(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1970 edition)
Frank Herbert, known to most science fiction fans for his classic six book Dune sequence, published an extensive catalogue of other novels and short story collections. A trademark of so many works of Herbert’s corpus is his near immaculate world-building skills. As in Dune, the true extent of the world and all its hidden powerplays are slowly uncovered over the course of the narrative. Although the basic premise is standard for the genre, Herbert’s multi-faceted world combined with his ability to develop characters and the pure hysteria/sheer hopelessness that permeates every page makes The Eyes of Heisenberg worth reading for fans of Dune and 60s science fiction.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966) is a disturbing far future vision where humans (“Folk”) are the mere pawns of two far greater powers: the Optimen — genetically superior humans able to live thousands of years — and the Cyborgs, an underground movement that extends the lifespan of the normal human by adding computers, mechanical limps, and even strange weapons that emerge as devastating protrusions from the chests of their wearers.
The Optimen keep the Folk subjugated by controlling their fertility with contraceptive gasses that are pumped throughout their cities. Also, a large percentage of the Folk population are sterile. The Optimen employs a cadre of genetic surgeons who control which Folk are able to reproduce. The embryos are housed in high-tech vats where they are subjected to “cuts” i.e. genetic manipulation. A minute amount of the embryos are found to be abnormal — these, subjected to extensive enzymatic treatments become Optimen who are virtually immortal. Unfortunately, the Optimen are sterile and thus rely on the Folk surgeons to comb the populace to find embryos suitable to be transformed into Optimen. These surgeons, who are often sterile themselves, are rewarded with enzymatic treatments that extend their lives.
One of Herbert’s central themes is the loss of identity that the Sterries, sterile Folk, undergo. Because they are unable to naturally reproduce, “They’re all people without pasts and only the hope for a future to cling to. Somewhere our past was lost in an ocean of darkness. The Optimen and their gene surgeons have extinguished our past” (40). Hence, many of them join the Cyborgs in a desperate attempt to extend their own lives.
The Optimen themselves, some whom are 40,000 years old, are transformed by their inability to reproduce and their extreme age. In Central, separate from the Folk habitations of the surrounding metropoli, they exist in almost perpetual adolescence filled with dalliance and play where terms like “death” or “degradation” and “violence” have exited their vocabulary, in part due to the fear of potential enzymatic imbalance that might result from depressing thought. With childlike glee, they “rediscover” mankind’s obsession with violence and destruction over the course of the narrative.
In this power struggle between the Optimen and the Cyborgs the Folk are mere tools. They can be duplicated by both groups, their embryos can be manipulated or destroyed on whim, they are prevented from naturally producing, and their embryos are needed to perpetuate the Optimen. However, a majority of the Folk revere the Optimen who grant their most trusted pawns extended lifespans and select certain individuals from the ranks to reproduce.
Enter Lizabeth and Harvey Durant, members of Parents Underground, an affiliate organization of the Cyborgs. They arrive at a local hospital to witness the genetic re-sequencing of their embryo. Due to the strange properties of the embryo, Potter, a high-ranking surgeon is called to oversee the operation. He discovers that the embryo contains unusual qualities, increased intelligence, full fertility (the implication is its immune to the contraceptive gas), and incredible life expectancy. However, the fetus does not contain the properties indicating an Optimen, hence, he obligated to destroy it. However, at the last moment with the assistance of a nurse, Potter destroys the record of the operation. Lizabeth and Harvey Durant (able to communicate non-verbally with each other by means of hand pressure) want to keep their child. The Optimen want to destroy the embryo. The Cyborgs want to study the embryo in order to extend their own lives. The Cyborgs implant the fetus into Lizabeth and attempt to escape to clutches of the Optimen…
Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)
Herbert’s prose is dense (although less so than in Dune) and won’t appeal to all readers. In a typical conversation the thought process of every participant is described. The perspective moves from character to character to character over the course of a few paragraphs. Lizabeth and Harvey Durant’s thoughts are conveyed by their non-verbal ability to communicate. Not only that, but they are graced with the heightened ability to “read” people. Hence, we often learn more about other characters through their observations, related by means of hand pressure to each other, than through their spoken words which are all an act. As a result, Herbert is able to develop simultaneously the external character and the internal thoughts of every individual, however minor, in the narrative. This creates a depth seldom achieved in other short (158 pages) sci-fi novels!
