The Ascension Factor (1988) is the third book Frank Herbert wrote in collaboration with Bill Ransom and the fourth in THE PANDORA SEQUENCE, a series introduced in his novel Destination: Void (1966). It’s a series plagued with problems and tragedy. The Jesus Incident (1979), had to be extensively rewritten at the last moment after a copyright issue threatened to block its publication. The Lazarus Effect (1983), was written during the 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 Ascension Factor. 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 Ransom’s 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, known as the Director to the Pandorans, 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.
The Ascension Factor is one large attempt at dynamic equilibrium, a concept Herbert uses in many stories. It is most clearly expressed in the ecology of Pandora which plays a very large role in this 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 to 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 Mathus in The Ascension Factor. Quite a lot of old earth’s history, religion and science has survived, it seems. Although The Ascension Factor 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 economic 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 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 and the kelp is the connected factor.
The Ascension Factor contains many themes found throughout Herbert’s entire oeuvre. In that sense the novel doesn’t stand out, but the writing is noticeably different. Ransom explains 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 The Ascension Factor. 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. 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 THE PANDORA SEQUENCE is not a highlight of his oeuvre. The Jesus Incident is unpolished, The Lazarus Effect uninspired and The Ascension Factor unconvincing. 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 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.
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.