The History of Bees
Cli-fi – climate change fiction – has become so popular it has achieved the status of a genre. That makes it more easily identifiable and more marketable, but it also comes with pitfalls. Conventions carry the risk of appearing formulaic and repetitive. They also emphasise a genre’s status as fiction. This is all a problem for cli-fi, given that its practitioners are concerned with raising awareness about very real and urgent issues.
I had these thoughts reading Maja Lunde’s cli-fi novel The History of Bees. Once again, I was confronted with a future involving global warming, famine and hardship, and a Third World War. I was in familiar territory and feeling – dare I say it – a little bored. I began speculating on the possibility that cli-fi actually performs a kind of inoculation of its readers against the potential horrors of our future.
Having said that, Lunde presents an original angle. The dystopian future she depicts hinges on the disappearance of bees from their hives. This is a real-world phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, diagnosed as a problem in 2006. Bees, as pollinators, are crucial to food production.
The History of Bees interweaves three first-person narratives, which are set in three different time periods. One of those narratives, focused through the character of a US apiculturist in 2007, shows us colony collapse disorder in situ. Another narrative follows a 19th-century English scientist as he attempts to achieve fame and glory by inventing a convenient hive for beekeepers. In the third narrative, set in 2098, a Chinese woman is one of a vast workforce who hand-pollinates fruit trees in the aftermath of “The Collapse”.
The characterisation is at times heavy handed and the prose (in translation) occasionally flawed, but Lunde shows skill in drawing together the three narratives by the novel’s end, and in concluding with a welcome self-reflexivity about cli-fi’s aims and challenges. Most memorable, though, is the proposition that gradually emerges: “in order to live in nature, with nature, we must detach ourselves from the nature in ourselves”. Notably, it is the character from China – the country of the one-child policy, a universally denounced attempt at detaching people from their natural instincts – through whom this message is first presented. Here the book offers a bold provocation in the way cli-fi must if it is to have a genuine impact. KN
Simon & Schuster, 400pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 26, 2017 as "Maja Lunde, The History of Bees". Subscribe here.