So this book is about bees. It's not a book with a metaphorical title that's really about humans and how their lives and actions sometime resemble that of bees. It's just about bees.
Again, to be perfectly clear: the characters are all bees.
For some people, that might be a turnoff or a dealbreaker, but after spending the summer reading my way through the sci-fi canon, I wasn't intimidated, and I don't think you should be either. Paull's book is a well-written, highly interesting look inside the hive.
Flora 717 is a member of one of the lowest castes of bees: she's a sanitation worker, large and strong and ugly, tasked with unglamorous, odiferous jobs the fancier bees won't do. Flora wants to be a good sister, wants to do her best to please the Queen, but she keeps having impulses that get in the way. For one thing, sanitation workers aren't allowed to fly, but Flora's wings itch to be loosed on the wind. She's also not allowed in the Nursery near the little larval babies, but Flora has a strong mothering instinct and finds she's able to produce food for them just like the young, pretty nurses do.
One of the strictest rules of the hive is that only the Queen can breed. But that might be yet another way in which Flora bucks the stereotypes and makes her own rules. What's interesting about her is that she does it all seemingly against her will. She's not a strident opportunist attempting to destroy the hierarchy, she's just a simple bee who tries to be content in her role and finds over and over again that she can't.
It's obvious that Paull has done exhaustive research into bees and how their hives function. I found it fascinating, for example, how strongly scent controls the bees and how they relate to their surrounding world. Each caste of bee has its own distinct scent, and the Queen controls and calms the hive largely through scent cues. And of course scent is of paramount importance to the foragers, who have a more and more difficult time finding untainted sources of pollen and nectar. As I read, I thought more than once, “Wow, this author really knows what it's like to be a bee!” It's an incredible feat of imagination, when you think about it, to get so completely into the mind of an insect.
The book may be about bees, but it still deals in some weighty themes, many of them applicable to human life. Still, though, I'm not sure I'm comfortable claiming that the whole point of the novel is what it might say about us. Flora is a highly developed, complex character, and many of her motivations and struggles are tied up thoroughly in her bee-ness. I'm not entirely sure how to classify this book, but sometimes the best literature builds its own category around itself.
This is officially the final book in the Summer of Sci-Fi Challenge. We did it!!! Join me next Sunday for a wrap-up post, in which I'll be looking back through all the books we read and reflecting on how I feel about sci-fi now compared to when we started. In some ways it's been a long summer, but it's certainly also been an adventure and an education!