Empire of the Ants

by Bernard Werber

translation by Margaret Rocques

Published by Bantam Doubleday Dell

256 pages

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Voyage to the
Bottom of the Pile


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.

This might not seem a very logical way of proceeding, and it has certainly cost the Myrmician civilization (the current crowd) a good deal of time and lives, but it has paid off. In the end, at the cost of enormous effort, ants have always succeeded in overcoming their difficulties.

At Satei (the local place name by the river), the explorers had initially attempted to get across on foot. The skin on the water was strong enough to support their weight but they could not get a grip on it with their claws. They skated about on the edge of the water as if it were an ice rink and could take only two steps forward and three steps sideways before being eaten by frogs.

After a hundred thousand fruitless attempts and the loss of several thousand explorers, the ants decided to try something else. Workers formed a chain, holding each other by the legs and antennae until they reached the other side. The experiment might have worked if the river had not been so rough and wide. It left two hundred and forty thousand dead, but the ants did not give up. At the instigation of their Queen, Biu-pa-ni, they tried to build a bridge of leaves, then a bridge of twigs, then a bridge of pebbles. Those experiments cost the lives six hundred and seventy thousand workers. Bui-pa-ni had already killed more of her subjects to build the bridge of her dreams than all the territorial battles fought during her reign had.

Nevertheless, she did not give up. They had to cross over into the eastern territories. After the bridges, she had the idea of bypassing the river by following it north to it's source. None of those expeditions ever came back, and it left eight thousand dead. Then she said to herself that ants should learn how to swim. Fifteen thousand dead. Then she told herself the ants should try to tame the frogs. Sixty-eight thousand dead. Or glide across on leaves from the big tree. Fifty-two dead. Or walk under the water by weighing their legs with hardened honey. Twenty-seven dead. Legend had it that, when told there was only a dozen unscathed workers left in the city and that she had to abandon the effort for the time being, she had declared: Pity. I still had plenty of ideas left.

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.