The Bees by Laline Paull

I was intrigued by this book. Sci-fi on the Baileys Prize shortlist – surely that has to be a good thing, though I wasn’t sure if I fancied reading it. Then a friend lent me a copy and said she hadn’t been able to put it down, so I dived in.

Now I should say right here that I’m often mistrustful of SF in the mainstream, I am after all one of those left-wingers that doesn’t know what to do when we’re not the underdog, so if it’s popular I assume I couldn’t possibly like it. I’m also an avoider of literary prizes, in general. I have read prize-winners (AS Byatt’s Possession, for instance, which friend T bought me knowing exactly why I’d love it) but I don’t deliberately do so, I tend to have the impression that they’ll be dull but worthy. Awfully well-written and clever, but not necessarily gripping. So, with The Bees I was wary but hopeful, shall we say.

I tried. I read much more than I would have done if I hadn’t been lent it. I was intending to review it for Luna Station Quarterly but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it and even if I had I wouldn’t have been able to recommend other people spend hours of their lives on it. Perhaps the way to summarise it is ‘it’s just not my cup of tea’, though I do think there might be some truth in the whisper at the back of my mind that says ‘this is SF for people who don’t read SF, hence it’s on a mainstream prize shortlist’. It felt simplistic with heavy-handed analogies, it felt like a children’s book (except for the inclusion of a word that could be mistaken for the Health Secretary’s surname), it felt like a string of events with no connection other than proximity or coincidence. It was the kind of wet story (all warm fuzzy feelings, and babies) that puts me off reading female-authored sci-fi – this is the kind of thing I’m worried I’ll get.

Flora 717 is a sanitation bee in a hive which was vividly imagined and well described – I really liked the importance of scents, and the use of scents as masks (‘invisibility cloaks’ if you like) or messages. However, the hive is suffering, pesticides and climate change the apparent culprits. Flora 717 gradually gets shoved higher up the ranks because these are desperate times. It’s never explained, though, why she can speak when other sanitation bees can’t, why she manages to start speaking again after she’s had something done to her to make her lose the ability, why she can suddenly understand the dance of a forager when she shouldn’t be able to, why she picks up on the hive mind which is such a rare honour. I did also wonder why the hive mind wasn’t picked up by more than a few of them, all the time, but then I don’t know much about bees so maybe I’ve misunderstood how it works.

This book has been immensely popular and had many favourable reviews, so I’m clearly out of step with received opinion (there’s a surprise) but if you share my SF tastes I doubt you’ll enjoy it.

If you are interested in bees and sci-fi, but like it a little more robust, OneMonkey recommends The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E Lily Yu.

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