Anthill - E. O. Wilson

Every species walks a tightrope through ecological time. Launched upon it, there is only one way to keep going, and a thousand ways to fall off ... For a species to continue on in a particular environment indefinitely required precision and luck.

When I first heard that E. O. Wilson, Harvard naturalist and biologist, had just published his first novel (about ants, no less), I jumped at the chance to read it. My college roommate Doug had taken classes with Wilson and frequently reported bizarre and fascinating facts about ants that he'd picked up along the way. The description of the book I read compared it to To Kill a Mockingbird but about ecology instead of civil rights. Having read it, I'd say that's not entirely accurate, but it's still an interesting experiment in combining science and fiction.

I managed to get an advance reading copy from the publisher to review it for GeekDad, so any critiques I have should be taken with a grain of salt since I'm not sure how much would have changed before publication. (The excerpt that ran in the New Yorker had definitely seen some good editing, and if the rest of the book got the same treatment I think it would have been significantly improved.)

The bulk of the book follows Raphael "Raff" Cody, a young boy growing up in Alabama outside of Mobile. He's a born naturalist and loves exploring the land surrounding nearby Lake Nokobee, particularly the ants. We follow Raff to Florida State University, where he studies biology, and then to law school at Harvard, with the goal of saving the Nokobee tract from developers. While at FSU, Raff writes a senior thesis about a species of ants at Lake Nokobee.

His thesis, The Anthill Chronicles, is reproduced in the middle of the book, and is an ant's-eye view of the activities of the colony. It is, in my opinion, the best part of the book. It reminds me of a book I'd read years ago, Empire of the Ants, which was also told from an ant's perspective but was more anthropomorphized and (I'd wager) less scientifically accurate.

The larger framing story was interesting and for the most part engaging, but I felt like it had a lot of extraneous stuff that wasn't entirely necessary to the story. For instance, there's a long digression about Raff's parents, some background and how they met. I guess on some level it serves to explain Raff's upbringing but it probably could have been cut down significantly. Also, when Raff goes to Harvard, the chapter starts with a lengthy tour of the campus ... which doesn't actually even include the law school.

And the expected legal battle over the Nokobee tract never actually materializes. With all of the lead-up, Raff agonizing over his precarious position, I was looking forward to a thrilling courtroom scene. Instead, Raff proposes a solution and we fast-forward to "six months later," when victory has already been assured. And then there's an out-of-place action scene.

I admire Wilson's knowledge of ants and his passion for ecology (and, indeed, I probably agree with his position on how wilderness should be preserved), but ultimately I felt like his writing needed work. I think it could have been a much better book if Wilson collaborated with a fiction writer. Still, it's worth a look, if only for The Anthill Chronicles section in the middle. I'm curious what the final published version is like—hopefully W. W. Norton's editors are as good as those of The New Yorker.

(I also reviewed Anthill for GeekDad.)

Fed to jonathan's brain | April 18, 2010 | Comments (0)


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