She dragged her body through and fell out onto the floor of an alien world. Static roared through her brain, thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her. All she could do was breathe until gradually the vibration and static subsided and the scent evaporated into the air. Her rigid body unlocked and she calmed as knowledge filled her mind.
This was the Arrivals Hall and she was a worker.
Her kin was Flora and her number was 717.
Flora 717 is a worker bee, born to serve in the lowest class of the hive – sanitation. However, Flora is unusual. Catagorised as ‘Excessive variation. Abnormal’ by the hive police, she is saved from certain death by Sister Sage, one of the priestesses. Flora ‘is obscenely ugly…excessively large’ and can speak – highly unusual for her kin. Taken under Sister Sage’s wing (sorry), Flora travels through the hive with her to the Nursery. There she is left as an experiment to see whether she can produce Flow and feed the babies but not before she learns of the concerns of Sister Teasel:
‘They say the season is deformed by rain, that the flowers shun us and fall unborn, that foragers are falling from the air and no one knows why!’ She plucked at her fur convulsively. ‘They say we will starve and the babies will all die…’
Flora’s time in the nursery is successful but it comes to an abrupt end when the fertility police arrive on the ward following the discovery of a wing deformity on one of the newly hatched bees. This can’t possibly be the Queen’s offspring – it would be treason to suggest she could produce a deformed baby, regardless of the impact of climate change – so the imposter’s spawn must be destroyed. A baby is taken from a crib and Flora is ordered to destroy it. Holding the baby, she is unable to do it. The fertility police wrench it from her and devour it. Flora is sent back to sanitation though not for long.
Through a series of not entirely plausible events, Flora manages to work her way through the hive, playing different roles. This way the reader gets to see the entirety of the hive and to understand how it works. Three things are notable here: the Drones, the Queen and the religious aspect of the hive.
Flora first comes into contact with a drone as she walks through the hive with Sister Sage. As one emerges from his compartment in the Drones’ Arrival Hall, the bees treat him like a member of The Beatles in 1964:
…to the sisters’ fervent applause, he showed himself off from many angles, stretching out his legs in pairs, puffing his plume and even treating them to a sudden roar of his engine. They screamed in delight and fanned each other, and some scrambled to offer him pastries and water.
The drones are lazy, vain, selfish, gluttonous, sexist characters. They preen and swagger about the hive but they also bring some comedy to the novel – sometimes with their bawdy lines, but mostly as we laugh at them.
The Queen is obviously important but more so as Flora gets to meet her – not a privilege afforded to many bees. Flora accesses the Hive mind during a crisis in which she fights a wasp who attacks the hive and it is this which earns her the visit to the Queen. During her time in the Queen’s chamber, she learns the stories of the bees and the Queen’s secret.
The religious aspect of the hive is used as a control mechanism. The hive has a very strict power structure, every bee is born knowing their place. The Sage priestesses are the ruling elite, maintaining order through overzealous police officers, the catechism – ‘Desire is sin, Vanity is sin, Idleness is sin, Discord is sin, Greed is sin’ – and the first commandment – ‘Accept, Obey and Serve’.
The Bees is overlong and the way in which Flora moves from role to role is overly contrived to allow the reader to see the workings of the hive through a third-person subjective narrator. However, it is also hugely imaginative and handles its themes with care. Paull takes ideas about climate change, power, religion and sexism and weaves them into a narrative which in it’s best moments is gripping.
I was mostly impressed with this – the imagination at work here gives some compensation for the length and initial structure – and I’m keen to see what Laline Paull comes up with next.
Thanks to Fourth Estate for the review copy.