Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Ascension Factor - Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom

The Ascension Factor (1988) is the third book Herbert wrote in collaboration with Bill Ransom and the fourth in the setting introduced in his novel Destination: Void (1966). It's a series plagued with problems and tragedy. The first novel, The Jesus Incident (1979), had to be extensively rewritten at the last moment after a copyright issue threatened to block its publication. The second novel, The Lazarus Effect (1983), was written during a time of rapidly declining health of Herbert's second wife Beverly. She died less than a year after its publication. Herbert himself did not live to see the publication of the third novel. He died in February 1986, with much of the actual writing of the novel still to be done. Although Herbert and Ransom had agreed on the plot and character development, much of the novel is his work rather than Herbert's. It is clear however, that thematically at least, Herbert had a large influence on this novel.

Twenty-five years after the events described in The Lazarus Effect, Chaplain-Psychiatrist Raja Flattery, to the Pandorans known as the Director, rules the planet with an iron fist. Ecological and geological upheaval continue to wrack the planet and Flattery sees no other course to save humanity than to flee this planet and its dangerous alien intelligence. To do this he has geared the entire planet's economy towards outfitting and supplying a new Voidship. Famine is rampant and Flattery uses it to control the population. The increasing brutality of his rule has made him enemies however. A mysterious organization called Shadowbox is a menace and the kelp, always on the brink of once again becoming sentient, is an ever present threat. It is only a matter of time before he faces a full scale revolt.

This novel is one large attempt at dynamic equilibrium, a concept Herbert uses in many novels. It is most clearly expressed in the ecology of Pandora which plays a very large role in this n novel. Again the connection between the kelp, the ocean, weather and currents are explored. Flattery is aware of the kelp's importance to the planet. He sees it as a treat, trained as he is to act on signs of non-human intelligence. He doesn't dare to kill it off again though. He will not repeat the mistake Jesus Lewis made in The Jesus Incident and cause another ecological catastrophe. As a result he is forced to try and maintain a balance between regulating the kelp and stunting its growth to a level short of gaining self awareness. The margin for error is minimal but Flattery only has to hang on for so long, his escape vehicle is nearing completion after all.

Population pressure is a second example of a dynamic equilibrium. Pandora could comfortably feed its human population and Flattery knows it. To do so, would mean taking away resources from the huge project of building the Voidship however. The construction would become a multi-generational project and given the planet's instability, he feels he cannot afford to spend that much time on it. So hunger is used to keep the population in line and the workforce eager for the privileges their jobs provide. There is even a reference to Malthus in the book. Quite a lot of old earth's history, religion and science has survived it seems. Although the book doesn't really stress the point, it is the connection between economy and ecology that I really liked about it. The Director sees them as one problem to be managed rather than ignoring the ecological impact of economical activity. It's something a lot of science fiction fails to do unfortunately.

Flattery's approach is coldly brutal and relies on absolute control of the economy and communications. And that last bit is what gets him in trouble eventually. Keeping people ignorant is part of his strategy. He controls the media and transport and doesn't allow anyone else to set up their own networks. Keeping people ignorant of what is going on elsewhere keeps rebellions small and manageable. It is here that Flattery makes his mistake. Isolation cannot be maintained. Everything is connected after all, and the kelp is the connected factor.

The novel contains many themes found throughout Herbert's entire oeuvre. In that sense the novel doesn't stand out. The writing is noticeably different however. It took me a while to pin down the difference but I think it comes down to Ransom explaining too much. Herbert always relied on the reader to make the connections. In fact, some people felt he relied on them too much. Some of his leaps were hard to follow since Herbert liked to juggle multiple, often abstract notions in a single novel. This novel is not nearly as ambiguous as some of Herbert's best ones. It doesn't make the reader work as hard.

For me, that took a lot away from this book. Characterization has never been the strength of this series and to be honest, most of the main characters in this book are either two dimensional, uninteresting or plain don't make sense. Avata's new human form Crista Galli is particularly problematic. For someone who all parties in the conflict consider of key importance, she is remarkably passive in the novel. Or maybe it's the unconvincing and somewhat rambling conclusion of the novel that doesn't do her any favours. Bad guy Flattery is probably the most interesting of the lot since we've seen a totally different version of him in the earlier books.

Given the obstacles life threw in Herbert's direction during the writing of the series, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it is not his a highlight in his oeuvre. They are perfectly readable in a way but The Jesus Incident is unpolished, The Lazarus Effect uninspired and The Ascension Factor unconvincing. In a way, I can still enjoy the ideas Herbert and Ransom put in this novel. They are genuine Herbert in most places and I can see how they fit in the larger body of his work, but the story itself is just weak and not very well executed. It's not the kind of novel one would wish for when closing a successful career in science fiction.

Book Details
Title: The Ascension Factor
Author: Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Publisher: Putnam
Pages: 381
Year: 1988
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-399-13224-4
First published: 1988