Hellstrom's Hive

Frank Herbert
Hellstrom's Hive Cover

Frank Herbert - Hellstrom's Hive (1973)


"The words of Nils Hellstrom Unlike man, whose physical limitations are dictated from the moment of his birth, the insect is born with the ability to actually improve upon his body. When the insect reaches the limits of his capability, he miraculously transforms into an entirely new being. In this metamorphosis, I find the most basic pattern for my understanding of the Hive. To me, the Hive is a cocoon from which the new human will emerge."

Fan fiction is much maligned these days, understandably when bad slash fic of an already poorly written tale of a Mary Sue and her abusive dead boyfriend can top the bestseller list. However, there are examples of works of fiction that constructively take older works and recontextualise some of their elements in a way that the original creator would never have imagined.

In the early 70s, 'The Hellstrom Chronicle' was a documentary about insects that became a surprise blockbuster hit. In order to encourage people to see a film that might otherwise be something of a niche interest, the film makers marketed it in the manner of a sci-fi thriller, and stitched together the (very fine) footage of insect life with footage of an actor pretending to be one Dr. Nils Hellstrom, an obsessive entomologist who, somewhat smugly and sardonically, informs the audience that insects have been around long before humans, and because they are better adapted to their surroundings, they will be here long after us as well. His admiration, and one suspects his sympathies, lie with the insects.

Frank Herbert's 1973 novel 'Hellstrom's Hive' lifts the character of Dr. Hellstrom wholesale. Lines adapted from the film are used as introductions to most of the chapters. Readers of Herbert's 'Dune' series will be familiar with his technique of using quotations from fictional in-world reference works to create an added sense of depth and lived-in history to his world building, but tying his text so closely to a real world documentary brings the world of 'Hellstrom's Hive' closer to our reality. And as most of the words belong to Dr. Hellstrom himself, they allow us to spend more time inside his head, which is essential for the novel to work as well as it does. For Herbert's Dr. Hellstrom is not just obsessed with insects, he and his people use the insect as the blueprint to create their perfect society.

Mad scientists are ten a penny in SF, and insect people with a hive mind have been used as villains in the genre, usually rather tiresomely as stand-ins for Communism and the Red Threat in golden age SF, so on the surface it looks like there's nothing new here. Nor is there a simple subversion of the same old symbols - Dr. Hellstrom is definitely the villain, although arguably a villain protagonist. What's intriguing about Herbert's take on all this is that he uses this as an opportunity to reflect on human societies, utopias and dystopias. The Hive is interesting because it genuinely appears as a Utopia to all the people within it, but all the outside viewers see it as horrific. In 'Chronicle', the original Hellstrom muses both on how individuals in a hive will altruistically lay down their life for their brethren,and how the insect is adapted to its surrounding ecology rather than destroying its surroundings to better suit it like man. In 'Hive', these are among the aspects that Hellstrom and his people consider most important to their society. They genuinely find the Hive a safe and caring place. Herbert gets a lot of mileage out of contrasting this with Outside, where America has become a police state and various corrupt government agencies vie with each other to get their hands on Dr. Hellstrom's mysterious Project 40, not out of any public interest but because it smells like big money and everyone wants a piece of it for themselves.

However, just when the balance of sympathy is swinging towards Dr. Hellstrom and the Hive, Herbert takes savage glee in subverting it and reminding us that they really are villains. Everyone in the Hive is chemically manipulated by pheromones, hormones and compounds regulated in their food. Old or useless workers, or indeed captured outsiders, are sent to the vats, where they are turned into said food. The Hive runs an incredibly creepy breeding programme (as if there's any other kind) where they select desirable characteristics for future generations of workers, and then there's the whole thing with the 'reproductive stumps', which is truly shudder-worthy. And Dr. Hellstrom himself has the bizarre charisma of a cult leader, for which he is mistaken several times.

In the end, the government agencies realise what the good Doctor is really up to, but just when they are about to unleash the full might of the US military, the Hive's scientists reveal their secret weapon, which of course is what Project 40 was all along, and hold the world to ransom. In the end, in a brutal parody of the Cold War, both sides achieve an uneasy truce, with both sides claiming victory to their own people whilst secretly gearing up for more confrontations further down the line. It's a particularly cynical and bleak ending. As in 'Dune', Herbert is not shy about mincing important characters, but due to this book's shorter length he has to achieve a lot more destruction in a shorter period of time. 'Hive' quickly builds to a deadly momentum and feels like it is careering out of control as the body count piles up, but behind it all the deft hand of the author is in strict control. In this it reminds me of Thomas M. Disch's 'The Genocides', though that book is even bleaker and more cynical. And although Herbert will always be remembered for the 'Dune' series, it is arguable that Dr. Nils Hellstrom is his most fully developed and compelling character. One of the biggest problems of the original 'Dune' is that the Harkonnens are little more than pantomime villains. In 'Hellstrom's Hive' Herbert proves he can write a well-developed, convincing and compelling villainous character. As for Dr. Hellstrom himself, even his temporary victory over the Outside forces is bittersweet. For he knows, deep down inside, that his charisma and intelligence, his very character, that allowed him to defeat the hostile forces, is what will eventually make him obsolete in his own Hive.