Orvo is the owner of a funeral director's business called Port of Departure. He is also a passionate apiarist, faithfully tending the beehives bequeathed to him by his grandfather, whom he called Pupa. His father, Ari, absent in America through most of Orvo's childhood, returns to Finland on Pupa's death to take over the family abattoir and butchery business, Hopevale Meats. Orvo's son, Eero, is an animal rights activist who lives in violent opposition to everything his grandfather stands for. The novel opens in the near future, where Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon of disputable origin that causes bees to abandon their hives, has precipitated the collapse of the US food industry and caused widespread and increasing shortages. The catastrophe has not yet reached Finland, but when Orvo discovers that several of his hives are suddenly empty, he fears that what has happened in the USA will soon devastate European agriculture in similar fashion. Meanwhile, Eero has embarked on a course of action that is soon to result in a personal tragedy, almost literally on Orvo's back doorstep. Do the bees know something we don't? Orvo thinks they do, and he is determined to prove it. Either way, the world as we all know it is about to change.
At a time when much of science fiction has been criticized for being bland, uncommitted or retrospective, Johanna Sinisalo's The Blood of Angels is a raw, gritty, angry book that is actually about something. As with Karen Joy Fowler's recent (and brilliant) novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which similarly explores the destructive dominance of the human species upon our planet, we cannot fail to intuit how much the subject of this book matters to its author. The Blood of Angels feels like a novel Sinisalo desperately wanted to write—a fact that by itself would make her novel worthy of notice. Whether being worthy of notice makes a book more specifically remarkable in the literary sense is of course open to argument. Luckily for the reader, The Blood of Angels is both.
In a recent interview, Sinisalo spoke about her personal approach to the fantastic as being heavily grounded in logical reality:
I think that I never write anything fully inexplicable; it's just a different version of the universe, a world with (hopefully) impeccable inner logic, but it just isn't exactly our world.
In Sinisalo's version of the future, Orvo discovers evidence that the disappearing colonies of honeybees are not dying, but taking themselves off to an alternate universe. This universe is a pristine version of our own. There are no pesticides here, no factory farms. On the Other Side, bees are free to recapture their natural rhythms and ways of being, without interference from or exploitation by human beings. True to her own statement about inner logic, Sinisalo extrapolates directly from legends and ancient stories about the "wisdom of bees" to explain how bees may have been harboring the secret of quantum travel from the beginning:
In the Middle Ages it was generally believed—and is still believed in some countries—that if bees are not told of their keeper's death, they'll go to heaven to look for him. In the southern USA beehives are sometimes covered in black cloth after their keeper's death so that the bees won’t leave . . .
In Greece it was believed that bees had a close connection with spirits of the dead, or even that the dead lived on in bees. The ravines and caves where bees lived were roads to the Other Side . . .
Humans have looked at the world, pried ever deeper into the secrets of the cosmos and come up with bold theories on the nature of time and space—how there are an untold number of possible worlds, all of them overlapping, or side by side, or twisted around each other like snakes in winter. To people, these are just theories.
But not to bees. (pp. 90, 92)
Sinisalo handles these transitions between the factual and the fantastical beautifully. Her end note contains a bibliography of primary sources, together with an assertion that material within the novel relating to colony collapse disorder is authentic and accurate. The novel's rigorous grounding in fact lends considerable power to its forays into the speculative, and Sinisalo's empathic grasp of her subject matter is nowhere more apparent than when she is writing about the world from a bee's eye view:
Bees can sense light and colour in a much broader spectrum than we can. Their eyes don't just receive and interpret colours, light conditions and the position of the sun—they also have hairs that sense the strength and direction of the wind. They contain a compass and gyroscope as well as a GPS locator and radar to detect food sources. Their compound eyes are made up of thousands of component eyes with which they sense structures in their environment from optic currents and then use the data received to measure the exact distance of nectar-bearing plants from the hive.
And bees don't rely solely on their amazing visual acuity; their antennae are constantly sensing the world of fragrance. Each antenna functions independently so that the bee can perceive scents in three dimensions; they smell in stereo. (p. 193)
But The Blood of Angels functions as more than a forthright polemic about our decaying ecosystems. Shorn of its fantastical elements and environmental concerns, the novel can equally be read as a family drama, a Strindbergian tragedy of the generations, where sons first resent and then turn against their fathers with devastating results. Orvo is so estranged from his own father that he cannot call him father, referring to him always by his first name of Ari. Orvo's mother dies in childbirth. Ari, apparently grief-stricken, takes off for the USA, leaving his baby son (named for his mother) in the care of his grandparents. After a brief, youthful period of hero-worship, Orvo ultimately rejects Ari—for leaving, for returning, for his apparent ease in his own skin, and of course for the ultimate tragedy that befalls the family. If Orvo's son Eero rejects Orvo, rather than for anything he has done it is for his perceived inaction—in the face of Ari's complacency and wrongdoing, in the face of the world around him, in the face of his own alienation. Orvo recognizes evil, but his temperament is to endure rather than to act. Even from a young age, the more emotional Eero has little patience with stoicism:
I took a deep breath and had a sudden sense of what Eero had just experienced.
The permeating, coppery smell of blood. The spattered tile walls, the rusty patina on the concrete floor, the vats full of slimy organs like grotesque deep-sea creatures. The whine of the bone saws. The carcasses on hooks, their chest cavities ripped open to the spine, moving past on an indifferent conveyor towards the door behind which began—noisily—the decisive, crashing dismantling of the bodies.
