(I am trying to settle on a somewhat-standardized format for my story reviews this year, as opposed to simply launching into a ramble with no framework. I’m hoping it will help me better organize my thoughts. We shall see how it goes.)
Source: Clarkesworld Magazine, issue 55, April, 2011 (available free online as text and audio)
About the author: E. Lily Yu is the author of a number of short stories and poems and is credited on the game Destiny, by Bungie. She is the winner of the 2012 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, among other accolades.
Synopsis: This is an allegorical tale of the relationships between several different societies: the wasps – scientists, soldiers, explorers, cartographers; the bees – dancers, homemakers, mathematicians, story-tellers, ; the anarchist bees – a splinter group of egalitarian-minded types; and several groups of humans – the village humans, the officials of the human city, the scientific human community. Several themes are explored – sovereignty, servitude, colonialism, might-makes-right and manifest destiny, tradition, innovation, culture-clash, idealism, rebellion.
Excerpt: “For longer than anyone could remember, the village of Yiwei had worn, in its orchards and under its eaves, clay-colored globes of paper that hissed and fizzed with wasps. The villagers maintained an uneasy peace with their neighbors for many years, exercising inimitable tact and circumspection. But it all ended the day a boy, digging in the riverbed, found a stone whose balance and weight pleased him. With this, he thought, he could hit a sparrow in flight. There were no sparrows to be seen, but a paper ball hung low and inviting nearby. He considered it for a moment, head cocked, then aimed and threw.
Much later, after he had been plastered and soothed, his mother scalded the fallen nest until the wasps seething in the paper were dead. In this way it was discovered that the wasp nests of Yiwei, dipped in hot water, unfurled into beautifully accurate maps of provinces near and far, inked in vegetable pigments and labeled in careful Mandarin that could be distinguished beneath a microscope.
The villagers’ subsequent incursions with bee veils and kettles of boiling water soon diminished the prosperous population to a handful. Commanded by a single stubborn foundress, the survivors folded a new nest in the shape of a paper boat, provisioned it with fallen apricots and squash blossoms, and launched themselves onto the river. Browsing cows and children fled the riverbanks as they drifted downstream, piping sea chanteys.
At last, forty miles south from where they had begun, their craft snagged on an upthrust stick and sank. Only one drowned in the evacuation, weighed down with the remains of an apricot. They reconvened upon a stump and looked about themselves.
“It’s a good place to land,” the foundress said in her sweet soprano, examining the first rough maps that the scouts brought back. There were plenty of caterpillars, oaks for ink galls, fruiting brambles, and no signs of other wasps. A colony of bees had hived in a split oak two miles away. “Once we are established we will, of course, send a delegation to collect tribute.“”
My thoughts: This was exactly the sort of speculative fiction I most love – a story that uses metaphor and allegory to examine real-world issues. The myth-making here is simply top-notch and should appeal to lovers of both Catherynne M. Valente and Ray Bradbury. I was particularly impressed at how deeply I felt I was allowed to understand the various cultures through just a few well-chosen words. Yu makes every word count, truly filling out and coloring the world of her story, yet not over-decorating her sentences with extraneous descriptors. The writing felt both subtle and complex at once, and I was drawn right in.
I was able to immediately suspend my disbelief and allow myself to believe in the fable-like presentation of anthropomorphized (in ideals, not in body) wasps and bees. I think this was largely because I felt that the author believed in her world. She declares it to be real and proceeds without the fluff and whimsy that might have made the story seem fey or twee. She imbues the wasp and bee societies with such a dark realism that the reader can’t help but believe. Things become more complex and layered, grimmer, even more real, as the story evolves, leaving me thinking back on it again and again after I had finished reading.
I will definitely be seeking out more of Yu’s work and am especially pleased to read that she’s working on a “magic realist novel about a family of Afghan asylum-seekers in Australia.” (Locus interview)