By Timothy O'Reilly
Chapter 6: An Ecology of ConsciousnessThe tensions between security and adaptability, between social order and social experiment, are encapsulated in the idea of utopia. In a utopia, social structure takes the place of the messiah or the mechanical God as a means of protecting man from the unpleasant facts of the real universe. Adaptability is not needed, because every conceivable problem has been taken care of. In most imaginary utopias rigid social control is a necessity, because men have a distressing tendency, when left to themselves, to fall away from the "perfect" norm. Herbert observes that utopian writers "turn to more and more planning, a pervasive planning- octopus which reaches deeper and deeper into the individual life."
The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966) is a dystopian novel along the classic lines of 1984 and Brave New World. It describes a far future of Earth in which genetic engineering has produced the perfect human being, the Optiman. Only a select few embryos have "that beautiful perfection of form and mind that could accept the indefinite balancing of life through the delicately adjusted enzyme prescriptions." The story begins when Harvey and Lizbeth Durant ask to watch the genetic surgery on their embryo. Immediately, a whole world comes into focus for the reader, a world of rigid social distinctions. Almost like an insect society, the teeming horde of "sterries" does all the work, allowed to breed only occasionally by their leaders, the caste of Optimen (themselves sterile, though immortal), who maintain their rule by tailoring the genes of their swarming servants. It is a benevolent aristocracy. "They are the power that loves and cares for us," the slogan says. But not all the Folk are happy. As translated cynically by one character, the slogan instead reads, "They had the world firmly in their grip, the future planned-- a place for every man and every man in his place." Control of the populace is effected by propaganda and the myth of Optiman superiority, as well as by the promise of progeny, or longer life, to the elect. But most important of all is gene-tailoring for an obedient strain of Folk, and the hormone addiction that affects both the Folk and the Optimen.
Everything is not as it seems. The perfect Optimen are hidden away in a closely guarded citadel, as if afraid of the world they so casually rule. And the apparently ignorant parents, the Durants, are part of a conspiracy. A renegade surgeon conceals the fact that he has engineered an Optiman fetus with the unheard-of capability to reproduce itself. The child is stolen from the vats and implanted in Lizbeth Durant. The Parents' Underground dreams of freeing reproduction from Optiman control.
There follows a swift cloak-and-dagger plot as the Optimen discover the falsified medical records and pursue the members of the Parents' Underground who have stolen the perfect child. The escape of the Underground with the infant is also the occasion for a long-awaited Cyborg revolt. The Cyborgs--the result of an earlier attempt to improve on the human stock by mating flesh to machines--had been defeated by the Optimen in a battle millennia earlier, but are again ready to try for supremacy. Now is the perfect opportunity to draw the Optimen out of the safety of their citadel.
Caught in the middle are Harvey and Lizbeth Durant and the gene-surgeons Potter and Svengaard. The Durants are members of a hidden group within the Cyborg-dominated Underground, trained in a secret form of nonverbal communication, and far more astute than they let on. Potter is a cynic, a near-Optiman with much less fear of the local gods than the average man. Svengaard is a conservative, a firm believer in the social order, who is shocked out of that belief by events into which he is unwillingly swept. Each in his own way sees the flaws in both Cyborg and the Optiman "perfection." The Cyborgs have given up their humanness; those who undergo the transformation in order to gain long life and new powers of mind or body lose their emotions. As for the Optimen, their perfection is a farce. Their immortality results from so precarious a hormonal balance that they must isolate themselves from the world in a perfect citadel of forgetfulness, whiling away their time in meaningless hobbies and increasingly abstract research, and losing track of millenia in a perpetually peaceful now. World administration is handed by the Tuyere, a rotating board of three Optimen, who rule over the millions like a dark trinity of Fates. But even the Tuyere do not dirty their hands with the actualities of ruling; orders are given to Max Allgood, head of the secret police, a human whose cloned replacements have made him nearly as immortal as the Optimen themselves. When the Cyborg-human revolt breaks out, the stress of dealing with the situation shatters the hormonal balance so carefully maintained by peace and the pharmacy. It leaves many of the Optimen dead and the rest insane or in varying degrees of shock. In order to preserve the illusion of eternal life the Optimen must deny all that runs contrary to the illusion. They live in a world of euphemisms and tailored information. And when they are forced to do the disagreeable, they promptly forget it.
The Eyes of Heisenberg is reminiscent of Brave New World in that the triumphs of biology and gene engineering have cut man off from the rhythms of nature and reared him in a test-tube society. It also recalls the use of "newspeak" to rewrite history in 1984, but Herbert has taken the absolute control of information even further, to the point where even the rulers no longer know their true history. But despite the obvious debts to these earlier works, the novel is based on Herbert's own familiar themes. Huxley's test-tube society and Orwell's propagandized one are each seen as examples of the same horror, the human attempt at control, here embodied in a completely planned society.
The absolute peace of utopia is as fraught with paradox as is the concept of absolute foreknowledge or the "infinite design" of an all-comprehending computer. Man's pursuit of such absolutes may be the subject unifying all of Herbert's work. "The Priests of Psi" stated the problem; Dune gave it mythic form. Destination: Void and The Eyes of Heisenberg dress it in the local dreams of twentieth-century Western man.
The Eyes of Heisenberg and Destination: Void, like The Green Brain, do not represent entirely new concepts, but an overflow of ideas first touched on in Dune. The fear of computers was the basis of the Butlerian Jihad, and the limits of such machines were observed in Mentat behavior. Likewise, the Optimen are cursed with a boredom reminiscent of the instant replay of prescient memory so exact that Paul's only wish is to escape it. In order to insure immortality, they forget the past and eliminate all variables from the future. (For a further indication of the similarity between immortality and prescience, remember that the melange, the prescient spice, is also a geriatric or life-extending drug.)
It is paradoxical that those who live most intensely in the present are in touch with the farthest past and open to the uncertain future, while those who seek power over time are stuck in an eternally boring now. (For example: Jessica's Reverend Mother ordeal; Paul's "trinocular vision" of past, present, and future just before the fight with Jamis; and Tuyere leader Calapine's sudden recollection of her millennial past, when she becomes hormonally unbalanced and once again subject to time.) Human beings, like the computer in Destination: Void, become alive only when they are exposed to death.
The symmetry of themes becomes apparent also in the area of social structure. The description of the Optiman society as "a place for every man and every man in his place," was first used to characterize the Faufreluches of Dune's Imperium. Opposed to the ordered society in each case is nature. In Dune nature takes the form of the jihad, which shatters "the ordered security of the Faufreluches." Nature is also the great terror of the Optiman utopia in The Eyes of Heisenberg.