I looked at Eero. There was a little tight line around his mouth that I had learned to recognise, and his eyes avoided mine. His hand was still in Ari's like a loose, forgotten tether. (p. 59)
This first revelation of what actually goes on at the family abattoir is ultimately to determine the direction of Eero's life. He becomes an animal rights activist, disseminating his views online and then through involvement with an extremist group, the Animalist Revolutionary Army, who are not above resorting to violence in furthering their aims. Orvo has an inner awareness of what Ari is doing but—ever passive—he prefers to ignore it:
Eero never was on any overnight camping trips at Kintulampi. He was up to something entirely different.
And I had sensed all this of course, like any parent does. You smell something rotten, but you hope that time will take care of it if you put off interfering long enough.
Eero was . . .
Just say it. A terrorist. Putting an eco prefix on it won't justify anything. (p. 73)
Speaking about his family history in one of his blog entries, Eero himself is quick to deny any outside accusations that his decisions are in any way the fault of an "unloving" father. More than the complacently pragmatic Ari or the existentially challenged Orvo, Eero is prepared to accept responsibility for the state of his life and for his actions. The thing he cannot condone is Orvo's passivity:
I want to stress that my father was a wonderful parent, and I have no cause for complaint about my upbringing. But there's some part of me that's a bit peeved that he didn't do anything to fight all this and let somebody else do his dirty work. (p. 163)
And there are aspects of Orvo's personality that edge beyond the passively alienated towards the judgmental and prejudiced. His wantonly dismissive attitude to certain of his employees, for example, is distinctly repellent:
Salme no longer suited the style of Port of Departure. She was somewhere between forty and sixty—it hardly mattered. She dressed in pearl grey blazers over a rotating selection of pale-blue and lavender-pink blouses, and she knew the stoneworks sales rep and the coffin wholesaler by their first names.
Salme was just the kind of pious "Olga Golgotha" people might unconsciously want to meet when they went to a funeral directors. That was part of what made me want to get rid of her . . .
Of course, you need to know how to honour grief, too, and not go overboard with overly casual language.
That's why Teemu was let go. . . . I found a well-built, quiet army veteran to replace him. I think being pleasant to look at is not at all a bad thing for a person working in a funeral director's. And I never would have guessed that a young man who had been in the army would be so much better at the job than one who hadn't. (pp. 57-8)
Orvo's contradictory and problematical nature is illustrated most clearly through his casual misogyny. One of the ways The Blood of Angels is remarkable in the literal sense of that word is in its blanket maleness. Women where they do exist are either portrayed as negative influences, or they are absent. Orvo describes his grandfather, Pupa, as being "there when my memories began" (p. 24) and remembers him with evident fondness, but makes no mention whatsoever of his grandmother. About the death of his mother, Orvokki, he remarks only that she "died almost immediately after I was born of complications the nature of which remained vague to me and about which I never asked" (p. 34). Similarly, Orvo has told us a great deal about his son Eero before he mentions even the name of Eero's mother, his ex-wife Marja-Terttu who has committed no crime this reader could discern other than desiring from her husband the most normal kinds of emotional and physical intimacy. Even the man she eventually leaves him for is described by Orvo as "so clearly right for her, so ordinary and trustworthy that he must have been that way since early childhood" (p. 153). Yet the only way Orvo is able to interpret Marja-Terttu's actions is as a fear of sexual redundancy, directly equitable with the behavior of bees within a hive:
Marja-Terttu was, it seemed to me, shifting from the status of queen to that of worker. . . . She had transformed from a desirable virgin queen to a respected, life-giving queen bee to a middle-aged woman invisible to men as a sexual being. . . . A woman who has become neuter has to do poorly paid work as a teacher, a cleaner, a care-giver, a social worker, sitting behind a counter, turning old people over in their beds, maintaining the culture by providing audiences for the theatre and diligently reading literary fiction, buying useless goods at charity sales or making useless goods for charity sales . . .
Marja-Terttu had in her hands her last moments to be a queen. That's why she did what she did. (p. 157)
And there's a lot more where that came from. Orvo sees himself as ruthlessly honest, the still center. His love for the natural world and for his son are commendable, yet his morally conservative attitudes and his emotional stuntedness consistently undermine our sympathy for him, especially since he seems so wholly unaware of his personal failings. Are we meant to infer that Sinisalo is making a larger point? That she wants us to equate the absence of women in the lives of these men—all three of them, for their various reasons, inadequate—with the disastrous absence of bees from their world, with the dying queens who are themselves the magical "password" to the Other Side? It is a possibility, and an interesting one, though it is by no means clear.
I passionately admire this book. I admire its conviction and the articulacy that serves it. What I mainly felt whilst reading it was an overwhelming sense of gratitude, that sensation of thank God someone is writing this stuff down that inevitably accompanies any reading of a piece of polemic with which one agrees. As polemic, I want everyone to read this novel. I want people to get angry and change their lifestyle because of it. As a novel though, I found The Blood of Angels more problematic, not because it’s not well written—in its taciturnity and stubbornness, its cranky refusal to compromise it's a stunner—but because even now I remain unsure of what we as readers are supposed to make of its passive "hero" and his sometimes reprehensible attitudes.
But then, perhaps that's a good thing, the kind of willful ambiguity that raises a work of art beyond the ambitions of mere propaganda and towards becoming the intellectually challenging and oftentimes insoluble puzzle that any worthwhile novel should aspire to be.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, is available from PS Publishing. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.