the Little Red Reviewer

Hellstrom’s Hive, by Frank Herbert

Posted on: January 28, 2012

 

Hellstrom’s Hive, by Frank Herbert

Published in 1973

where I got it: purchased used

 
There will be spoilers in this review, if only because they show up early in the novel, and it would be impossible to tell you anything about the plot without spoiling a few surprises. But don’t worry, there are many more surprises I didn’t tell you about.

If you’ve read Dune, you’ll be familiar with Herbert’s odd style of telling a story in third person, yet showing nearly everyone’s internal monologues and thoughts processes as if it were first person.  For people who have never read a Herbert before, it is a strange style, and you’ll get used to it fairly quickly.

Something very strange is going on in a rural valley in the Pacific Northwest. An unnamed government agency has a file on the documentary maker Nils Hellstrom. They know something subversive (probably communism or a religious cult) is happening on his rural farm slash movie studio, but they can’t seem to catch him in the act. And every agent they send in as a lost backpacker or hiker disappears without a trace.  When an agent finds a secret Hellstrom document partially outlining some kind of super weapon, the agency knows it’s time to up their game. We get to know a handful of agents, and in only a few pages (sometimes a few sentences), Herbert digs deeps into their personas to flesh them out into full developed characters with hopes and fears. If you ask me, Herbert has always been a master of subtle character development.

And then we get the story from Nils’ point of view. He’s not harboring communists or making dirty movies.  He’s desperately trying to save the human race. More a culture than a cult, he has helped created a utopian society, one free of fear, jealousy, hunger, and anger. A society where everyone is peaceful and happy, where everyone works in harmony to help the larger group. This perfect society, the only way to save the human race, is based on another on of Earth’s creatures, albeit on most humans find unsavory.

There are so many layers to this gem of a story, I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long while to come. Through the mind of Nils Hellstrom, we get this strange insiders/outsiders point of view of standard human society. How inefficient we are, how selfish and hurtful we are, and how all our hang ups make our society unstable.

And here are the sort of spoilers.  Hellstrom’s farm and movie studio  is only the tip of the iceberg.  Underneath that farmhouse and barn and generator buildings is miles and miles of tunnels, and thousands upon thousands of people. The vast majority of them born into the Hive, they have been genetically bred and modified, injected with hormones and mentally conditioned to within an inch of their life. These Hiveborn live as bees or ants would, believing all humans from the Outside are wild, undomesticated, and dangerous.   In Hellstroms Hive, there is no  unemployment, no illness or racism or selfishness.  The workers know their place and what to do, and they do it, knowing the Hive comes first.  Dead and dying workers return to the vats to become foodstuffs and fertilizer.

The more you think about it, and trust me, you won’t be able to not think about it while reading, the more disturbing it becomes.  Seriously, this is one of the scariest, creepiest books I have ever read. Hellstrom and his people justify everything they do, and their justifications make sense. He truly is trying to save the human race by forcing us to evolve into a more adaptable animal.

The government agents who attempt to infiltrate Hellstrom’s farm simply have no idea what they are getting themselves into.  And yes, there is a weapon, and one of the most mind blowing defences of not using it that I have ever heard: one you create an ultimate weapon, you put the trigger into your enemies hands, for all they have to say is “so use it!”.

If you can find a copy of Hellstrom’s Hive, by all means read it. I’ve read a good handful of Herbert’s non-Dune books over the years (most of them are stand alones), and Hellstrom’s Hive is probably one of the best.

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11 Responses to "Hellstrom’s Hive, by Frank Herbert"

I should definitely reread this one. It absolutely is one of his stronger novels, although I like Soulcatcher and The Dosadi Experiment a bit better. If anyone wants to read it, there is a recent edition by Tor as well as one in Gollancz’ SF Masterworks series.

I’m happy to hear there is a more recently printed edition! Not only are the old mass markets falling apart, but my version was riddled with typos and formatting errors. :(

and Soulcatcher was insanely good too, but it’s been years since I read it. Did you ever read his White Plague? that one is pretty good too. I have Dosadi, but I haven’t read it yet.

I’ve read The White Plague a few years back yes. Right after a visit to Dublin in fact. I think that one is a bit harder to get into than some of his other novels. I liked it but it is not the first one I’d recommend to anyone wanting to read beyond Dune.

I’ve made it a project on Random Comments to (re)read and review all of Herbert’s non Dune novels. You’ve just reminded me I still have a whole bunch to go ;)

great project! It seems like everytime I’m at the used bookstore, I find another obscure Herbert title I’d never heard of. the saddest part is, If it wasn’t for Dune, I don’t know if anyone would be reading him anymore.

Dune overshadows anything. It’s an impressive book but it’s such a shame people don’t look beyond it. I can’t say I am impressed by the Herbert and Anderson Dune books but Brian Herbert has done a lot to keep at least some of his father’s other books in print.

I realize that I am admitting to sci-fi/fantasy heresy here… but I’ve never read Herbert! Crazy. This one does sound very interesting, but probably not the type of thing I’d pick up unless I had absolutely no other choice. One of these days my tastes will change and I’ll get back into adult fiction. I will!

don’t worry about it :) Herbert is obscure, and most of his stuff is NOT easy to get into. His famous series is the Dune series, and even that is not so easy to dive into. I was part of a Dune read-along over the summer, so feel free to find some of those posts in the archives, to see if that looks like something you might be interested in.

Looks like I need to get back on my non-Dune Herbert reading. Being the A-R guy I am, I read his first couple books in published order. I loved them both. Under Pressure, which is basically a spy novel with an SF backstory, and The Green Brain, another SF book with an arthropodian (is that a word?) theme. He also seems to go back to ecological concerns for his books fairly often.

Kudos on ‘Da Classics’ revisitations, Andrea. Really great stuff.

Scott

I read Under Pressure years ago, I think it may have been my first non-Dune Herbert. I remember just loving it. Green Brain was a little freaky, but really good too.

thanks! I got a little burned out at the end, but it was a really fun month!

It does sound like one of those creepy utopia books, where the idea is good but it can never quite work out. We are, after all, human. Some of the ideas you hint at in this book are thematically similar to the Nancy Kress ARC I just read. Makes for an interesting read although I wouldn’t want to live in any kind of physically enclosed society, no matter how big. I think I’d develop claustrophobia. Then again, if I was born into that kind of world I wouldn’t know any better.

Thinking about those tunnels also has gotten me thinking about the Vaults in Fallout 3.

The ideas in Hellstrom’s Hive are absolutely compelling especially when we see the problems in the modern world. He dares to ask, “is individual freedom worth it?” BTW I backed into reading Hellstrom’s Hive because it was referenced by someone who had written fan fiction set in a more modern version of a hive society that was similar. Some of the kinkier aspects of Herbert’s society were expanded so the stories are NWS. If you’re interested do a Google search for MotherWorld-Orientation. Check the cache. There are also several net cartoons set in the same universe called Fem School and Femboy School. Kinky, creepy, and thought provoking at the same time.

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