"Their sole interest is in maintaining themselves," Igan said. "They walk a tightrope. As long as there's no significant change in their environment, they'll continue living.., indefinitely. Let significant change creep into their lives and they're like us--subject to the whims of nature. For them, you see, there can be no nature--no nature they don't control."
As in Dune, the repression of nature finds expression in man's denial of his animal roots. In both novels, it is not an external force of nature opposed to society that shatters the abnormal stasis, but man's own genes, the ultimate guardians of racial survival. It has been said that a man is merely a gene's way of reproducing itself. Such a perspective is essential to an understanding of Herbert's thought. The seat of human being is not man's intelligence or the ego that has identified itself with conscious thought, but rather his microscopic but enduring patterns for survival.
All of Herbert's works seem to cycle around a central axis of thought, continually recasting futures from different combinations of basic ideas. This too is a genetic process. A statement Herbert made about social planning, in the light of genetics, might equally well be applied to his artistic quest:
The holders of power in this world have not awakened to the realization that there is no single model of a society, a species, or an individual. There are a variety of models to meet a variety of needs. They meet different expectations and have different goals. The aim of that force which impels us to live may be to produce as many different models as possible.
This idea of genetic variability and uncertainty is underlined by Herbert's style, particularly his use of multiple points of view. There is no one central character to unify the novel. At the start of The Eyes of Heisenberg, it looks as though Potter, the renegade surgeon, is the vehicle for Herbert's observations; but then, halfway through the book, he is killed (offstage, to boot) when the Optimen sterilize the Seatac (Seattle-Tacoma) metropolis. Harvey and Lizbeth Durant, trained by the Underground in observation of nonverbal communication, emerge as central characters in the body of the book. But at the end, Svengaard and Calapine, who have broken out of their old limits due to stress, receive the focus. Unlike in Destination: Void, where the differences between the characters were often minimal, each of these individuals sees things very differently. The result is that uncertainty, which is the principal theme of the book, is carried over into the characterization, and the reader is left without a single point of view on which to hang his need for truth.
Multiple viewpoints have been characteristic of Herbert's style from the beginning, but there is a significant change in technique at this time. Despite excursions into other characters minds, Ramsey's perception was definitely central to Under Pressure. In Dune, a host of major characters each had a different view of the action, but Paul stood above all the rest. The Green Brain and Destination: Void experimented with true multiplicity of viewpoints, but without the superb characterization and layering of the earlier novels. The technique lacked vitality and often impaired the continuity of the story. The Eyes of Heisenberg is Herbert's first real success in separating the reader from the truth of a single vision. It is a finely crafted novel, without an excess paragraph. Everything works.
But somehow, The Eyes of Heisenberg is hardly more successful as a novel than The Green Brain or Destination: Void. Like them, it is interesting, but it does not entertain in the same way as do Under Pressure and Dune. To one familiar with Herbert's themes and the subtlety of his intentions, the elegant internal symmetries of the novel's architecture are striking and the story holds tautly together. But to many readers, the lack of a hero is disquieting. Things don't quite make sense.
This is less a flaw than an experiment springing from the same concern with heroes that shaped Dune. Herbert has said he is interested in "making demands on the reader." Such demands may include following a story where there are no final solutions and no triumphant heroes. The reader's need for a hero and a solution to unify the threads of a novel is a literary example of the same urge for security that motivates the crew of the Fenian Ram or the Fremen of Arrakis. For this reason, the Dune trilogy sets up, and then demolishes, one of the most striking heroes in science fiction. In The Eyes of Heisenberg, Herbert tries to do without heroes altogether. In later novels, he plays other tricks with the hero mystique. In Hellstrom's Hive and Soul Catcher, reader expectations of hero and villain are cunningly confused. In Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment, the hero is an ugly little man who has been married more than fifty times.
Herbert makes a similar demand on the reader when he refuses to reach any definite conclusions, In The Eyes of Heisenberg, he intends to search out only the possible. He begins with scientific facts and plays them out kaleidoscopically, with frame upon frame of different viewpoints, ever finer microcosms of analysis.
This process is clear in the novel's treatment of genetic engineering. On the grossest level, test-tube birth is a symbol for the scientifically planned society. But unlike Huxley, Herbert takes genetic engineering seriously as a subject of inquiry. What is its function, even apart from the kind of society its use implies? Overtly, its purpose is to seek human perfection--to produce the Optiman--or at least to cure birth defects and perform other medical wonders. But it also has an inevitable side effect, to keep "human variety within bounds." Evolution is stopped by engineering the human to a predetermined norm.
Suddenly the whole perspective expands. What is good for the individual may not be good for the species. Variation is the race's way of insuring survival. Uniformity is the individual's notion of perfection attained by everyone. Uniformity is the failing of Optiman society. "'They've made themselves the only free individuals in our world,' Igan said. 'But individuals don't evolve. Populations evolve, not individuals. We have no population.'" The Folk do not count, because they are selectively bred to a standard, however high. Unique individuals are suppressed-- except for the Optimen, who cannot breed.
This issue of genetic indeterminacy is the focus of the debate that gives the novel its title. Svengaard has called on Potter to assist him, because something inexplicable has happened to the Durant embryo. As if by outside reference, the gene structure has been altered before his eyes and becomes resistant to further surgery.
Potter is wordly wise, almost Optiman. He has worked out of Central and has actually spoken with the rulers of the planet. Svengaard, his former student, is blinded by Optiman propaganda. Svengaard parrots the Optiman line about this sort of occult occurrence, that it reflects a principle of uncertainty akin to that proposed by the ancient physicist Heisenberg: "In a system of increasing determinism you get more and more indeterminism." (Heisenberg's principle states that it is impossible to measure accurately both the position and the momentum of an electron at the same moment; as you determine one, you render the other indeterminable.) But Potter cuts through the double-talk. He says, "I believe nature doesn't like being meddled with."
What is particularly interesting about this passage is the way Herbert toys with the reader's assumptions. Heisenberg is a magic name in modern science fiction; even more than Einstein's theories, his uncertainty principle symbolizes the modern rejection of the Newtonian universe of absolute order. Herbert's work has been profoundly shaped by modern science. Yet here he scoffs at Heisenberg's principle, since it is being used by the Optimen to keep the unknown within bounds. Svengaard's assumption is that if the "arginine intrusion" into the embryo is a Heisenberg uncertainty problem, it is not significant. Far more frightening to him is that it could be a purposeful action. Potter pushes him to face this alternate possibility:
"You don't really mean you're afraid this is the action of a deity?"
If the uncertainty principle is true, it must be applied impartially--even to itself. The uncertainty principle is an idea that has consequences in shaping the world we see. Even to see with the "eyes of Heisenberg" is not to escape from the fact: uncertainty is uncertainty.
