Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Destination: Void - Frank Herbert

Like The Heaven Makers, Destination: Void is one of Frank Herbert's titles no longer in print. I had to find a second hand copy of the book. Apparently the rather battered copy I managed to unearth once belonged to Alexander Henry high school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. Makes one wonder how it ended up here in Almere, the Netherlands. Like my copy the book itself also has quite a history. The story was first published in Galaxy under the title Do I Sleep or Wake in 1965 before the first version of the book appeared in 1966. It was revised and partially rewritten for the 1978 publication, released before Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom embarked on the Destination: Void trilogy set in the same universe. My copy is of the 1978 revised version.

Destination: Void is set in a future where humanity has been experimenting with artificial intelligence. To achieve a truly conscious artificial intelligence without risking earth a crew of (expendable) cloned humans are sent safely on a journey to one of the nearby starts under the care spaceship completely controlled by a computer overseen by a disembodied human brain. Although the reader is given reason to doubt the truth of this, the ship our main characters travel on is the sixth of the series. All previous ships have mysteriously disappeared and at the opening of the book it looks like the sixth ship is doomed as well. The human brain controlling the ship, as well as the two backups have failed and several crew members have died as a result of various accidents on the drifting vessel.

Three crew members remain to manually control the ship. They soon realize this is not going to be enough and wake one replacement from hibernation. Together they attempt the impossible to survive the current crisis. To create an conscious artificial intelligence in the ships computer to take over control from them on the long journey. Each of the four is acutely aware of the role they have been conditioned to play in this process as well as the flaws and pressures built into the ship's systems and environment to help the process along. On them rests the responsibility to see three thousand souls in hibernation to their destination safely.

Herbert decided to rewrite part of the novel because of the great strides being made in the field of artificial intelligence in the years between the first and second version of the book. Technology certainly hasn't stopped developing since the second version was published. The computer and its components as described in the book seem to stem from an age when a computer with the processing capabilities of one of today's more modest laptops where the size of a building. The building and programming of the ship's computer is a much more physical process than what we're used to. Making the right connections is considered crucial. The programming itself is discussed in less detail, Herbert focusses on the way information is accessed, stored and retrieved and the parallels between the computer and biological reality. It feels outdated but it's also fascinating in a way.

Unfortunately the way Herbert presents all this information is not he most accessible. There's an awful lot of references to just about anything Herbert seems to have read on the subject in the book. I consider myself to be reasonably well educated but a lot of it went right over my head. This coupled by the almost superhuman intellects of the main characters and the constant jumping between point of view, often even within a conversation, make some parts of the book very demanding on the reader. In some sections it is nearly impossible to separate the science from the technobabble. I suspect many readers will think this book impenetrable. In fact, a quick Google search turns up little in the way of positive reviews.

There are sections where I really enjoyed the book though. One of the problems the crew encounters when they try to create an artificial intelligence is the fact that nobody really knows what consciousness is. Again, I suspect that much of the philosophy Herbert uses on this topic is a bit outdated but it certainly does make you think. The way the four main characters move around what to science is still pretty much a black box is very interesting to observe. Combined with the knowledge that much of what happens to the crew is manipulated by the people who sent them out there makes for a very intense atmosphere on the ship. In several books by Herbert extreme psychological pressures on an individual unlocks a hidden potential in the characters to rise above themselves and achieve something previously considered impossible. One of the characters in Destination: Void does exactly that and a lot of the pressure applied results in anger and frustration. Although it appears otherwise on the surface he is driven to his creative outbursts by a combination careful prodding of the others and the environment created by the people running the experiment. I thought this part of the novel very well done indeed.

Is it worth digging up a copy of this book? I'd say for the Frank Herbert completists certainly. If you are more familiar with Herbert's work it can be an enjoyable book. Destination: Void is one of his most dense and technical books though and it will certainly not appeal to everyone. I think the sheer technical detail in some parts of the novel are a bit overdone and distract from the story. By today's standards it is a pretty short book but most of it consists of the crew members working through various technical problems and that is certainly not enough to keep everybody entertained. I enjoyed parts of it but on the whole it is not an outstanding book. As much as I like Herbert's writing, this one is probably destined to obscurity. It is a terrific excuse to reread The Jesus Incident sometime soon though. I finally managed to get my hands on all three books of the following trilogy I think I'll do just that next time I run out of more recent stuff to review.

Book Details
Title: Destination: Void
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Berkley Medallion Books
Pages: 276
Year: 1978
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-425-04366-5
First published: 1966, 1978


  1. Good review. I have found that this mivel os one of Hebert's that I keep coming back to. The subject of consciousness is an ongoing discussion even yet, and Franj's book still has a lot to offer. (and without any nerve runners too!)

  2. Consciousness remains something of a mystery, a great theme for any SF novel. I think he's dealt with that subject more effectively in some of his other books but it is certainly one of the stronger aspects of this book.

  3. I absolutely loved this book, and it is something that I like to mull about from time to time...

    Actually, after this I read the whole series. This is still my very favorite of them all.

  4. I really need to get going and read the final two books in this series. They've been on the too read stack for a while now but I still haven't gotten around to them.

  5. Really good review, you summed up my thoughts exactly and helped me realise what was bugging me about the AI construction, it is all about the configuration for him and not about the programming.

  6. Thank you! I'm not entirely sure if more information of the programming would have made it a better read but the balance does seem to be off. If he had included as much detail on the programming as he did on the configuration it would probably have been completely unreadable :P