Destination: Void was the last Herbert book on my list before I’ll eventually reread the Dune saga. I wanted to get to know Herbert better before I start such a reread, and at this point I feel I have a firm enough grip on his writing persona.
I’d read 4 non-Dune books up unto Destination: The Santaroga Barrier, Whipping Star, Soul Catcher and The Dosadi Experiment – of which Soul Catcher is the only one I would recommend, all the others having mild to severe problems. Destination: Void adds to that negative tally: it hasn’t survived its time. And yet, I do recommend it for some readers, but more on that later.
As these 5 titles are considered to be among his best non-Dune books, if not his best, I now can safely attest that Herbert’s enduring legacy indeed solely is Dune and its sequels. The word on the street was already pretty clear on that, obviously, but I wanted to check for myself. It’s also a safe bet that if Herbert hadn’t written Dune, hardly anybody would still care for his other novels, and the few die-hard Herbert fanboys highly praising his other output too probably would not exist.
My little nay verdict here shouldn’t be taken too harshly, especially not as Herbert did try, and did take risks – these 5 books are widely different, some pretty ambitious even. As bills needed to be paid, one can hardly hold it against Herbert he wrote a bit too much, too fast. Besides, having only one or two books stand out is true for a lot of authors – and especially in a genre with pulpy origins, one might say most of them.
So, what’s the deal with Destination: Void?
It first appeared under the title Do I Wake Or Dream? in Galaxy Magazine in August 1965 – in full, not serialized – and got published as a book in 1966. A revised edition appeared in 1978, in preparation of the publication of its first sequel in 1979, The Jesus Incident, a book Herbert co-wrote with poet Bill Ransom. After that came two more: The Lazarus Effect (1983) and The Ascension Factor (1988).
The reason why Herbert revised the book puts a strange paradox into focus, a paradox that’s also Destination: Void‘s biggest problem today. A large chunk (30%?) of the sentences deal with computer stuff. That’s because the story is about a space ship – loaded with thousands of hibernating clones – set for Tau Ceti, on which the disembodied human brains that controlled the ship went mad and died. Those brains need to be replaced by an artificially constructed consciousness if the trip is to succeed. A big part of the book is devoted to the technical side of that endeavor.
Herbert felt that computer science had advanced significantly in those 12 years between versions, so he decided to update the book. That’s mighty strange, as to me big parts of what passes for hard science in Destination: Void reads as near-nonsensical techno-babble of the worst kind. On the other hand, I’ve read reviews praising this book, claiming it was written for a very specific audience: those with knowledge of computer systems and programming. You be the judge:
‘We’ve introduced an error factor into the computer,’ Bickel said. ‘And that means, first, that we’ve introduced the probability, no, the certainty, of an unknown number of subspaces within the computer’s space time. The program we’ve just thrown into the computer to land, we know not where, will produce unknown topological linkages, new networks all through the system.’ ‘In the memory storage banks, primarily,’ Timberlake said. ‘And in the transducer nets,’ Bickel Said. ‘But this storage unit here produced the circuit-analysis information when I asked for it,’ Prudence said. ‘Certainly,’ Bickel said. ‘But your demand amounted to a program for a subroutine. Where the information came from God alone knows. Just in the first stage, there are fifty lines leading out of this unit. And those lines filter through a buffer system, remember. The bits go out of here, charge through that buffer system and are split up in fifty times fifty. And then fifty times fifty times fifty. And so on.’ ‘This bank here was just like a knitting machine,’ Prudence said. ‘It took the threads of the record from this test setup and knitted them out through the storage banks of the entire system, smearing that record across an unknown number of retainer cells.
He turned to the computer leads, linked the Ox through a buffer that would feed its impulses into a test-memory bank, connected this to the new bank of neuron blocks, and put the system on full interlock.
I just picked these passages randomly, thumbing through the book’s 218 pages for not even a minute, and found these.
So if I have to believe others – and I do – there is a certain technical merit in these kind of passages. The fact that Herbert himself even updated his work to the standards of the new day, indicates he was serious to a certain extent. So it’s not just all random non-nonsensical gobbledygook, not at all.
The paradox is that it reads as gobbledygook nonetheless, and while the book may have (had) some technical merit, ultimately it fails spectacularly, as no one has ever tried to use this book as a manual to try and design conscious AI, because in the end, Herbert too relies on handwavium – technical posturing notwithstanding.
To be frank: the sheer volume of technical descriptions sucked the joy out of my reading, and I can take a punch. If you’re a system engineer with a keen interest in the history of computing, maybe you won’t feel the same way.
I’ve read the original edition, and from what I can gather online the difference between the two is not big at all. I’ve read comments from somebody who has read both, and that person didn’t really notice significant changes – tellingly, the most important change apparently was that the new version introduces quotes at the beginning of each chapter, like in so many of Herbert’s other works.