Then, in a wonderful return to an idea from Destination: Void, that man must go on, despite uncertainty. Svengaard replies, "We appear to manage, somehow." And Potter is finally won over, "Sven, you are a gem," he says. "I mean that. If it weren't for the ones like you, we'd still be back in the muck and mire, running from glaciers and saber-tooth tigers." Svengaard is like Bickel, naive but the rock on which human accomplishment stands. He is willing to go on working even in the face of terrible uncertainty and despite the rigidity of his society.
Philosophical discussion aside, it becomes apparent to both gene-surgeons that the case reflects something wrong with their science. For this strangely altered embryo is more than Optiman. The Optimen have paid the price of immortality with sterility, and even they cannot live without constant enzyme adjustment. This embryo is a true viable, able to reproduce and to live without drugs. And Potter thinks he would be able to re-create this lost trait, now that he has seen it happen:
We've upset the biological stability of the inheritance pattern with our false isomers and our enzyme adjustments and our meson beams. We've undermined the chemical stability of the molecules in the germ plasm . . . . It wasn't always that way. And whatever set up that original stability is still in there fighting.
The stability of life is not a stasis but a dynamic balance of thousands of factors. The Optimen, with their genetic engineering, have discovered how to prolong life--at the cost of its natural rhythms.
This biological drama is the microcosm of the social. Both the Optiman society and the Optiman body are artificial balances sustained against enormous resistance from nature. But nature is not trying to destroy the Optiman. As in Dune, the chaos that seeks to overwhelm society is not chaos for the sake of chaos, but a natural order trying to reassert itself. Man has turned away from the path of evolutionary survival by overspecialization, and the unconscious, the biology, the body of the race is fighting to save itself.
Herbert's ideas about time in the Optiman utopia are closely linked to his biological arguments. It is suggested at first that the novel takes place in the not-too-distant future:
Some of the old dreams--space travel, the questing philosophies, farming of the seas--had been shelved temporarily, put aside for more important things. The day would come, though, once they solved the unknowns behind submolecular engineering.
It eventually becomes clear that the actual elapsed time has been eighty thousand years. The Optiman society is a bubble of perfect stasis, a sameness without past or future. When nothing happens, one day is just like the next. This is symbolized not just by the boredom of the Optimen, but by all the doppelgangers of security chief Max Allgood blending into one. The Folk desperately hand down what traditions they can--in a world of engineered information, most of them are made up--while the Optimen endlessly try to forget. Unlike Orwell's leaders in 1984, they deny history not to control the populace, but because they themselves cannot stand to know of it. When the Cyborg revolt leads the Optimen into acting directly against them (instead of through human underlings), the precious balance is shattered.
Calapine is forced to kill Max Allgood because he has been subverted by the Underground. Then she must take direct control until his doppelganger is ready. And she finds she enjoys it.
"There's a thrill in this sort of decision-making," she said. "I don't mind saying I've been deeply bored during the past several hundred years. But now--now, I feel alive, vital, alert, fascinated."
Calapine has the captured leaders of the Underground brought before her. And when this reality finally invades the Optiman citadel, violence and death entering in where they have not been seen for thousands upon thousands of years, Calapine finally remembers her past:
Necessity had forced her into a new kind of living awareness, a new rhythm. It had happened down there in a burst of memories that trailed through forty-thousand years. None of it escaped her--not a moment of kindness nor of brutality.
There is a price for everything, and the price of eternity is the sacrifice of a certain kind of aliveness. Only if change is possible does each moment become unique and worthy of record. In stasis, there is no longer any need for history. "'Is that it?' Calapine wondered. 'Is this new aliveness a by-product of the knowledge that we must die?'"
There is no going back to the old balance for the Optimen. The shock is too great. Any attempt to reach a new hormonal adjustment would plunge them into apathy. But they can go on to a new maturity. Svengaard, himself tempered and awakened to aliveness by the stress of the confrontation with the Optimen, has seen a way that both the Optimen and the Folk can have, if not eternity, at least another ten or twelve thousand years. He has recaptured the secret of creating the "self-viables" that Potter had uncovered. But even so, their civilization faces an uncertain future. The Cyborg problem is still unresolved, and the Optimen must make many adjustments in order to live again. As in The Green Brain, there will be a new balance. All that has been achieved for now is "a stand-off between the powerful."
The novel ends on a note of uncertainty, which, in Herbert's vision, is the most optimistic of endings. Uncertainty is also possibility. Harvey Durant observes:
The genetic environment had been shaped into a new pattern and he could see it. This was an indefinite pattern, full of indeterminacy. Heisenberg would've liked this pattern. The movers themselves had been moved--and changed--by moving.
The Optimen have re-entered the human race, with its limits-- and its potential. They have given up their frozen utopia.
The Heaven Makers (1967) touches on many of the same ideas as The Eyes of Heisenberg. It, too, is about immortality and its consequences. The Chem, ageless rulers of the galaxy, face the same problem as the Optimen. Although they are older than suns, their science is not really that much more advanced than our own. They are frozen in time. The device that gives them immortality is appropriately named--they are all caught in Tiggywaugh's Web. In the face of forever, the Chem play games of participation in life--the "pantovive," in which they manipulate planetary histories for their amusement--to lose the taste of eternity. Humans, locked into time and forced to deal with death, have a truer grasp of forever. They seem larger than life to the Chem; their life force itself so much more intense.
Herbert does a beautiful job of evoking the poignant thrill the Chem receive from their pantovive excursions into mortality. We, too, feel the thrill, because their pantovive is our history, conceived with an artist's sense of passion and color. The Chem were the gods of our distant past. One of them recalls fondly, "I once was the God Ea, striking terror into captive Jews ... in Sumeria a while back. It was harmless fun setting up religious patterns among you." Now the Chem continue to "produce and direct" the present.
Many of the recollections of ancient history contained in the novel are drawn from Herbert's poem, "Carthage: Reflections of a Martian." Herbert has said that he uses poetry "as a batter takes a few practice swings as he steps up to the plate"--to pack wallop into his prose. His one published poem, "Carthage," provides an opportunity to compare the original with the finished prose. Most of the borrowings from the poem are images or single lines. The poem describes the humanity found in moments that will be lost forever:
You archaeologist of a time
Fraffin, the pantovive director, in a moment of self-pity because he is separated by immortality from the poignancy of such everyday moments (despite his power to record them), says, "I'm . . . a collector of ancient gossip . . . . I'm a person of sensitive ears who can still hear a knife scraping toast in a villa that no longer exists."
Later, when he faces exile into eternal boredom for his crimes against the rest of the Chem:
His thoughts were like a skipped rock touching the surface of a lake. His memories of this planet would not let him alone. He was the skipped rock, condensing eons: A tree, a face ... the glimpse of a face, and his memory shaped out Kallima-Sin's daughter given in marriage (at a Chem's direction) to Amenophis IL three thousand five hundred puny heart-beats ago....
