I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, a member of the lowest caste in her orchard hive where work and sacrifice are the highest virtues and worship of the beloved Queen the only religion. But Flora is not like other bees. With circumstances threatening the hive's survival, her curiosity is regarded as a dangerous flaw but her courage and strength are assets. She is allowed to feed the newborns in the royal nursery and then to become a forager, flying alone and free to collect pollen. She also finds her way into the Queen's inner sanctum, where she discovers mysteries about the hive that are both profound and ominous.
But when Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen's fertility—enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses jealously wedded to power. Her deepest instincts to serve and sacrifice are now overshadowed by an even deeper desire, a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart, her society—and lead her to unthinkable deeds.
The GoodReads description of this book says: “The Handmaid's Tale meets The Hunger Games.” I’ve never read The Hunger Games, so I can’t comment on that comparison and it’s been decades since I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale. However, I did come to the same conclusion on my own (before reading the GR blurb)—there were definitely echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale in The Bees [the supervision of reproduction aspect especially]. I was also reminded strongly of Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Zamyatin’s We [the “Serve, Accept, Obey” slogan, for example, or the Fertility Police]. Several other reviewers whose opinions I respect have also pointed out some parallels with Watership Down [mostly because of the anthropomorphic nature of thinking/talking animals, I speculate].
The Bees was an enjoyable read and a quick one—if I had an earlier start, I would have finished it in one evening. [I had two chapters left when I realized that I would be miserable at work the next day if I didn’t bundle myself off to bed immediately]. Although I had foreseen the end of the novel by about 2/3 of the way through, it was still fun to see how it was realized. I find the scenes where bees used brooms and/or dustpans a little bit twee, and would have preferred that those human artifacts hadn’t been mentioned—I found they jarred me out of the narrative a bit, especially when the natural behaviour of the insects was generally so well represented.
One thing that makes The Bees unlike the books above is the commentary on environmental issues—the dearth of flowers to supply food for the hive and the repercussions of pesticide use on crops. Since I personally am a recovering arachnophobic, I really identified with the horror of the spider scenes. I know that spiders are necessary in the Circle of Life and I leave them alone unless they come into my home, but they still bother me.
One part that I was especially fond of was the tying together of the first and last chapters, using the family of the home in whose yard the bee hive sits. Perhaps because I’m the age where, under normal circumstances, I would be dealing with living arrangements for elderly parents, I found this very touching. My parents died young and in many ways, I would love to have this problem to cope with—instead my sisters and I dealt with possessions and sold the family farm house almost 20 years ago.
I’m not sure what kind of staying power The Bees will have over the long term. How many books are instant classics? I’m unsure of that and it will likely be up to future readers to grant or deny “classic” status on any of today’s books. Past classics weren’t up against the flood of titles available in the 21st century and I often wonder if or how many of the current year’s offering will end up durable and memorable enough to achieve that kind of status. But I think it does at least have a chance and I’m very glad that I read it.