Sunday, August 24, 2014

The End of the Bees

It's always sad when I put down a book I was really excited to read.  Laline Paull's The Bees got a lot of buzz (oh, that wasn't going to be a pun, but look, there it is!) earlier this year because of some NPR coverage.  It promised to be odd and charming and informative.

Well, I definitely found it odd, and it's pretty informative.  Unfortunately, I'm not charmed enough to finish it--which I'm pretty sure puts me in the minority.  I'm finding it a slog, actually, and I'm putting it down about 1/3 of the way through.

This is the story of Flora 717, and it begins with her birth, when she hatches from her honeycomb cell to begin her life as a sanitation worker in the hive, for the love and benefit of the goddess/queen/Holy Mother.  She is plucked from obscurity by a Sage sister (categories of bees are identified by their "kin," with plant names, and individuals with numbers) and taken to the nursery--an experiment, to see if a sanitary worker can be taught to feed the larvae.

Through the following days, Flora moves from area to area, changing jobs and learning new things in a world where life is strictly regimented, where nonconformity is policed and treated with the Kindness (execution), and hierarchy is clear, firm and biological.

Except it isn't.  And I think this is my problem: in order to anthropomorphize something as alien as bee society, you need to layer on all these features of independent mind and free will that are--for a human audience--human traits.  So, from this human point of view, bee society is horribly repressive and messed up.

Except, it's not, because they're not human--they're bees.  Being a human in bee society, even outside the obvious issues of size and wings and trivia like that, would stink.  Life would be nasty, brutish, and short.

What I think she was trying to do is what a science fiction author would do with an alien culture, which is to use it as a lens for us to look at humanity, so we can step outside of the familiar and see things from a new angle.  Which is great, but the reason that works is because the SF author gets to make things up.  This book is more like an extended analogy, and because nature limits what you have to work with, it doesn't seem to work very well for me.  But then, I've been pretty frustrated with Oppressive Societies Are Oppressive fiction lately.

On the subject of bees, though, let me give you a positive recommendation: Clan Apis, by Jay Hosler.  This is comic book with essentially the same objective as The Bees--to dramatize the life cycle of the bee and to teach us something about humanity at the same time--and I believe it was much more successful. 

First of all, it's funny--it a broad, kid-directed way, but funny.  It's quite direct about its educational sections--at various points, a young bee gets lectured about the life cycle by older characters.  It's a comic for kids (in spite of a little bee sex and plenty of death), but I found it absolutely charming and heartwarming, and I cried a couple of times when I was reading it.  I recommend this one highly.

One thing I will say about The Bees--it's left me seriously wanting to reread Watership Down to figure out how Richard Adams made that whole "real facts of nature and anthropomorphic drama convincingly wrapped together" thing work.  That book was amazing.  I think it has to do with the characters, but I haven't quite figured it out yet.  I'll let you know if I do. 

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