This passage echoes the following lines from the poem, as well as other stanzas containing archaeological references:
You've forgotten, but your genes have not.
The way the poetry is invoked in the novel--as echoes in Fraffin's memory--is as effective as anything in the lines themselves. Fleeting references to images of the archaeological past create a mood of ancient sorrow that does more to convey the dilemma of the Chem than anything Herbert says outright. While the poem itself is flawed, the novel gains from the freedom Herbert found in the looser confines of poetry, which enabled him to build images that suggest an emotional intensity to match the states of heightened awareness and largeness of character he tries to depict.
The concept of the pantovive is of course more than an occasion for Herbert to try out his poetry. He is advising us to look at our television and movie dramas. In the artificial isolation of our homes and theaters, we are thrilled by the depiction of violence, while at the same time we try to deny its real existence. Like the Optimen or the Chem, we seek perfection by eliminating the undesirable from our society, but we still respond to it because it is within us.
The plot of Fraffin's current pantovive drama makes the same point on another level. Joe Murphey, pillar of the community turned murderer while the Chem pull the strings, "raises questions about themselves that people can't answer." He reveals the flimsiness of the cultural gloss over the unknown; only by executing him can the townspeople maintain their slim hold on illusion. To recognize his insanity would be to consider the possibility of their own. Murphey's daughter says to Thurlow, the psychologist: "The trouble with that man in the jail is that he has a sane type of delusion . . . . He thinks my mother was unfaithful to him. Lots of men worry about that."
Thurlow is even more dangerous a character than Murphey, to both the town and the Chem. Whereas the madman is a threat because he plays out society's shadow, the psychologist is feared because he sees through the sham. He is immune to manipulation by the Chem; that is, he is not entirely subject to his preconceptions. Like Herbert's other characters, from John Ramsey to the crew of the starship Earthling, he escapes from deep conditioning into a hyperconscious state where he sees more deeply than the official definition of reality allows.
Moreno, where the story takes place, is based in part on Santa Rosa, the northern California town where Herbert lived for nearly four years while he studied with Ralph and Irene Slattery. In fact, The Heaven Makers includes parts of an unpublished novel that harks back to Herbert's Santa Rosa days. Herbert wrote this early novel about the legal definition of insanity (provisionally titled "As Heaven Made Him") while he was in Mexico, following the publication of Under Pressure. But his work on it had begun much earlier, with an article he had written about Ralph Slattery's work on an unprecedented Santa Rosa murder case. A scene that contrasts Thurlow's use of the Rorschach inkblot test with that of his boss, Dr. Whelye, is a homage to Slattery's investigative methods. Thurlow "draws ... Murphey out, exposing the flesh of insanity," while Whelye merely confirms his own preconceptions. Another scene in which Thurlow's credentials are questioned because he is only a psychologist, not a medical man (a psychiatrist), also doubtless echoes Slattery's experience. Even in the later versions of the novel, images and characters are reminiscent of Herbert's earliest science-fiction stories, written during the Santa Rosa period. The Chem are kindred of the Denebians of "Looking for Something," as Thurlow is of Paul Marcus, the hypnotist who wakes up from Denebian conditioning,
In The Santaroga Barrier (1968), a novel written shortly after Dune was published, Herbert picks up the same themes as in The Heaven Makers, but from a reversed angle, showing how someone nominally free and self-aware becomes conditioned to the unconscious rules of a society and loses his perspective. The issue is clouded by the obvious assets of that society--honesty, caring, community, and a special kind of heightened awareness. Freedom from conditioning is a value that appears to get lost along the way. Whereas The Eyes of Heisenberg describes the redemption of an overt dystopia, The Santaroga Barrier describes an ambiguous utopia. It makes real demands on the reader (Herbert hopes) in depicting a society that "half my readers would think was utopia, the other half would think was dystopia." Herbert rides the thin line of that distinction with exquisite caution. Santaroga is as seductive in its own way as Paul's heroism--and equally dangerous.
In deliberate imitation of Skinner's Walden Two, the story is organized around a "conversion" theme, in which a hostile outsider is persuaded of the merits of a society he initially criticizes. Where Skinner makes a sincere attempt to sell a utopian ideal, however, Herbert's deeper concern is to re-create the process by which a man gives up his individual perspective for a group dream.
The town of Santaroga appears to be a sleepy California farm town just like any other. But there is one difference: the town resists outsiders. Travelers pass through but rarely stay for more than one night. Santarogans leave their valley occasionally--for school or military service--but they always return. Traveling salesmen have no success there, and outside investments are not welcome. Because of this last fact, Gilbert Dasein, a Berkeley psychologist, comes to the Santaroga Valley. Jenny Sorge, who had been his student at the university, and then his fiancée, has replied to none of his letters since she returned to her native town. So it is with some eagerness that Dasein has accepted a commission from a large supermarket chain, whose advances have also been rebuffed by Santaroga, to carry out some marketing research there.
Once Dasein arrives, crucial aspects of the "Santaroga difference become apparent. There is no advertising. A used car for sale states exactly what is wrong with it and how much it is worth. There is no television, no tobacco. The people have a disconcerting abruptness, a strange mixture of honesty and coolness. And behind the mask of individual differences, the Santarogans have an intangible quality of sameness. It is easy to feel an outsider in such a town.
However, Dasein has an opening no other outsider has--his relationship with Jenny. Everyone seems to know about it. When the waiter at the inn learns Dasein's name, he warms up immediately. "You're Jenny's friend from the school," he says excitedly. Dasein is elated to learn that Jenny is still in love with him. A curious scene follows. The bartender argues with Win Burdeaux, the waiter, about "giving Jaspers" to an outsider. This is the first clue that the Santaroga mystery has something to do with the unusual food products of the Jaspers Cheese Cooperative.
The story follows Dasein as he uncovers the Jaspers mystery and at the same time is pulled deeper and deeper into the strange web of Santaroga. For one cannot examine Santaroga from the outside. Two previous investigators have been killed in inexplicable but unquestionable accidents, and Dasein himself escapes death on several occasions. Such accidents are the ultimate expression of the Santaroga barrier. The only way to understand the town is to become a part of it. As Jenny's fiancé, Dasein is freely exposed to Jaspers products. The Santarogans know he is there to investigate them, but they are giving him a chance to join them. The tension between Dasein as objectively trained outside investigator and Dasein as would-be Santarogan convert provides a philosophical story line to complement the solution of the Jaspers mystery.