My critique of the work is two-fold. First, the plot functions around the messianic qualities of the particular embryo. How these qualities developed is unclear besides that an unknown external force was at work (God? The nature of man resurfacing after millennia? Some other universal constant upset by the centuries of unnatural manipulation of the genome?). This is a particularly frustrating cop out that functions much like a prophecy in a work of fantasy. Yes, this is the same complaint I have about Dune although Muad’Dib’s role is infinitely more complex. Second, Herbert often, perhaps to stretch the narrative, adds an exorbitant amount of biological lingua. For example, the many pages on the the genetic re-sequencing of the Lizabeth and Harvey’s embryo read like this: “Krebs cycle fifty-eight,” the computer nurse said. “Second cut,” Potter said. “Armed,” Svengaard said. Potter searched out the myxedema-latent isovalthine, found it. “Give me a tape on structure,” he said. “S-(isopropylcarboxymenthyl) cystein” (29).
Isopropylcarboxymenthyl and unknown external forces aside, The Eyes of Heisenberg is a worthwhile read.
(Hoot von Zitzewitz’s cover for the 1966 edition)
(David Davies’ cover for the 1968 edition)
(Ian Miller’s cover for the 1975 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1983 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1986 edition)
(Stephen Youll’s cover for the 2002 edition)
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16 thoughts on “Book Review: The Eyes of Heisenberg, Frank Herbert (1966)”
The Ian Miller cover is my favorite.
The book sounds interesting. I’m going to have to look for it.
As long as you don’t compare it to Dune — hehe. What I found online were a million reviews saying it was crap in comparison to Dune. I mean, he wrote other works which need to be considered on their own merits. I guess it’s symptomatic of an author who produces a masterpiece…. everything else he/she did is automatically bad.
I found this readable, disturbing, a little heavy on the biological technobabble, and had some really intriguing (if somewhat undeveloped) ideas.
Thanks for the kind words!
I’ve owned this one for a while now (someone saw the Hoot von Zitzewitz cover and thought of my blog), and seriously considered reading it after I went through Destination: Void,, but put it off after reading some pretty damning reviews. After reading this review maybe I should reconsider.
Most of the reviews I found online endlessly compared it to Dune…. Just about all his non-Dune novels are compared to Dune. This is a perfectly readable, dare I say enjoyable and occasionally fascinating, genetic messiah type story — hilariously, the “messiah” never exits his fetus stage.
Yes, the end is a tad problematic.
That will forever be a problem with Herbert; you can’t review his books without mentioning Dune, and mentioning Dune probably increases the chance the reviewer will compare the two.
I agree with you: there’s little point in reading Herbert if you’re just going to compare everything to Dune. However, Heisenberg leaves me cold. The characterization is completely flat to my reading. To say the plot is abstruse is, I think, generous. We seem to have plots w/in plots w/in plots but no characters or powers we can root for, and therefore none we should necessarily boo and hiss. I’m not for or against anyone in this book. I’m not intending to be argumentative, but only expressing my own reaction to Heisenberg. I think your analysis of the plot of the novel is very good.
I agree about the characters — I preferred Orne…
Bob, what is your favorite of his non-Dune novels? These are the only two I’ve read recently — I remember enjoying The Dosadai experiment when I was 14 — and Destination: Void (although, not so much the sequels with Ransom) and The Green Brain was rather silly. Haven’t read The Heaven Makers, Hellstrom’s Hive, or The Santaroga Barrier (on my shelf… waiting to be read).
And again, thanks for the comments! They are greatly appreciated 🙂
In reply to Bob’s non-answered question, MY favourites are (were) Destination: Void, The Santaroga Barrier and Whipping Star. Herbert could tell a pretty light-hearted romp (adventure) if he wanted while still containing some depth thematically. The ‘harder’ novels often lack one of those two. But, I read all or most of them as a teenager and some of those novels like Eyes of Heisenberg went completely over my head. Hellstrom’s Hive is highly regarded though.
There’s a lot to pick apart in this book, but I think the funniest is the long conversations the Durants have via finger-tap Morse Code. The action just stops while they relay messages that should take several minutes to convey. I guess Herbert saw too many movies/tv shows with that conceit. 🙂
I will give Herbert kudos for writing a highly technical surgery scene compellingly. When he can refrain from changing viewpoint characters every three seconds, he occasionally rises above mediocrity.
Have you posted your review yet?
Yeah, I enjoy Herbert when he speculates about modes of communication. I enjoy his shifting perspectives though — it gives a more mosaic look at action and perception.
Yup. Review is up. 🙂 I suspect you won’t agree with my assessment.
I read the novel so long ago I don’t have much to counter or interact with your argument. What I remember is in this review — hah.