The Chem are a race of aliens unknown to humankind. Because they’re immortal, they’re bored. So, for entertainment, they broadcast drama TV from Earth. Fraffin is one of the most successful producers of human drama. Authorities from his home planet suspect he may be manipulating events on Earth, which is forbidden, so they send Investigator Kelexel to find out what’s going on. But Fraffin has a way of dealing with snoopy investigators. All he has to do is trap them by tempting them with Earth’s secret pleasures.
In actuality, Fraffin is indeed interfering with humans and creating his own dramas to boost his ratings. For his current project, which he’s been setting up for decades, he incites a well-respected man to brutally butcher his wife. Before being taken to jail, the man asks psychologist Androcles Thurlow to look after his daughter, Ruth, who is Thurlow’s ex-fiance. When Thurlow gets involved, he realizes something really weird is going on. Inspector Kelexel realizes it, too, but then he becomes infatuated with Ruth, just as Fraffin knew he would.
The Heaven Makers has a few problems. Characterization is shallow, there’s some horrendous psychobabble, parts of it drag (especially the murder trial), and there’s an annoying lecture about ethics and immortality at the end. Yet the story is mostly entertaining and, for such a short novel, it suggests some ideas and asks some questions that are worth thinking about.
An obvious idea that Herbert plays with is the notion that immortality leads to boredom and that danger gives spice to life. The Chem find their long safe lives so dull that they feel the need to live vicariously through humans who experience pain, loss, and death. Another idea, which I think I appreciated a little better, is the thought that small personal conflicts can represent big epic conflicts. In the past, Fraffin the producer incited big events such as wars to entertain his alien brethren. Lately, with Ruth’s family’s story, he’s looking into the possibility that a small personal conflict may feel even more devastating and be more gripping for his viewers than big global events are. As a human, I can say that, yes, my little personal sufferings sometimes seem weightier than a world war.
The Heaven Makers was originally serialized in 1967 in the magazine Amazing Stories and was released as a short novel in 1968. I listened to Blackstone Audio’s recent version which is 7.5 hours long and is read by Scott Brick. As I’ve mentioned numerous times, I love the way Brick reads old science fiction.