herbert to delve into world-building to an extent unparalleled in his stand-alone novels. Dune fans will find much to enjoy in The Jesus Incident, but those unfamiliar with Herbert may be put off by the weird spiritual mysticism of Ship and Pandora.
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