“How do you control what must remain beyond control? I’ve already told you. Love.”
“You don’t control it,” Bickel declared. “You merely aim it… and the aiming device has to be instincts. As you say Raj, it must love us, be loyal to us. But does that mean it will worship us? Are we to be its gods? And if it’s to be loyal, does that mean it has to have a conscience? Can there be loyalty without a conscience? And can it have a conscience without experiencing guilt?”
“Guilt’s a prison!” Flattery protested. “You cant imprison a free…”
“Who says it has to be free?”
Destination Void – 5 out of 5 stars
A thought provoking piece of dramatic science fiction, where Herbert questions the ethical and moral issues surrounding creating artificial intelligence, as well as challenging the reader to consider what it actually means to have ‘consciousness’. A short novella from 1966, and a fantastic bit of writing by Herbert. Tense scientific action, building up to a mind-blowing ending. I would place it right up there with his other, much better known work in Dune.
A human colony ship Earthling (known as the ‘The Tin Egg’ by the crew) is heading out to a new planet at Tau Ceti, piloted by an OMC – Organic Mental Core: essentially a human brain in a jar – and crewed by six cloned caretakers. In the hull thousands of colonists (also clones) sleep in hibernation/stasis with resources and animal embryos for their eventual landing in 200 years. This is the seventh colony ship to set out, with each of the previous six disappearing without a trace.
The story starts before the Egg has even left the solar system. Disaster strikes; the pilot OMC (as well as the two back-up pilot OMC’s) go insane, and after the deaths of three crewmembers, all the brains are destroyed. The Egg is then left in a terrible position – the ship is so vastly complex that a human crew cannot hope to pilot it, and replacing the brains with a crewmember’s or colonist’s would be likely to fail. Instructions come from Moonbase to attempt the almost impossible – create an artificial consciousness. After defrosting one replacement crewmember (the only woman), the crew begin the attempt.
This is a tense, dramatic novel. Action is limited – no worm riding here – but right from the start it becomes clear that everything is not as its seems on the Egg, and at least two of the characters have their own, secretive missions. One of the goodreads reviews I read called this ‘a play written in prose’ and that’s a good description. There are limited sets, all aboard the ship, and only four characters – Timberlake, the life-systems engineer; Bickel; The electronics engineer (who seems to be basically an all-round genius), Dr Weygand, the MD; and Raj Flattery the Psychiatrist/Chaplain. The drama plays out as a complex engineering and conceptual problem solving expertise being conducted under time and external pressures, with a parallel plot line running as the characters determine exactly what the real mission of the Earthling was.
Each character brings their own strengths and secrets to the party, and whilst there is only one female on board, Dr Weygand, she is as crucial a character as any of the others – she is not sidelined or ignored by any of the men, she adds her weight to their fierce discussions on the nature of consciousness, and at no stage does she appear to be window dressing (an occupational hazard in classic or vintage sci-fi). Indeed the weakest character would be Timberlake, who seems to be simply in the role of skilled worker and occasional buffer for the harried reader (in that he has things explained to him in language we have a chance of understanding).
Flattery for me is the most interesting character, as its clear from the beginning he has a secret objective and is manipulating the others. He particularly focuses on Bickel – who is seen as the only one who could possibly do this impossible thing, and simultaneously seems to goad him to action, yet also keeping Bickel on a leash, to keep him from overstepping his bounds. I do wonder if Raj resonates with me because I was a big fan of Duncan Idaho in the latter Dune novels – the Raj Psychiatrist/Chaplain roles seemed awfully similar to the Duncan Mentat/Zensunni philosopher position.
Herbert goes really, really technical in this book, mixing maths, science, and very heavy philosophy in the pursuit of defining consciousness and explaining how they are trying to simulate it in the computer and I can see that putting a lot of people off. In the last few pages he casually throws mathematical formula into his text, and that’s no ones idea of fun (joke – big shout out to my Math homies). But I found I could gloss over the technobabble and focus on the English explanations, which I found really insightful.
Its this depth in the book that made me give it a 5 out of 5. I like my science fiction to mean something, or at least to try to ask and answer a question. Dune asks questions about paradox and predestination – Destination Void asks what is consciousness, and what does it require. Does consciousness require senses, through which to recognise what you are by differentiating from what you are not (the me/not me distinction)? Does it require love, and if so, can that exist without fear? Is the impulse to kill essential?…and so on.
A 219 page book, I devoured it in a four or five hours. I bought in online for $11 (AUS), and have now started the second book – The Jesus Incident. I was very pleased (and not at all surprised) to see the return of my old friend – Raj Flattery, Psychiatrist/Chaplain.
My wife hated this book – she hasn’t read it, but I wouldn’t put it down and she got irritated at me (and through me, it). I sometimes worry about 5 star ratings – am I being too enthusiastic? But whatever, these reviews are personal opinion, so what more can a reader expect. If you read this and your mileage does vary, please let me know! I’d be interested in reading a contrasting review. Then again, let me know if you agree too – we can enthuse together :).
I’ve kept away from the blog for a few days – I needed some time for personal matters (if your interested, see the last blog post here), so I spent a lot of this spare time reading. I plan to get back into blogging slowly over this week, and then kick back off properly next Monday. Thanks for your patience.