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Hive Minds

Entry updated 16 January 2021. Tagged: Theme.

A hive mind is the organizing principle of the community in those insect species of which the basic reproductive unit is the hive, organized around a single fertile female, the queen. The term is used more loosely in some sf stories, often referring to any situation in which minds are linked in such a way that the whole becomes dominant over the parts.

Because the organization of social-insect communities is so very different from that of mammal communities, while showing a degree of structural complexity comparable only to human societies, ants and their kindred have always held a particular fascination for sf writers, and the ant-nest is the most obvious model for an Alien society. Early expressions of this fascination include "The Empire of the Ants" (December 1905 Strand) by H G Wells, "The Adventures of Professor Emmett" (in A Book of Miracles coll 1939) by Ben Hecht, "The Ant with a Human Soul" (Spring-Summer 1932 Amazing Stories Quarterly) by Bob Olsen, "Doomsday Deferred" (24 September 1949 Saturday Evening Post) by Will F Jenkins (Murray Leinster) and "Come and Go Mad" (July 1949 Weird Tales) by Fredric Brown. Wells's The First Men in the Moon (1901) was the first of many to depict an alien hive-society. Giant ants and wasps are among the standard figures of menace employed by sf writers; notable examples are found in Ralph Milne Farley's The Radio Man (28 June-19 July 1924 Argosy All-Story Weekly; 1948), Frank A Ridley's The Green Machine (1926), Alfred Gordon Bennett's The Demigods (1939), the film Them! (1954) and Keith Roberts's The Furies (1966). Real-world scares concerning "killer bees" have been reflected in such novels as Arthur Herzog's The Swarm (1974) and the associated Irwin Allen film. "The Empire of the Ants" and other stories portray hive-insects as serious contenders to end human domination of Earth, but Frank Herbert's The Green Brain (1966) imagines a multispecies insect hive evolving in order to protect the world's ecological balance against the short-sighted policies of humankind.

Most sf novels which imagine hivelike human societies find the idea repugnant, and it is often cited as the ultimate totalitarian Dystopia; examples include The Human Termites (September-November 1929 Wonder Stories; 1979) by David H Keller, The Riddle of the Tower (1944) by J D Beresford and Esmé Wynne-Tyson and Morrow's Ants (1975) by Edward Hyams. L Sprague de Camp's wry Rogue Queen (1951) features the revolutionary overthrow of a hivelike state. Some later sf writers have been more conscientiously ambivalent – examples include T J Bass's Half Past Human (December 1969 Galaxy and November 1970 If; fixup 1971), Frank Herbert's Hellstrom's Hive (November 1972-March 1973 Galaxy as "Project 40"; 1973) and Robert Silverberg's The Queen of Springtime (1989) – but their eventual verdict remains negative. Less hivelike group-minds are not uncommon in sf stories dealing with ESP, and the idea that some kind of group-mind represents the evolutionary destiny of the species crops up frequently; it figures extensively as an image of transcendental social harmony in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937), and is memorably developed in Theodore Sturgeon's More than Human (1953) and "To Marry Medusa" (August 1958 Galaxy; exp vt The Cosmic Rape 1958) and in Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990). A five-man group mind called George has benign if troubling effects on the cybernetics company which is the setting of Mark Clifton's "How Allied" (March 1957 Astounding). Eric Frank Russell's "Design for Great-Day" (January 1953 Planet Stories; vt "The Ultimate Invader" in The Ultimate Invader and Other Science-Fiction, anth 1954 dos, ed Donald A Wollheim) extends Earth's empathic linkage and sense of shared purpose to Aliens throughout the Solar System – all now collectively known as Solarians – with promises of eventual galactic and universal unity (see also Gaia).

