Top critical review
Powerful middle in a conventional eco-novel
Reviewed in Canada on November 14, 2014
Edward O. Wilson is often described as “the world’s leading authority on ants.” His fascination with the “superorganism” of the anthill has brought him fame, but his attempts to explain human sociology in insect terms has also made him perhaps the most controversial life scientist of the last fifty years.
Now in his 80′s, Wilson has recently tried his hand at a novel. This seems somehow appropriate, since many of his critics have long maintained that his ideas about the application of insect social structures to human societies are, indeed, fiction.
I approached "Anthill" (2010) without much preconception. I don’t find Wilson’s ideas on social or group selection particularly alarming. He may even be right. We’ll see. So I had no presumptive reason to dislike a book that won several smaller fiction prizes.
As it turns out, I did like "Anthill" – but only the middle third of it.
Wilson divides his novel into three parts. In the first section, he recounts his pre-teen protagonist’s love of the wilderness and fascination with insects. He obviously draws on his own, very similar childhood for this part of the book, and to that extent it’s mildly interesting. However, other than several funny passages in which his human characters act a lot like ants, this first part of the book is pretty standard fare, as fiction goes. Competent, but not compelling.
The boy’s story disappears in the second section, to which we’ll turn in a moment, to reappear in the pending ecological disaster story that turns the book’s last third into an even more standard, and less satisfying, story of an environmental warrior — the boy from the first part, who abandoned his biology studies to become, presciently, a skilled lawyer — who outmaneuvers the developers he works for to save his beloved river.
If "Anthill" contained just the story of the young insect-lover who grew up to become an eco-lawyer and save the wilderness that nurtured him as a child, it would be worth no more space than it’s been given already. If you like that kind of story, and if you’re satisfied with the limited prose stylings of today’s typical popular novels, it’s a good enough novel with which to pass an otherwise-boring evening.
What makes the novel really worth reading, even fascinating, is the powerful middle section of the book, in which Wilson turns away from the human story to tell the tale of an eventful summer for the inhabitants of three anthills that cluster, unremarked, along the riverbank by which the novel’s human characters play and work.
Told from the point of view of various worker ants, “The Anthill Chronicles” is a fascinating representation of the instinctual attitudes and behaviours of an anthill’s different castes, from warriors to nurses, from scouts to “captains.”
Wilson’s conventional narrative disappears, replaced by prose informed by his deep understanding of the creatures he’s dramatizing. Ant “psychology” and ant “cognition” are depicted convincingly. The strategies and tactics of the three ant groups whose interaction is the subject of the Chronicles are clearly intended to represent different human approaches to living in a fragile environment.
Just as clearly, we are intended to take the obvious lessons of moderation and conservation from the tale of the super-colony whose excess of success leads it to disaster and extinction. But the obviousness of these parallels isn’t allowed to obscure the ants’ story.
Had all of "Anthill" been of the kind and quality of the middle third, Wilson’s book might have surpassed the best of the popular animal POV novels. Watership Down, for example, as good as it is, loses force to the extent that the rabbits are over-personified, turned too often into cute little versions of us. Wilson, perhaps because he’s a scientist and not a novelist, never succumbs to the temptation to make the ants into “little people.” Perhaps he never felt the temptation.
In any case, it’s precisely the “alien” quality of the ways the ants “think” and behave that makes their world fascinating. I’m reminded of the best “first encounter” books in science fiction, books like Niven and Pournelle’s "The Mote in God’s Eye" and LeGuin’s "The Left Hand of Darkness." A book-length “The Anthill Chronicles” might have joined these two in my personal pantheon of favourite culture-fantasies.
Given all of this, I don’t recommend that you rush out and spend money to buy "Anthill," unless you don’t mind getting 1/3 of a great book for a full book’s price.
If you do buy it, my advice is to skip the human story and jump right into the middle of the book, where the good things are.