Eyes of Heisenberg, The by Herbert, Frank, 1966

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Frank Herbert's 1966 dystopic medical thriller The Eyes of Heisenberg is, like many of his other novel length stories, an expansion on an earlier short story. This book found its genesis in Herbert's 1956 Galaxy-published short story Do I Sleep or Wake. It is the story of a far-future race of human drones that are watched over by a benevolent yet distanced cadre of genetically modified immortals called the Optimen. At least, that is how it seems. The ordinary people of this world - The Folk - feel comfort from the presence of the Optimen, who promised to guard them and make their lives whole. "They are the power that loves and cares for us," the Folk say. It takes little time for Herbert to make clear that the catchy slogans of the Folk really don’t reflect reality. The Optimen live gilded lives in enormous castles and though they were once as human as the Folk over which they rule, they remember little of the mortal lives they lived 8,000 years prior. The Eyes of Heisenberg is the story of two groups of immortal post-human powers who vie for control of the world, and a group of ordinary humans who seek to recapture the most basic of human rights; the right to reproduce.

As a form of political control the Optimen regulated the Folk’s ability to concieve children. The Folk are referred to pejoratively as "sterries," or "steriles," because the Optimen refuse to let them breed. They are denied that ability because most (but apparently not all) have been genetically altered to be incapable of it. Instead the Optimen have built up a biological technology based on eugenics and cloning whereby they select ideal mates and create children in their labs. If the offspring proves to have some use in their engineered society, the Optimen produce multiple copies of that person and build up a new class of servants. This was exactly what was happening to the fetus of Harvey and Lizbeth Durant as the story began. Two genetic physicians, Svengaard, a sycophantic yes-man to Optiman control, and Potter, a senior doctor who secretly wished to see what his science was capable of absent outside control, prepared to create the child of the Durant’s in a lab. During the procedure something went wrong. An "outside agency" did something to the cells during the procedure and created a fetus that would one day had the ability to reproduce on its own. In short, this outside agency gave the fetus the natural ability that the Optimen suppressed. Potter and the nurse who ran the computers outside the operating room both realized what happened. Svengaard knew something happened, but was kept in the dark by Potter. Once the operation was complete the fetus was smuggled out of the lab and replaced with a surrogate by the Parents Underground, a terrorist organization to which the Durants belonged, who were aided by a group of cyborgs who also opposed Optiman rule. The cyborgs were an earlier failed attempt to create a powerful and immortal race of mankind. They already had one chance, but were defeated in a war thousands of years prior by the Optimen. They have been waiting silently in the wings for their chance to strike back, and they saw the potential in this one fetus to leverage a victory now. The Optimen, who are for all practical purposes all-knowing, figured out what happened almost right away. But before they could get to the fetus, all of the characters, including Potter and Svengaard were moved away on an underground railroad that was established by the cyborgs. The character's escape was plagued with death:

His guide had gone around to the opposite side of the fountain which concealed him now from the waist down, but what remained visible was enough to make Potter gasp and freeze. The man's chest was bare revealing a single milky white dome from which blazed a searing light.

Potter turned left, saw a line of men emerging from another alley to be crisped and burned down by that searing light. The children were shouting, crying, falling back into the alley from which they had emerged, but Potter ignored them, fascinated by this slaughter-machine which he'd thought was a human being.

One of the guide's arms lifted, pointed overhead. From the extended fingers, lancets of searing blue stabbed upward. Where the light terminated, aircars tumbled from the sky. The air all around had become an ozone-cracking inferno punctuated by explosions, screams, hoarse shouts.

Potter stood there watching, unable to move, forgetful of his instructions or the door or his hand upon the door's handle.

Return fire was coming now at the guide. His clothing shriveled, vanished in smoke to reveal an armored body with muscles that had to be plasmeld fibers. The ravening beams continued to blaze from his hands and chest.

Once the Durants were informed that their fetus was viable and would grow up to be able to reproduce on its own the cyborgs had two of their geneticist/surgeons implant the fetus into Lizbeth so that they could smuggle the family out of the SeaTac (Seattle-Tacoma) archology. The Optimen grew more and more concerned that the Durant family actually would escape from SeaTac so they put their best security man on the job; a man named Max Allgood who was the latest in a long series of clones of an original progenitor, just like Duncan Idaho. As the Durants continued to evade Allgood and his hounds, getting further and further away each time, the Optimen grew more concerned. Therein lay the seeds of their own destruction.

