Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hellstrom's Hive - Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert's 1973 novel Hellstrom's Hive is considered to be one of his better ones. It is one of the two works currently included in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series for instance.  The other being the inevitable Dune. My copy is an earlier reissue by Tor to coincide with some of the Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson Dune expansions. It first appeared in serialized form in Galaxy between November 1972 and March 1973 under the title Project 40 and saw release as a full novel not long after. I first read it in 2007 and I think that it was as close as Herbert would come to full blown horror in his career. There is something incredibly creepy about the novel. It literally makes your skin crawl.

Herbert was inspired by the 1971 movie The Hellstrom Chronicle, produced by David L. Wolper and directed by Walon Green. Herbert must have seen it shortly after it's release and it obviously had quite an impact on him. I hadn't seen the movie before so in preparation for the review I decided to watch it. Visually it is very good, considering the movie is over 40 years old by now. The content of the movie is utter nonsense however. It is a semi-documentary in which the fictional Dr. Nils Hellstrom (Herbert would use this name for one of the main characters in his novel) shares with us his shocking finding that insects are superior to us in every way and likely to rule the earth long after humanity has gone extinct. He does so by comparing an entire class of animals (there are currently over a million species of insects described by science and the consensus is that there are many more yet to be discovered) to a single species of mammal and, when it suits his argument throws in some arachnids for good measure because the are 'closely related.'  Never mind several hundred million years of diverging evolution.

Obviously, insects have many adaptations not seen in humans and can survive in environments inhospitable to humans. They also have limitations but the film tends to ignore those. Hellstrom, portrayed by actor Lawrence Pressman, takes us though the myriad of survival strategies of insects to show that in a Darwinian competition for survival we will inevitably lose. Hellstrom's narration is probably intended to be satirical. Personally, I found it annoying. The language he uses is pompous, full of grandiose statements presented without context. The facts presented in the movie are supposed to have been checked by several scientists but nevertheless manages to omit most of wider ecology that supports both humans and insects. From a ecological point of view his argument is laughably poorly reasoned. Even if it was meant to take down our opinion of our own achievements a notch I couldn't really take it seriously. In short, despite the pretty pictures, I thought the movie was rubbish.

Herbert himself must have realized some of the movie's shortcomings. Despite borrowing heavily form the movie in the snippets of text attributed to Hellstrom or his brood mother, he does go about presenting his story in a different way. The novel opens with operatives of an organization only referred to as the agency stumble across information regarding technological breakthrough. The information is incomplete but suspicions soon arise that it is a weapon. The information is traced back to a farm in Oregon, property of one Dr. Nils Hellstrom, an entomologist and documentary maker. When the agency starts to investigate his place, agents start disappearing.

Hellstrom's Hive is, as the title suggests, a community modeled on social insects. It's a society of classes, where each member has their own roll, specializations and adaptations. They are bred for the task they are meant to perform and selective breeding has been part of their community since its founding several centuries ago. A select group of specialists holds up a front for the outside world but most of the community is kept carefully hidden in an underground warren.

Herbert's depiction of this human hive is absolutely brilliant. He actually manages to create a kind of sympathy in the reader for poor, embattled Hellstrom, who is only trying to protect his community from outside forces. He realizes that if they are exposed, their society will be considered an abomination. The Hive would be destroyed instantly. They are not without their resources however, a cat and mouse game between Hellstrom and the agency ensues. As the story progresses and more details of the hive are exposed to the reader a sense of dread envelops the reader. The full consequences of the way the hive has chosen to read are horrific to an individualistic society and Herbert uses that to full effect.

The agency certainly seems to see it as such when they see the full extent of what is going on in Hellstrom's Hive. I guess the agency point of view shows the novel's age. It is an organization trapped in a kind of paranoid cold war state of mind. It would have been easy to draw the parallel between a communist state and the hive's social structure. Herbert thankfully doesn't really emphasize that, it must have been obvious enough at the time, and that certainly has helped the novel age more gracefully. It is a false analogy anyway. It's pretty insulting to compare a soviet worker to the mindless drones that make up the majority of the hive and in the end most of the characters who have an inkling of what it really is, seem to realize that.

One of the things that make me like the book much better than the movie that inspired it, is the fact that Herbert is aware of the different ecologies of humans and insects and that humans could never fully fit in the ecological structure of a social insect. The snippets of text from Hellstrom and his brood mother give the the reader some insight into the philosophy behind their community and warning that they should not slavishly follow the termite mold in which the hive is built show up fairly frequently. Another example of Herbert's ecological awareness is the internal pressure the community exerts on its leaders. The community is looking to expand and in times of severe stress, the tendency to swarm and start new colonies in order to maximize the chance of survival suffuses the story. It is almost as if this pressure is coming from the subconsciousness of the entire swarm, although explanations of pheromones are also given. It helps create the image of a Hellstrom beset by problems on all fronts.

If there is any element is the novel that is lacking, it is probably the climax. Throughout the novel, the work is very well paced, carefully keeping the balance between sympathy for the hive and discomfort with its ruthless nature. There is a masterfully depicted scene near the end of the novel that essentially shows us what happens when you poke an ant hill. Despite that, the end of the novel doesn't feel very satisfactory. Throughout the novel both parties search for an advantage but neither seems to get the upper hand. At the end of the novel there is still a status quo. Battles have been fought, secrets uncovered but nothing is really resolved. For a novel that mostly relies on the plot and the big idea behind the story rather than the characters, none of whom attain much depth, the ending really is a bit of a problem.

Despite an ending that could have been better I enjoyed Hellstrom's Hive a lot the second time around. Seeing where Herbert got his inspiration did significantly change my perception of the novel so I guess it was worth watching the rather poor movie after all. I still think The Dosadi Experiment is his best non Dune novel but this one is not that far behind. It takes the ecological awareness that can be found in many of his novels to a new level and the creepiness Herbert works into it make it stand out. If you can forgive Herbert the ending, I think it is well worth the read.

Book Details
Title: Hellstrom's Hive
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 332
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-31772-9
First published: 1973

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