At the age of fourteen, Destination: Void (the revised edition published in 1978) was mystifying to me -- at least that's the way I'd of probably described it then. I knew as much about computers or artificial intelligence as whatever I'd seen in either the "cutting-edge" computer flick of the time, War Games (1983), or in the older, but what still seems cutting-edge to me even today, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Today, having recently encountered the book at a second hand shop, I grabbed it and read it with great interest again, curious to see how the dense novel of ideas had evolved in my perception the third time around, almost three decades since first reading it, and nearly a half-century since it's publication.
My appreciation for the book's title has never waned, steeped as it is in nihilism. At fourteen, I didn't have enough life experience, certainly not enough crushing disappointment, to feel the weight of that desperate word, "nihilism," but I knew it loomed mysterious, possibly romantic and definitely dark, in my imagination. Despite the book's title, Herbert was rarely a nihilist in his philosophy or writing (excepting his story, "The Nothing," and bitter novel, The White Plague) or eclectic life experiences, be it journalist, photographer, author, ecologist. Several of his book's titles, in fact, were suggestive of deeper, spiritual leanings, denoting as they did some vast Ineffable that might exist out there, somewhere, in the Cosmos, be it with his sci-fi novels, The Godmakers and The Heaven Makers, or in his lone but no less speculative novel that wasn't sci-fi, the heart wrenching, Soul Catcher **.
The OMCs, those fragile organic mental cores, the literal brains of the Earthling, hardwired into the ship's computer, soon shorted out and died, as they were designed to die, poor babies. Could the Earthling's computer, then, first help its crew create an artificial OMC to monitor and maintain vital drives it wasn't plugged into, and do so in time before those deactivated drives made the Earthling go kaput? Maybe, but probably not. Because the mission's managers (none of whom were clones) who'd hatched their draconian, A.I. enterprise, as the suspect "Project Consciousness" for no doubt nefarious designs that exceeded the expressed for outcome of some supposed artificial consciousness, knew damn well that the crew lacked the skills, resources, and most importantly, time necessary for success in such an impromptu, crash-course in creating an A.I. aboard a spaceship swiftly hurtling toward oblivion. Failure was their only option. Their destination? Destruction. A fate potentially worse than some nebulous locale known only as "Void".
But (and there's always a big "but" in what appears at first blush to be hopeless, sci-fi crisis-scientific-scenarios in classic hard sci-fi), what the scientists back on Earth couldn't have possibly foreseen, was the full extent and range of the Earthling's computer's intuitive capacity. Yes, the reader needs to suspend disbelief, but this reader doesn't mind. For no one could have hypothesized that the Earthling's computer, in the process of assisting the crew as they attempted to create an artificial intelligence, an OMC, to salvage their mission and save their lives, would so completely identify with the Earthling's chaplain/psychiatrist, Raja Flattery, it would create for itself instead an artificial faith -- and in so doing become a self-styled Roman Catholic hellbent on ultimately "converting" the crew (most of them in deep hibernation), who'd be awakened, theoretically, should the crew on deck discover a new planetary Eden (or maybe an unearthly Hell) to colonize.
Arthur C. Clarke's and Stanley Kubrick's computer, Hal, the iconic IBM 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey infamy (published two years after Destination: Void), was a pussycat-computer next to the megalomaniacal nut job the Earthling's computer became. A devout computer-of-the-cloth that founded its own hybrid cult based on Raja Flattery's Catholicism, and enmeshed its own strange circuitry with stranger icons it misunderstood, per its idiosyncratic, literal divining of Raja Flattery's prayers and expressive faith, so that by the end of the story it demanded of the unbelieving, apostate crew, that they do something preposterous, something dreadful, something insane ... or else!
Destination: Void was originally published in 1965 as "Do I Sleep or Wake" in Galaxy magazine. The novel would later serve as the prequel for Herbert's lesser known series, "The Pandora Trilogy," co-authored with Bill Ransom, in which they explored the long lasting consequences of a rogue computer that almost, but not quite, went Jim Jones on the crew of the ship it was supposed to protect and serve. Comprising the trilogy were The Jesus Incident (1979, in which Jesus Christ himself makes a cameo appearance on a planet not named Earth), The Lazarus Effect (1983), and The Ascension Factor (1988), the latter published posthumously, two years after Frank Herbert's death. I recommend them all, especially to those interested in science fiction that's fascinatingly infused with spiritual themes and religious imagery.
** Prior to Soul Catcher's publication, several of its readers pleaded with Frank Herbert to change its devastating ending. But Herbert refused.