Dasein eventually learns that Jaspers is a drug produced in food by radiation in the underground storage caverns at the Coop. In large doses, it has a psychedelic effect similar to LSD. But more importantly, as a pervasive presence in the Santarogan diet, it induces a permanent alteration of awareness. Jenny tells Dasein "We call it a 'Consciousness Fuel.' It opens your eyes and your ears, it turns on your mind." The Santarogans see differently than outsiders. Jenny's uncle, Dr. Piaget, explains further to Dasein that the drug "releases the animal that has never been tamed . . . up to now." He says that they must "push back at the surface of childhood," a statement that baffles Dasein. Jaspers takes away the filters on human consciousness that have been developed through millennia of evolution and demands that they be replaced by conscious patterns. Dasein asks, "What happens in the unformed psyche?" and Piaget replies,
As individuals, as cultures and societies, we humans reenact every aspect of the instinctive life that has accompanied our species for uncounted generations. With the Jaspers, we take off the binding element. Couple that with the brutality of childhood? No! We would have violence, chaos. We would have no society. We must superimpose a limiting order on the innate patterns of our nervous systems. We must have common interests.
Jaspers gives man a chance at a fresh start, at freedom from all of his prior conditioning.
The opening out of the collective unconscious also brings to the surface the hidden connections between individuals. At one point in the story, Dasein falls into a lake, knocking himself senseless on the side of a boat. At first no one notices he is gone. After he is rescued by Jenny, Dasein realizes with wonder that the others hadn't noticed because he "didn't cry out for help in [his] thoughts!" Later, he understands that
there was nothing of telepathy in this awareness. It was more knowledge of mood in those around him. It was a lake in which they all swam. When one disturbed the water, the others knew it.
To those relying on this sense of inner connectedness, Dasein was almost invisible.
On the basis of such Jaspers-induced experiences, the Santarogans have built a culture profoundly different from the one outside the valley. Many obvious facets of this culture are negatively derived, as the Santarogans have attempted to avoid the pitfalls of the outside. Piaget tells Dasein,
We know the civilization-culture-society outside is dying. They do die, you know. When this is about to happen, pieces break off from the parent body. Pieces cut themselves free, Dasein. Our scalpel--that was Jaspers. Think, man! ion ye lived out there. It's a Virgilian autumn . . . the dusk of a civilization.
In particular, the Santarogans have rejected the outside's adversary economics, in which psychology is used to sell people products they don't need and advertising forces an unwelcome conformity. Dasein suddenly sees himself as a spy for "the eager young executives and the hard-eyed older men." They view Santaroga as a foe to be conquered--not so much for the small profits it might afford, but because its resistance is an anomaly in their world,
As he thought of it, Dasein realized all customers were "The Enemy" to these men He sensed the vast maneuvering of these armies, the conspiracy to maintain "The Enemy" in a sleep state of unawareness--malleable.
For this reason, Dasein has observed no television in Santarogan homes, "no cathode living rooms, no walls washed to skimmed-milk gray by the omnipresent tube." He has discovered one small room in the inn, walled off from casual visitors, that contains a bank of television screens set to different channels, with a concerned citizen before each one. Dasein asks Win Burdeaux why this room was hidden from him. "In a way, we hide it from ourselves," Burdeaux replies. "There's something very alluring about the sickness that's poured over TV. That's why we rotate the watchers. But we cannot ignore it. TV is the key to the outside and its gods." The outside's gods are the gods of expediency--"practical gods" who do research to be sure that they agree with their worshippers.
However, an even more fundamental reason why the Santarogans shun television is that it offers a world of illusion. Burdeaux says:
You see, it's all TV out there--life, everything. Outsiders are spectators. They expect everything to happen to them and they don't want to do more than turn a switch. They want to sit back and let life happen to them.... The trouble is, their late-show is often later than they think . . . . There comes a morning for almost every one of those poor people outside when they realize that life hasn't happened to them no matter how much TV they've watched. Life hasn't happened because they didn't take part in it. They've never been onstage, never had anything real. It was all illusion . . . delusion.
The Santarogans value the human, they value the things you can touch as well as those intangibles you can only feel. This is no surprise, considering the heightened sensitivity Jaspers gives. Like all of Herbert's other heroes, the Santarogans want to live, not merely to exist.
The Santarogans are not intrinsically hostile to the outside. They are merely protecting themselves. Dasein realizes:
They were the buffalo Indians, people who needed to get away by themselves, to live and hunt in the way their instincts told them. The trouble was, they lived in a world which couldn't be culturally neutral. That world out there would keep trying to make people--all people--be everywhere alike.
Torn between a vision of the possibilities Jaspers opens up-- the clarity and sureness of perception, the sense of belonging and caring, the unique mental intensification--and the nagging fear of being swallowed up in an amorphous "we" that will rob him of his freedom, Dasein retreats in his camper to the woods outside of town.
The problem, he knew, lay in a compulsion somewhere within him to make an honest report to those who'd hired him. The jaspers clarity-of-being urged it. His own remembered sense of duty urged it. To do anything less would be a form of dishonesty an erosion of selfdom. He felt a jealous possessiveness about this self. No smallest part of it was cheap enough to discard.
Jaspers had given Dasein, too, heightened awareness. Now he begins to distinguish, for the first time, between awareness and a kind of self-consciousness. "No matter what the substance out of that dim red cave did to the psyche, the decision was his," he affirms. The knife-edge of that decision is an awakeness that partakes of the same qualities of insight, unconscious reach, and relativity as does the Santarogan awareness, but somehow goes beyond it. In Santaroga, he would not be alone--the edge of decision would somehow be blunted.
As Dasein keeps himself in forced isolation from Jaspers and the newfound sense of belonging to Santaroga that he now craves, he is menaced by countless "accidents" from the overtly friendly Santarogans. From his unique perspective at the edge of the Santarogan group identity, Dasein can see what the townspeople cannot, that Santaroga enforces conformity on its members just as the outside does. The outside has the forced identicalness of fashion's taboo; Santaroga has an inner homogeneity. And as the "accidents" reveal, this group identity has as much investment in self-preservation as the outside.
He thought of Santaroga then as a deceptive curtain of calmness over a pool of violence. Olympian-like, they'd surmounted the primitive--yes. But the primitive was still there, more explosive because it could not be recognized and because it had been held down like a coiled spring.
Unlike the Optiman utopia, Santaroga needs no overt forms of coercion to maintain social order. The addiction to Jaspers and to the states of awareness it opens is sufficient. Rules of conduct are instilled in the Santarogan from birth, and the people provide their own unconscious enforcement,
Dasein attempts to convince Piaget of the subconscious violence he has seen, but despite a harrowing series of deadly "coincidences," Piaget is unwilling to believe. He does go so far as to say, "Thus it is said: 'Every system and every interpretation becomes false in the light of a more complete system.' I wonder if that's why you're here--to remind us no positive statement may be made that's free from contradictions." Ultimately, however, he rationalizes away Dasein's evidence.
