The dystopian future is already underway in Maja Lunde’s novel ‘The History of Bees’

“Our children and grandchildren” is a phrase often wheeled out in conversations about climate change. For politicians searching for heartstrings to tug, this is a logical rhetorical strategy, appealing to voters’ instincts to protect their kin. But it backfires in projecting the changing world into the future, as if we didn’t already live on a planet where rising sea levels and sinking land have forced Americans from their homes, where drought caused by human activity is contributing to mass migration and war.

Writers have played their part in this collective delusion about the present day. Recent speculative works set in a near future several imaginative leaps away include the still-functioning, half-submerged Manhattan in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140” and a post-apocalyptic, desiccated L.A. in Claire Vaye Watkins’ “Gold Fame Citrus.”

Norwegian author Maja Lunde’s “The History of Bees” — fluidly translated by Diane Oatley — breaks the mold by tracing the origins and effects of human meddling in nature through three story lines, spanning 250 years: a down-on-his-luck apiarist in rural England in 1851, an Ohio beekeeper in 2007, and a bereft mother in China in 2098. This structure allows for some standard speculation: In Lunde’s dystopian 2098, bee die-out and subsequent food shortages have sent the global population plummeting, leaving Beijing a near ghost town, while in rural areas the already real practice of using human labor for pollination has boomed. “I was assigned to Field 748 today,” says our Chinese protagonist Tao. “Out of how many? I didn’t know. My group was one of hundreds.”

But the tripartite structure also allows for what the novelist Ashley Shelby recently described as First Impact Fiction: fiction set in more or less the present day, which depicts “our shared world as the impacts of runaway climate change begin to make themselves known.” In passages of realist domestic drama, George, our Ohio beekeeper, faces the very real trauma of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) — the mass disappearance of his bees — while trying to persuade his academic son to join him in the family business. In this way, the novel illustrates that climate change isn’t a problem of tomorrow but of today. And by stretching the story’s tentacles back to the days of the Industrial Revolution, Lunde also demonstrates that the unsuccessful attempt to override nature isn’t merely underway, it’s two centuries old. Our children and grandchildren, goes the trope — but also us, our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

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