As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of Frank Herbert’s work. I own all six books in the Dune saga, and I more or less consider them an epic Science Fiction masterpiece. Dune is my yard stick by which I use to measure greatness of other SF novels.
You may say what you want about Herbert, but his books pack more thought provoking ideas about philosophy, religion and life per page than any other work in the SF genre. They are incredibly smart, eloquent and while the plot usually moves at a glacial pace, each paragraph is loaded with mind blowing revelations, or interesting ideas. Dune had so many incredibly potent ideas condensed into it created a similar effect that Tolkien’s Trilogy did for Fantasy – almost all science fiction written after Dune echoes or copies it’s themes and ideas.
Even Herbert himself didn’t seem to be able to escape from being overshadowed by his own success. I recently picked up one of his non Dune related novels titled Hellstrom’s Hive and it does seem like a faint echo of Dune. When I first started reading the book I actually thought that this was one of his earlier novels, and that the familiar themes (ecology, eugenics, social conditioning) were simply indicative of authors primary interests which were later expanded and fully fleshed out in Dune. This is however not the case. Prior to writing this review I checked the publishing dates, and it turns out that Hellstroms Hive (I will abbreviate it as HH if you don’t mind) was first released in 1973 which is 3 years after Dune Messiah hit the book shelves and 3 years before the Children of Dune.
Messiah is widely considered to be the weakest book of the Dune saga, so it puts HH right at the lowest point of this great authors form and it shows. Still, Herbert at is worst is still a hell lot better than most writers at the pinnacle of their creative performance. The book is still smart, eloquent and very well written. The concept behind it, and the general setting however are simply not as gripping or fascinating as those of Dune.
The action takes place in the present – or rather Frank Herbert’s present, which is the the earl 70’s. A ultra secretive governmental agency intercepts schematics for some incredibly potent weapons system, and links them to a known insect specialist and film maker Nils Hellstrom. Agents are immediately sent to covertly investigate his remote and secluded farm compound where most of his nature films are being produced. What they find there goes beyond their wildest dreams – they uncover a bizarre social experiment: a human hive. Inhabitants of the compound built a vast network of tunnels and caverns beneath the ground, and their society is modeled after that of social insects like ants of bees.
In a way the Hive is simillar to Huxley’s Brave New World Society with humans being breed and chemically altered for their jobs. There are mute drone workers chemically stripped out of free will, grotesque and sterile science specialists with withered bodies but superhuman intellect, inbred dim witted and docile hulks used for heavy lifting and etc. The Hive is essentially an alien world with it’s own philosophy, goals, and agenda.
Herbert skillfully switches between the two factions and tells the story both from the perspective of the members of the agency and the hive inhabitants. So we get a unique look on what really drives Hellstrom and his people, and how they view the outside world. But while the description of inner workings of the hive, and the psychological portrait of it’s people are compelling there are no where near as complex and layered as for example the Fremen culture Herbert portrayed in Dune.
While the Dune books usually are overflowing with really catchy, memorable ideas and themes that we keep imitating to this day (the spice, the space guild, the Bene Gesserit, Kwisatz Haderach, the Golden Path, Sand worms, personal shields, the Sardukar etc..), HH is essentially a one trick pony. The hive is the central idea – it is the science fiction element and that’s it. The same painstaking level of detail, and slow methodical progress of the plot that actually worked well in Dune is actually painful at times. While it was fascinating to read about court intrigue, or observe Bene Gesserit political maneuvers, the lengthy passages dealing with the Agency going through the motions, and dealing with bureaucratic hurdles are actually a bit dull. They lack that deep insight, religious reflection, philosophical contemplation, and the Zen of Dune.
I think that the core plot and ideas could easily be compressed into 20-30 pages and would make for an excellent short story. As it is, it is merely a mediocre novel which plays around with 3 of the themes known from dune: ecology, eugenics (selective breeding for special purposes) and social conditioning. All of them were already pretty well covered in the two Dune books that preceded HH and the author really had given them a much better treatment in the 4 Dune books which followed it. In my mind this book seems to be a light warm up or perhaps a much needed combo breaker that helped Herbert to get into the mood for Children of Dune.
If you are a big Frank Herbert fan like me, pick it up. It is well written, and uses that distinct 3rd person, objective, omnipotent narration style that you know and love from the Dune books. Just don’t expect any conceptual fireworks. Just sit back, and enjoy the ride. If you fell asleep reading Dune, and then fell asleep again watching one of it’s movie adaptations stay clear of this title. You have to appreciate Herbert’s specific, slow, deliberate and detailed style to fully enjoy this book.
[tags]hellstrom’s hive, frank herbert, literature, reviews[/tags]