NB: I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book from the Goodreads First Reads program, but that has not affected the content of my review.
What the F star star cunt* did I just read. IIIIIIIIIIIII . . . have no idea how to rate this book. I have no idea how to talk about this book. I have no idea how to think about this book. I mean, on the one hand, I’m so glad something like this — so weird and weird and just weird — can be published. But on the other hand, I have no frame of reference for really talking about it? Other than maybe Watership Down or Animal Farm, but those books had such different agendas from this one that the comparison doesn’t really work for me.
*I almost didn’t type this sentence, but I figured if anyone on the internet a) wouldn’t be offended, and b) would already get the reference, it would be a site full of Pajibans.
In terms of mechanics, The Bees is a very good novel. Laline Paull — a playwright who went to Oxford — is good with words. Her description — her worldbuilding, I guess you’d call it — is also very compelling and well-drawn. I was very much in that beehive every step of the way. It was also fascinating to get so deep into the inner workings of a beehive: the different types of bees, their duties, their lifespans, and habits, their fears and desires. The problem for me comes in the story that Paull chose to tell using all of those tools at her disposal. I was never quite sure what the point of it all was, and it seemed clear to me that she was trying to make a point. But I kept getting mixed messages from the text.
Our eyes into this story are Flora 717’s eyes. We follow Flora from the moment she emerges as a self-aware being, a member of the lowest caste of bees in the hive: a sanitation worker (the floras). Other bees look down on her, and most of the members of her caste are mute (and presumed dumb). But for whatever reason (ahem), Flora is quickly scooped up by a higher caste of bee when they learn she can produce Flow (Paull’s term for the substance fed to bee larvae). This establishes the pattern for the rest of Flora’s life, that due to convenient or unforeseen circumstances, Flora ends up exceeding the mandate of her caste and ‘serving time’ as many, many different types of bee. The reason why Flora is so unusual is never made clear, and the conclusion of the novel doesn’t offer any sort of thematic or metaphoric answer, either. It ended up feeling like Paull wrote Flora as special so that we as readers could visit so many different parts of the hive and experience so many different parts of bee life, which would have been impossible to do through the eyes of just one bee under normal conditions (as implied by the word ‘caste,’ bee society is strictly compartmentalized).
Okay, so this is where my mind starts to do whirligigs, because all the while Flora is having her mystical magical Mary-Sue* journey through the beehive, being stuff she’s not supposed to be (and being the best at whatever thing of the moment) and meeting the queen and reading forbidden books and foraging and laying forbidden eggs all over the place, you get the idea that we’re mean to to think Flora is righteous for doing all of these transgressive things (an idea affirmed by the ending). Like, how dare you bee society make all these bees do these things and tell them what they can an cannot be? And how dare you mind control them with the scent of the queen and not let them lay eggs? Everybody should lay eggs! Let’s all just lay some fuckin’ eggs and have a party! Except, that feeling doesn’t really have an actual basis in the text other than us rooting for Flora because she’s the protagonist. Flora herself is very Pro-Queen, Pro-Beehive. She likes her hive and never once expresses distress or unhappiness at the state of things, even as she flits from one occupation to another.
*Is it possible for a bee to be a Mary Sue? Discuss.
Part of me wants to conclude there is no intellectual or metaphorical basis for Flora’s actions, but everything else in the text, the marketing, the motto of the bees (ACCEPT, OBEY, SERVE) screams ‘DYSTOPIA’. Except, the function of a dystopia is to exaggerate and highlight social flaws, and at least in terms of effectiveness, there aren’t any flaws in bee society. The bees do all they do for survival, for actual concrete reasons. There is no discrimination going on when a bee won’t let another bee transcend its boundaries. Bee society is a function of evolution, and a highly effective (and ancient) one if my quick Google-fu is to be believed. That’s the main difference between this book and books like like Animal Farm and Watership Down — the animals in those books are vehicles for examining *human* society through a different sort of lens. The bees in this book have no such function, at least not one I could find. So maybe this is a marketing problem*, not a writing problem entirely. Especially considering the ending, which seems to imply this book was more of an exploration than a condemnation, strongly implying a focus on the cycle of death and rebirth in the natural world, and meditating on how one’s life is used up in pursuit of things far out of one’s control. Frankly, I find that a far more affecting thing to explore.
*The back cover of my ARC was entirely taken up by giant black capital letters: ACCEPT OBEY SERVE. Not something you could miss. Also, the fuckers kept comparing this book to The Hunger Games (and The Handmaid’s Tale), which is SO COMPLETELY ABSURD and also WRONG. This book has almost no similarity to the HG trilogy at all. They’re just using HG as a trap to draw people in, and those people who bite are going to be very disappointed.
After writing the bulk of this review, I did some Googling and found a couple of interviews where Laline Paull talks about the book. It might be interesting to note that the phenomenon of the laying worker is an actual thing that happens in beehives, and that it was a central source of her inspiration for the novel. Not that it helps me now. I’ve already read the book, and I don’t feel she accomplished very much in terms of exploring that concept. As noted above, it mostly just made Flora come off like a Mary Sue.
Overall, this book was fast and easy to read, highly informative about bees, and maybe worth it if you like weird and interesting things to puzzle over and dissect, but as a piece of literature, I think The Bees is too confused to be of much value. But that might just be me. Take my opinion with a grain of salt. I did after all warn you right up front that I had no idea what to do with it.