My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Glass Bees is a short, dense philosophical novel about an old cavalryman, Richard, in need of money—because his life has been marred by an “evil star,” which he calls “defeatism,” an inability to side with power or conventionality. His old friend and colleague, Twinnings, directs him to a potential job working for the mysterious magnate Zapparoni, a figure who combines Walt Disney and Bill Gates, as Bruce Sterling observes in his introduction: an all-around master of technology and media whose automata act in all the most popular movies and function as household appliances.
Most of the novel takes place during Richard’s “job interview,” which culminates in his being sent out into a garden by Zapparoni, a garden in which he discovers both the titular mechanical bees and a lot of what appear to be severed human ears. This novel comes described as a dystopian work that will appeal to readers of Orwell or Bradbury, but this is misleading. Very little happens in the book; it is a set of reflections and recollections of a man learning to transition from one state of society—the age of the horses—to another—the age of the glass bees. There is certainly nothing of the eventful drama we get in most dystopias.
It is not even clear if we are to take the reign of Zapparoni’s automata as entirely bad; Richard reflects that they are compensating for the deficiencies of overcivilization, teaching us “a higher anatomy.” It is true that Richard goes over the course of the novel from a romantic critique of technological society to a grudging acceptance of it, but the novel itself does not instruct us on how to feel about that. There are hints that all is not well—is Richard’s account of his past not excessively self-serving, too much of what we now call humblebragging (“I failed in everything I did because I was just too honest and good”)? and am I alone in speculating about whether Zapparoni is not himself an automaton, given that the whole point of the novel is that our increasing control over matter makes the organic and the inorganic, the real and the fake, impossible to distinguish, that we have gone so far in technology that we are essentially now involved in magic?
If I had to compare this to any literary/sf novel, I might go with Never Let Me Go: both books keep to the same individual human scale and both invoke enormous questions of technology and ethics without answering them, even to the extent of suggesting a tragic acceptance that our desires are irreconcilable with each other. Richard is eloquent on this theme: “Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. if we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other…Technical perfection strives toward the calculable, human perfection toward the incalculable.”
This novel is best where most discursive and essayistic; as a narrative, it is too thinly realized, the characters, aside from Richard (who may be an authorial spokesperson), not very well developed. It is a philosophical tale, in the manner of Plato, Voltaire, Swift, an intriguing and provocative book. Its conclusion is deliberately not cheering, but hard to argue with:
I might now conclude my story as in those novels where one presses on to a happy ending.
Other principles hold good here. Today, only the person who no longer believes in a happy ending, only he who has consciously renounced it, is able to live. A happy century does not exist; but there are moments of happiness, and there is freedom in the moment.