The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966) is set in a far future where humanity is ruled by a small group of biological immortals known as Optimen. They have lived for tens of thousands of years and regulated every aspect of life. Their life and health is preserved by carefully maintaining the balance. Genetic engineering has progressed to the point where the genetic sequences of a fertilized ovum can be manipulated by highly skilled doctors. This technique is used to keep the population within a narrow genetic bandwidth and decide who gets to have children. Parents have little say in this matter but they are not entirely without rights. When Lizbeth and Harvey Durant, a couple lucky enough to be selected for breeding, exercise one of these rights, to be present at the modifying of the genetic material of their child, it becomes apparent that there is a certain uncontrollable element to procreation. An element that threatens the carefully maintained balance.
A balance to be maintained, I guess that is the crux of the novel. Herbert isn’t too fond of balances. One of the characters in the book mentions that change is the only constant, an axiom that returns in many of this novels. A lot of Herbert’s characters are forced to continually change, face changing conditions, reconsider their beliefs and embrace new insights. They are constantly evolving and adapting. And yet, in this novel Herbert portrays a society that is completely stagnant. A place where processes such as natural selection have been eliminated and where deviations from the standard, desired set of genes is surgically corrected. Procreation has become a purely technical matter, not a process that binds generations together or ensures or creates family bonds. People are individuals, isolated from their ancestors and children, basically a people without a history or roots. In short, the Optimen have created a very scary world. Herbert has captured the stagnant nature of Optimen society very well.
The forces that threaten the Optimen’s control are described in a more subtle way. There is the mysterious change in the Durant embryo observed by one of the genetic engineers for instance. A change that is never explained properly, perhaps a random mutation? Most of the pressures seem to be of a social nature however. The Optimen seem to lose interest in the world around them at a certain age, giving themselves over to hedonistic pleasures and shunning the actual governing of the world. They become more and more detached form a world which clearly shows the signs of discontent. The Optimen’s dislike of anything to do with death and termination makes them blind to the violence that lurks beneath the surface. It also deprives them of a certain thrill, a sense of being alive that, once rediscovered, is very hard to ignore.
I’ve centred on the idea which I think is the core of the novel but Herbert explores a lot more in this book than I could convey in this review. While I was very impressed with the concepts Herbert uses, I must admit that from a writing point of view, this novel isn’t his best. With a bunch of point of view characters and less than 200 pages in which to develop them, none of the characters become truly alive in a sense that they become more than the idea they represent. Most of them are cardboard characters really. Some people feel this is a problem with many of Herbert’s early novels. I only agree with this to an extent but The Eyes of Heisenberg definitely suffers from this problem.
I guess I would have to rate this book as one of Herbert’s weakest. It is still strong on interesting ideas and fascinating concepts but the character development in particular is not great. There are a lot of ideas that DUNE fans will recognize. The longevity of the Optimen is a theme Herbert would reuse in God Emperor of Dune for instance, Leto II lives several thousand years. Again longevity is coupled with a tight control of human society, although some might find Leto’s fate preferable to the eternal boredom of the Optimen. Recognition and strong concepts are not enough to lift this novel to the same level as some of Herbert’s other books though. A bit of a shame really, this story probably was not developed to its full potential. Of course, for the real Herbert fan like me, The Eyes of Heisenberg is still an interesting read.