As advanced a civilization as we are, we are not alone on this world. There are other races living alongside us, possessing language, and culture, and purposes that we can barely begin to comprehend. No, this isn’t the X-Files, nor the beginning of a Charles de Lint story. This is Empire of the Ants, a brilliant, dizzying journey into a world so far removed and beneath our perception that until now, we’ve barely scratched its surface.
Richard Adams paved the way with his tale of rabbits and adventure, Watership Down. Tad Williams did the same for cats with Tailchaser’s Song. But it took a French author, Bernard Werber, to attack the insect world with a truly mind-boggling saga that ensures you’ll never look at those little picnic-raiders the same way again.
The timing of the book’s release and its subject matter suggest inspiration by a pair of similiarly themed movies of late: Antz and A Bug’s Life. However, the fact that this book was first published in French in 1991 lays a reassurance. If anything, the movies drew from Empire of the Ants and still didn’t do it justice.
Imagine a world where you’re identified by a number. The 327th male laid since the start of autumn. The 103,683rd soldier. The 56th female. A world where your family numbers in the millions, where greenflies are raised like insectile cattle and hibernation is a gamble against death. Where 64 cities, encompassing millions, even billions of ants, form the Russet Federation, and death can come unexpectedly at any time. To describe the complexity of the ant civilization, or the myriad threats that stand against them at any given time — anything from slaver ants to termites to woodpeckers! — would give away far too much of the book. But I can share this: not all is right with the world.
Two plotlines run intertwined throughout the book. One is the increasingly bizarre mystery surrounding a human home, and the tunnel that leads down, past the basement, into the depths of the earth. Over the course of the book, the mystery deepens as more people vanish into that tunnel and never return. The other plotline focuses on the ants, especially the three named above, as they unweave the secret of the dwarf ants, and fall deeper and deeper into a conspiracy which reaches to all levels of the ant civilization. Yes, even ants have conspiracies, and one might call the 327th male and the 56th female the Mulder and Scully of the ant world. But that’s too easy a distinction.
Coupled with the twin plotlines are the observations and notes from Edmund Wells’ Encyclopedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge, the legacy of a character who dies before the story even begins, and unknowingly helps kick off great changes for family and ants alike. And as the story barrels to a conclusion, empires will rise and fall, and the future will be met head-on.
I have to get personal now. I couldn’t put this book down once I started reading it, and I ended up devouring it in less than a day, working around a dentist appointment and class and catching a page at a time at stoplights on the way home. It’s simply that compelling a read. It starts off at a good pace, and proceeds from start to finish with barely a lapse in storytelling or excitement. Werber’s language (as translated by Margaret Rocques) is brilliant and compelling, and the mark of a true storyteller. A scientific journalist by trade, who claims fifteen years worth of study on ants, Werber shows off his expertise in this book without ever managing to fade into dull lecture. Instead, he makes ants sound beautiful, insects attractive, and the world they inhabit believable and astonishing.
This is one of those books that I have to recommend. You can call it fantasy, or science fiction, or fiction, but don’t dismiss it for being hard to categorize. It’s as much a classic as Tailchaser’s Song or Watership Down, and if the author can follow this book up with another even half as good, we’re in for a treat. Read this book. You won’t regret it.