Nonetheless, I’d advice reading the second edition: the first edition doesn’t really have chapters (just a blank line here and there) and the constant flow of sentences can be a bit suffocating. I’m also guessing the technical update might make it all a wee, wee bit easier to follow for us, people of the 21st century, but that’s probably negligible in the light of everything I wrote.
Because the crew needs to build one, they need to know what consciousness is. Debating this accounts for the other big % of sentences in the book. Some reviewers have praised these discussions, but all things considered, Herbert just throws everything at it, and doesn’t even seem to stay around to see what sticks. I’ll try to be complete and list everything that is pondered. Brace yourselves…
We get: “having ideas of its own”, “pure awareness”, the importance of the subject-object relationship, the trio of “an ‘I’ entity plus the entity’s organism plus everything external which could act as a stimulus”, the question whether they truly need a definition or could just try and built one that might work without them knowing how it works, the question whether a consciousness is determined or whether it has free will, the fact that consciousness might be an illusion altogether, the fact that it needs to be able to (pragmatically) interpret language, it might just be a “psychological space”, a mood, the importance of experience and memory, the importance of emotions (fear, guilt), the fact that is has to have to combined input from multiple senses, that is has to have a body, the question whether it should have the ability and/or chance to sin, the question whether we humans are actually conscious ourselves, the question if it needs to be mortal (or at least learn about death), the fact that it should be an imaginative intelligence: a problem solver, the question if it needs dreams, the importance language & symbols, consciousness being a symbol processor (a filter translating input into symbols on which to act) and finally, the fact that it needs to be acknowledged as an entity.
Phew. Now, if all that sounds interesting (and it surely is, to a certain degree), do not expect significantly more depth to it than what I just listed. Most of these questions are briefly thrown up as an idea by one of the crew members, discussed for a few sentences, and that’s it. Herbert doesn’t answer the questions, and acknowledges that it’s basically an impossible issue to tackle. But it is suggested that learning about death and being addressed as an entity (being called “you”) are pivotal moments in the awakening of the ship’s consciousness.
So while Herbert tackles a lot, he tackles it just lightly. If you want to expand your insights about consciousness, you need to read other books. I’m reading The Emotional Foundations of Personality, a Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approach by Kenneth Davis and Jaak Panksepp right now, and that book, published in 2018, seems like a much better place to start, and is at least as entertaining.
On the other hand, if you’re a philosophy or history scholar interested in the evolution of representations of consciousness in art – Destination: Void definitely is the book for you, as it’s probably a great summation of where the field was at in the beginning of the 60ies: I’m sure Herbert did his research.
To end this part of my review, a final remark. While the fact that consciousness might be an illusion is suggested, Herbert sadly doesn’t put forward what I feel it really is: a system’s monitor under the illusion it has agency.
So to me, today, Destination: Void‘s two main goals fail: it doesn’t work anymore as a hard SF construction, and as a treatise on consciousness it’s too light, remaining in a kind of philosophy 101 sparring mode.
That Herbert didn’t take a stab at true brain science can’t be held against him: while the first human EEG was already recorded in 1924, the much more precise MEG signals were first measured in 1968, and rudimentary CAT, PET and MRI scanning techniques only originated in the early 70ies.
All this does not mean the book is a total failure. How could that be, with such great opening lines:
“It’s dead”, Bickel said. He held up the severed end of a feeder tube, stared at the panel from which he had cut it. His heart was beating too fast and he could feel his hands trembling. Fluorescent red letters eight centimeters high spelled out a warning on the panel in front of him. The warning seemed a mockery after what he had just done. ‘ORGANIC MENTAL CORE – TO BE REMOVED ONLY BY LIFE-SYSTEMS ENGINEER.’
It might be a surprise after all those negatives, but the story is actually great. The mission to Tau Ceti is not what it seems to be. The four characters each have different information on that mission, and their interplay works. Herbert manages to switch point of view fast and elegantly. As a narrative it works. The question what exactly would bring about the ship’s consciousness also hooked me. There’s tension, and scheming, and surprises, a bit of mystery even. There’s familiarity too: characters transcending themselves is not an unknown in Herbert’s universe.
Too bad all that is stuck between all that talk of relays and dosimeter repeaters and neuron couplers and strips of Eng multipliers and micro-manipulators – and again I found these terms randomly in under a minute.
If you’re a serious Herbert devotee, you can’t go without this. If you are serious about the history of SF, it deserves a spot on your list too. Destination: Void is daring and in a way the most ambitious book of his I’ve read – no pulp at all.
It’s refractory and monolithic in how it uses technology as the cement between the mystery close quarters thriller and the exposition on the mind-body problem. You’ll have to read it to really appreciate how singular it is.
Just do not expect a smooth, pleasant time during your voyage from cover to cover, not at all. Though little book.