Sichuan, 2098. Hundreds of silent workers, clad in beige, balance on the fragile branches of pear trees. They hold a plastic container in one hand, a brush in the other. The plastic container contains pollen, carefully weighed out. The brush is made out of the feathers of hens bred specifically for this purpose. Each worker dips the brush in their container, then brushes pollen over the tree’s blossoms. The pollen particles are so tiny that the workers are never quite sure whether they’ve put enough, or too much. This is a future without bees, a future where humans must take their place, and pollinate each blossom by hand. It’s also one of the most immediately compelling openings to a novel I’ve read in a while.
Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (which came out in Norway in 2015, and will be out in Diane Oatley’s English translation on September 7, 2017) switches between 2098 China, 2007 America (around the time that Colony Collapse Disorder first emerged among US honeybees), and 1851 England. In 2098 China, Tao wants her three-year-old son to become more than a hand-pollinator when he grows up. In 2007 America, George wants his son Tom to take over his beekeeping business, but Tom has just started college, and it’s put all kinds of new ideas in his head. And in 1851 England, William has burrowed deep into a depression triggered by his realisation that he’s sacrificed his ambition to become a great natural historian to the practical reality of providing for his family.
After that terrific beginning, I found much of what followed almost immediately disappointing. In particular, I could never get into George’s storyline, which I found tediously mundane, and extremely slow and predictable. I could see everything that was going to happen to him and his family almost as soon as I first encountered them, and seeing all my predictions slowly come true over the course of a 300+ page book was neither interesting nor fun. In fact, I found Tao’s storyline surprisingly conventional too, again despite the beginning of the novel, which is also the beginning to her section, of course, and seemed to promise a new classic vision of dystopia. Turns out the world she lives is pretty similar to our own, except poorer and more depressing. Finally, I thought that there was way too much telling and not enough showing, particularly when Tao spends page after page recounting her life story (largely to explain why she cares so much about her son’s education), when William provides a detailed biography of one of his heroes, Francois Huber (to explain his own dreams and ambitions), and when Tao lectures the reader about Colony Collapse Disorder (to explain why the world she lives in is so bleak). This is all interesting and relevant information, but I wish Lunde had found a more creative way of conveying it than just dumping into the text, almost as if she’d just copied and pasted it from somewhere else.
However, my opinion of The History of Bees shifted several times as I was reading it. After the excitement I felt at the beginning, and the disappointment and boredom I felt during its first third, I began to notice a few interesting things here and there, which ultimately made the book worthwhile. I’d even recommend it, with the caveat that there are a lot of better books out there.
William’s storyline is the best of the three. For one thing, it contains the book’s two most memorable set-pieces after its beginning: a public lecture about bee genitalia that goes hilariously wrong, and possibly the weirdest “sexual awakening” scenes I’ve ever encountered in any form of fiction, featuring a larvae-devouring beetle, a swarm of ants, and what William describes as “pounding hard against the earth”. More than that though, I found the idea of a male character sacrificing his ambitions to family a refreshing gender-reversal of a common trope. And I also enjoyed all the unrequited familial love, in a soap opera kind of way: William is desperate for the affection of his son Edmund (who doesn’t seem to care much about him) and his father figure Rahm (an old professor endlessly disappointed in William’s life choices), but he himself does not notice that his daughter Charlotte dotes on him, and is the only one in his family who is also passionate about bees and natural history.
As for Tao–I ended up deciding that it’s actually really interesting that the world she lives in is simply a dustier, gloomier, more food-deprived version of our own, rather than a brave new world altogether. It reminded me of George Lucas’s idea to set Star Wars in a world that’s all rusty and dusty rather than the shiny and chrome vision that many picture when they think about science fiction. It also seems more honest, somehow.
It’s also worth noting that, however flawed it may be, The History of Bees has been written and translated in a way that is both smooth and pleasing, and requires extremely little effort to read. And, ultimately, the book does have an important and valid message–that global agricultural practices are unsustainable. If this book inspires even a small number of readers to do something to try to fix things or make them better, then that’s obviously a good thing.
I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.