Sunday, January 15, 2012

Direct Descent - Frank Herbert

One of the projects I've been working on pretty much from the start of this blog, is reading and reviewing all of Frank Herbert's novels not set in his Dune universe. Last year, for reasons not quite clear to me, I didn't get around to reviewing a single one. Very strange considering the trouble I went through, to acquire some of the less well known novels. Direct Descent (1980) is one of the novels I haven't read before. It hasn't been reprinted in ages, the most recent edition I could find dates from 1988. Given the quality of the work, I am surprised it got reprinted at all. It is by a fair margin the weakest novel by Frank Herbert I've read.

In the far future the whole of Earth's interior has been taken up by a gigantic library. Ships travel the known universe to collect information about just about everything and bring it back to Earth to archive it and make it available to the entire galaxy. The first and foremost rule of this organization is the always obey the government whomever that may be. A rule meant to underline the institutes strict neutrality. But what if the government sends its warships at you? How can you defend yourself armed with archives full of useless knowledge and a policy of strict obedience?

Direct Descent is expanded from the short story The Pack Rat Planet, which first appeared in Astounding in December 1954. It is one of Herbert's earliest science fiction stories, published before his first novel The Dragon in the Sea (1956). It's not the only short piece Herbert expanded to a novel. He did the same with the Lewis Orne stories which were turned into The Godmakes (1972) and The Green Brain (1966) was originally a shorter piece too. I've tried to find the text of the original story but apparently the copyright on this one hasn't expired yet. My guess would be that the original story is part one of the novel, with a part two added later.

Although this work is usually listed as one of Herbert's novels, I doubt it actually exceeds forty thousand words. My mass market paperback edition has 186 pages, of which at least 80 are taken up by pencil drawings credited to one Garcia. Name doesn't ring a bell with me but given the absolutely dreadful cover (that poor fellow looks like he is about to throw up), perhaps that is for the best. I didn't think any of the interior illustrations were particularly inspired work either.

To be hones,t I am amazed that Herbert published this. Or that it was the same man who wrote The Dosadi Experiment just a few years prior, and went on to produce three more popular Dune novels. It simply lacks just about everything that makes Herbert's work interesting. Besides the idea of the gigantic library, which apparently came to Herbert after visiting the Library of Congress, there is very little in the way of worldbuilding or interesting scientific or philosophical concepts present in the novel. Where Herbert's works are usually filled to overflowing with ideas, for some reason he doesn't use the main strength of his writing in this novel. It brutally exposes how little is left when you take that away.

The two parts of the novel are only very loosely connected to each other. Other than the setting and the nature of the threat (government trying to pull the plug on the Library) there isn't a whole lot that connects the stories. Herbert made no attempt whatsoever to turn this into one novel, he just added a second story. I don't think it ever appeared in a magazine but it could be read independently. Both plots are pretty straightforward and in both instances the policy of strict obedience serves the library well. I guess you could see this work as satirical, a government not in control of it's own creation. If satire was what Herbert intended, the Jorj X. McKie stories succeed a lot better in that.

This novel is without a doubt the worst think I've read by Herbert. It's a very weak attempt at expanding a short story that barely had enough body to make it work in the short format. Some people feel that Herbert's skill as a writer usually cannot keep up with his insights and ideas, a few even go so far as to declare anything beyond Dune unreadable. Personally I am a bit more tolerant of what are usually considered flaws in his writing. In this novel however, I have failed to find anything that usually appeals to me in Herbert's work. I guess the completist will want to read it anyway, but if you are not, don't feel bad about skipping it.

Book Details
Title: Direct Descent
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Ace Books
Pages: 186
Year: 1981
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-441-14903-0
First published: 1980


  1. Nice! I just found your site twice in Google, looking for Herbert's "Void" and "Jesus" reviews.
    I'm sure to bookmark it now.
    I looked for the reviews because I was reviewing "Lazarus Effect" for my blog and, curious fact: it also has 'random comments' on its title. (but in portuguese, I'm brazilian)
    I have all FH's books, but I neglect reading them all. I'll start to solve this this year, and it will be nice to read your posts on them.
    I checked it now, I've read 6 of the 10 Herberts you reviewd, it will be a good bunch to catch up.
    Best regards!

  2. Thank you :) I'm missing a few myself. I haven't read the last two books in the Void universe yet for instance. But I'm sure I'll get around to that one of these days ;)