Empire of the Ants - Bernard Werber

(Translated from the French by Margaret Rocques)
The marketing for this book compares it to Watership Down, apparently what publishers inevitably do whenever a book engages in personification of animals. However, the world of ants (russet ants in particular) turns out to be a spectacular subject for fiction. The story involves both the world of humans and the world of ants, with often abrupt and unexpected shifts between the two.
The human story is the weaker of the two, involving the mysterious death of a strange uncle. At times it seems like a bad horror movie, with all the characters following the rules. Jonathan Wells inherits his uncle's apartment with the bizarre warning "Never go down into the cellar!" But of course, that's one of the first things he does, and then returns a changed man, becoming entirely obsessed with the cellar but refusing to tell his wife or son what he's found there. Then (of course) people start disappearing into the cellar: Jonathan, his wife and son, several police and firemen.
Meanwhile, the ant story is much more engaging. Werber picks a few ants out of millions to follow, and what takes place is often remniscent of the film "Microcosmos," with its closeups of miniature worlds we rarely see. The ant story also involves a mystery, with some "secret weapon" that seems to be wiping out vast numbers of ants, along with some other ants who try to cover up the evidence. Most of the ants' behavior—however incredible—seems to be within the realm of possibility. I've always been fascinated with insects and I know that they have some amazing abilities. But there are places where I'm convinced that Werber is just exercising his imagination. The problem is, there's still a wide range in between the two where I'm not sure what's real and what isn't.
It's odd that with a novel involving ants and humans, it's easier to relate to the ants than the people, but I think Werber knew more about ant behavior than about writing human dialogue. At least with ants you can assume that there's something lost in the translation. Also, I think it would have been a perfectly good novel without the human characters and the expected collision of the two plotlines. Instead, Werber should have just focused on the ants. One irony, though, is that one main human character (the one you're expected to believe) argues that ants are nothing like humans—we shouldn't try to personify ants, because they're really entirely alien—yet the book does just that. It gives ants personalities and human emotions so that we can relate to them.
Still, it was a captivating novel despite these flaws and I did find myself wanting to learn more about ants.

Fed to jonathan's brain | January 02, 2005 | Comments (0)


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