Friday, February 24, 2023

The Ascension Factor by Frank Herbert

Not the strong finale one would hope for
The Ascension Factor
is the final novel in the Pandora Sequence by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom. Herbert’s novel Destination: Void was a prelude of sorts to the series. He then collaborated with his friend, poet Bill Ransom, on a trilogy of novels set on a planet named Pandora, beginning with The Jesus Incident, which was followed by The Lazarus Effect. The Ascension Factor was published in 1988. Herbert died while the book was being written, and Ransom has stated that for that reason he had a bigger hand in writing this final book than he did for the previous two novels. Even if that’s the case, there is no noticeable change in style or narrative voice in this last installment, but the plot is the least interesting of the series.

While centuries passed between the previous novels in the Pandora series, The Ascension Factor takes place only 25 years after the end of The Lazarus Effect. A couple of characters have returned from that previous novel, but mostly this new book is populated by the children of The Lazarus Effect’s cast. One of the returnees is the recurring character Raja Flattery, the chaplain/psychiatrist of the original mission from Earth. Despite the fact that the astronauts who ventured to Pandora can stay alive for centuries in “hybernation,” this is not the same Raja Flattery who appeared in the previous novels, but rather another clone of the same person. This new Flattery is a tyrant who rules over Pandora with an iron fist, commanding a complex network of intelligence agents, assassins, and media outlets. Fed up with Pandora’s harsh environment and pestered by an underground resistance, Flattery has decided to build a new space ship to migrate humans to another planet where he will re-establish his authoritarian rule. Meanwhile, Pandora’s apex native species of sentient electrokelp, long controlled by humans for its climate-changing abilities, has started to outgrow the rule of its masters, and a legendary human/kelp hybrid messiah has appeared on the scene to challenge Flattery’s dictatorship.

The Pandora Sequence is also known as the WorShip series, after the conscious and omniscient spacecraft known as Ship, whom many humans on Pandora worship as a god. Herbert and Ransom never really followed up with that thread, however, as Ship abandoned Pandora after The Jesus Incident, never to return. The religious titles of the three Pandora novels lead one to believe that Herbert and Ransom might use this sci-fi series to examine religious and theological concepts. That’s true of The Jesus Incident, which contains a lot of Judeo-Christian imagery, but once again the authors pretty much abandoned that idea in the later novels. The only religion that’s really covered in the last two books is the sort of messiah worship that Herbert already explored more intelligently in his Dune series. The Ascension Factor, with its rather simplistic overthrow-the-tyrant storyline, feels too much like a rehash of Dune themes.

In the Dune books, the plots were driven by continuous confrontations between characters. The Ascension Factor, like The Lazarus Effect, suffers from too much going places and not enough getting there. The characters spend so much time in vehicles on their way to meeting each other that you have to wait until the very end of the book for much to happen, and then too much happens. Also plaguing this novel is a return to the technobabble that almost rendered Destination: Void unintelligible. Towards the end of The Ascension Factor, the authors (probably Ransom, mostly) get so bogged down in the technical details of the kelp, submarines, and hologram technology of Pandora that it’s hard to follow exactly what’s going on. Or rather, it’s hard to care when anything goes. Overall, the Pandora series is an entertaining and intriguing sci-fi saga, but it could have used a better finale.
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