Frank Herbert's reputation can be summed up very briefly: He's the guy who wrote Dune. A lot of people don't know much about his other writing (which spans several genres) - and unfortunately, I must admit that I never read any of it either. A former co-worker of mine recommended Hellstrom's Hive, so here we are.
It was a horrifying, and utterly fantastic, read. Along with Diaspora, it's the high point of my year's science ﬁction reading so far.
The story is set two weeks into the future, as seen from somewhen in the 1970s. The US is a police state, the Communists are still regarded as a huge threat to US national security, and a secret agency (known simply as "the Agency") monitors both citizens and other government entities. For their own good, obviously. It's a repressive paranoid nation, policed by a paranoid secret police which press-gangs its agents and discreetly murders them once they're no longer useful.
…and that's the least horrific society depicted in the book.
At some point, the Agency got hold of a set of lab notes belonging to dr. Hellstrom, a soft-spoken if reclusive entomologist who makes a modest living producing nature documentaries about insects, and lives on an old farm. The notes indicate that Hellstrom is involved in work on some kind of very-high-tech weapon, which obviously catches the interest of the Agency. Operatives are sent to investigate - the ﬁrst ones disappear without a trace, thus really invoking government interest.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Hellstrom isn't just working on a superweapon. In fact, he is a front for the Hive, a giant human anthill of "domesticated humans", living as social insects do, in secret underground facilities around the world. They know that the Outside (the Hive word for us) vastly outnumbers them - and they know that if they are ever discovered, they will be exterminated. Most Hive people are simple workers, who live entirely to serve the Hive (and have no instincts for personal preservation). Most of them can't even speak verbal human language, instead communicating by gestures and chemical cues. The Hive has existed for centuries - living in secret, developing its own science, interacting with the Outside through specially trained fronts.
The Hive is a fantastically well-developed concept. They view themselves as "domestic" humanity, unlike the "wild" humanity of the Outside. Domestication implies safety, and the Hive is all about safety. They aren't genetically modified (they, in fact, have a cultural taboo against genetic modification), they're just selectively bred - just like how humans have been doing to other domesticated species for millennia. Essentially, the story asks what would happen if humans applied the same domestication techniques to ourselves as we have applied to other animals. The nominal "leaders" of the Hive aren't tyrannical or power-hungry - they're more overseers than leader ﬁgures, with all lust for personal power bred out of them. They, too, are domesticated humans.
There are both Hive and Outside (Agency) POV characters. The Hive is not cast as villains, but as the heroes of the story. Given how repugnant a society the Hive is, viewed from most normal humans' perspectives, this is a major feat of storytelling. From our perspective, the Hive appears alien, repugnant, an assault on human nature. From their perspective the Hive is home, family, safety. A civilized, peaceful oasis in a threatening wilderness of violent wild humanity that could crush it underfoot.
Obviously, there are extremely disturbing scenes - although they weren't done in graphic detail. For better and worse, this allows the reader's brain to ﬁll in the blanks (and for better or worse, my brain is very good at ﬁlling unpleasantries into those blanks).
Disturbing, horrific, frightening and absolutely fantastic. Highly, highly recommended.