Thursday, April 08, 2010


I read this morning that the biologist Edward O. Wilson has written a novel about ants and my immediate first thought was, "Wow, I hope it's from the ant's point of view!" My more considered reaction in a few seconds was, "It would be neat if it borrowed an idea from Goedel, Escher, Bach and told its story from an entire colony's point of view." Reading the review, it appears that the characters are humans after all. Oh well. I have nothing against a story about a young person's discovery of the wonders of nature. Perhaps there's a science fiction writer who has already produced "Confessions of a Hive Mind" or whatever and I should be googling for that.

In fact, Zack Handlen's assessment in that A.V. Club review that the book is "really just a lecture on naturalism delivered under the cover of fiction" makes it sound unpromising as a novel. Or at least less tempting than his nonfiction collaborations with Bert Hölldobler on the subject that I haven't read, the highly esteemed The Ants and their recent The Superorganism (which Jack thoughtfully gave me a couple of Christmases ago and which I haven't yet tackled solely because it's too physically large to read comfortably on the bus). When I was a teenager Mom and Dad gave us a copy of Hölldobler/ Wilson's slimmer, more approachable Journey to the Ants -- still on my bookshelf -- which played a big part in cultivating a persistent (if un-acted-on) high-level interest in ants, along with Maxis' SimAnt; that one summer when our house was massively infested with ants; and, perhaps originally, the ant farm we were allowed to have instead of a pet when we were six or seven. Who knows, though, a novelistic treatment might go down smoother for a lot of people than non-narrative nonfiction, full-color System 7-compatible strategy games, or pestilence.

If nothing else, too, surely Wilson does no disservice to the basic nature of ant-ness, as did Antz and A Bug's Life several years ago when they dropped simultaneously into the growing market for computer-animated children's movies: Both started with an animal defined by extraordinarily complex cooperative behavior among related, non-reproductive females and ended up with a cookie-cutter plot outline about an iconoclastic male character having self-actualizing adventures with a small band of sidekicks. (The synopsis of the more recent Bee Movie makes it look similarly dire, though I won't knock it here because I haven't seen it, and it's about bees.) Other than Chris van Allsburg's Two Bad Ants and the hostile aliens in Ender's Game I can't think of a fictional treatment of the colonial life of ants that I've been exposed to. Though, again, perhaps I should be looking.

I also wish I still had a copy of a short story that I wrote for some contest our ninth-grade English teacher told us about, in which a teenager sadly ponders an unprovoked space-alien attack on humanity while he casually grinds an anthill underfoot -- because don't you see we're just as pointlessly destructive as they are -- not because it said anything about ants but because I'm enough of a navel-gazer to really like artifacts of my mid-teens sensibility.


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