“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E Lily Yu

May 26, 2012 at 3:02 am | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment
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This is the fifth and final short story nominated for this year’s Hugo awards. It was published by Clarkesworld and, as are all their stories, is freely available online.

It’s hard not to approach this story as being of a piece with George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Like that novel, this story involves animals that are cognitively but not physically anthropomorphic mirroring human political movements. The specialty of the wasps may be cartography, but in most other ways they act like an imperial monarchy of previous centuries. They concern themselves with scholarship and art, but all of it is channeled toward the glory of the state, and their sudden arrival and annexation of the native bees certainly recalls European colonialism. For their part, the bees are called a constitutional monarchy, but otherwise they are portrayed as an undeveloped culture completely outmatched by the wasps’ intellectual and martial arts. This all seems straightforward.

But any attempt to make this story a one-to-one allegory like Animal Farm stumbles when it comes to the role of humans in the story. Humans all but exterminate the wasps of Yiwei, causing the wasps who arrive in the bees territory to come as refugees, not conquistadors. That alone severely limits historical analogues: the modern state of Israel, the Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire, and even the ancient Sea Peoples come to mind as possibilities, but none of them fit very well, and none of them are compatible with the sudden removal of the wasps at the end of the story. Especially discordant is the fact that humans are incompetently exploiting the wasps just as the wasps competently exploit the bees, a minor irony that seems entirely without an antecedent.

If allegory fails us, so what? Most stories, most fantasy stories, even most storybook animal fantasy stories aren’t allegories. But without the allegory, what’s left in this particular case? A story that is beautifully written, has little in the way of characters, a plot that doesn’t feel like it really goes anywhere, and a setting that combines what amounts to a joke about honeybee “anarchism” with a tepid critique of imperialism. I say tepid, incidentally, because the story seems to endorse anarchism while admitting it is a philosophy that requires the scholarship and rigor of the wasp culture to discover. Are we to conclude that their subjugation by the wasps was a useful and perhaps even necessary step in the evolution of bee society along some dialectic of political progress? Probably we are intended to draw our own conclusions, but I confess my conclusion is that the presence of all-powerful and capricious humans changes the calculus of geopolitics past any applicability.

But it is so beautifully written that it is still a joy to read, even if upon finishing I find it muddled and almost aimless. In this way it is the complete opposite of “Paper Menagerie”, meditative and discursive where that story was precise and driven. I said that “Paper Menagerie” had a surplus of artifice because the plot was so obviously contrived to put its characters in the strongest possible light. “The Cartographer Wasps…” has a surplus of what we might instead call craft, in that sentence by sentence and even paragraph by paragraph it is elegant and eloquent, the best written story on this year’s Hugo ballot in that sense. Whereas “Movement”, “Paper Menagerie”, and “Homecoming” all wanted to dictate how the reader should think and feel and “The Shadow War…” wanted to make the reader laugh, “The Cartographer Wasps…” just does its own thing and leaves the reaction, if any, to the reader’s complete discretion. As I said in relation to “Paper Menagerie”, this is how we tend to think stories should function: they should express whatever is on the author’s mind and let the reader’s chips fall where they may.

But I can’t help but feel that beneath its wonderful prose “The Cartographer Wasps…” is missing the humanity that “Paper Menagerie” evoked so aggressively. This isn’t just, or even mostly, because of the use of animals, although the tension between the human-like minds and the resolutely insect biology of the wasps and bees is something of a distraction. The bigger problem is that the characters in “The Cartographer Wasps…” are almost all fanatics of one stripe or another, from the imperialist wasps to the communitarian bees. The only character thinking about something other than ideals of governance is the third bee ambassador, and it’s no coincidence that scene is by far the best in the story.

I’m sure that on some years ballots this would have been my top story, and as it stands it only falls beneath “Paper Menagerie” by a hair. None of the nominated stories struck me as problem-free, nor do any make me want to run out and recommend people read them, but I’m afraid that this is a very normal state of affairs. It is more often among the novelettes that I find one or two stories that I can be genuinely enthusiastic about, so I’ll continue on to those stories soon.

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