The novel “Hellstrom’s Hive” by Frank Herbert was published for the first time in 1973. In this novel the U.S.A. turned into a police state and the Agency that secretly controls the citizens receives through one of its agents scattered across the nation information about the mysterious Project 40. The documents are only partial but the data are enough to suspect that it may be a weapon so some agents are sent to investigate the authors, who work for entomologist Nils Hellstrom.
The Agency believes that the Oregon farm where Nils Hellstrom produces documentaries on insects is a cover for other activities but its agents sent to investigate start disappearing. Other agents ready for anything are sent and slowly discover that the farm is quite literally the tip of the iceberg. In fact it conceals a hive built in the underground where they’re creating a society composed of new types of humans more similar to insects. How to deal with such a threat?
In writing “Hellstrom’s Hive” Frank Herbert is inspired explicitly to “The Hellstrom Chronicle”, a film shot as a documentary in which a scientist named Nils Hellstrom explains a theory that the insects will eventually become the rulers of Earth thanks to their adaptability and their ability to reproduce rapidly.
In his novel Frank Herbert starts with the idea of the film but creating a human hive exploring some of his favorite topics: the evolution of humanity and the relationship between biology – both in terms of the influence of instincts over human behavior and the influence of chemicals on humans – and society.
Nils Hellstrom is the leader of a hive that was created secretly through centuries of genetic selection to create different castes specialized in a variety of tasks, just like insects. Over time they created a self-sufficient underground society also developing the technologies necessary for the expansion of the Hive and the production of the food needed to feed it. Everything is handled in the most efficient way so all individuals at the end of their life are sent to the vats, special tanks in which everything that is considered organic material is treated to be recycled.
In “Hellstrom’s Hive” we see the contrast that is created between the Hive and the Outside. As it’s usual in Frank Herbert’s novels there’s not a trivial division between good and bad, actually more than ever the situation is ambiguous. In fact we have a comparison between a society in which democracy is fictitious and citizens are monitored by an Agency in which agents advance in their career also through backstabbing and a Hive in which what matters is the collective and any individuals who for some reason should be considered defective are sent to the vats with no mercy.
The opposition is physical, given that the Hive is hidden in the underground while the Outsiders live in the open, but also in the foundations of the society, as the Hive tends to act as a collective entity while the Outsiders tend to individualism.
The situation is actually more complex because for Frank Herbert a black and white division doesn’t exist, only many shades of gray, so for example Nils Hellstrom himself expresses his individuality, though always thinking about the good of the Hive.
The narrative is divided between the points of view of Nils Hellstrom and some secret agents and everyone sincerely believes of the other side as a threat to their survival. The only difference is that the Agency thinks about the total destruction of the Hive as a solution, after having taken the secrets of Project 40, while the purpose of the Hive is to expand in the future with a swarming after another until the new society takes over the world assimilating Outsiders if they have interesting genetic characteristics.
Frank Herbert’s reputation is inevitably linked to the Dune saga so sometimes his other novels are sidelined. There’s also the risk that someone may seek similarities with Dune when the topics are comparable rather than the way they’re explored in other novels. “Hellstrom’s Hive” is a novel that has its own complexity and has some of the characters well developed, starting with Nils Hellstrom.
Some descriptions of the life in the Hive may disturb some sensitive readers because insect-people are both human and alien so some of their activities that are normal for them may seem grotesque in the eyes of ordinary human beings.
For those reasons among Frank Herbert’s novels “Hellstrom’s Hive” is perhaps the one that collects the most conflicting opinions. I recommend reading it because in my opinion it’s one of his best novels for the way in which he describes the Hive because even if certain parts of the novel seem closer to a horror novel overall that society seems realistic.