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Anthill: A Novel
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I have just finished Anthill, set mostly in Alabama and occasionally underground, by two times Pultizer Prize winner and first time novelist, aged 81, E.O. Wilson.
Pre-ordered ages ago, it arrived on my Kindle Monday and was enjoyable enough that it took less than 48 hours to read. If I had waited for the Australian release in June, from my favourite bookseller in Sydney, I would have parted with $32.95 (+ postage) rather than the $11.99 paid for the Kindle edition. The old publishing model is obviously just not sustainable, as well as being environmentally undesirable.
Structured in six sections, the number of legs an ant posseses, the story opened somewhat disappointingly, in fact it was quite boring and reminded me of many a teen novel with simplistic themes about adolescent identity. Quarter of the way into the novel (remember the Kindle does not have page numbers but percentages) it was like some kind of contemporary antebellum tale and not my cup of tea at all.
Then, all changed.
The Anthill Chronicles, the middle section of the novel, is the most interesting and engaging on a number of levels and I wish there was more of it. Wilson, in the acknowledgements, says that he is trying to "present the lives of these insects, as exactly as possible, from the ants' point of view". It is decent prose and explores the environment that Wilson knows more intimately than any of us. It is an entirely believable world that Wilson recreates, a place where the ants in the Trailhead Colony are "united simply and entirely by possession of the same smell":
"Her visual appearance, her stillness, meant nothing. The Queen could have lain on her back with her legs held rigidly up in the air. She could have turned red, black, metallic gold, or any other hue or shade--it would not have mattered. The Queen had to smell dead in order to be classified as dead."
Wilson weaves the world of the ants into his tale in many ways, drawing parallels with the social stratification of the human society that Raphael Semmes Cody is born into. As Raff, the protagonist learns, "the foibles of ants...are those of men, written in a simpler grammar".
Margaret Atwood was impressed with the novel and makes some interesting commentary about the parallels with the classics, particularly Homer. Atwood makes the point that some of the writing is awkward and preachy; she is correct, just re-read the quote I opened with, taken from the prologue. However, this is perhaps understandable, in the context that Wilson wants to engage a larger audience with his ideas, formulated over a long lifetime. Wilson's non fiction writings are important and Anthill, a distillation of his work, has a frightening message for us all, which I read as, historically and environmentally, we are doomed, even if we have luck and manage our civilisation's resources well and nurture, maybe even revere, our interconnectedness:
"Agitated ants ran back and forth through the rooms and galleries of the nest, to no special purpose. The colony was not yet aware of the ultimate meaning of its own mood and actions, but it was instinctively preparing for one last maneuver, a final, almost suicidal response that might yet save some of its members. The only option that remained to them was a burst of flight to the outside, every ant for herself. With luck a few survivors might then reassemble and re-start the colony elsewhere. That is, if they had a real queen. But, of course, they had only their inadequate Soldier-Queen.
Lamentation and hope were mingled among the Trailhead inhabitants. The ants were a doomed people in a besieged city. Their unity of purpose was gone, their social machinery halted. No foraging, no cleaning and feeding of larvae, no queen for them to rally around. The order of the colony was dissolving. Out there, indomitable and waiting, were the hated, filthy, unformicid Streamsiders. Finally, all that the Trailheaders knew was terror, and the existence of a choice--they could fight or run from the horror. There was nothing else left in their collective mind."
Oddly enough, despite this doom and gloom, I found the novel mostly satisfying and recommend it to you without too many reservations. The resolution is neat, too neat but serves Wilson's purpose in imagining a practical solution to many of the everyday environmental concerns of our anthills.
He has done what he says all scientists must do: learn how to explain science with writing that makes science understandable.
ANTHILL is a fascinationg and important novel.
When you get to the chapter about the ant hills, it's like science fiction, but it's what we need to know about our planet.
I hope someone will buy the rights and make a movie just as good as Avatar is and with an equally important message about our time on this earth.
Let's hope our time will not be remembered as the Age of Stupid.
Read the fiction and truth of ANTHILL
This story is that of Raff Cody, who falls in love with the land and its wildlife,especially ants, of the Nokobee Forest. The human side of the plot follows the young scientist's life through his eduction in science and finally law school with an emphasis on environmental law. In addition, author Wilson portrays the southern social contect of the day in that part of the country (e.g., lower middle and upper middle class families in the American south during the second and third quarter of the twentieth century). "Anthill" also describes Raff's long, single minded pursuit of his law degree and professional placement where he can save the Nokobee Forest from developers. Although intriguing, that part of the story seems a little too easily accomplished and with two few glitches. Likewise, in an escape from murderous evangelical Christians who hate Raff for his advanced education and conservationalist ideas, the trio chasing Raff are slaughtered by a paranoid hermit who lives in the woods. In my opinion, the narrative also suffers from too much narrative telling with too little "showing" of character development.
It is not surprising,considering author Wilson's resume, that it is the description of living creatures and botanical species that pushes the book "over the top" in reader engagement. The description of ant habitats (i.e., "hills") with subterranean cells and galleries and the social conventions of the half dozen divisions of labor among the members of the ant colonies is---and there's no other word---simply spectacular. Another fascinating aspect of the author's work with the ants is his analysis of their bodies and features of ants (including details such as the nature and number of teeth, etc. in their mouths). Furthermore, their customs of mating, battle tournaments, attacks, and warfare are all shown in the ants' daily routines, foraging for food, in battle, etc.
"Anthill" by E. O. Wilson will glue your attention, cover to cover. Just as you fear for Raff Cody as he sometimes faces dangerous missions, so will you grieve the death of an ant queen and the loss of a battle that will cause the colony to die. This is a book guaranteed to change your ideas about nature and the marvel of cooperative cultures, man and insect.