Laline Paull is a British playwright. Her debut novel, The Bees describes life in a cultivated beehive. In this text, we follow Flora 717, a bee born with something unique– something unique which makes her stick out in a society where being the same is critical to success and survival.
Then kindly recall that variation is not the same as deformity.
What drew me to The Bees initially was an interview with the author I discovered on io9. See, science fiction is often exploring where science can take us in the future. We push the boundaries of what humanity knows and understands in texts like Orson Wells The Time Machine, or in Issac Asimov’s I Robot. New planets, races, and technologies are discovered, which in turn inspire humanity to keep reaching further and further. Science fiction rarely explores the science we have in front of us for what it is. And what’s exactly what Laline Paull does here.
Paull felt this book was just waiting to be written when she learned about bees. About the drones who are massacred once a year, or how multiple princesses will fight each other for dominance and the crown, or the scientifically defined “fertility police” who will hunt down worker bees that end up laying eggs instead of the queen– killing the bee and eating the eggs. It’s terrifying stuff! No wonder she was inspired to write a book! I picked up The Bees expecting a dystopian science-fiction novel with anthropomorphic bees. Bring it on.
Awestruck, Flora stared at the disshevelled sisters with their blazing faces and radiant wings, who smelled of no kin but the wild high air.
Yet, once I started reading, nothing about the book really grabbed me (Honestly, I was so bored with it, I put off writing this review for three months to get away from it). I realized around halfway through I had been waiting for the next thing to happen so the book will really get started since the beginning. And yet, nothing seemed like “the next thing”. I was always waiting without knowing why. Waiting for Godot anyone?
Laline’s prose was beautiful at times. I found some gorgeous lines that I read over and over purely out of the enjoyment of the phrase. And yet, it seemed like the author herself wasn’t certain where she was going with the story. It seemed she lacked follow through to her own metaphors of humanity. One second I’d feel like I was being beaten over the head with a metaphor, and the next minute it would vanish as though it had never been there.
You have wings and courage and a brain. Do not annoy me by asking permission.
This struggle was most clear in the bees themselves. The level of anthropomorphism applied to the bees changed often, which led to confusion. Often, what the bees were doing and how their tasks and roles paralleled humanity was impeccably clear. A worker bee cleaning the hives uses brooms and dustpans. A nursery bee ensures the baby bees are fed and cared for. And at other moments, what the bees were doing was alien and unknowable. It felt like when a professor is lecturing to you about something incredibly complicated and they expect you to follow every word and understand completely. This change in my ability to relate to the bees made the book difficult to relate to, or even like, any of the characters that stuck around. The bees we were introduced to in a fleeting fashion, but who were clearly described, were the ones I attached to the most. And yet they also vanished the most quickly.
In the io9 conversation above, when asked how she decided what information keep accurate and where to deviate from the research, Laline Paul stated:
…I learned that being wild in your narrative means your story flounders. So I made the decision to stick to the truth of the organism, wherever I could. And that led me to the best story I could write, because it was steeled in fact.
I disagree. I found that the truth of the science was sometimes distracting. I didn’t need to know all that information about how bees survived the winter. Or, if I did, I needed to better understand what was happening and not have to re-read entire passages to try and piece together what strange and foreign concept was going on. I also found that I questioned the authenticity of the research while I was reading. I can’t place why I questioned this, but I think it might have to do with the varying level of detail and how relatable the scientific concepts were as described in fiction.
By the end of this book, I just didn’t understand why Laline’s primer book was such an “It” book of Summer 2014. It’s intriguing and different. I love some of the truly poetic phrases, as well as how it challenges science fiction to explore what is in front of us a bit deeper. But I just couldn’t find myself engaged in the book, or even caring about the characters or the denouement.
Have you read The Bees? What did you think?