The Jesus Incident, by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Posted January 4, 2016on:
published in 1979
where I got it: purchased used
I didn’t realize The Jesus Incident is the 2nd in a series of four. I thought it was the 1st in a series of three, that had a prequel, Destination:Void, that could be read separate. So, I’ve read them out of order, and seem to have done OK. And now that I’ve read The Jesus Incident, I’m excited to read Destination:Void, if only to yell at the characters “no! don’t do that! don’t you see how this could end?”
When you think of artificial intelligence, what do you think of? Do you think androids dreaming of sheep, Madeline Ashby’s vN series, Data from Star Trek, Mindships from Banks’ Culture books, and the like?
When Earthlings escaped an Earth’s whose sun was about to go nova, their goal was to create a living ship, an artificial intelligence that would take them through the galaxy, and take care of them. They succeeded, and countless generations later, their ship became Ship, their god, complete with prayers, proper education, sacred areas, sacred rites, and honored people who Ship speaks directly to.
Ship takes care of the people, feeds them, clothes them, ensure the life support system and hydroponics gardens continue to function. And in return it demands to be worShipped.
So many fun questions all of a sudden: Can a deity be an unreliable narrator? Should you believe everything you are told by a deity? What’s so strange about the idea of people thinking their AI spaceship is a god? It keeps them alive, it answers their prayers, it speaks to the lucky ones, it gives them something to believe in. I loved how Herbert and Ransom play with these questions and answers, how they play with definitions of deism, consciousness, self awareness, artificial intelligence and communication. What happens when something we ourselves created becomes a deity that we worship? There’s quite an element of Frankenstein’s monster to this book as well, and the epigraphs quote Frankenstein alongside modern-day holy texts. It’s a pretty ballsy move, if you think about it – a novel where high-tech humans are worshipping a physical object. How will readers react?
The population onboard Ship is a combination of clones and naturally born humans. The clones brought out of hybernation can pass as human, but the scientists in Lab One mess about with genetics to create tank grown clones designed to survive the harsh environs of the planet they are orbiting, Pandora. The genetically modified clones are treated as property, and even used in a particular method of psychological blackmail.
The only way to escape Ship is to colonize the planet, but Pandora is filled with dangerous animals, tool-using airbag creatures, and massive oceans that are covered in kelp. To be outside the domes and human built spaces is to measure your life in hours, but to remain on Ship is to be controlled, to be forced to believe. It’s obvious folly to think this planet can be subdued. Where the characters fall on the spectrum of how important it is to colonize Pandora is 100% related to how they feel about Ship.
Raja Flattery is brought out of hybernation to be a speaker for Ship. Ship demands of Flattery that he go down to Pandora and require everyone there show how they will worShip (thus negating the idea that colonizing the planet equals escape from Ship). This is the same riddle Flattery faced last time he was awake. Are humans now able to answer the riddle? What will be the punishment if he fails? It sounds heavy, and it is, but Ship and Flattery’s conversations about Flattery’s mission are oddly and unexpectedly humorous. To simplify Ship’s goals drastically – like any good AI, Ship doesn’t want to die. If the people are self sufficient, why would they need a ship? Exactly. they wouldn’t. I think there are some other motives here as well, but that’s a very simple answer to a complicated question.
Flattery is nearly kicked down to Pandora, and attaches himself to a project that is researching the ocean clogging kelp. Some researchers think the kelp is intelligent, others find it a nuisance. It’s already been decided that to subdue the planet, the oceans will be farmed, and to do that, the kelp will be killed off. Also on the project is poet Kerro Panille. Considered a communication expert, I can’t exactly tell you what happens to Panille because it’s the crux of the whole book. All I can say is keep your eye on Kerro!
I really enjoyed The Jesus Incident, and whipped through it in a few days. But now that I’m writing this, I’m having trouble putting my thoughts together. The book was tightly plotted, the characters were fun to watch, the psychological blackmail is just fucking creepy, and I just really enjoyed the entire plot line and the big ideas that were presented. If I have any complaints, it’s that the end of the book dragged a bit.
If you liked Herbert’s Dune, you’ll like The Jesus Incident, as they are written in a similar style with how characters are introduced, plenty of internal thoughts in italics, plans within plans, and characters trying to out-secret and out-paranoid each other. There are a few plot similarities as well, which made one particular item at the end of The Jesus Incident more than a little predictable. The Jesus Incident certainly doesn’t have the scale of Dune, but you will certainly recognize the author of Dune in its pages.