Empire of the Ants
by Bernard Werber
translation by Margaret Rocques
Published by Bantam Doubleday Dell
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Reviewed by Kent Barrett
Well, skip this one if you're squeamish about ants, of course. For the rest of us who consider ants to be, of all the crawling tiny horrors of the earth, not so bad as such things go, The Empire Of The Ants is a stone laugh riot.
Ants. You know, kind of clean and shiny looking, all busy and industrial and stuff. Like tiny robots, come in different colors... yeah, ants. There are plenty of these in this wonderful story by Bernard Werber. Plenty. One of my favorites is 103,683rd soldier, a heroine who spends much of the time trying to solve the mystery of the rock-scented assassins, and along the way finds the time to defend the nine million milking beasts (the largest heard of greenflies in the entire Federation) from a lizard, make war on the dreaded dwarf ants, solve the puzzle of the missing termites, and nearly die exploring the miniature golf course at the near end of the world, among other things. This is not your T. H. White's done-not-done ant colony. It's just about impossible to pull a quote out of this thing (for the same reason you can't from -- say -- a Gabriel Garcia Marquez work), but I want you to read something of it, so read this:
In ancient times, when the first ants of the Ni dynasty (the legendary ancient original colony of russet ants in the region) came to this stretch of water, they realized it would not be easy to cross. But an ant never gives up. If necessary, it will bang it's head against an obstacle fifteen thousand times in fifteen thousand different ways until it either dies, or the obstacle gives way.
Right. Gives a taste of the thing, I think. And while there is much delightful stuff about ants in this book, most of which I didn't previously know -- such as that "there is some apple over there" translates into russet ant as "four-methyl two mythlypyrrole carboxylate" -- it would be chauvinistic not to at least mention the human people who also feature in the plot.
About seventeen of them -- including eight firemen and a team of city cops equipped with two-way radios and spelunking gear and a dog -- disappear down the cellar stairs and are never seen again. They were in pursuit of the secret of, well of the cellar, and also of the Encyclopedia of Absolute and Relative Knowledge, which turns out to be all about ants, of course. What else? Eccentric Uncles, pheromone synthesis, the sex life of snails; it goes on and on. The book was originally published in France in 1991 and the morph to English is seamless thanks to the spirited and stylish translation by Margaret Rocques. The translation is so good that it took me awhile to suspect that the book was a translation, even though the protagonists had French names and lived in Paris.
Really nice cover illustration by Honi Werner. The Empire Of The Ants ends about as you'd expect a book like this to end, with the exception of... ah, but why give that away? You'll never think the same way about ants again. You know, that phrase "You'll never think the same way about x again" has always seemed suspicious to me. Implies there was a same way you ever thought about x before and that your opinion was public knowledge. Never mind. You want my advice? I think you should buy this book. | August 3, 1998
Kent Barrett is a writer and journalist with ridiculous opinions on most topics. You can observe the effect first hand at his den of nonsense at http://www.yes.net/generality. He lives alone in Vancouver, Canada with Land Rights, his cat, and Salmon Agreement, his Alsatian puppy.