Review: The Bees

Laline Paull’s The Bees has been on my radar for a while. It’s the story of a worker bee, Flora 717, as she navigates the dystopian power structures of her hive; there’s something about the miniaturisation that implies, a large world contained in a small one, that appealed to me.

For me, though, The Bees is a sad symptom of when speculative fiction leaks into mainstream literature: the critics rave about shocking originality, while actual SFF fans know the genre’s been doing work ten times subtler and more interesting since about 1970.

One of the things the novel seems to be going for is that quintessence of fiction: empathy with experience that is other than our own. In this case, experience that’s quite literally alien. It wants to ask the question: but what’s it like being a bee?

Which is an interesting and valuable question, especially given the crisis that bees are facing at the moment (which the novel does touch on). And bees are undeniably fascinating, as a species: they have complex social structures of their own, they can communicate fairly involved information, they pollinate our crops. But it’s not a question The Bees ever approaches answering, because it insists on reading bee experience through Western human norms. Why, for instance, would Flora find her hive dystopian, when existing in a hive is the very heart of bee-ness? The actual biology of the novel is apparently all accurate – it’s a shame that all that research has gone into retelling a not-very-interesting and thoroughly human story.

It was interesting to read The Bees straight after N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky: both novels discuss environmental concerns, and both are about motherhood (one of the many apparently exceptional things about Flora is that, despite being a worker bee, she lays eggs, which is apparently blasphemy to bees). That’s an interesting linkage, and a powerful one: it sets the personal, focused experience of love against catastrophe so vast and inevitable it can’t really be comprehended. It’s a kind of defiance: human connection thrown in the teeth of apocalypse. But The Bees just can’t match the Jemisin for emotional intensity, or the urgency that climate change and species collapse demands. The threat the bees face feels strangely remote – something the novel’s feel-good ending does nothing to solve. Combined with Paull’s workaday, wooden prose, that makes The Bees inconsequential, a curio rather than a call to action.

Some things that are better at experiencing the alien than The Bees is: if you’re able to and are interested in bees, I strongly recommend the Hive at Kew Gardens in London, which genuinely does make you feel like you’re standing in a beehive. Ursula Le Guin is great at imagining societies constructed entirely differently to our own: try The Left Hand of Darkness. Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket looks at an alien species whose biology is very different to ours, and has feminism. (You can skip the fictional physics.) Ann Leckie’s novels are good at thinking through the implications of different cultural and gender norms on what everyday life looks like: Provenance is particularly good for this.

Don’t read The Bees. There are so many better things out there.

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