Cybernetic Science Fiction: Frank Herbert’s Destination: Void

5 Aug

On a recent trip to Bristol I came across a 1967 Penguin first edition of Frank Herbert’s early science-fiction novel Destination: Void. Herbert is of course better-known for his Dune series, which I know only through the David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation.

Destination: Void follows a group of scientists on a space ship launched from Earth to colonise planets in the Tau Ceti star system. The ship the scientists are traveling on, which also includes a large number of colonists preserved in hibernation tanks during the journey, is controlled by a specially-grown human brain linked up to the ship’s computers and mechanical systems.

The cover of the 1967 Penguin first edition of Destination: Void

The cover of the 1967 Penguin first edition of Destination: Void

At the opening, three such brains, called Organic Mental Cores in the book, have burned out, for some reason unable to cope with piloting the ship. Lacking any further reserve brains, the scientists are forced to control the ship manually while they try to develop a new source of consciousness that can run the ship for the rest of the journey.

An incredibly dense book, which draws on a lot of what at the time was no doubt advanced theories of psychology, physics and computing, Destination: Void was most interesting to me for the ways in which it presents a cybernetic view of conscious, organic control.

As the protagonists grapple with the problem of how human consciousness develops and, importantly, interacts with the non-conscious parts of the organism, they come to realise that the clue to a viable, conscious entity is as much a lack of consciousness as it is consciousness (or self-consciousness for that matter). The original brains that controlled the ship, they reason, is that they were too conscious: they were constantly aware of every input picked up by the ships sensors and were in control of every action carried out by the ship in response.

Stafford Beer, in his early books on cybernetics is keen to highlight that in the human body and in organisations a threshold must be in place for signals from the environment and from inside the organisation.

Above the threshold, the signals travel to those parts of the body or organisation that are concerned with strategy and planning; in other words, the conscious parts. Below the threshold, the individual parts of the organisation have the autonomy to act and react as they see fit. Without such thresholds in place, the ‘conscious’ parts of the body or the organisation become overwhelmed with too much information and too many decisions to make.

For the body, and indeed the machine, the autonomy that parts of the organisation are allowed in response to changes in the environment and the organisation below the threshold is purely functional and can only be seen as metaphorical when one takes into account the meaning of autonomy in relation to human action.

For organisations, however, the autonomy with which parts of the organisation can act overlaps with political and ethical accounts of autonomy. So rather than autonomy referring to how a thermostat regulates temperature independent of constant oversight, it means the ways in which humans collectively determine courses of action and development. This is one of the ways in which cybernetics is relevant to discussions of radical left political organisation, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

How Herbert came to include some pretty advanced ideas about cybernetic organisation in his science-fiction I’m not sure. He was clearly very well-read, despite not finishing any formal university education and perhaps through his association with the psychologists Irene and Ralph Slattery may have come into contact with the work of cyberneticians such as Norbert Wiener. The Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction notes that Herbert takes much of his terminology from Wiener’s 1964 book God & Golem, Inc.

Time permitting I’d like to look further into the connections between Herbert’s work and cybernetics. Herbert wrote a number of other books set in the same universe as Destination: Void and it would be interesting to see whether cybernetics figures in them and other books of his. It would similarly of interest to see whether Herbert’s revised version of Destination: Void, published in 1978 develops these themes.

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