Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Wednesday, April 2, 2014: Maximum Shelf: The Bees

Ecco: The Bees by Laline Paull

Ecco: The Bees by Laline Paull

Ecco: The Bees by Laline Paull

Ecco: The Bees by Laline Paull

The Bees

by Laline Paull

In the tradition of Watership Down and Redwall, Laline Paull's debut novel, The Bees, is an enthralling story that explores the intricate and brutal social order of the beehive. Paull's hive is a place of mystery and complexities, where religion holds sway with an array of strictly codified laws that coalesce around worship of the Queen, who sustains the hive with her Love. Of the many laws dictating the lives of the bees, paramount is Only the Queen may breed--a law enforced with horrendous efficiency by the fertility police. Individuality is also forbidden, a principle encapsulated in the oft-repeated mantra Accept, Obey, and Serve. So when Flora, a despised sanitation worker bee, discovers her ability to lay eggs, her life is immediately placed in jeopardy. Even more dangerous is Flora's determination to protect her offspring--at any cost.

Flora is different from the other sanitation workers--she was born with abilities that set her apart and almost lead to her execution at her hatching, but ultimately she is saved by the precept that "Variation is not the same as Deformity." The priestesses who hold the power of life and death in the hive see a use for Flora's unusual talents. The population of the hive is much reduced and food is becoming scarce, so Flora is put to work filling roles that would have otherwise been assigned other types of bees, including the risky task of foraging for nectar, which involves dodging wasps, spiders, and--perhaps most deadly of all--poison set by human hands.

Interweaving science with myth, The Bees immerses readers in a world that is intensely foreign and fraught with intrigue--in fact, the novel resembles Game of Thrones as much as Watership Down, with scenes of shocking violence and death. When the drones' mating season has passed, the worship they enjoyed from the female bees turns to nightmare, in a moment that seems inspired by the Maenads of Greek mythology who tore Orpheus to death. The religious elements are continued here, as the Queen illustrates: "And as you slew my sons your brothers, in sacrifice to Winter, so did I slay your several fathers, in sacrifice to Spring. Each one's life I took for love, and each year I tell this tale."

The bees will proceed to forget the horrors they have wrought against the drones, renewing their innocence for the next cycle of the seasons, in what is clearly an ancient rite. When the next generation of drones is born, the female bees will worship the males with the same enthusiasm as before, without a hint of what is to come. A single drone will emerge as a character who begins as Flora's enemy, but who will over the course of time become her only ally in her deadly game of hiding her eggs from the priestesses.

In addition to myth, the dialogue between Flora and other creatures is reminiscent of Aesop's fables; similarly, she must be clever to thwart their hostilities or occasionally benefit from their generosity. There is a lofty tone to these exchanges, perhaps because each creature is not an individual character so much as a symbol of that creature's characteristics. The wasp tends to be the boastful enemy who might be won over with appeals to its ego. The spider, which is much more dangerous, can see the future and delights in the prospect of the hive's destruction, bringing to mind the archetypal wicked witch. And like a witch, it trades constantly in hard bargains.

While hive life is filled with mortal dangers, Paull never loses focus about the most omnipresent danger: the outside world and the threat it poses not just to this hive, but to all bees worldwide. The spectre of global warming looms over the proceedings, making itself felt in numerous ways, from the diminishing number of bees to the harsh conditions of winter. Nature is cruel, The Bees reminds us, but that is because it must fight uncompromisingly for survival. This is especially true of the hive, a system so complex and delicate. Its rule of law must be brutal for its own protection in an increasingly hostile world. After all, even the human beekeepers who occasionally make an appearance are hardly equal to the task.

Yet despite the emphasis on violence and survival, the most vital thread of all does not turn out to be either one. Flora is willing to risk her own survival for the good of her eggs, of her companions, and of the hive as a whole. All the bees are willing to die for their Queen, whose devotion nurtures them. Even in the ruthless teeming of the hive, where execution is labeled a Kindness, the value that surfaces most powerfully in the end is love. --Ilana Teitelbaum

Watch The Bees trailer here.

Ecco, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062331151, May 6, 2014

Ecco: The Bees by Laline Paull

Laline Paull: The Magic Door to the Hive

photo: Adrian Peacock

Laline Paull studied English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles and theater in London. She lives in England with her husband, photographer Adrian Peacock, and their three children. The Bees is her first novel.