The technology that created the Optimen millennia ago required that the Optimen live almost entirely stress-free lives. This was why they lived apart from the Folk; because they needed a congenial, peaceful atmosphere where they could regulate their emotions and maintain complete control over their own internal chemistry because if they lost control of that – if their emotions and hormones raged out of control – they would likewise lose control over other aspects of their own biology, including their immortality.

Since they still needed a presence to maintain control, the Optimen established a group of three (which revolved annually), to run the government. Called the Tuyere these three had the ultimate power over the Folk, but because of their unique chemical restrictions they operated through proxies such as Allgood. Somehow the cyborgs learned of this weakness and tried to exploit it. They did so by frightening the Tuyere, hoping that they could push them into taking drastic action against the Durants. Their plot worked well. At first the Optimen took a direct interest in finding and killing the Durants. That alone was a big change for them. Prior to that the Optimen never even used the word "death" in each other's presence. They even ordered that the word "pharmacist" be substituted for "doctor," because the word "doctor" suggested the possibility that something was wrong. When their first plan failed they started issuing orders that would result in the deaths of innocents, and ultimately ordered the entire population of the SeaTac archology euthanized with a poison gas. Shortly after that they ordered the death of their faithful long-term servant, Allgood, and by then all was lost for them: They could no longer regulate their bodily chemistry and lost their immortality.

War's an instinct with humans. Battle. Violence. But their systems have been maintained in delicate balance for so many thousands of years. Ah, the price they paid - tranquility, detachment, boredom. Comes not violence with its demands and their ability to change has atrophied. They're heterodyning, swaying farther and farther from that line of perpetual life. Soon they'll die.

This was a tightly constructed and quick story that was a joy to read. Herbert's expertise lay in a nuanced conflict that is just packed into this book. His characters were excellent, especially Allgood, who was brilliant yet restrained by his compulsion to obey the Optimen; Svengaard, who resembled Allgood in the beginning, but learned to listen to himself in the end; and Harvey Durant, who was a near Optiman himself. This book drew lightly from Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New Word both, but was different enough to stand out on its own. For those of you who read Herbert's work to learn more about the ideas behind Dune, there are a few here. Max Allgood, the Optimen security chief, was a "serial-ghola" type of creature who would be remade every time he died, and had been around for thousands of years. The Durants also had a form of nonverbal communication which involved finger movements on the palm of the other. This turned out to be a type of battle-language. The cyborgs and the Parents Underground movement had the ability to make doppelgangers to replace the Durants once they are smuggled out of SeaTac, and though these creatures did all of thier work off-stage, they sound to me like face dancers. The Optimen are obviously running a breeding program. One of the occasional side effects is that a new Optiman is created who is then taken into the ranks of the ruling class. The human-appearing cyborgs in this story were very similar to the cyborg in the final Dune books. With so many organizations and characters at odds here, there are multi-layered deceptions going on, much as in the Dune stories. There is also a scene where Svengaard, who worships the Optimen, learns secrets of humanity through experiencing great trauma - the destruction of SeaTac. This scene is similar in tone to those from Dune where someone survives consumption of the spice. Finally, the Optimen were an immortal-appearing race of men who really were only living the illusion of immortality.

One thing that I particularly love about Frank Herbert is that even though you know what you are going to get, he often twists some new process or issue out of an age old story and shines a new light on it. This book could easily have been a noir thriller, or even a traditional dystopic book. But Herbert stayed within the boundaries of his oeuvre, and delivered a hard SF novel with tons of philosophic speculation and loads of character development. Now, I know that does not sound really like something new or unexpected, but Herbert's facility with character and especially with conflict sets this work apart. The conflict in this book was rarely done face to face. The Durants and their allies had to fight from a distance, which means that they had to call in as many friends as they could. Running from their enemies, wife pregnant and husband worn down, they did not know who their allies were, but they also failed to recognize the power that they had inside themselves; the power that the child gave them. The critical factor here - the thing that changed and thus changed fortunes - was a child who despite all efforts to the contrary was subject to the laws of creation as nature intended it. Herbert ended things with the re-ordering of biology so that its creatures would trvive. Now I also happen to think that the ending of this book - especially he wrapped up the conflict at the end - was a little too neat and tidy. The Optimen came in line just a little too easily once they realized that they had lost, and the Durants and the cyborgs were a little too forgiving about the death of Sea/Tac. But if you can get past that and focus on the kid, what you are left with is a wonderful creation story. That I think is what Herbert wanted to focus on most of all.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)

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