Direct Descent: Frank Herbert’s worst novel

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Direct Descent (1980) is by a fair margin the weakest novel by Frank Herbert I’ve read.

In the far future the whole of Earth’s interior has been taken up by a gigantic library. Ships travel the known universe to collect information about just about everything and bring it back to Earth to archive it and make it available to the entire galaxy. The first and foremost rule of this organization is always obey the government whomever that may be — a rule meant to underline the library’s strict neutrality. But what if the government sends its warships at you? How can you defend yourself armed with archives full of useless knowledge and a policy of strict obedience?

Direct Descent is expanded from the short story “The Pack Rat Planet,” which first appeared in Astounding in December 1954. It is one of Herbert’s earliest science fiction stories, published before his first novel The Dragon in the Sea (1956). It’s not the only short piece Herbert expanded to a novel. He did the same with the Lewis Orne stories which were turned into The Godmakes (1972), and The Green Brain (1966) was originally a shorter piece too. I’ve tried to find the text of the original story but apparently the copyright on this one hasn’t expired yet. My guess would be that the original story is part one of the novel, with a part two added later.

Although Direct Descent is usually listed as a novel, I doubt it actually exceeds forty thousand words. My mass market paperback edition has 186 pages, of which at least 80 are taken up by pencil drawings credited to one Garcia. Name doesn’t ring a bell with me but given the absolutely dreadful cover (that poor fellow looks like he is about to throw up), perhaps that is for the best. I didn’t think any of the interior illustrations were particularly inspired work either.

To be honest. I am amazed that Herbert published this. Or that it was the same man who wrote The Dosadi Experiment just a few years prior, and went on to produce three more popular DUNE novels. It simply lacks just about everything that makes Herbert’s work interesting. Besides the idea of the gigantic library, which apparently came to Herbert after visiting the Library of Congress, there is very little in the way of worldbuilding or interesting scientific or philosophical concepts. Where Herbert’s works are usually filled to overflowing with ideas, for some reason he doesn’t use the main strength of his writing in this novel. It brutally exposes how little is left when you take that away.

The two parts of the novel are only very loosely connected to each other. Other than the setting and the nature of the threat (the government trying to pull the plug on the Library) there isn’t a whole lot that connects the stories. Herbert made no attempt whatsoever to turn this into one novel, he just added a second story. I don’t think it ever appeared in a magazine but it could be read independently. Both plots are pretty straightforward and in both instances the policy of strict obedience serves the library well. I guess you could see this work as satirical, a government not in control of its own creation. If satire was what Herbert intended, the Jorj X. McKie stories succeed a lot better in that.

Direct Descent is without a doubt the worst thing I’ve read by Herbert. It’s a very weak attempt at expanding a short story that barely had enough body to make it work in the short format. Some people feel that Herbert’s skill as a writer usually cannot keep up with his insights and ideas; a few even go so far as to declare anything beyond DUNE unreadable. Personally I am a bit more tolerant of what are usually considered flaws in his writing. In this novel however, I have failed to find anything that usually appeals to me in Herbert’s work. I guess the completist will want to read it anyway, but if you are not, don’t feel bad about skipping it.

Direct Descent — (1980) Publisher: Earth has become a library planet for thousands of years, a bastion of both useful and useless knowledge — esoterica of all types, history, science, politics — gathered by teams of “pack rats” who scour the galaxy for any scrap of information. Knowledge is power, knowledge is wealth, and knowledge can be a weapon. As powerful dictators come and go over the course of history, the cadre of dedicated librarians is sworn to obey the lawful government… and use their wits to protect the treasure trove of knowledge they have collected over the millennia.

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ROB WEBER, a regular guest at FanLit, developed a fantasy and science fiction addiction as well as a worrying Wheel of Time obsession during his college years. While the Wheel of Time has turned, the reading habit that continues to haunt him long after acquiring his BSc in environmental science. Rob keeps a blog at Val’s Random Comments.

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3 comments

  1. I feel like I should send a double-bourbon over to your table as a commiseration gift. Thank you for reading this so that we won’t have to!

  2. I prefer Scotch ;)

    Herbert’s writing fascinates me even when it’s bad. I may have to read the one his son published recently some time soon. I suspect there is a reason Herbert didn’t publish it during his life but I’m curious nevertheless.

  3. Heh heh, looks like we’re on the same page regarding this one.

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