Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Destination Void by Frank Herbert

Following a series of system failures the crew of a pioneering spaceship bound for Alpha Centauri realise that their only hope of staying alive to complete the mission is to upgrade their onboard computer to sentient consciousness. Previous human attempts at creating artificial sentience have had disastrous outcomes so the crew must struggle with the philosophical, ethical and technical challenges of creating artificial consciousness if they are to succeed. 

This is quite a famous 1965 novel from the author of the Dune saga that spawned its own series sometimes called the Pandora Sequence. Nevertheless I found it quite difficult to read. There is relatively little plot and much of the book is filled with rambling internal and external dialogues concerning the meaning of conciousness. The technology in the book is laughably dated both on the hardware and software side. References to teleprinters and thermionic valves are hidden in among rambling descriptions of "dilithium crystal" level gobbledy gook. An ever bigger problem is that the entire premise of the book that "only an artificial sentience could possibly guide the ship on its journey" is very hard to swallow for a modern reader who knows just how much today's computers can do without being one bit sentient. Nevertheless I found the book reasonably compelling and the metaphysical discussions about artificial sentience hold up a lot better once you separate them from Herbert's pseudo science. 

Overall I would hesitate to recommend Destination Void to a modern reader unless they were a fan of Herbert or a keen follower of historical Sci Fi. 

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