Review: Hellstrom’s Hive

Most people first encounter Herbert through Dune (and all the subsequent books), and some of them go on to read his other stuff. I guess that makes me some sort of bastard child, seeing as I did read some of the Dune books before this. But I read them in my (very) early teens, and don’t remember much of them. For sure, they were more entertainment than tomes bursting with ideas at the time.

Seeing other people’s high regard for Dune, I feel that I owe the books a revisit with the maturity and wisdom of age. But to be fair, Hellstrom’s Hive, even though it has been described as “right at the lowest point of [Herbert’s] form and it shows”, is still pretty good, notwithstanding the anachronisms to be expected of most sci-fi written during the cold war.

The novel focuses its attention on the core idea of a human hive society, built on the principles learnt from insects, and it delves deep into the implications of that idea. It is not a campy one-dimensional take on an alternative social structure; it weaves a careful investigation and thoughtful consideration of the alternative society with a decently paced plot that gets the reader to the finish.

The book takes time to delve into the perspectives of multiple characters, both inside and outside the Hive. By moving between both Hive perspective and motivations, and the all-too-human pawns and powerbrokers in the secretive government agency investigating it, the book forces the reader to consider competing models of social organisation.

The instinctive revulsion towards the de-individualisation (and, presumably, de-humanisation)of Hive life that the book provokes is balanced by an unsympathetic portrayal of uncaring bureaucracy. I found it impossible to cheer for either side; the greatest sympathy I could muster was for an individual pawn of the agency and his personal struggle in a world devolving into madness. The presence of human characters in the book forces the reader to confront not just the philosophical implications of the idea being discussed, but also to evaluate our gut reactions and to consider tangible consequences of ideology.

The book ends at a lull in the action, leaving the reader wondering about the fate of the world as the power of balance shifts. It may be unsatisfying, but it also forces the reader to decide what sort of ending he would prefer, and what that reflects of his worldview and his attitude towards the invisible social laws and forces of human life.


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