The premise of Destination: Void is that artificial intelligence research is dangerous -- not abstractly or indirectly dangerous, but rather, it poses an immediate physical threat. In the book, the only previously successful attempt to create an artificial mind led to the destruction of the island where the research was conducted. This danger leads a somewhat Machiavellian international coalition to send ships full of cloned humans into space ostensibly for the purpose of colonizing other planets, but actually to force them to try to develop an AI without endangering the Earth and its population of non-cloned humans. The contrived nature of the ship's mission is apparent from the beginning, although it is not known to (some of) the crew right away. Most of the book consists of either psychological drama as the crew struggles with their own problems and with the unknown "secret orders" that each of them has received, or Star Trek-like pseudoscientific babble as they try to build the "ox": the mind that will pilot their ship.
While reading Destination: Void, I asked myself a number of times whether (1) Herbert intended all of the characters (except maybe one) to be stark raving mad, or (2) he intended the whole thing to be an elaborate joke. Supporting the former, the characters all seem to suffer from delusions of persecution from time to time; also, one of the crew believes that he has the capability to destroy the ship at any time and another is constantly experimenting on herself with psychoactive drugs in an attempt to isolate a "consciousness factor." Supporting the latter view, the situations and the characters' reactions to them often seem absurd and inappropriate, and there are many instances of dark humor throughout the book. Furthermore, the book's final passage is nothing if not a punch line -- and a pretty funny one at that. On the other hand, Herbert wrote a couple of sequels to Destination: Void and, as far as I know, they treat the idea seriously.
In any case, this book, like most of Herbert's work except for some of the Dune novels, is an enjoyable minor work. It's consistently tense and engaging in spite of some overly-long sections of conversational nonsense.
copyright © 2001 John Regehr