I finish a book about talking animals (Bete by Adam Roberts) and replace it with a novel about talking bees. Well, I say talking bees but the drones, foragers and sages that form the world of Laline Paull’s debut novel, the imaginatively titled The Bees, don’t speak in any language that would be recognisable to a human. Rather they communicate through sound, through scent and, not surprisingly, through a race memory shared among the hive. But fear not, Laline Paull has done us the favour of translating these varied forms of intercourse into English. (That said, I’m sure there’s a market for an audio book of the novel that includes a nasal component and provides access to a hive mind).
The star of the novel is newly born sanitation worker Flora 717. From the outset Flora is different to all her kin, those that clean the hive, in that she can speak. This abnormality nearly results in her execution until a sage (a priestess of the hive) steps in and saves her life. Flora is given the rare opportunity of performing functions that go beyond the skill-set she was bred for. Sent to the nursery, she discovers that she can produce Flow, the super food that feeds the newly born larvae. She’s also an excellent forager, her stronger body – built for sanitation – allowing her to travel further and for longer periods as she searches for choice pollen. Most special and yet troublesome is her skill at giving birth. In a world where only the Queen is allowed to breed, Flora discovers that she has this uncanny and heretical knack of getting pregnant.
If you’ve ever read a fantasy novel you’ll immediately recognise Flora 717 as the poor peasant, or member of a lower caste, who also happens to be the most gifted wizard / warrior / strategist etc in all the kingdom. In fact with a few minor tweaks, such as replacing the bees with… you know… people, the book would read like a traditional fantasy novel. In addition to the caste system, we also have oracles and soothsayers, that is the spiders who linger around the hive and exchange prophecy of the future for a tasty morsel (i.e. a bee close to death). We even have a dark force that threatens the kingdom, the ever present wasps constantly seeking ways to break in to the hive and guzzle up all the honey.
But unlike your traditional fantasy novel, Flora is depicted more as an agent of change than a hero or saviour that fights the dark lord and saves the kingdom. It’s made clear from the outset that while she has been given the opportunity to be more than a sanitation worker, this is a privilege that can be taken from her from at a moment’s notice. And Flora fully appreciates this, never taking for granted the freedom’s she been afforded. In fact rather than instil rebellion in her fellow sanitation workers, or for that matter the other castes, Flora’s does everything in her power to ensure that consensus is maintained. And yet, she still is an agent of change because of her compulsion, that grows increasingly throughout the novel, to breed. What at first feels like an overwhelming sense of betrayal becomes an overwhelming need to protect her offspring. And it’s this one act, kept secret from al in the hive, that ultimately has the biggest impact, that ultimately spells both the end and the beginning of Flora’s society.
Unfortunately, there’s an anthropomorphic quality to Flora’s journey that I found problematic. On the positive side I liked Flora as a character, empowering herself to do the best thing for the hive and then the best thing for her child. I also loved Paull’s beautiful prose which evokes both the wonders and horrors of the natural world. There’s this underlying eroticism to Flora’s discovery of sweet, sweet pollen that had me wanting to rush out of the house and nuzzle a flower. However, the novel’s overall theme, that a rigid inflexible society which eschews individuality and freedom will eventually self-destruct may be true from a human perspective, but it’s clearly false when applied to bees. From my basic reading (i.e. a skim of the internet) the specific roles attributed to each bee is a product of millions of years of evolution and is a perfect fit for bee society. Without it the society would collapse. So while I get that at one level The Bees is a metaphor about our own structured lives, I’m not sure it’s a metaphor that works in the context of a society that utterly relies on that structure.
The book has been compared to The Hunger Games (meets The Handmaids Tale). Putting aside the stupidity of these sorts of marketing comparison, the link to The Hunger Games suggests that bee society is a dystopia. Which is frankly ridiculous, because while it might be a dystopia for us, it’s clearly the perfect society for bees. Again, our need to anthropomorphise everything, to overlay our guilt and anxieties over the natural world, means that for all the novel’s strengths – the gorgeous prose and Flora’s characterisation – The Bees is ultimately a very human-centric and disappointing novel.