How Laline Paull Brought Real Science into Her Novel The Bees

Illustration for article titled How Laline Paull Brought Real Science into Her Novel The Bees

Science fiction has a celebrated role in inspiring real scientific advancements. But, the relationship also works in the opposite direction, with science inspiring stories to go to new places. Here, author Laline Paull explains just how scientific facts sent her novel The Bees into an unexpected direction.


Paull joined us today to answer questions about her new novel, including a particularly interesting exchange where she traced for us just how a piece of entomological research made her dramatically shift the perspective of her book:

I realised I had to write The Bees because when I started to read about the actual creature, there were so many extraordinary entomological facts - like the annual massacre of the males, and the fact the drones DO NO WORK their whole lives, that my imagination was fired. I suddenly saw this celebrity sexual minority, whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to mate, and so long as they go for that goal with gusto, the rest of the time they can do as they please. Drones can't even feed themselves, and even defecate in the hive. So first of all I was going to write it from the POV of a drone who somehow manages to miss the massacre - because if a drone actually does this, when it's all over his sisters will let him live. Then, I found out about the 1 in 10,000 rarity of the sterile female worker, who will spontaneously begin forming eggs in her body, to the consternation of certain of her sisters, who even biologists refer to as 'the fertility police'. These real squads of bees will search for the laying worker, hunt her down and kill her, and eat her eggs. This is real biology, and really scary to imagine. And then there's the brutal phenomenon of how the princesses will seek each other out and fight to the death until only one is left alive to rule and be queen. Life behind those beehive walls is really stranger than anything I could imagine - so I just rushed to write the story.

. . .

It happened while writing The Bees that many times there was a fork in the road, in narrative terms, when I could have gone off in any number of directions. Having written a novel before The Bees, which is still (I'm glad to say) in my bottom drawer, I learned that being wild in your narrative means your story flounders. So I made the decision to stick to the truth of the organism, wherever I could. And that led me to the best story I could write, because it was steeled with fact

What do you think? Does having some real science integrated into the plot enhance a story for you? Tell us why or why not, and what stories found just the right blend of science and story, in the comments now.

Image: Andrena nida bee / Sam Droege, USGS Bee Lab Inventory and Monitoring


Does having some real science integrated into the plot enhance a story for you?

Invariably. To my taste, good science fiction always incorporates good science, applied whenever relevant.

But non-genre authors who do this? Not so common. It just doesn't seem to come up - an awful lot of the people who write novels seem to live in a science-free world, and seem to find nothing wrong or remarkable about that.

A good example of someone who didn't? John Fowles - The French Leftentant's Woman. He really caught the atmosphere of amateur commitment to palaeontology in late Victorian England.

Margaret Atwood's Life Before Man is another good example, although I might be upvoting it because I used to work in the museum where it's set and wondered who among her characters might be people I knew. In any case, knowing what went on in a natural history museum was essential for the writing.