Friday, 20 June 2014

The Bees, by Laline Paull

The Bees is a most unusual book. Although billed primarily as an innovative and chilling dystopian thriller (which it is), what stood out for me most strongly were the rhythms of life and nature, the rhythms of the hive through the seasons.

This is the story of Flora 717. We meet her as she is born to consciousness and follow her through her life in the hive and her encounters with the world. As she goes about foraging for nectar, feeling the air on her wings and using the air currents to speed her along, Flora forms a symbiotic relationship with the flowers and plants: they yearn for her touch as much as she yearns for theirs.

The outside world is packed with enemies, though, enemies both natural and man-made: the Myriad - spiders and birds and wasps – as well as cars and pesticides and cell phone towers. Thus, as well as being a song to nature, The Bees stands as a warning too: an alarm call to the devastating effect human technology has on the natural world, how they unbalance the ecosystems and race through the food chain, how what might seem minor or unnoticable by you or me is devastating to wildlife.

But enemies reside not only in the outside world, they are in the hive too. For this is not some softly cushioned place but a dystopian horror. The society of the hive is divided rigidly into caste levels, each bee ‘kin’ kept in their place by the Melissae priestesses who use scent barriers and antennae controls to keep the bees in their places, and the Queen who extends her love through the hive like some sort of addictive drug. Information is limited, freedom is an essentially unknown concept, individuality is restricted and dissent or deviation is punishable by death.

What is different about this dystopia, though, is our protagonist: unlike the typical dystopian hero, Flora 717 does not actively seek out change, does not intend to question the laws of the hive; rather these things just seem to happen by some other force of nature. There are secrets hidden everywhere, but Flora doesn’t look for them because she wants to challenge the hive or the Queen or the Melissae, she looks for them only to answer her questions about the world or only when she needs the knowledge. Flora loves the Queen as much as every other bee; it is the Melissae who frighten her.

So when Flora commits the ultimate act of rebellion, the greatest sin of the hive, what will the consequences be? What exactly are the implications of the Melissae’s most closely guarded secret: that of feeding? The Melissae are undoubtedly in control, but what will happen if the icon of the Queen is lost? How tight will their grip on the hive be then?

This is a fairly ingenious idea by author Laline Paull; I would be interested to know what inspired her story and to learn how close the relationship is between the functioning of Flora’s hive and non-fictional hives. How is it, for instance, that Flora is able to commit this act of sin – and so unintentionally too? I wasn’t completely enraptured by The Bees, perhaps because it doesn’t hold the same level of pace as I’m used to from YA dystopias, but it is a wonderful and thoughtful song brought lovingly to life.

I especially loved the relationship Flora had with the outside world and the symbiotic relationship the bees have with the hive itself; I loved the rhythms of the hive, the dancing of foraging directions, the encoding of knowledge within the structure of the hive itself. This perhaps make it sound like a very airy and light book: it is not. The passages involving the spiders were especially creepy; there is terrifying visit to a greenhouse with carnivorous plants; and I’m sure I felt as sick as Flora did when she got trapped by the cell phone tower - though nothing is as shocking to all involved as the Obeisance to the Males. I did find it kind of fascinating that the males were given such an elevated place in the hive, despite it purportedly being a matriarchal society, though their greed and their demands were sickening enough for me to feel more than a little smug once it became clear what the Obeisance rite was really all about.

The final denouement is satisfyingly dramatic: will the Melissae lose their grip? And what fate awaits the hive? If you’re looking for something different to read this summer, The Bees is it.

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