Rational animals are a staple of children's literature — and, in some cases, adult literature as well. I think of Richard Adams' 1974 novel "Watership Down," in which a thoughtful crew of rabbits sets out to find a new home, or Daniel Evan Weiss' humorous and elegant "The Roaches Have No King" (1994), which involves the delicate interplay between a tribe of urban cockroaches and the human inhabitant of the apartment where they live.
Throughout these novels, characters are anthropomorphized in all but the most superficial ways. The underlying ethos (or one of them) is that there is not so much difference between us, that every creature shares a basic set of needs or longings: food, shelter, a little love.
Something not dissimilar is at work in Laline Paull's first novel, "The Bees," although with one essential difference — the characters she portrays are bees. In saying that, I'm not just referring to their shells, their wings, their stingers but also to their emotions and their culture, which are not human in any way we commonly recognize.
Opening with the birth of a lowly sanitation worker, Flora 717, Paull makes clear from the outset that we are in an environment unto itself. "Static roared through her brain," she writes, "thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her mind. All she could do was breathe until gradually the vibration and static subsided and the scent evaporated into the air."
The decision to start with the emergence of her protagonist is a smart one, because Flora has to decipher the landscape, as do we. With her as proxy, we learn the makeup of the beehive, its caste system — the Sage, or priestesses, are at the top, and factions such as Thistle (guards), Teasel (nursemaids) and Foragers (hunter/gatherers) all fill highly regimented roles.
It's an entirely female social order, in which the few males are worshiped on the surface but dispatched with when the going gets rough. Paull portrays them as buffoonish, their language and demeanor almost Elizabethan in its excesses.
"I hear of queens who favor wit over strength," a runt named Linden says, challenging the boorish Sir Quercus, who is the very definition of an alpha. "Ha!" Quercus replies. "My wit is all pent in my prick, so I shall triumph with her as well." It's not hard to imagine Paull, who studied English and theater at Oxford and in London, drawing on Shakespearean comedy for inspiration, especially the interplay between Falstaff and Prince Hal.
If this suggests that "The Bees" is a satire, it isn't — which may be the most unexpected aspect of the book. Paull, in other words, has no intention of using her bees to comment on or to reflect human society; rather, she wants to portray a world hidden within our own. To do that, she creates a universe of scent and symbol, in which pheromones have the ability to unveil us and all are in service to the hive mind. "Accept, Obey and Serve," the bees intone to one another as a refrain, a reminder that for each of them there is a place.
And yet Flora is somewhere in the middle, a bee with a burgeoning consciousness, caught between her devotion to the queen, to the collective, and her own capacity for individual thought. When the hive explodes into intrigue and conflict (as we have known it will from the beginning of the novel), she alone can move from caste to caste. An outsider in a culture that brooks no outsiders — "Deformity is evil. Deformity is not permitted," caution the fertility police — she is the only one who can see the social order whole. What that gives her is a whisper of conscience, not hive mind exactly but a more articulated perspective: Let's call it responsibility.
A move like that is perhaps inevitable in a novel such as this one; Paull is not writing about real bees, after all. At the same time, it weakens the central conceit (and what is best about the book), which is its understanding that the bees have nothing to do with us. Paull makes that explicit with a brief prologue and epilogue that take place among the humans — for them, the hive, which has been kept for many years by an old beekeeper, is alien and distinct.
Nonetheless, in Flora's sense of destiny, her purpose, Paull belies the less rational, or conscious, underpinnings of the apian world. Yes, the hive is an elaborately structured society, with queens and drones and workers, and yes, in its organization, we are tempted to find a metaphor for ourselves.
Still, the most effective moments in "The Bees" come when Paull spurns this reading in favor of something more imaginative. "Ego is the great peril of your occupation," a Sage priestess warns Flora. "… Only Queen and Colony matter. … In the air, you may think for yourselves. Here, the Hive Mind takes that care from you. Do not reject it."
Ecco: 340 pp., $25.99