Dasein is ready to flee Santaroga but then gets badly burned while rescuing a Santarogan from an accident meant for him. While he is in the hospital, the addictive lure of Jaspers finally proves too much for him. He has isolated the active ingredient from an entire 36-pound wheel of Jaspers cheese. Then, forgetting the purpose of his research, Dasein is moved by an irresistible, unconscious impulse and swallows the extract. The overdose drives him into a state of transcendence or coma similar to the one Paul enters after ingesting the raw Water of Life. And just as that moment sealed Paul forever to his vision, so too Dasein's overdose seals him forever to Santaroga.
When Dr. Selador, Dasein's boss, comes to Santaroga to find out why Dasein has slipped away from his investigation, Dasein causes the accident that kills him. The shock almost wakes old doubts, but testimony from the other Santarogans at the inquest convinces Dasein that he could not have done what he thought. His gradual conversion into a Santarogan is a beautiful example of the psychodynamics of social agreement, as well as an illustration of the way a world view shared by the group forms a "grid" for the interpretation of events.
Burdeaux was in the witness chair now corroborating Piaget's testimony.
At the start of the novel, Dasein was as much conditioned by the outside viewpoint as he later is by the Santarogan. Despite the best intentions, it was impossible for him to be objective.
Herbert points out that Santaroga is a utopia based on ancient Chinese ideals--"a sophisticated appreciation of the world" and "the guiding of the senses into heightened awareness." Herbert illustrates Dasein's ethnocentricity by echoing now-discarded (thus easily recognizable) stereotypes about the Chinese. After an interaction with one Santarogan, Dasein says, "That smile! It embodied Santaroga--self-satisfied, superior, secretive." Likewise, his feeling that the Santarogans "lost personal identity and became masks for something that was the same in all of them" is an often expressed fear of Westerners first exposed to the Orient.
When Dasein is finally converted to Santaroga, the judgments he makes about the same "facts" are very different:
Only the Santarogans in this room were fully conscious, Dasein thought. It occurred to him then that the more consciousness he acquired, the greater must be his unconscious content--a natural matter of balance. That would be the source of Santaroga's mutual strength, of course--a shared foundation into which each part must fit.
This is an ironic repetition of an observation that Dasein had earlier cited as the Santarogan weakness.
Such clear indications of bias on both sides serve to blur a picture already rendered ambiguous by the mixture of peace and danger, of consciousness and unconsciousness, which Dasein has met in Santaroga. Herbert further muddies the water by setting up a number of ingenious parallels between Santaroga and the outside. Santaroga is the perfect counter-cultural utopia, an escape from the pressures of twentieth-century society into a valley ruled by peace, honesty, and love. It is a communal society tied together by a psychedelic sacrament. Yet at the same time, Santaroga is also a conservative's dream, a retreat into the good old days. Its name is suspiciously similar to that of Santa Rosa, the sleepy northern California town that may also have been the source for Moreno, the small-town setting of The Heaven Makers. And just as the people of Moreno declared Joe Murphey insane to preserve the myth of their own stability, the Santarogans deny their own insanity by criticizing the outside.
The hidden identification of Santaroga with the middle America it so violently rejects is one of those logically impossible but emotionally sound loops of which Herbert is very fond. Santa Rosa, in the person of American everyman Gilbert Dasein, stands facing itself in the mirror of Santaroga. Even the ethnocentricity of Dasein's early reactions to Santaroga is turned around, because deep down, the utopian dreams of ancient China and contemporary middle America are strikingly similar. In his essay, "Science Fiction and a World in Crisis," Herbert writes:
Both look to the ideal society as one of social unity, of togetherness as the ultimate social achievement. The distinguishing of one individual from another has to be held within tight limits. To be different is to be dangerous.
As a reader, it is difficult not to side with one culture and to see the other as the enemy, to see Santaroga as utopia or dystopia. But Herbert is not playing teacher. He is not setting a test to see which of his readers will understand the dark side of the Santarogan dream. Santaroga is both utopia and dystopia. Like any social model it has both good and evil to offer. In his essay, Herbert continues:
Santaroga is dangerously stable, poised always on the edge of destructive crisis. Its people seem happy but without individual vitality. They are not enslaved by technological innovation, but neither are they much concerned about creativity and personal development.... They also remain self-suspended in time. They have chosen a rather static "good life" to escape the dilemma that Alvin Toffler's Future Shock details.
There is no real social perfection, only a series of compromises. Dasein senses this at the end, and it gives him a moment of peace. "What's reality anyway? he asked himself, It's as finite as a piece of cheese, as tainted by error as anything else with limits." But Dasein misuses this relativistic perspective to resolve doubts and lower the pressure on consciousness. Svengaard did much the same thing in The Eyes of Heisenberg, when he preferred the uncertainty principle to the thought of an intervening God.
Dasein's deepest insights come when he is caught in the middle. His outside perspective allows him to see things about Santaroga that its inhabitants deny, but at the same time, the Santarogans see many things about America that Dasein has been blind to. He tells Selador truly, "I've had my eyes opened here." Either reference system has its advantages. But both sides err by claiming that their viewpoint is absolute and thereby closing out the other.
Dasein's failure is the failure of his individualism, not just of Santarogan society. The criticisms of both America and Santaroga are valid, but it is a mistake to assume that any society can provide the answer to the problems that face the individual. Utopian dreams partake of the same surrender of responsibility that afflicts the followers of a charismatic leader. Dasein is alone. When he refuses to accept this fact and sees himself as doomed to choose either Santaroga or the outside, he is trapped into seeking a social salvation that does not exist.
Herbert explores these themes on many levels. As one frequently discovers in his work, puns or allusions provide a key to subterranean levels of analysis. It is no accident that Santarogan children are trained by Dr. Piaget, for instance. Piaget is a famous twentieth-century developmental psychologist. Far more significant, however, are the names Dasein, Sorge, and Jaspers. Jaspers is Karl Jaspers, the German existential psychiatrist and philosopher (whose work, incidentally, Herbert had studied with Ralph Slattery in Santa Rosa). Dasein is a term used by Jaspers and Heidegger to denote the human being. To Jaspers, it represents the temporal dimension of transcendent being. In Heidegger's terms, dasein translates as "being there." Sorge is another term from Heidegger's lexicon, meaning "the world of dasein's care. Obviously, Dasein is in love with Jenny Sorge.
Herbert uses the term dasein principally in the Heideggerian sense. Where Jaspers sees dasein as a kind of limiting case on a transcendent existenz, Heidegger sees only the "being there." Dasein is "thrown" into a world or a situation and left to its own devices. But dasein does not consist solely of potentialities; it always "engages and spends itself in the world of its care." This is sorge, the things of the world, of civilization and humanity, to which dasein attaches itself. Dasein is authentic, according to Heidegger, only when he is true to his own potentiality, and finds his being in himself. He is inauthentic when he becomes excessively involved with his world and is swallowed up in the one like many" of the group. This struggle for authenticity is what Dasein faces in the woods outside town. These are only the most pervasive of many Heideggerian allusions in the novel.
Herbert has a way of making abstract philosophical concepts very real. He uses Heidegger loosely, as a trigger for thought. He knows that philosophy is not a matter of reason alone but of human experience. As a result, he touches depths of feeling behind metaphysical issues rarely achieved in fiction. The "thrownness" of dasein to which Heidegger refers, the crisis of "being here" in the world, is not an abstract thing to Herbert; it is confronted whenever novelty brings man face to face with uncertainty. An individual must struggle to reconstitute his life and his worldview every time his preconceptions are shattered by experience. This is a basic human situation. In his essay, "Listening to the Left Hand," Herbert says:
We are destined forever to find ourselves shocked to awareness on paths that we do not recognize, in places where we do not want to be, in a universe that displays no concern over our distress and that may have no center capable of noticing us.
When Dasein comes to Santaroga, his old ideas no longer quite fit; he must "make up his mind" (literally) about the unknown situation. In addition, he experiences tension between his love for Jenny (sorge) and his need to be true to himself (dasein). The pessimistic ending of this conflict reflects Heidegger's awareness of the perennial danger of inauthenticity.
Herbert's experiential rendering of dasein as the process of accommodation to the unknown strikes chords in the reader that Heidegger's logical analyses of dasein's situation never could. The reader, too, is dasein, he is human. His involvement in the novel makes the same demands for a reassessment of his world as does Gilbert Dasein's involvement in Santaroga. As the Santarogans are trying to educate Dasein to their ways, Herbert is trying "to instill a new performance pattern in the reader." This performance pattern has to do with "what the eye is drawn to by the words," the context in which certain moods are consistently evoked, and so on. Herbert is also relying on the same assumption that he made while writing Destination: Void, that talking about hyperconsciousness has the effect of evoking it in some people.
More profoundly, however, the new performance pattern Herbert is trying to evoke has to do with the reader's power of judgment. Things are not what they seem in Santaroga, and the reader is forced to solve the mystery for himself. But there is more than a "whodunit" to be solved here, for Herbert's investigator reaches a false conclusion. The reader is being pressured (without any overt indication) to put the pieces Santaroga has shattered back together in his own way.
Herbert's use of Jaspers is even more demanding on the reader than his use of Heidegger, even more pregnant with the possibility of transformation, because the borrowings go deeper than they seem. Santaroga has found the insights of Jaspers's philosophy in a magic growth from the underground caverns of the Cheese Co-op. The drug takes Dasein from his everyday, limited consciousness to a transcendence with echoes of the philosopher's encompassing existenz. Like the philosopher Jaspers, the drug also teaches the Santarogans about the pervasive irrational elements in man and shows them that true human being can best be found in the network of awakened human communication.
Many other aspects of Jaspers's thought appear in the novel, though not as Santarogan characteristics. For example, Dasein is concerned with the limits of his role as a scientific observer. This was also a theme in Under Pressure, where Ramsey, like Dasein, found that objectivity was not truly possible in human situations. The limits of scientific objectivity is also one of Jaspers's ideas, Furthermore, Jaspers argues that in the face of human irrationality and the uncertainty of events, man is forced to depend on his own intuitive decisions. Even though he cannot know every outcome, or even whether he has made the right choices, man must take the chance of committing himself anyway. Dasein's lonely choices in the camper outside town are an eloquent description of man's attainment of being through decision.
Jaspers's influence on Herbert's work goes far beyond The Santaroga Barrier. For instance, the emphasis on the need for guilt in the creation of the artificial intelligence in Destination: Void may be an echo of that philosopher. Choice in the face of uncertainty leads to guilt, according to Jaspers, a guilt that men flee by imagining absolute standards and then doing their best to live up to them. Herbert's contempt for absolutes and their pernicious role in human psychology should be obvious by now. Jaspers's primary formulation--that human life is bounded by inescapable limits such as death, uncertainty, struggle, and guilt--is also central to Herbert's thought. Jaspers focuses on man s attempt to escape from these limits in a way uncannily similar to Herbert:
The menace beneath which man lives drives him to seek security. He expects his mastery of nature and his community with other men to guarantee his existence.
The ultimate situations--death, chance, guilt, and the uncertainty of the world--confront me with the reality of failure.... Crucial for man is his attitude toward failure: whether it remains hidden from him and overwhelms him only objectively at the end or whether he perceives it unobscured as the constant limit of his existence; whether he snatches at fantastic solutions and consolations or faces it honestly.
Herbert has expanded on Jaspers, but the similarity of structure between the thought of the two men is indubitable. The latter passage foreshadows Herbert's premise that consciousness is not a "solution" that makes the problems of human life go away. In fact, it may intensify their subjective reality, as it does with Dasein, until he seeks refuge in a womb of unawareness. But as Paul learned, consciousness does allow man to ride the waves of crisis or uncertainty with more aplomb. And as works such as The Eyes of Heisenberg and Children of Dune argue, to hide from uncertainty in the unconsciousness of an absolute belief, a perfect society, or a divine messiah may work for a time, but the eventual result is a devastating collapse in which uncertainty rushes back in, often to the accompaniment of social chaos.
Considering the profound influence that Jaspers has had on Herbert, there is a touch of paradox in his treatment of Jaspers in The Santaroga Barrier. Santaroga is an appealing utopia to many of Herbert's readers because the concepts inspired by Jaspers (the drug) spring from the same source as Herbert's own. The Santarogans speak wisdom that readers have come to expect from Herbert himself. They are certainly far wiser than the people outside. Under the influence of Jaspers, Dasein reaches levels of illumination and insight that are truly remarkable. But he cannot maintain the tension of uncertainty forever. He desperately hungers for a resolution. He cannot stand alone, and so eventually he is swallowed up by a kind of unconsciousness at least as pervasive as the unconsciousness outside Santaroga.
Herbert is satirizing the modern longing for a pharmaceutical philosophy. The drug Jaspers is subject to the same criticisms that Burdeaux made of television. It is passive. The strength demanded by Jaspers's philosophy is not required in Santaroga. This weakness contributes to the society's fall into a miasmic utopia instead of continuing the unending search for wisdom, which Jaspers the philosopher calls for. Piaget tells Dasein he is glad of the challenge the outsider provides, but this is really only lip service. He is afraid that too deep an inquiry will reveal some fatal flaw or demand too much. The insights provided by the drug are profound and valuable, but the alteration of awareness it gives is not identical to the heightening of responsible self-awareness to which Herbert gives the name of consciousness.
