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The Glass Bees by Ernst Junger

The Glass Bees (original 1957; edition 2000)

by Ernst Junger, Bruce Sterling (Introduction)

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264643,112 (3.68)26
Title:The Glass Bees
Authors:Ernst Junger (Author)
Other authors:Bruce Sterling (Introduction)
Info:NYRB Classics (2000), Paperback, 224 pages
Collections:Your library, To read, NYRB
Tags:Fiction, 20th c., German, science fiction, technology, translation, NYRB

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The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger (1957)



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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Jünger’s fiction is always interesting to read, primarily for the way he skirts around the edges of a genre while imbuing his works with a spirit all his own. Just as On the Marble Cliffs was a strange take on the fantasy genre, The Glass Bees is a (slightly less) strange take on a science fiction novel. Again, it’s an interesting work, but by splitting its attention in the manner that it does The Glass Bees sacrifices story for philosophical musings of varying quality.

Captain Richards, an old soldier who has always tried to live honorably and has failed to advance his career because of it, goes to a job interview with a reclusive inventor/industrialist named Zapparoni, during which he sees some things that emphasize to him that the age he grew up in is coming to an end. Besides the ending, that encompasses all of the action that actually occurs in The Glass Bees. You’re probably thinking that this doesn’t sound like enough material for a book, even one only 209 pages or so long, and you’re quite right. There are only perhaps 40 pages dedicated to the actual action, with the rest of the book consisting of memories Captain Richards recollects during the course of the day. Zapparoni will say hello to Captain Richards, but will do it in a way that Richards finds possibly insulting, and the entire next chapter will be a memory of Richards pertaining to that potential insult. It reminded me quite strongly of Zweig’s book Journey Into the Past, tracing the memories that arise as a man goes about his day, and in that way sketching the outline of the man’s life. Jünger uses these memories to expound upon the ways in which the world has changed since Richards’ youth, and many of these changes seem to coincide with changes that Jünger saw as well during post WW1 Germany and the rise to power of Hitler.

Richards tends to romanticize the past, unable to accept the changes that have occurred, and it’s hard not to feel as though Jünger also wouldn’t mind turning back the clock. There are some good lines and observations contained in these memories (“a name that is only whispered is more powerful than one shouted from the rooftops,” “I cannot dismiss it with the remark that the world is full of senselessness. Really, doesn’t everything make sense?”), but after a point they began to drag down the book. I was expecting the memories to provide us with Captain Richards’ backstory as well as to provide us some insight into what this future looks like, and for them to stop once Zapparoni made an appearance. After all, Zapparoni represents this new present, as well as the future, so it would make sense if he snapped the action back to the present and thereby brought some forward momentum to the story. Instead, although it occurs more than halfway through the book, Zapparoni’s introduction does nothing to stem the tide of memories. Despite some tension being created in the last 40 or 50 pages of the book, Jünger does a poor job of pacing. The ending is interesting, but ambiguous, and it feels as though it comes too soon in the story.

It’s interesting to consider why Jünger wrote this story as a work of science fiction. A story of a disenchanted soldier could, after all, take place during nearly any time period. I get the sense that Jünger used science fiction elements to recreate the feeling of being on unsure footing in the reader, just as Richards is experiencing. Subtle hints at the ways in which the world has changed (which Jünger drops in rather masterfully) as well as the introduction of the titular glass bees during the second half of the novel both keep the reader guessing as to what exactly this new world is, just as Richards is left guessing about what fate is going to befall him.

The Glass Bees is a work of science fiction different enough that you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s comparable beyond mere surface similarities. Still, this subtle and peripheral take on science fiction probably won’t satisfy most genre fans. Additionally, the pacing and lack of forward momentum will make this book frustrating for some people. Nevertheless, it’s a unique work, and experiencing such a take on science fiction is interesting enough that maybe it would be worth a read to you, if you’re okay with a plot that’s mostly drowned in the reminiscence of the protagonist.
( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
scary prescient, sort of oddly written but then again neo-fascism is not a well developed literary trend. Absolutely worth your time if you sleep too well at night. ( )
  romanccm | Jun 25, 2014 |
A dystopian novel about the advent of micro-sized robots by an Italian inventor who must keep his unruly staff placated and happy if he is to continue to be a Steve Jobs-like commercial success. The prose is lean, uncluttered. Very short sentences. Captain Richard is looking for work and finds it--somehow--at the very high-tech factory of the robot manufacturer, Zapparoni. This man, an entrepreneur, has revolutionized modern life with his robots. Nothing is done as it once was for his robots have permeated virtually every aspect of life and business. The narrator is a former cavalry man still stung by the loss of his profession in World War I. He was appalled by how the cavalry was rendered obsolete by the invention of tanks, machine guns and long range artillery, and by the disruption in the ranks caused by this change in military technology. More generally he is not sure how it is possible for him to be a man in this radically changed world. Many around him find their purpose in fascism, but Captain Richard rejects that ideologically riven path. It would be possible, if he were a vindictive man, for him to see in Zapparoni all that has gone wrong with contemporary society, and to envision Zapparoni's destruction as the necessary corrective. There are a number of pages when the reader thinks that this is the expectation about to be fulfilled. But Jünger shakes off this predictable ending for something superficially reassuring for its conformity to the new standards, but ultimately more startling because of it. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
I had been looking for a copy of this book for quite some time, so I may have been too excited too read it (high expectations).

This is a science-fiction novel that takes place in a future that deviated from history some time after WWI. The basic plot revolves around Richard, an unemployed former cavalry officer and tank commander. Having finally reached a point where he thinks he might be willing to sacrifice his old-fashioned principles, Richard reaches out to a friend. The friend offers Richard an interview with the great, reclusive industrialist Zapparoni, with the understanding that the job on offer is one that may require unscrupulous behavior.

The writing is at times mesmerizing and often baffling. The entire novel spans two days in Richard's life and is very much his internal monologue. It's baffling because in real time, Zapparoni asks Richard a question then there is a 20-page flashback/internal monologue depicting in-depth all the thoughts that would flash through one's mind, and then Richard answers the question posed (20 pages later). But the few glimpses of the world Jünger has created are extraordinary and the description of the scene in the garden, where Richard first encounters the glass bees, is stunning. I just wasn't prepared for, or focused enough for, the endless internal philosophizing. ( )
  ELiz_M | May 17, 2014 |
This review contains plot spoilers.

Ernst Junger is best-known for his “In Stahlgewittern” (“Storm of Steel”), a literary account of the time he spent serving in World War I. Almost four decades later in 1957, he published this novel, one of the dozens he wrote during his life, and one of the better pieces of dystopian fiction I’ve read. The translation by Louise Bogan deserves special praise for its effortlessness and attention to detail. So often translating pieces like this can produce something derivative, banal, and tasteless, but the opposite is true here. Her work as a poet (she was the Poet Laureate from 1945-1946) brought its subtlety to bear on this wonderful novel.

“The Glass Bees” isn’t what you’d call action-packed: its entire plot consists of a down-and-out man named Richard trying to find a job, speaking with his friend who might have an inside lead, and the job interview that results, interspersed with quite a few flashbacks to Richard’s military days. The central character, however, is neither Richard nor his friend, but the magus-like Zapparoni who runs the factory where Richard goes for his interview. Zapparoni lives in seclusion and runs his operations, including the production of anthropomorphic robots that star in the films that he produces, and the titular glass bees of the title. Everything Zapparoni makes require such skill, attention to detail, and artisanship that he stocks his factory with hundreds of workers who are utterly devoted to him. He has a charismatic ability to manipulate the people who work for him and perhaps a demonic desire to change the world through the transformative power of technology.

While waiting for Zapparoni to conduct his interview, he waits in a garden outside the factory, and his senses are gradually overwhelmed by Zapparoni’s meticulously constructed glass bees, replete with hundreds of infinitely complex miniscule parts. They put him in a trance that renders him unable to tell anything about his surroundings. After this bizarre experience, Richard resolves to not take a job at Zapparoni’s factory, thinking that he might use his power for something other than good, but ends up changing his mind and taking a position as a sort of ombudsman, helping the often querulous workers get over their artistic differences. In the end, though, we are left hanging. We never find out whether Richard would live to regret his decision, or whether retains his personal integrity and freedom of conscience.

Junger was often accused of being a fascist, and it’s really no surprise reading this book, but not for the reasons one might think: other than his sweet, evocative remembrances of military life before Zapparoni, Junger never recommends authoritarianism, antiparliamentarianism, or the cult of the leader. But some fascists were known for their deep, agonistic mistrust of technology and innovation, so far that they idealized the pastoral, rustic idyll of life before industrialization. There are so such idylls here, but Junger does have a distinctly suspicious stance toward technology and the mesmeric power that it can exert over people. He probably would have seen the advent of people simultaneously attached to their Blackberry, iPhone, iPod, and Bluetooth as unfortunate but inevitable. For being over half a century old, Junger’s technological anxieties are brilliantly articulated. His bees and his robots are progenitors of the nanotechnology that is so inescapable today. “A happy century does not exist,” Junger write. As someone who saw World War I and almost the entire twentieth century - he died in 1998 about a month before his 103rd birthday. But, he adds with a humane caution, “But there are moments of happiness, and there is freedom in the moment.” Words to dulcify a looming Technopolis. ( )
5 vote kant1066 | Aug 16, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ernst Jüngerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bogan, LouiseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mayer, ElizabethTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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When we were hard up, Twinnings had to step in.
His person and habits he carefully kept in semi-obscurity, since he was aware of the wearing and consuming force of publicity. He wanted to be talked about a great deal, but only vaguely and allusively.
A famous person whose face one does not know is generally thought of as being handsome and imposing. A person who is much discussed but whose residence is unknown is suspected of being everywhere - he seem to multiply himself miraculously. A person so powerful that one does not even dare speak of him become almost omnipresent, since he dominates our inner life. We imagine that he overhears our conversation and that his eyes rest on us in our closest and most private moments. A name that is only whispered is more powerful than one shouted from the rooftops.
The fact is - and it must be a strange, deep-rooted one - that a person, however many legal methods of action he has at his disposal is still dependent on loopholes for carrying out his plans. The legal sphere, small or large, always borders upon the illegal one. The borderline advances with the prerogatives. For that reason transgressions are found more frequently among those on top than among those on the bottom. When prerogatives become absolute, the frontiers tend to blur, and it is difficult to distinguish between right and wrong. At this point people are needed with whom one can "steal horses."
My query is this: Why are those who have endangered and changed our lives in such terrifying and unpredictable ways not content with unleashing and controlling enormous forces and with enjoying their consequent fame, power, and wealth? Why must they want to be saints as well?
The figures, it is true, still differed slightly from the human actors we are used to seeing, but they differed pleasantly: the faces were more brilliant, more flawless; the eyes of a larger cut, like precious stones; the movements slower, more elegant, and in moments of excitement even more violent and sudden than anything in our experience. Even the ugly and abnormal had been transformed into new, amusing, or frightening but always fascinating domains.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0940322552, Paperback)

In The Glass Bees the celebrated German writer Ernst Jünger presents a disconcerting vision of the future. Zapparoni, a brilliant businessman, has turned his advanced understanding of technology and his strategic command of the information and entertainment industries into a discrete form of global domination. But Zapparoni is worried that the scientists he depends on might sell his secrets. He needs a chief of security, and Richard, a veteran and war hero, is ready for the job. However, when he arrives at the beautiful country compound that is Zapparoni's headquarters, he finds himself subjected to an unexpected ordeal. Soon he is led to question his past, his character, and even his senses....

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:25:57 -0400)

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NYRB Classics

2 editions of this book were published by NYRB Classics.

Editions: 0940322552, 1590174569

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