“The cycles of other species can be destroyed, and the biosphere corrupted. But for each careless step we take, our species will ultimately pay an unwelcome price – always”

EO Wilson

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.

If you’re interested in more impressions of the novel, this review was in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper last week.

Here’s an extract published in the New Yorker. It is certainly the best prose and most interesting passage from the entire book.


One Comment

    • Mr Speaker

    • 14 years ago

    I just finished this book last night and largely agree with this review. While I wasn’t particularly impressed with the ending, it was the middle section that makes the book a must read.

    The Anthill Chronicles had me absolutely riveted and I only wish more of the book had been dedicated to the story of the Nokobee ants.

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