Tuesday, 26 July 2011

‘Hellstrom’s Hive’ – Frank Herbert (Gollancz)

It doesn’t stop me wanting to get into the rest of the ‘SF Masterworks’ collection but I’ve had mixed fortunes with two of the latest additions. While Jack Finney’s ‘The Body Snatchers’ was nothing short of superb, I was left wondering if H.G. Wells’ ‘The Food of the Gods’ had somehow played on the name of its author in order to sneak onto a list where it perhaps shouldn’t have been...
Yet again then, I found myself in a position where things were evenly balanced between ‘good’ and ‘not so good’. While the next ‘Masterwork’ I read was never going to tip things one way or the other in terms of the overall collection (because we’re talking about a collection here rather than a series) but I was eager to ‘keep score’, as it were, and see how things panned out with whatever book I picked up next.

That ‘next book’ was Frank Herbert’s ‘Hellstrom’s Hive’. Herbert already has one entry on the ‘SF Masterworks’ list, that I’m aware of, (I’ll give you one guess what it is, the title rhymes with ‘rune’...) and I’ve got to admit that I approached ‘Hellstrom’s Hive’ with a little caution because of this. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was another example of backlist titles being hoovered up and put on the list because of the author’s name. After all, a writer can’t write a ‘Masterwork’ every time, can he?
The rest of Herbert’s ‘Dune’ series suggests to me that you’re not going to hit that spot every time. ‘Hellstrom’s Hive’ though is a definite step in the right direction.

Mankind may be the dominant force on the planet but it’s the countless species of insects that are best placed to survive in the long term. A covert agency of the American government has discovered that film-maker Dr. Hellstroms ‘Project 40’ involves a secret laboratory, on his farm, and could possibly be intended for the construction of a terrifying new weapon. A team of special agents is dispatched to the farm to get into that ‘secret’ laboratory; what they will find is something far more astonishing (and terrifying) than any mere weapon. A weapon is being developed but the nature of the people whose hands it rests in are the true cause for concern.

The one thing that I really love about speculative fiction is where you find that one moment in a book where you can see that the author sat down, one day, and thought ‘what if...?’ It’s that one moment of creative vision that results in the book that you’re holding and you almost feel like you’re there at the birth as it were.
Herbert’s vision here is so detailed, and spread wide over the book, that I found ‘what if?’ moments almost every page. What if mankind decided to live like insects? That’s what we’re talking about in ‘Hellstrom’s Hive’ and the end result is something very unsettling, especially given the way that Herbert signs off.

It is clear that Herbert has put a great deal of thought not only into how a ‘human hive’ might function on a daily basis but also it’s long term needs and demands as well as how it might react to external threats. The Hive is full of individuals but it’s also an entity in its own right and no stone is left unturned showing just what this entails.
Where things get seriously unsettling is when you take a step back and realise that this ‘Hive’ is full of humans, conditioned since birth to live life in the style of an insect (probably ants but maybe termites instead?). The Hive dwellers do things that seem outlandish and grotesque to us and that’s the whole point as far as Herbert is concerned. They are similar to us but totally different at the same time and it’s the similarity that highlights those differences. Herbert very much hits the target that he was aiming for here. Future demands that will be placed on the Hive (the urge for a new Queen to ‘swarm’ with her followers) also add an element of urgency to the plot and perhaps a sense of inevitability as well. Herbert deliberately leaves his plot open ended, a device that lets us know that the threat is still very much there and one that left me pondering the book for a long time afterwards.

The plot itself follows the ‘race against time’ scenario on both fronts as the Agency seeks to understand Hellstrom’s project while the Hive seek to effectively defend themselves against a new and encroaching threat. Herbert is not afraid to throw his readers a few curve balls here and these highlight how both parties must cope with something totally unfamiliar. The Hive has their own agents in the ‘Outside’ but they have never had to deal with anything like the Agency before. The Agency, on the other hand, is sure that they’re dealing with something else entirely.
Intrigue comes up against counter intrigue and attack is met by counter attack. As the plot proceeds Herbert slowly clarifies things for both sides and the full picture becomes clear. As I mentioned earlier, Herbert chooses to end things with this picture and that’s what keeps the questions coming.

The plot then is a glorious mix of action and intrigue, especially when both parties must confront dissidents from inside their own ranks. It’s a shame then, in a way, that it’s Herbert who is writing it. One of the things that have put me off going back to the ‘Dune’ series is that I personally find Herbert’s prose to be a bit laboured at times. It seems to take a while to make its point and doesn’t flow as well as it could as a result. I found this to be very much the case in ‘Hellstrom’s Hive’, a plot driven novel that seems to have far too much time dedicated to the ins and outs of its characters. What’s actually happening is the important stuff, delving into the psyche of certain characters sometimes pays off but more often than not makes things drag...

Is ‘Hellstrom’s Hive’ an ‘SF Masterwork’ then? I had to think about this for a while but I’m going to say ‘yes’. Despite my own perceived shortcomings in Herbert’s writing, he pulls off the execution of his ‘what if?’ moment with some ease and leaves ‘Hellstrom’s Hive’ percolating away at the back of your mind, asking you some very uncomfortable questions. It’s this after affect that gives the books its ‘Masterwork’ status. ‘Hellstrom’s Hive’ is a book that will leave you both thinking and talking about it for a long time after you’ve finished.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

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