Books: Fiction - The Bees by author Laline Paul
Superficially, playwright Laline Paull's debut novel is perfectly conventional. The setting is a fantastical dystopia, the protagonist a plucky heroine refusing to abide by the rules. So far, so Hunger Games.
But there are profound differences as well. For starters, Flora 717 will never be mistaken for Jennifer Lawrence in figure-flattering fatigues: she is a worker bee who, at the start of the story, claws and scrapes her way out of a pupating cell, then fights off the sister bees who regard her intelligence and appearance as mutations deserving death.
From here, The Bees unfolds like a sort of nightmare Pixar movie, A Bug's Life reimagined by Dario Argento. Soon Flora is ascending through the ranks of the hive, serving as handmaiden of sorts to the great Queen. And yet, within her moment of triumph are the seeds of her downfall, as she finds herself waging a one woman (sorry, bee) revolution against the claustrophobic social order.
The use of animals as metaphor for the human condition has a rich literary tradition: from Richard Adams' Watership Down to Tad Williams' Tailchaser's Song via Brian Jacques' Redwall series. However, insects are very different from cats or rabbits: their way of looking at the world far eerier and Paull goes to considerable effort to highlight the ways in which her characters diverge from us.
Though a feisty lead, Flora is nonetheless a slave to the chemicals governing arthropod behaviour: the manner in which she plugs into the hive mind, surrendering her personality to a vast collective consciousness may remind you of The Borg from Star Trek. So while the novel is thrilling and abides by many of the tropes of heroic fantasy, an unsettling weirdness is never far away.
The Bees is creating quite a stir in publishing and is regarded as the potential beginning of a lucrative new franchise. At its heart this is an intensely literary endeavour, an exploration of what it must feel like to live in a world close by but distinct from ours.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent