Tuesday, July 13, 2010


As fascinating as ant societies are, they seem to have limited narrative potential. Usually they're portrayed as menacing hordes or anthropomorphized creatures with little resemblance to the real thing.

Thus, when I heard that the great myrmecologist, E.O. Wilson, had brought forth a novel, I was keen to see how he approached this challenge.

The Ants

The heart of the book is a 70-page account of warring anthills in southern Alabama. A slight mutation has caused one of the anthills to become a supercolony with thousands of "queenlets." This allows it to outcompete all other colonies in the vicinity, to the point that its success becomes its downfall. It is out of balance with its surroundings, and on the verge of a Malthusian downfall, when humans intervene.

The name of this section is "The Anthill Chronicles." It is centrally positioned in the book and purports to be a laundered version of Raff Cody's honours thesis. The colonies inhabit a patch of old-growth forest with which he is intimately acquainted.

The People

Prior to "The Anthill Chronicles" we learn the story of Raff's upbringing, and are given a satisfying glimpse of life -- both animal and human -- in southern Alabama where Wilson himself grew up.

In the final portion of the book, after "The Anthill Chronicles," Raff heads off to Harvard to study law, the application of which he decides is the best way to save the old-growth forest. Wilson's acquaintance with academic life in "the great brainy anthill" of Harvard infuses this part of the story.

After graduating Raff returns to Alabama and, in a nice dove-tailing of events, gets caught up with the very people who intervened in the fate of the supercolony.

The Ending

The novel so far has been an enjoyable read. It educates, it entertains, it keeps us guessing. Now it suddenly shifts gears and becomes a plot-driven thriller with a conclusion that felt (to me) unsatisfying and out of character with the rest of the book.

The Lesson

In a short prologue Wilson says, "This is a story about three parallel worlds, which nevertheless exist in the same space and time." They are the world of ants, the world of humans, and the world in which both live, the biosphere.

The supercolony then is a symbol for humanity. It "mastered the environment, subdued its rivals and enemies, increased its space, drawn down new sources of energy..." We too are in danger of authoring our own demise by our very success. And just as humans played a godlike role in the supercolony's destiny, so too might the biosphere play a similar role in ours.


Margaret Atwood's review ("Homer of the Ants")
Barbara Kingsolver's review ("Ear to the Ground")
Radio interview with Anna Maria Tremonti

Suggested Reading

"The Empire of the Ants" by H.G. Wells (1905) appeared in The Time Machine and Other Stories.

Consider Her Ways by Frederick Philip Grove (1947) is a Canadian SF classic, not to be confused with the John Wyndham novella of the same name.

The Ant Men by Eric North (1953) is pure pulp fiction, yet appeared first in hard cover before going through several softcover printings.

The Fungus Garden by Brian Brett (1988) takes the reader on a surreal journey underground into the world of termites.

Les Fourmis trilogy by Bernard Werber includes Les Fourmis (1991), which sold more than two million copies worldwide and has been translated into over 30 languages (Empire of the Ants in English), Le Jour des Fourmis (1992), and La Revolution des Fourmis (1996).

The Hacker and the Ants v. 2.0 by Rudy Rucker (2003) is a sci-fi tale involving software ants.

Journey to the Ants by Wilson and Holldobler (1994) is one of my favourite books, and likely more fascinating than any work of ant fiction can aspire to. Highly recommended.

Adventures among Ants by Mark Moffett (2010) is a work of popular myrmecology by a former student of E.O. Wilson. Fabulous photos.