Hellstrom’s Hive, Frank Herbert

Ian Sales
4 min readDec 30, 2021

Frank Herbert is one of those science fiction writers who has stuck with me since my teen years. Yes, the first book I read by him was Dune (1965, USA). I remember someone reading it at school in either 1977 or 1978, and being intrigued by the Bruce Pennington wrap-around cover art (on the 1970s NEL paperback edition). I asked about the book, and was told enough to encourage me to get the trilogy (a Christmas present, I think). Up to that point, I had read only Heinlein, Asimov and EE ‘Doc’ Smith. Soon afterwards, I read The Dragon in the Sea (1956, USA)… and I continued to read Herbert throughout the 1980s— and in the 1990s I read earlier novels by him I’d missed.

And I’ve read and reread his works ever since.

Hellstrom’s Hive was an early one, read in the very early 1980s. And it’s taken me over four decades to get around to rereading it. I’ve been meaning to for a while — I still have the 1982 Corgi Paperback edition, which is the copy I originally read. When SF Masterworks added the book to its series, it only made me want to reread Hellstrom’s Hive the more. It took a year or two longer, however, including the purchase of it as an ebook…

I’d remembered the central premise pretty well over the intervening forty years. There’s this hive of fifty thousand people living in a hidden complex under a farm. And it is indeed a hive. Over generations — the novel contradicts itself in places, but it seems the hive, or something like it, has been around since the first half of the nineteenth century — the members of the hive have used eugenics to breed themselves into various castes analogous to those of bees or termites.

The conceit of Hellstrom’s Hive, inspired by a documentary Herbert watched about insects, is that Hellstrom and his people are engineered hive-humans, and they make documentaries about hive insects as a cover. Unfortunately, they have come to the attention of a mysterious US government agency — and these sections of the book read like they owe more than a little to Robert A Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951, USA) — which decides to investigate.

The loss of the agents investigating Hellstrom’s farm ramps up the response by the agency, eventually resulting in an all-out attack. Except it’s never really credible that a small and intensely secretive government agency (even the real identity of its “Chief” is a secret!) could present a threat to a hive of fifty thousand people with over 100 years of experience of hiding its existence.

Despite all that, Herbert manages to maintain suspense throughout. It’s clear where his sympathies lie — the agents are all quite horrible people — and it’s hard not to be swayed by his leaning toward the hive humans. But they really do have some gruesome ideas, none of which are event remotely acceptable morally. There are also some really old-fashioned views of women — “They were essentially frail things and should not be allowed into these occupations” — and a very dated focus on the secondary sexual characteristics of the female members of the cast, despite Herbert depicting hive society as generally gender equal.

I’ve always considered Frank Herbert the most thoughtful of his generation of successful science fiction writers. True, like other white male sf writers born in the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, he was a product of his time and place. But Herbert liked to play with philosophical ideas, and though Dune casts a long and dark shadow over his oeuvre, in most of his novels and short stories he explores moral and philosophical questions.

Hellstrom’s Hive is fairly typical in that respect. It’s also fairly typically muddled. A good action plot — it would make a great film, with some work — but the points the novel tries to make often get overwhelmed by Herbert’s over-elaboration of his central idea. Which is, of course, not helped by his penchant for pseudo-gnomic dialogue. His technique of keeping things back from the reader, but obliquely hinting at them, is effective, but can lead to disappointment when, like the Wizard of Oz, the curtain is pulled back and the reality is somewhat less impressive than had been imagined. In science fiction, an unreasonable escalation of tropes or “eyeball kicks” usually destroys credibility and/or plausibility. Herbert clearly often fell in love with his ideas, but he never let them get too out of hand. Given the society depicted in Dune, restraint was plainly something he thought about.

The society in the hive in Hellstrom’s Hive is, of course, also heavily restrained. It is in the nature of the hive humans that they have fixed roles, have been bred for those roles, and cannot perform, or think, outside of those roles. The same is also true of the agents investigating the hive — they have spent their careers investigating internal enemies of the US, and so the hive must be an enemy. They are as much a product of their careers as the hive humans are of eugenics.

Herbert’s career has been well documented. I like the fact his fictions come from documented inspirations, that he makes use of external ideas. And I like that he works out those ideas in his novels and stories, and that they usually don’t quite progress the way he seems to think they are doing— at least not to a present-day reader. His novels are historical documents — the history of science fiction is, by definition, constructed from historical documents — but I think they can still offer interesting perspectives to twenty-first-century readers.

They’re also entertaining reads.



Ian Sales

Brexile. SF reader and writer. SF läsare och författare. He/him. Trans people are people. Get vaccinated, morons.