Honey, hivemind and alien motherhood: The Bees, a Review

As you can probably guess by my URL, I’m interested in bees. I’ve got bee underwear, bee socks, a bee bowtie, and this year I’ve had my first firsthand experience with beekeeping. So I knew pretty much from the moment I saw this book on the shelf that I would read it at some point. I bought it almost immediately (along with A Gathering of Shadows and A Little Life, thank you Blackwell’s 3 for 2 deal), but it took me a long time to actually read it once I had it. For one thing it was marketed (at least the marketing I saw for it) as a dystopian sci fi novel- a genre which, with the exception of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games, I hardly ever read. Also, to be honest, I was intimidated. I (like most readers, I imagine) am used to reading books with human protagonists, and so I imagined I’d find the characters either unrelatably alien or disappointingly anthropomorphized. Either way, I approached with trepidation. Finally, I think, I was also worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my expectations once I got past that trepidation. I’ve thought bees were fascinating for years (even before the were cool!), so what if I didn’t like the book?

bees.jpgI’m happy to say I was spared that disappointment. I found the characters alien, true, but excitingly so, and the the story itself was fast-paced and readable, the mechanics of bee society clearly explained so it was easy for me to visualize their world. It did take me a while (I finished the book a week or more ago) to be sure what I thought of The Bees, though, not because there were parts I didn’t enjoy, but because it was so unlike anything I’d read before.

A few of the reviews I’ve read admired how it brought to light the environmental crises facing the apine population, and that actually put me off a bit. I do love bees, and I appreciate the growing popular concern with the plight of the modern bee, but there are few things I dislike more while reading a book than being preached at. So it was with some relief, I think, that I found the environmental crises fully integrated into the plot; the horrors of foul brood and deformed wing virus were rendered with no more melodrama than social upheaval and the (guilt inducing) disaster of The Visitation.

The reviews are right in a different regard as well: this is an ambitious book. In a relatively short work, set on a relatively limited geographic and temporal scale, Paull has managed to develop an entire alien way of life. It’s notable that she does not, as some authors have done, set the story from the perspective of a human observer, and so shy away from the monumental task of rendering the inner thoughts and feelings of a nonhuman person: for that is exactly what Flora 717 is, really– and this is what I so admire about books like this one– Flora is a strong, dogged, loving, even relatable person, but in her nature completely alien.beewasp.jpg

In any case, while I’m not overly qualified to evaluate the scientific accuracy of The Bees, I can at least enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who likes sci-fi, adventure or fantasy, and anyone who wants to, for a few hours, inhabit the mind of a character at once utterly foreign and intimately familiar.

[note: this is a slightly old post that has been transferred from my original book blog, apiomancy.tumblr.com, which I will delete soon]

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