Hellstrom’s Hive. Book review

HELLSTROM’S HIVE by Frank Herbert. Gollancz (SF Masterworks) £7.99

Reviewed by John Howard

Hellstrom’s Hive was inspired by the fictional documentary film The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) in which a scientist ‘explains how the savagery and efficiency of the insect world could result in their taking over the world.’ The title of Frank Herbert’s book (which is not a novelisation) ensures that it’s no spoiler to report that Dr Nils Hellstrom, who makes documentary films about insects, is in reality the main force behind a secret hive society buried deep beneath his seemingly innocuous farm in rural Oregon.

The hidden hive has been maintained in various places for three centuries, and now contains around 50,000 human inhabitants organised as only an insect society can be. Now the shadowy Agency – which is not the FBI or CIA – is interested in Hellstrom, because it accidentally stumbled across mysterious references to a Project 40, which seems to be vitally important to Hellstrom’s activities and something he’s planning.

Frank Herbert was good at constructing highly-bounded societies existing in constricted surroundings and confined spaces, with all the implications that those settings had for their inhabitants. Here the hive society is described impressionistically, leaving enough to the imagination and staggering it by suggestions but not overdoing the detail. The interactions between Hellstrom’s world and that of the wide ‘Outside’ are also all the more chilling because of Herbert’s willingness to follow the logic of situations where lives – of hive humans and ‘wild Outsider’ humans alike – are easily expendable in the cause of the larger organisation, society, and cause.

Hellstrom’s Hive accelerates towards a confrontation in which only one sort of world can eventually triumph. A hive society or a society always threatened by too much individualism? It is made clear that neither is (nor would be) utopia. But whatever does emerge from the contest still to come will irreversibly change the world.