How did you become inspired to write about bees?

My beekeeper friend Angie Biltcliffe opened the magic door to the hive for me. She was dying of cancer, and she said she hoped there would be a flowering of creativity when she had gone. I took that very much to heart. Immediately after her funeral I started reading about the honeybees she loved so much and called "her girls." That was it for me; intrigue became fascination became obsession with the incredible ancient social order that is the hive, and the extraordinary process of making the unique substance that is honey. Bees are quite miraculous creatures.

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Bees is the complex gender politics. How close is this to the reality of the hive?

I'm neither beekeeper nor biologist, but I have tried to do my research as well as I can and I believe that I've got it more or less accurate: the Queen is the only fertile female in her society, the huge majority of the workforce are sterile females, and the small minority of drones exist solely to fly out to inseminate a queen or princess (unmated queen) from another hive. And, yes, when their summer of love has passed, the remaining drones are driven out of their home hive, to certain death. And imagine being the queen--the only one of your kind. The power, and the loneliness.

An even more charged issue in the novel is fertility--only the queen may breed, a law enforced with violence. The effect is of a dystopian society--but it's complicated because the hive is a very fragile ecosystem.

You're right; by human standards it's dystopian--but this is a social order that's existed almost unchanged for about 40,000 years, so in the evolutionary world of the honeybee, it works. A kind geneticist did explain this reproductive altruism to me in detail during my research--but I would have to delve through 20 files to find the precise definition. The reproductive set-up of the order of hymenopterae (bees, wasps, ants) deeply perturbed Charles Darwin, too.

Speaking of which, there's a lot of violence in this book. Has anyone described it yet as Game of Thrones with bees?

Game of Drones--I love it. I suppose there is a lot of violence, though I imagined that as truthful to honeybee life. They face predators, poison and all the dangers of their distant sorties. Everyone has seen a spider's web--fear is a matter of scale. And the "fertility police" are a real biological fact of hive life, though of course I've anthropomorphized them.

There are echoes of fable and mythology throughout the book. What are some of your literary influences?

There are so many: my mother told me bedtime stories from Greek myths, then my favourite book for ages was Thorne Smith's Nightlife of the Gods--a comic treat for anyone who can find a surviving copy--reprint time surely? Books are like food for me, and I'm a greedy omnivore, so it's hard to say what my predominant influences are. Oh, and in my late teens I really enjoyed Jacobean revenge tragedies. Perhaps that shows.

Is your extensive background in theater manifest in your work as a novelist?

Amongst many other dramatic lessons, theater teaches you the power of compression in dialogue, and the power of what is not said. And in rehearsal or work-shopping a play, interaction with a cast and director encourages, if not forces you, to hone your language to a fine edge.

That bees are dying worldwide is an important touchstone in the discourse on climate change. Throughout the book there is an ominous tone, portending the destruction of the hive. Were you thinking about the possibility of bees' extinction when you were writing?

Absolutely. It was impossible to go forward in my research without becoming much more environmentally aware. Learning about honeybees and their plight made me look around and realize how much the natural world is exploited. I always thought "I care," but now I have become more active in my attempt to make a difference and protect our environment. Having said that, I still sometimes get caught out without one of those now-ubiquitous linen bags, and use a plastic one. Then feel so guilty. And the more campaigns and petitions you sign on to, the more you get sent, until it becomes as demoralizing as watching the news 24-7. So I have become pro-active, but selective.

On your website you mention that having a shed changed your career--that's so interesting. Can you elaborate on that?

Ah, my wonderful shed. 8'x10', though I wanted bigger. But my husband worried if it were long enough to have the day-bed I wanted, I might love it so much I'd go and live in it. Some days towards the end of writing The Bees, I was working such long hours that I probably would have slept there if I could have done. Having a shed changed my career because I left the domestic arena of the house to go to work. The location of the shed, right down out of sight at the end of the garden, in a plot that is still intentionally unkempt, meant it was completely my space. The other reason my shed changed my career is because I don't take my phone there and there's no internet. No connection to the outer world = easier access to the inner one.

What's next for you?

My next novel draws very strongly on the natural world again, but it also tells a human story. I can't say any more at this time. --Ilana Teitelbaum

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