This distinction applies to Jaspers the philosopher as well. The danger of philosophical wisdom is that one can be seduced by it. One can come to believe that "if only everyone knew what I know, the world would be okay." Herbert does in fact make this accusation about B. F. Skinner's attitude in Walden Two, and he seems to have a similar opinion of Jaspers.
I deliberately took Jaspers's philosophical characteristics and translated them into a performance program from a drug.... While I imagine he would have denied it, Jaspers was Platonic. He would have gone right along with the whole idea of philosopher kings. ... Jaspers is saying, "If you do these sorts of things, you will interact well."... And if you have that as a central understanding of what Jaspers was up to, then you can build a philosophical matrix that comes from a drug.
Whether or not Herbert's assessment of Jaspers is correct, the point is well taken. Jaspers's philosophy is undeniably appealing--but so were those of the priests of Amel and the Bene Gesserit. Good ideas are not enough. Herbert uses philosophy as a practical tool for living and judges its results against life, so there are no right answers and no complete doctrine. There are only answers and their consequences. What happens to people who follow any given set of beliefs? The subtleties of one doctrine as opposed to another are resolved not by logic but by looking at their effects.
On one level, this means that all value judgments are relative. But at the same time, a local frame of reference is defined by survival value. Herbert's work implies a kind of evolutionary ethic. "There is no single model for a society, a species, or an individual," he says.." The aim of that force which impels us to live may be to produce as many different models as possible." By imposing one's own model, however good, as the model, one stifles the creativity that is at the heart of the evolutionary process. The tension between even the best of all possible philosophies and the diversity that is the key to survival is a central thrust of The Santaroga Barrier. Like Paul, Jaspers is dangerous because he seems to promise truth, not just a point of view.
Herbert has a profound distrust of those very ideas that are most appealing to him. He is always on guard lest they satiate his uncertainty and leave him with a docile illusion of superiority. He endeavors to state his ideas in a way that provokes rather than satisfies questioning.
Paul said in Dune:
The person who experiences greatness . .. must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.
Herbert abides religiously by this concept. There is no wisdom that excepts one from the possibility of inauthenticity, of being untrue to himself. Even to realize the uncertainty at the heart of things is a perception that must constantly be renewed. The realization can too easily degenerate, as it does in Santaroga, into its own kind of complacency.
This is why, ultimately, Herbert offers no clear answers in The Santaroga Barrier. Even to make a positive statement for diversity can be repressive. So he states different sides of each question with equal force. He is interested in exploring possibilities, in looking at the assumptions behind social choices and the con- sequences if they are carried out. Remember his comment, "I'm a muckraker." Herbert is unwilling to tie the novel into a neat package. There are meant to be some loose ends. The Santaroga Barrier is meant to be unsettling. Herbert says:
The point of view I was taking was that ... people really didn't know what they were asking for. They had a kind of amorphous, polarized viewpoint, and Utopia was something which doesn't hurt the way now hurts. But the real utopian demand was "I want a world that suits me." This is what I call the Skinnerian fallacy. Because if you read Skinner carefully, [you'll see that] he is saying, "Please let's have a world like this because this is the kind of world in which I feel safe." And.. . your utopia might very well be my dystopia. So I sat down to write a book [about] which ... just about half of the readers will say "He's talking about a utopia" and just about half will say "He's talking about a dystopia." By this approach, I have recreated the tensions that exist in the world all around us over that very issue.
In Hellstrom's Hive (1972), Herbert summons many of the same ambiguities that he did in The Santaroga Barrier, though in an even more extreme fashion. Santaroga was equivocal-- utopia or dystopia depending on your point of view. The world of Hellstrom's Hive is simply turned upside down.
The novel centers around the efforts of a government espionage agency to investigate a weapons project headed by one Dr. Hellstrom. As it develops, the project is a front for a massive underground hive of humans who have decided to emulate insect social models as a means of ensuring species survival. Hellstrom and a few other leaders still retain the individual consciousness needed to communicate with the outside world; most of the hive consists of interchangeable workers and breeders.
The investigation comes at a crucial time in the life of the hive. After developing in secret for many years, it is ready to swarm. As long as there is only one hive, it is vulnerable to the outside. Once there are many, the new breed of humans, like the insects, will be here to stay. The investigation must be stopped! All the hive needs is a little more time to multiply past the crucial point, and to develop Hellstrom's weapon as a "stinger."
As the novel opens, government agents are watching Hellstrom's installation. One by one they are picked up by the hive and killed. Finally, the head operator of the Agency takes over. He is a James Bond-like figure who we are sure will counter the threat. One cannot like him as a character; still, he does represent "our side." Eventually he, too, is killed, betrayed by his own machismo. One by one, the efforts of the outside are halted by their own inadequacies, by bureaucracy, egotism, and fear for individual survival.
What makes this story so unique is the reversal of accepted values within it. Herbert explains:
I said, "In terms of what we want now, as we think of our world now, what would be the most horrible kind of civilization you could imagine?" And then I said, "Now I will make... [the members of that civilization] the heroes of the story, by taking negative elements of the surrounding society and treating them as the villain." That creates a very peculiar kind of tension.
The reader is like a blind man coming home to find all his furniture rearranged. He knows that the insects must be the villains, but every cue tells him that they are the heroes. The representatives of the outside are so clearly not hero material. Assumptions war with the emotional responses programmed by the story. The result is very frightening. A reader unfamiliar with Herbert's themes is likely to regard it simply as a depressing vision and will fail to understand its deeper purpose.
Hellstrom's Hive is Herbert's most extreme vision, but the principles it illustrates are to be found throughout his work. He says, "It is by confusing the images that we learn to live with them." Rather than polemically attacking distressing elements in our society (as Herbert had noted in "The Priests of Psi," such an attempt would serve only to reinforce them), he frames these elements in such a way that they can no longer be taken for granted. Heroes and villains are never quite what they seem; expectations are raised and never quite fulfilled. Herbert's constant demand is that the reader learn to think for himself, so his novels can never be taken at face value. Hellstrom's Hive is a powerful, effective novel, but it is completely unpalatable unless the reader sees beyond what has been so obviously presented to what has not been said.
In Dune and Destination: Void, Herbert sought to awaken his readers in a positive way, by evoking hyperconscious images. In The Eyes of Heisenberg and The Santaroga Barrier he used uncertainty as a spur to thought. In Hellstrom's Hive, one sees the techniques that were later to shape Dune Messiah and especially Children of Dune. The reader must not only resolve uncertainty, but must use his own awakened sensibilities to recast the paradoxes and inversions with which he is presented.
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