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Empire Of The Ants Paperback – January 2, 1997
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In the early 21st century, in a Paris rapidly turning tropical thanks to global warming, Jonathan Wells tries to get to the bottom (as it turns out, quite literally) of his Uncle Edmond's obsession with ants. Jonathan and his family have been left Edmond's basement apartment; their benefactor's sole request is, "ABOVE ALL, NEVER GO DOWN INTO THE CELLAR." Meanwhile, in the great city of Bel-o-kan, a reproductive ant, the 327th male, is fighting for survival, having had his olfactory Identikit stripped by traitors of his own tribe.
Both males--human and ant--are determined to solve their separate quandaries, and Bernard Werber cleverly juxtaposes their adventures and those of their survivors. Their stories must somehow be linked, but it will be hundreds of imaginative and educational pages before we come upon the solution. Empire of the Ants was first published in France in 1991 and eventually in England in 1996 in Margaret Rocques's spryly formal translation. ("Ants are not especially well-known for their conviviality, especially when advancing in formation, armed to the antennae.") Werber has studied formic civilization for 15 years, and his observations more than pay off. We knew they were industrious little things, but why did no one ever tell us about their powers of invention, accommodation (in both senses of the word!), communication, and above all determination?
In fact, as the narrative makes increasingly clear, ants seem to have a lot more going on than the pale pink things stomping around above them, who seem doltish in comparison. Of course, as far as the creepy crawlies are concerned, humans are "so strange you could neither see nor smell them. They appeared suddenly out of the sky and everyone died." Empire of the Ants is by turns frightening and very funny. As more and more humans disappear down the cellar of 3, rue des Sybarites, we come to identify with the six-legged of the world. Werber, too, must have tired of his Homo sapiens, since the ant sections increase in length as the human ones decrease. No matter. Who would miss the perils of the young queen who tries to found her colony on a strange impervious hill--which turns out to be a tortoise--or the hilarious scene in which a spider swathes the 56th female in inescapable silk, only to be distracted first by a mayfly (they have shorter shelf lives than ants, who can be eaten slowly alive over an entire week) and then by a younger arachnid: "Her way of vibrating was the most erotic thing the male had ever felt. Tap tap taptaptap tap tap taptap. Ah, he could no longer resist her charms and ran to his beloved (a mere slip of a thing only four moults old, whereas he was already twelve). She was three times as big as he, but then he liked his females big." --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.
From Library Journal
"Don't go into the cellar" is the warning given the Wells family as they move into the dingy Paris flat inherited from Jonathan's Uncle Edmund. But when the family dog disappears down the basement steps, the Wellses follow, one by one, into the mysterious darkness below. Uncle Edmund was an eccentric author and scientist whose particular passion was ants. Thus, it must follow that the mystery of the Wells's basement lies in the parallel universe of an exotic ant kingdom. Struggling to rebuild what was once a vast empire in the face of the terrors of contemporary human society, the ants are compelled to deal with cars, tools, and other technopredators. The sf movies of the 1950s are immediately brought to mind here. The one-dimensional humans definitely take back seat to the anthropomorphized ants as characters in this novel of survival. Werber tells us much more about the intelligent and highly structured world of the ant than we may care to know. Readers captivated by Richard Adam's Watership Down might be attracted by this premise but will quickly tire of the novel's uneven characterization and didactic style. Not recommended.?Susan Gene Clifford, Aerospace Corp., El Segundo, Cal.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.
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The scientific presumptions of the text are also an issue. Werber presents the work as if it had some scientific basis, as if it was scifi rather than fantasy. This is bolstered by his exacting and broad description of ant life and anatomy. It is unfortunate that the scientific slant is presented, as there is absolutely no scientific credulity within the concept of communication from creatures which don't even possess a brain. Much less communication between two different species.
Werber does takes the best of science fiction when he takes certain concepts and expands on them. His descriptions of ant anatomy are fairly accurate, and the description of ant life a nice fantastical extension of scientific principals- if they could think, how would they then live? It would have been far better though if some sort of deus ex machina had been present to explain their intelligence. The reader is forced to have to create presumptions that Werber never truly explains in order to make sense of the work.
With these caveats, it is still a recommended book, if you don't have to pay too much for it (which you don't on Amazon). It is fun to read through much of it, if with a critical eye, and can provide a relaxing afternoon by the fire.
The ranch looked like every Western movie set you have ever seen, though in the mountains one could see Mt Palomar Observatory, an anachronism a movie director would not want to include in the back drop of a movie about cowboys and rustlers.
Near the ranch house was a big nest of aggressive ants. In 1955 we were not very ecology minded; the Nichols family dumped their trash down an old abandoned gold mine and tried to get rid of the ants by pouring kerosene down the ant hole (dropping lit matches in the kerosene). The chemical warfare did not succeed in destroying the ants. Sometimes at night in a ranch house bunk bed I would feel a sharp pain in my leg, as I grasped for the cause, my fingers would grab a tiny, crunchy object: a soldier ant has attacked me (in revenge? Nest self-defense)?
I began to suspect that humans and ants might have difficulty coexisting on our planet, and that the “victory” would not automatically go to the humans.
Neither humans nor ants are very “nice” creatures. When I was 12, living on our hobby farm, I would sometimes amuse my childish mind by burning ants by focusing on them with a magnifying glass.
I have always loved science fiction, something I began reading even before the summer on the ranch and the move to Brea.
We now know there are trillions of stars in the universe, many with planets that could support life something like us. As absurd as it might seem, we have no knowledge of any life outside or tiny, obscure planet on the remote reaches of an obscure, remote galaxy. Terra may be the only planet with life there is in the universe, and homo sapiens may be the only species with full “Theory of Mind” on our planet. Eusocial animals such as bees, ants (and mole rats) may be the only competing “civilizations” on our planet, at least until we create artificial intelligence descendants. (We are getting closer; not only can computers beat humans at chess; in the last week or so computers beat us at the more challenging game of “Go”; an oriental game more fiendish and subtle than chess.
Ants are our own aliens. EMPIRE OF THE ANTS to me is science fiction at its best; portraying a competing alien life form. Is it scientifically impeccable? No. It’s fiction. A story. Does it really communicate what it would be like to live as an ant? Probably, not possible. To my aging mind, it kept me amused, intrigued, enthralled. May not work for you. What can I say. Go out and argue with the nearest ant nest.
I found myself skimming over the ant story--mostly a boring telling vs showing of ridiculously wild imaginings--to find out how the human sideline would end. The finale wraps up in a schlock-horror, poorly-developed, C-movie quality bunch of nonsense filled with literary mistakes. Translated by Margaret Rocques, if my copy didn't say Bantam on the jacket, I'd have sworn it was self-published.
If you are a discriminating reader, move on.
Most recent customer reviews
It is a murder story, which also talks about ants in a fiction manner. But the author is a scientific journalist.Read more