Sound Off in the Forum

All reviews and site design © by Thomas M. Wagner. SF logo by Charles Hurst. Wink the Astrokitty drawn by Matt Olson. All rights reserved. Book cover artwork is copyrighted by its respective artist and/or publisher.

Bookmark and Share

Direct Descent is a modest little book that expands upon a short story published by Frank Herbert way back in 1954. As SF, it would be wholly inconsequential if it weren't for the fact that it touches upon universal themes — particularly that knowledge is power — and the fact that in this very day and age, there are plenty of ideologically motivated people who genuinely believe that the control and suppression of knowledge is the best path to power. The book itself is a nice little package in its original Ace/Berkley paperback editions, its very short and easily digested old-school storytelling enhanced by numerous and not unimpressive pen and ink illustrations by one Garcia. But the story, except for having some retro appeal, isn't much.

In the 81st century, the Earth houses the Galactic Library, a comprehensive store of all knowledge, archived deep within vast subterranean vaults spanning the globe. The first part of the book is the original story "Pack Rat Planet," published in 1954 in Astounding. A repressive new government has taken the reins of power (amusingly named the Gentle Ignorance Party), and plans nothing less than to do a full Alexandria on the Galactic Library and put it to the proverbial torch. But the Library's new Director, Vincent Coogan (who has risen to his post because the first representative of the new government promptly killed the old Director immediately upon showing up), refuses to join and even stamps out an organized rebellion by the staff. In his insistence on abiding by the law, is he simply giving in, or does he have a trick up his sleeve? Well, of course he does. But the payoff we're hoping for doesn't really materialize, and this part of the tale wraps up both abruptly and implausibly.

On to part two, in which the Library's Chief Accountant, Sooma Sil-Chan (whom illustrator Garcia has chosen to render as a midlife Paul Newman), is sent to deal with a potentially sticky problem. The Library is being audited by yet another new government, and it has come to the Director's attention that billions have been been funneling through a 6000-year-old account belonging to an independent island micronation called Dornbaker. The account is so old that it's been entirely forgotten, as is the fact that, due to an incautious credit arrangement with the Library ages ago, credit Dornbaker has allowed to accumulate unclaimed, the present government potentially owes the island more money than exists in the universe. I suspect someone would get fired for this, were he not already long dead.

A nice premise, and potentially a fleshier plot overall than part one. But it lapses into pulp silliness pretty quickly, with Sil-Chan traveling to Dornbaker, only to find himself immediately claimed for marriage by the highly eager daughter of the island's leader, the Paternomer. (Somehow, she looks like a hot blonde, while her father and brother are strongly simian.) Then, in a very rushed resolution, Herbert finds time for all kinds of Machievellian intrigues, until we aren't exactly sure who's outwitted whom to bring everything to a climax. We also see some recapitulation of Dune-ish themes, like an interest in family lineages, here couched in fairly rich soap opera.

So, this one's only for Herbert completists, or those interested in collecting the illustrated editions that Ace was fond of releasing right around 1980.