“Consciousness must dream, it must have a dreaming ground — and, in dreaming, evoke ever new dreams.”
–Frank Herbert, from Destination: Void
Let’s talk about consciousness. Exhibit A: Frank Herbert’s Destination: Void.
Destination: Void is a claustrophobic parlor drama that takes place on a massive spaceship called the Earthling, staffed by six Moon-born clones who believe, on the outset, that they are setting off to colonize a planet in another solar system. They believe this until they reach the Plutonian outskirts of our own solar system and their three computer systems suddenly go apeshit, killing three crew members and dying in a pique of self-awareness. It is at this point that they realize their ship is a complex set piece, their initial mission a sham, and that their real task is to invent an artificial intelligence. They have been bred from birth for the purpose of creating consciousness in the void (and relative safety) of deep space — they are, in fact, the sixth such crew of identical clones. Every previous ship has failed, and was destroyed. This premise is, in my estimation, killer.
“Consciousness is like a system of lenses that select and amplify, that enlarge objects out of the surround. It can delve deep into the microcosm or into macrocosm. It reduces the gigantic to the manageable, or enlarges the invisible to the visible.”
However, after this initial realization, what follows is a series of highly tense discussions between the six crew members, all of whom, as it turns out, have been psychologically conditioned to enforce and monitor one another. Their ship, without an intelligence to run it, is in a constant state of near-disaster; the situation is sink or swim. They approach the problem from every angle: philosophical, spiritual, technical, ethical, all while manually controlling a city-sized spacecraft under constant danger of catastrophe. As it is essentially a “hard” SF, hyper-technical cyber-Platonic dialogue about the nature of the mind, I will not lie, Destination: Void is an impressively boring read: the endless technobabble, mathematics, and outdated computer engineering talk is only rarely broken by very occasional dramatic denouement.
“Computers are just systems with a great amount of unconsciousness; everything held in immediate memory and subject to programs which the operator initiates. The operator, therefore, is the consciousness of the computer.”
The main problem, as it turns out, is to define consciousness. What is that which separates us from machines? The capacity for love? Guilt? Genetic imprinting — instinct? Is it about the nebulous relationship between the self and the “neural raw material we call experience”? Or is it just about finding the right set of symbols? The crew bats around these possibilities, and more, both physiological and spiritual. Most of these, I get the distinct impression, are outdated; in Herbert’s book, artificial intelligence is just a question of rigging up a complicated enough computer system (out of maybe-nonexistent things like “pseudoneuron fibers” and “Eng multipliers”) and then running the right kind of program through it, a program which might trigger consciousness-like activity — and then life itself.
I can in good conscience only recommend this book to Frank Herbert completists, cybernetic fantasists, and myself. That said, it’s worth the slog if you are whipped into paranoid joy by questions like, “is a man just a machine’s way to make another machine?”
“Is consciousness merely a special form of hallucination?”
And there’s a kind of impersonal absurdity to the whole novel that renders it accidentally literary, I think: these expendable clones, not considered “full” people in the narrative of Destination: Void, are conditioned to the point of being robots themselves. They are asked to define “personhood” in an explicit and total void, absent from the rest of humanity, with whom they’ve never had any real relationship. Then they must labor to create a person (who is a non-person) out of bits of wire and computer programs. How could this scenario produce a worthwhile consciousness? On the other hand, how couldn’t it? Perhaps that which blocks us from defining consciousness is the fact that we are so wholly steeped in it as to be blind. What can we know about our physical experience that is truly subjective?