Destination: Void, of which he published a revised edition in 1978, prior to the release of The Jesus Incident (1979), his first collaboration with Ransom. The Jesus Incident was rough around the edged, mostly because a copyright issue came up that required lots of last-minute rewriting. This was written in a less frantic fashion. Interesting enough, The Jesus Incident turned out better.
The sentient kelp is dead and it's stabilizing influence on Pandora's oceans is sorely missed. All land surface has disappeared under the waves and humanity has devised two ways of surviving in a place that is, if possible, even more hostile to human life. Part of the population, the Islanders, lives in huge, crowded floating cities but the majority, the Mermen, moved beneath the waves. Kelp DNA has been stored in humanity's own gene pool through the experiment of the geneticist Jesus Lewis, cause a whole string of genetic defects in large parts of the population. Now, some seek to harvest the rewards of Lewis' foresight and reintroduce the kelp. Some even believes that this will bring back Ship, who seems the have abandoned his worshippers. Reintroducing will mean the end of a way of life however, and not everybody is pleased about this decision being taken by a small group of people on behalf of the whole of humanity. Tensions run high when the first signs of Avata's return become apparent.
One thing that immediately struck me about the writing was that it is a much smoother read than The Jesus Incident. The writing is much more polished, more uniform. It also misses the poetic flourishes that Ransom added to the previous book. Give the history of these two volumes, some difference was to be expected but I was surprised by how much the prose had changed. The Jesus Incident is not an easy read, and the prose certainly contributed to that but I think Herbert and Ransom lost something in the polishing as well. It makes me wonder how The Ascension Factor (1988) the final novel in the trilogy has turned out. It has largely been written by Ransom due to Herbert's sudden and untimely death in 1986.
Thematically, tyranny is very much at the forefront of the story. Some pretty draconian rules have been put in place regarding children born with very serious birth defects. Deviate too much from what is considered normal - which, it must be said, is quite a stretch from what we would recognize as a normal variation of the human body - and the child is not allowed to live. One of the main characters is a judge on the panel deciding on such cases on one of the floating cities. He is a very interesting character in a way, feeling completely justified in deciding over life and death based is such a way and on the other hand highly suspicious and dismissive of the Mermen project to bring back the kelp, feeling the Merman are forcing a decision on the Islanders without taking their interests into account. His reaction to the kelp and the cults is has inspired among the Mermen is, if possible even more interesting.
Mermen and Islanders don't always seem to be at odds though. Part of the story is made up of a romance between and Islander boy and a Mermen girl, who set aside all preconceived notions and ignore blatant prejudice after she saves him from drowning. An interesting reverse of the damsel in distress I suppose but I thought the whole thing was a bit cheesy to be honest. As this love story is the backbone of the plot, the novel as a whole doesn't seem quite as intellectually challenging as most of Herbert's other novels. There is plenty hiding under the surface but not nearly as much going on at the forefront as what I've come to expect from Herbert.
In terms of the challenges presented to Pandoran society it definitely is classic Herbert. His motto 'the only constant is change' clearly shows through in this novel. Herbert and Ransom describe a society that had to adapt to radically different environmental conditions and is now on the verge of reversing some of that change. It is these moments of punctuated equilibrium if you will, that fascinates Herbert and this novel is a good example of that. Change is imminent in many areas, a species is being brought back from extinction (the title of a novel is a reference to Lazarus of Bethany, a figure from the gospel of John restored to life by Jesus), environmental changes on a large scale are taking place dooming a way of life and the culture built upon, religions convictions are challenged by the rebirth of the kelp and regaining access to orbital space flight. Change is rapid and profound in this novel.
I must admit I found the premise of the novel and the large scale developments Herbert and Ransom describe fascinating but I didn't care for most of the characters. The judge is mildly interesting, the lovers are not. There are a few other characters I haven't mentioned thus far, including a terrorist, a diplomat and ridiculously stupid historian none of whom were really engaging. Most of them seem to miss the sharpness, awareness and deep insights Herbert's more interesting characters share. Ship's unpredictable presence is also sorely missed in this novel. In short I have to really dig to find things I like in The Lazarus Effect. It is there for sure but buried a somewhat unfocussed plot, featuring bland and largely uninteresting characters. Add to that the unremarkable prose and you end up with a novel that readable but certainly not memorable. I'm hoping for better things from the concluding volume of this trilogy.
Title: The Jesus Incident
Author: Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
First published: 1983