Of the stories nominated this year, the one that impressed me most was E. Lily Yu’s Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees. The story covers a period in which a beehive is subjugated by a group surpremely intelligent wasps. The real issue at heart here is colonialism, told through the lens of fantasy. And rarely for the genre, it handles the issue in a balanced way. No hamfistedness here!
That’s one of the most likeable things about this story, too. Not the only thing, but definitely one of them. Rather than try to shove a social commentary into the framework of a genre, Cartographer Wasps integrates very well into the fantasy of genre. It doesn’t take the route of commenting on the social issues of the Here and Now, but touches upon some of the issues that have very long histories – colonialism and social unrest.
A quick recap: Cartographer Wasps begins with a group of wasps, whose nests double as maps of the world. Humans discover the maps, and hunt the wasps to near extinction in pursuit of the beautiful and accurate maps. The last group of wasps flees to an orchard, and quickly turn the beehive into a vassal state. While the bees are educated to perform scribework for the wasps, they are still treated as an underclass. One bee scholar is born an anarchist, a trait which rapidly spreads through subsequent generations of bee scholars. The bees eventually stage a revolt against the wasps, which succeeds, but the revolution rapidly turns inwards, destroying the beehive in the process.
There are so many levels of allegorical meaning in this story that I don’t really know where to begin. Take the humans for example. Their quest to obtain maps is reminiscent of many of the worst episodes in human history – the Spanish quest for gold in the New World, the use of slave labor on cash crops, or overhunting of animals in exchange for valuable goods such as whale oil or egret plumes (yes, 1800s fashion was weird). But they also seem to serve the same role as the Greeks in the founding of the Roman Empire.
As the wasps are hunted towards extinction, one of the last surviving groups flee by floating their nest downriver to an orchard in pursuit of greater achievements than was possible in their previous homeland. Upon arriving, they make short work of the natives (mostly through concessions), forcing them into the roles of menial labor or scribe. Sound familiar? In the Aeneid, Aeneis flees Troy with a group of survivors as the Greeks conquer and raze the city. His destination: Italy, where prophecy says that Aeneis will find far greater glory. While the methods are a little different, Aeneis accomplishes much the same feat: the natives are assimilated into Aeneis’s tribe, although this is a better outcome than what the bees of Cartographer Wasps received.
Education of the vassal colony is also an interesting effect. Most empires, especially those with core nations with very small populations, rely on a network of native subjects to carry out day-to-day affairs. There is a delicate balancing act involved. Too many educated, and any revolt may have ready-made leaders to carry it to completion, while too few leads to an unprepared and undersized administration. In especially brutal occupations, any ideas of nationalism or changes in government rapidly gain currency among the people of the vassal state.
In Cartographer Wasps, education provides bees with the tool to plan their successful revolt against the wasps. The harsh terms of the occupation (heavy manual labor and starvation rations) contribute to unrest amongst the working class of bees, allowing ideas of revolution to spread like wildfire. By insisting on harsh terms, but still culturing an educated underclass, the wasps are essentially giving away a bludgeon and daring someone to use it against them.
Also of note is the toxic effect of colonialism on the subjugated: rather than the desire of the revolutionaries to return to the ways practiced by the hive before they were made vassals, they instead strive to produce a society that is the opposite of the wasps. Where there was once centralization, there would now be individualism. It is a reflection of the human reflex in difficult times to not define themselves by their own culture, but an inversion of the oppressor. Look at the French Revolution: a class of aristocrats, heavily involved in the Catholic church. The reaction: a secular society with equalitarian aims.
The story highlights another aspect of revolution, the ability for a successful revolt to quickly turn in and feed upon itself. This would make sense to some degree. When freed of the oppressor, there is nothing left for a revolution to define itself against. Those definitions are soon attached to other groups that participated in the revolution, and the factions quickly destroy each other. The chaotic phases that the French Revolution entered during the Terror are symptomatic of this. Even modern day revolutions can follow this trajectory; it seems that Libya and Egypt may be experiencing the early rumblings of this phase, and Iraq went through a similar period during the “assisted revolution” of the Second Gulf War.
Cartographer Wasps has a lot to say, and it understates a lot of its message. Swathed in levels of allegory, it reads as a fable or fairy-tale. Despite its serious message about colonialism and social unrest, it never really comes across as preachy. Thus, it avoids one of the major problems I see with modern fiction – it doesn’t fail to entertain while it’s delivering its message.