Empire of the Ants review
"Picks you up off the ground and puts you down goodness knows where." Thus reads the definition of wind in the glossary on the last page of Empire of the Ants. Like so much else in this brilliant and unsettling novel, we feel and understand a thing not by our own human lights, but rather through the multi-faceted eyes of an ant. But an ant's idea of the wind could serve equally well to describe what it's like to read Bernard Werber's entomological fantasy: it picks you right off the ground of your human experience and puts you down in the "goodness-knows-where" of ant life.
Through the sorcery of his scientific prose, all the more fascinating for its deadpan journalistic tone, Werber draws the reader into the teeming society of a russet ant city, with its complex hierarchical structure of specialized citizens. We come to know intimately a sexual male (the 327th, numbered according to its hatching order in the current season), an asexual soldier (103, 683rd), and a future queen (56th female). By comparison, the cast of human characters presented in a parallel narrative are positively dull, and painfully out of sorts as all humans, by implication, must be without the blessed purposefulness of the ants' lives.
It is natural at first to wonder how accurate Werber's characterizations of ant intelligence really are. Scientists understand that communication among ants is effected through the release of hormonal scents (pheromones). But does it have a "linguistic equivalent"? In any case, what ants convey to each other through these chemical messages lies beyond any exact verbal transcription a human being could devise. That is why Werber's "translations" are so astonishing: they are both ingenious inventions of the imagination and faithful indicators of the absolute Otherness of the ants. Werber's ants are even capable of solitary reflection. When the 56th female is making her first, agonized attempts to build a new city from scratch, Werber imagines that it is a flitting thought of her dead "boyfriend" (the 327th male), with whom she never had the chance to mate, which gives her the courage to go on. While "love among the ants" might seem like a comically anthropocentric notion, it is as good and as serious an explanation as any for what drives these tiny creatures to perform their herculean acts of survival and self-perpetuation, which are literally beyond our human understanding.
Jodie Foster's character in the film Contact would have done well to read this book before spending so much of her energy trying to contact extraterrestrial intelligence. The aliens are right here with us. They thrive in our backyards. As a society, they are more civil, more organized, and more responsible than we are. We have only one genuine advantage, but it's a doozy: we can write and enjoy reading really extraordinary books about them.