Destination: Void was first published in Galaxy under the title Do I Sleep or Wake in 1965 before the first version of the book appeared in 1966. It was revised and partially rewritten for the 1978 publication, released before Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom embarked on the DESTINATION: VOID trilogy set in the same universe. Together these books make up the PANDORA SEQUENCE.
Destination: Void is set in a future where humanity has been experimenting with artificial intelligence. To achieve a truly conscious artificial intelligence without risking earth, a crew of (expendable) cloned humans are sent safely on a journey to one of the nearby stars under the care of a spaceship completely controlled by a computer overseen by a disembodied human brain. Although the reader is given reason to doubt the truth of this, the ship our main characters travel on is the sixth of the series. All previous ships have mysteriously disappeared and at the opening of the book it looks like the sixth ship is doomed as well. The human brain controlling the ship, as well as the two backups, have failed and several crew members have died as a result of various accidents on the drifting vessel.
Three crew members remain to manually control the ship. They soon realize this is not going to be enough and wake one replacement from hibernation. Together they attempt the impossible to survive the current crisis — to create a conscious artificial intelligence in the ship’s computer to take over control from them on the long journey. Each of the four is acutely aware of the role they have been conditioned to play in this process as well as the flaws and pressures built into the ship’s systems and environment to help the process along. On them rests the responsibility to see three thousand souls in hibernation to their destination safely.
In the years between the first and second editions of Destination: Void, Herbert decided to rewrite part of it because of the great strides being made in the field of artificial intelligence. Technology certainly hasn’t stopped developing since the second version was published. Herbert’s computer seems to stem from an age when a computer with the processing capabilities of one of today’s more modest laptops was the size of a building. The building and programming of the ship’s computer is a much more physical process than what we’re used to these days. Making the right connections is considered crucial. The programming itself is discussed in less detail as Herbert focuses on the way information is accessed, stored and retrieved and the parallels between the computer and biological reality. It feels outdated but it’s also fascinating.
Unfortunately the way Herbert presents all this information is not the most accessible. There are an awful lot of references to just about anything Herbert seems to have read on the subject. I consider myself to be reasonably well educated but a lot of it went right over my head. This coupled by the almost superhuman intellects of the main characters and the constant jumping between point of view, often even within a conversation, make some parts of the book very demanding on the reader. In some sections it is nearly impossible to separate the science from the technobabble. I suspect many readers will think this book impenetrable. In fact, a quick Google search turns up little in the way of positive reviews.
There are sections where I really enjoyed Destination: Void though. One of the problems the crew encounters when they try to create an artificial intelligence is the fact that nobody really knows what consciousness is. Again, I suspect that much of the philosophy Herbert uses on this topic is a bit outdated but it certainly does make you think. The way the four main characters move around what to science is still pretty much a black box is very interesting. This, combined with the knowledge that much of what happens to the crew is manipulated by the people who sent them, makes for a very intense atmosphere on the ship.
Several of Herbert’s novels have protagonists who experience extreme psychological pressures which seem to unlock their hidden potential so that they rise above themselves and achieve something previously considered impossible. One of the characters in Destination: Void does exactly that and a lot of the pressure applied results in anger and frustration. Although it appears otherwise on the surface, he is driven to his creative outbursts by a combination of careful prodding of the others and the environment created by the people running the experiment. I thought this part of the novel very well done indeed.
Is it worth digging up a copy of this book? I’d say, for the Frank Herbert completists, certainly. If you are more familiar with Herbert’s work it can be an enjoyable book. Destination: Void is one of his most dense and technical books, though, and it will certainly not appeal to everyone. I think the sheer technical detail in some parts of the novel are a bit overdone and distract from the story. By today’s standards it is a pretty short book, but most of it consists of the crew members working through various technical problems and that is certainly not enough to keep everybody entertained. I enjoyed parts of it but on the whole it is not an outstanding book. As much as I like Herbert’s writing, this one is probably destined for obscurity.
The Pandora Sequence — (1966-1988) With Bill Ransom. Publisher: Soon after the start, they went mad, the three powerful, disembodiem human brains that should have guided them for the 200-year journey to Tau Ceti. Could they manufacture a replacement before emerging from the Solar System into nothingness? Would the circuits reproduce the characteristics they needed, characteristics like conscience, love and guilt? Or would they end up with a zombie? A monster? A power-crazy fanatic? Or a genius? What they did build was fantastic, unguessable. Yet, looking back, it was always on the cards.