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Destination: Void – Frank Herbert

Those who know me well have been on the receiving end of long-winded–albeit good intentioned–dissertations on the impact that reading Frank Herbert’s Dune series had on me as a high school student. I read them for the first time as a sophomore, encouraged by a close friend who read them simultaneously, and as we both had our inner sleepers awakened by their majestic scope philosophically stirring implications, I fell deeply under the spell of science fiction and fantasy, where you’ll find I still thrive today. The Lord of the Rings inspired me, too, but it didn’t have the raw force that Dune had for me. I knew Herbert had written other works, but hadn’t looked too deeply into reading them, as I had meandered rather deep into fantasy fiction and webcomics, and let my interactions with sci-fi diminish.

Until relatively recently, that is.

In reading Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, and in trying my own hand at sci-fi a short while back, my interest for the genre was rekindled, and I began perusing the Kindle store for new sci-fi to read. Reading Bradbury reminded me of the “golden age” of science fiction, so I decided to go back to Dune (which was first printed in 1965) and start from there. Imagine my excitement upon learning that Mr. Herbert penned the beginning of another series around the same time as Dune, with Destination: Void at its helm.

It’s a shorter book than Dune, but it’s also quite a bit more dense. For an idea of how dense, here’s the book’s paragraph pitch from the inside cover:

The starship Earthling, filled with thousands of hibernating colonists en route to a new world at Tau Ceti, is stranded beyond the solar system when the ship’s three Organic Mental Cores–disembodied human brains that control the vessel’s functions–go insane. An emergency skeleton crew sees only one chance for survival: to create an artificial consciousness in the Earthling’s primary computer, which could guide them to their destination … or could destroy the human race.

What that doesn’t tell you is that the book is composed almost entirely of the deeply convoluted conversations between the four-person crew, as well as their internal monologues, all of which cover one of two interrelated concepts: the definition of consciousness and “awakening the sleeper.” The conversations grow dense, but never cumbersome, and they appear to be mostly an exercise in philosophy. There’s a good deal of handwavium when it comes to the process of building the actual A.I., but the point of the book is not to take a hard sci-fi approach to creating artificial intelligence, rather it is using the process as a mechanism for delving further into the grand question the book asks: “what is consciousness?”

It’s a thought-provoking question, to be sure, and Herbert jumps into it using the four characters as a different broad archetypal representations, each of which approaches the question from a different angle. In the interest of honesty and transparency, I admit that I’ll have to read the book again–probably several times–before I start cracking what it is that Herbert meant in the long-form dialogues that take place in the book.

This isn’t a sci-fi novel for those of you looking for spaceship battles and daring captains phasing stuff with expert marksmanship. It’s a metaphysical journey through the human mind, and an interesting (and very challenging) discussion on the nature of consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to be reading the rest of the series because I’m very curious to see how the whole thing turns out, but I recommend this book with a strong caveat: it’s dense, with sparse action, and a small cast of characters who are so intelligent that it obscures their humanity. When I finished it, I was planning to give the book a 3/5. After thinking about it for a little while, I’m bumping that rating up to a 4. If you decide to read about it, I think it’d be wise for us to sit and chat a while about it. I could certainly use the conversation.

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