Review by Christopher Morris

ISBN: 978-1-4710-0789-7
230 pages
£6.99 at
An insect hive, it has been said, is best understood as a single organism, one whose individual members - faceless, expendable, and eminently replaceable - are nothing more than building blocks, the hive's raw materials, each attending single-mindedly to a specific, genetically-defined function. In other words, a beehive is an organism in much the same way a human being is -at once an individual organism and an orderly arrangement of other, lesser organisms - and thus worker bees or drones are only as important to a beehive as, say, our liver cells are to us. Worker bees, like liver cells, contribute to the parent organism according to their abilities, consume only what than they require, and selflessly work themselves to death.

You may detect a whiff of Marxism in this description, and that's no accident. It is natural to see parallels between bees and humans, of course, a practice that goes back at least as far as Homer, who described his fellow Greeks as a swarm, undisciplined and disorganized. Virgil, inspired by the bees' division of labor, sought to create a human "golden hive" of prosperity. In Henry V, Canterbury describes a beehive's social ranks as a human ideal. However, it took Marxism for the human-beehive metaphor to find its ideal ideological expression - Marxism, which eventually came to be symbolized, chiefly by its detractors, as the "socialist beehive," a place where human individuality is forcibly repressed and made obsolete.

The most striking thing about these comparisons is that they are all manifestly political. Douglas Thompson's novel, clearly sympathetic to Marxist views, is no different. Apoidea, whose title comes from the taxonomic classification particular to bees, depicts a future in which bees have died off, a quiet apocalypse, leaving humanity threatened not by bombs and missiles but by an inability to pollinate its own food supply. This cataclysm is averted, or so it would seem, at the last minute by technology - tiny robotic pollinators Thompson awkwardly refers to as apoidroids. This scenario is even supported by facts, or at least by the carefully selected facts Thompson enthusiastically produces in his novel's opening pages:

In October 2009, in response to the global deterioration in the health of bee hives, the American National Science Foundation awarded Harvard University ten million dollars to research the creation of robotic bees. One third of all human food production relies on bees for crop pollination.

"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left." -- Albert Einstein

Wait - Einstein said we're doomed? Well, not exactly. For one thing, his statement is misattributed. (Even if he had said it, Einstein, a physicist, could hardly be considered an authority on matters of agriculture or insect biology.) For another, science doesn't support the claim. It's true that honeybee society, ideal or otherwise, has not fared well over the past century, especially recently, as a number of environmental factors - increased pesticide use, loss of habitat, air pollution, and so on - have contrived to create conditions adverse for survival. And so-called "colony collapse disorder," which by unknown means causes honeybee workers to die or disappear at alarming rates, has destroyed around one-third of all American honeybee colonies since 2006.

However, none of this much matters, agriculturally speaking, since diminished honeybee populations threaten few American crops. Honeybees, it turns out, are not native to the Western Hemisphere and are unnecessary for the pollination of native crops, which rely instead upon wasps, butterflies, moths, fruit flies, bats, and birds, among others, or, more commonly, upon other, non-honey species of bee. American crop yields, then, remain largely unaffected by the honeybee's collapse.

Still, Douglas Thompson has a lot on which to draw here, even if he is being a bit misleading. In Apoidea, world agriculture depends upon the tiny flying contraptions manufactured by a single company, Apoidroid Corp, itself run by a Bill Gates-like figure, improbably named Gert Villers. Thompson places Villers in the middle of a conflict between an out-of-control U. S. government and an exiled computer genius, Del Freeman, who by usurping control of the world's apoidroids plans to bring America to its knees. On the run for much of the novel, Villers escapes from government agents, surgically alters his identity, and overcomes a variety of threats to make his way to Freeman's hideout in the Mexican desert.

Here we have the makings of an exciting narrative, the so-called "chase plot," but frustratingly Thompson declines to use this to full advantage, choosing instead to drag Villers, his protagonist, almost against his will from one nondescript location to another, and to keep the government villains so far behind that little narrative tension is achieved. Villers, an absurdly passive hero, is steadfastly incurious. He goes with the flow, does what he's told, and has a tendency to escape tight spots only at the hands of authorial deus ex machina.

As one reads, questions continually arise: Why does Freeman kidnap Villers and then abruptly let him go? Why do Villers's government allies so quickly turn on him? Why does Villers so eagerly accept Freeman's assistance? Why does Freeman want to help Villers in the first place? Thompson reveals himself to be uninterested in the answers to these questions, and thus indifferent to the mechanisms of his own plot. His real concerns lie elsewhere, it turns out - in moralism and politics.

On these subjects at least Thompson is clear. Here is a novel, after all, in which the U. S. government is shown to be self-serving, ruthless, and unfettered by rule of law; in which corporations, equally ruthless, exploit impoverished nations for financial gain; and in which even freedom fighters prove to be deluded power-mongers. Only our hero - a whiz-kid CEO who over the course of the novel abandons his family, his million-dollar estate, his identity, and his capitalist beliefs - is shown in a positive light. Transparent as this is, it remains unconvincing. Villers is an awkward case study: Impossibly wealthy and almost supernaturally brilliant, he is denied the power you might expect from someone in his position. Instead, he gets pushed around for most of the novel, a hostage to forces beyond his control, and when he is finally allowed free will, he becomes incomprehensible - abandoning his family to join his kidnapper in the Mexican desert, for instance, or permitting a stranger to surgically alter his identity without reservations or even a strong drink. This is where Thompson's weak plotting really gums up the works: It's one thing, after all, for a novelist to show step-by-step how a capitalist fat cat might come to give up his beliefs and embrace socialist ideology, and quite another for him to force the fat cat at authorial gunpoint to draw the same conclusions.

Never mind that Villers would never behave this way. Never mind that federal anti-trust laws would prevent Apoidroid Corp, a single corporation, from achieving unrivaled global domination, and that the tenets of capitalism would ensure both rival companies and competing pollination technologies: For Thompson's purposes, people must be pawns, leaders must be incapable of coping with power, governments must be corrupt, and capitalism must be greedy and destructive. If shown to be otherwise, Thompson's argument would deflate like a punctured tire.

As if he suspected this weakness, Thompson seeks safety in numbers. In addition to Einstein's misattribution, Thompson begins chapters with epigraphs from Marx and Leonard Cohen, and with far too many irrelevant excerpts from A World Without Bees, a book whose omnipresence here forces one to assume it comprised the whole of Thompson's research.

Let me be clear: I'm not against political ideas in fiction (although I agree with Nabokov that artistic mediocrity thrives on such ideas), but I am against unpersuasive ones. I'm even sympathetic to Marxism, or at least to its aims. However, I'd say that humans are only as equipped for bee society as bees are for capitalism - which is to say, not much. Still, I remain open-minded. Call me when the hive gets a credit card.
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