The assumed loss of individuality is, however, still seen as a horrific prospect in such novels as Enemies of the System (1978) by Brian W Aldiss and Dusha Mira (1964; trans Antonina W Bouis as World Soul 1978) by Mikhail Emtsev and Eremei Parnov. Hive minds which can recruit or incorporate normal humans are regarded with particular dread: examples include the alien society encountered in Robert A Heinlein's Methuselah's Children (July-September 1941 Astounding; rev 1958), the Borg ("You will be assimilated") of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), and the particularly unpleasant jungle "greenweb" mentality of Stephen Hunt's The Kingdom Beyond the Waves (2008). Even Iain M Banks's Utopian Culture needs techniques for dealing with "Aggressive Hegemonizing Swarms", as mentioned in Excession (1996).

The ambivalence with which many sf stories regard hive minds derives mainly from the frequent association of group-minds with the notion of Evolution culminating in a final Transcendence; but there has also been a tendency for later sf writers calculatedly to question the assumptions made by their forerunners. Thus, whereas in Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959) Robert A Heinlein was content to assume that human individualism and Alien hive-organization must fight a fundamental Darwinian struggle for existence, Joe Haldeman was prepared to suggest in The Forever War (June 1972-January 1975 Analog; fixup 1974) that mankind might be greatly enriched by making peace with the aliens. The alien hive minds in Barrington J Bayley's "The Bees of Knowledge" (in New Worlds 8: The Science Fiction Quarterly, anth 1975, ed Hilary Bailey) and Keith Laumer's Star Colony (1981) are treated with some respect, and Orson Scott Card followed up the genocidal Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; exp 1985) with Speaker for the Dead (1986), in which the guilt-stricken hero searches for a suitable home for the last surviving alien hive queen. Incidentally, the intelligence of Card's "buggers" – later and less embarrassingly renamed "formics" in echo of ants – is not an emergent phenomenon of the hive as a whole but is centred in the queens, whose workers are otherwise mindless extensions of their queen's will. Perhaps the most detailed and sympathetic sf image of an alien hive-society is that in Serpent's Reach (1982) by C J Cherryh; another clever deployment is in Linda Steele's Ibis (1985), an ironic account of a love affair between an alien female and a human male.

The actual genetic politics of hive-organization – revelation of which has been the greatest triumph of the sociobiology of Edmund O Wilson (1929-    ) – whereby the misnamed "queen" stands revealed as a helpless sex-slave forced to work to the genetic advantage of her sisters, was slow to find significant reflection in sf. Stephen Baxter, however, touches on this issue while speculating on a possible route for the Evolution of human hive communities (if not actual mentalities) in Coalescent (2003). From earlier sf, the repugnant (to modern Feminist sensibilities) position of a breeder in a hive-like society is also central to the ambivalent Dystopia of John Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" (in Sometime, Never, anth 1956, ed anon). Wyndham's most memorable creation, the Triffids, seem to have a kind of vegetable hive-mind intelligence.

Variations on the sf hive-mind theme continue to be proposed. Later books in John Barnes's loose sequence The Century Next Door suggest that One True, a human hive mind which has absorbed the population of Earth, is moving towards ambiguous benignity – an adaptation necessitated by its inherent drive to spread itself to the Mars colony and elsewhere. In Barnes's The Sky So Big and Black (2002), for example, some characters' mental balance and/or ability to survive seem improved by the feared "Resuna" Meme which is (as it were) the operating system of One True. Powerfully intellectual hive minds are regarded without alarm as one of the options for "Forged" or adapted human subspecies in Natural History (2003) by Justina Robson; but Far-Future humanity is losing out to distributed hive-mind intelligences in Charles Stross's Missile Gap (in One Million A.D., anth 2006, ed Gardner Dozois; 2007 chap).

Douglas Hofstadter amusingly discusses hive minds in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979), through a fictionalized dialogue about "Aunt Hillary", the emergent Intelligence of an ant-hill whose individual ants are Automata: this offers an illuminating analogy for the emergence of human cognition and self-awareness from the cells and synapses of the brain. [BS/DRL]

see also: Communication; Living Worlds; Politics; Superman; Zombies.

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