Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Jesus Incident - Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom

In 1966 the novel Destination: Void was published. The story was about an experiment to create artificial intelligence, a crew sent out into space with only two alternatives. Succeed or die. In the late 1970s, Herbert would return to the Destination: Void universe, with a new novel co-authored by Bill Ransom. Herbert rewrote parts of the original novel which he felt were dated, and the new version was published in 1978, slightly before The Jesus Incident. According to Dreamer of Dune, Brian Herbert's biography of his father, the writing of this new novel was not without its challenges though. They based the story on a shorter piece named Songs of a Sentient Flute. When the first draft for the almost completed, copyright issues arose. The planet they set the story on could not be used. With a deadline fast approaching, whole sections of the novel had to be rewritten. As a result the authors were not entirely happy with the final product. It did well enough though. In fact, there would be two sequels.

Ages has past since Voidship Earthling issued his first command after gaining conciousness. You must decide how you will WorShip me. The echoes of this question can still be heard when one of the original creators of Ship is woken again from hybernation. Chaplain/Psychiatrist Raja Lon Flattery finds things quite different from when he went to sleep. The ship has expanded and is supporting a large populations of humans. Or at least, humanoids sufficiently alike Flattery that he could breed with them. They are currently engaged in a desperate attempt to colonize the planet Pandora. Only with employment of a large number of clones, genetically engineered for fast responses, has humanity managed to gain a toe hold on the hostile planet. Nightmarish predators roam what little dry land is available, humanity takes staggering losses to just hold on to what little has been gained. Food shortages, brutal treatment of clones and the high casualty rate ensure that the colony is always on the edge of violence. To make matters worse, Ship has lost patience with the feeble attempts at WorShip that have evolved in the time Flattery was asleep. He is sent out by to rectify the matter. Failure is not an option, Ship will terminate the human race if its demands are not met.

This is a second reading for me. I picked up this copy on a trip to Gothenburg, Sweden in 2005 (a memorable party it was) for 110 Kr. No idea how much that is but thinking back on it, it sounds expensive. I had read a number of his non Dune works at that time and since some of them were pretty hard to come by, bought this copy. It then spend almost a year on the to read stack until I finally read it in the summer of 2006. One of my reactions to this book back then was that I probably should have read Destination: Void first. Having read both now, I guess that reaction was correct. It is possible to read this book without having read Destination: Void, but certainly early on in the story there are a lot of references to to events in the previous book. I also think the reader appreciates the move of Ship to wake up Flattery a bit more. The Jesus Incident has seen publication more recently though, it may not be easy to get your hands on either book.

Herbert did not make a habit of collaborating with other authors. Besides the three books in this trilogy he co-authored only one other novel. Man of Two Worlds (1986), written together with his son Brian. I own a copy of that book but I haven't read it yet. The Jesus Incident reads like a real Frank Herbert novel but in some places the touch of Bill Ransom does appear to shine though. Besides writing novels, Ransom is a poet as well and the poet's view on the world is quite important to this novel. Bits of poetry are scattered throughout the text. There's no telling who wrote what of course, but on the whole the novel seems a bit concerned with images. Not images as a tool to influence others but as a way of better understanding the world. The poet's view is a bit more spiritual than what one would expect in a Frank Herbert novel but definitely worth paying attention to.

Thematically this book is linked to just about everything Herbert has written before. Pandora is just as demanding an environment as Arrakis or Dosadi, driving the inhabitants to extreme adaptations, both psychologically and physiologically. The ecological component of this problem doesn't receive a lot of attention though. Understanding of the environment is minimal and Morgan Oakes, the man currently in charge of the colony, is not about to waste any more resources on researching it. Even the hints that the kelp that inhabits much of the planet's oceans may be sentient does not change that. It is a pest to be eradicated, not an object of study. The repercussions of this decision are hinted at in the final part of the novel, where Pandora or the kelp take on Gaia-like qualities. The fate of this creature and it's control of Pandora's environment is vital to the plot of the second book, The Lazarus Effect, but I felt they didn't really receive the attention this issue warranted. Perhaps one of the elements that suffered from a rushed rewriting.

As the title suggests, religion is another major theme in the book. Or religious violence to be more precise. Hali, one of medical staff on board Ship, is shown the crucifixion of Jesus. The scene itself is pretty much what what one would expect, although from a far future perspective it makes less sense than it would through our eyes. The interpretation is what matters though. Ship is trying to teach Hali something of human behaviour. The kind of cruelty religion can inspire people to. To drive this home the actual scene is, how shall I put it... quite direct, not overly dramatic or tragic. Hali is mostly trying to stop herself from interfering, something Ship tells her, will have dire consequences, and wondering why this act of cruelty is necessary. It's definitely one of the more interesting scenes in the book and another expression of a theme found in his other books, Dune in particular.

The third major thematic link with Herbert's other work is the way he tackles leadership. In this book two very different personalities go up against each other. There is no way Flattery and Oakes are going to be able to coexist. Ship is steering towards a confrontation and expects the fallout of this conflict to carry the seeds of humanity's salvation. The leaders in most of Herbert's works often feel themselves at the mercy of an unruly universe but rarely are they so openly manipulated by another intelligence as in this book. Without giving too much away, the final confrontation between the two doesn't turn out like one would expect.

The Jesus Incident is a curious book. It is clearly a little rough around the edges, not quite as good as it might have been. On the other hand, it is a book that contains a lot of ideas that are key to Herbert's writing. Apart from the works in the Dune universe this book is probably the most ambitious project in his oeuvre. It is clearly recognizable as a novel by Herbert but the collaboration with Ransom does steer a number of familiar themes in a different direction. This new angle makes it a very interesting read. It's a shame the two didn't get the opportunity to do the rewriting in less of a hurry. I think it could have been a marvellous book then. As it is, it's a very interesting piece in Herbert's bibliography and certainly hints at much more. It'll be interesting to see if The Lazarus Effect is a bit more polished.

Book Details
Title: The Jesus Incident
Author: Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 405
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 1-85798-945-7
First published: 1979


  1. I am glad I came across this. I haven't read a book by either of these authors before and I was having the hardest time getting through it. Now with some context I see that this may be because I needed the previous story. I am about halfway through now though so I will power through---
    I will definitely pick up the previous piece of the story however.

  2. copyright issues over a planet? what? explain!