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Empire of the Ants
Bernard Werber
translated by Margaret Rocques
Bantam Books, 262 pages

Empire of the Ants
Bernard Werber
Bernard Werber is a scientific journalist who has studied ants for fifteen years as an avocation. Having originally studied law at Toulouse, Werber turned to journalism, and particularly scientific journalism. In 1983 he won a journalistic competition with a proposal for a report on African ants. As a result, he went to the Ivory Coast to study the terrible 'magnan' ants. Despite being the victim of a nearly fatal attack by the ants, he returned home with an obsession: to tell their story and draw people into the complex and strange world of anthills. Living in Paris, he currently works at the Parisian weekly VSD.

Empire of the Ants was originally published as Les Fourmis by Albin Michel in 1991. It sold over half a million copies in France alone, and has since been published in seventeen different countries.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Katharine Mills

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If you are one of the many who sat mesmerised through the surprise hit Microcosmos (or "Bugs to Music," as some prefer to call it), then I have this advice for you -- go out to your friendly bookseller right now and get Empire of the Ants into your hands this very instant. If, on the other hand, you are the kind of person who won't even go into the bathroom if there's a spider in the tub -- well, you should be forewarned. This is a buggy book. But it's a fine read. And who knows, after your intimate glimpse into the world of the exoskeletal, you might find yourself actually able to go up to that spider, and gently remove it to a better world outside.

The book opens simply enough: Jonathan Wells has been bequeathed a Paris apartment by his brilliant and eccentric uncle Edmond, who has been stung to death by wasps in the forest. The apartment at 3 rue des Sybarites, is a godsend to him, since Jonathan (revealed to us as a somewhat timid-hearted man) has just been fired from his job as a locksmith, because he will not go into the more dangerous sections of Paris at night. Jonathan, his wife Lucie, son Nicolas and dog Ouarzazate happily move in.

The apartment has a mystery: a cracked cellar door shut with a huge lock, and a scrawled note from Uncle Edmond: "ABOVE ALL, NEVER GO DOWN INTO THE CELLAR!" The Wells are quite prepared to obey -- until Ouarzazate slips through the crack in the door, and disappears.

Meanwhile, six kilometers away, the mighty metropolis of Bel-o-kan (population 18 million) is rousing from its winter hibernation. The 327th reproductive male, one of the first to wake, goes forth on a hunting expedition, which, except for him, is inexplicably wiped out by some mighty weapon. Yet when he tries to communicate his experience to the other ants, he finds them oddly indifferent. Worse still, he somehow runs afoul of some strange assassin ants, who live among the others in the city, and can only be recognized by a smell of rock. The 327th male evades the assassins' first attempt, and finally communicates his frightening tale to two others, a winged female and an asexual ant. Soon, all three are desperately searching for the answer to the deadly riddle.

Meanwhile, at 3 rue des Sybarites, matters are taking an almost Cthulhuian turn. After vanishing for eight hours, Jonathan returns, half-crazed, with the hideously tortured body of the dog. He purchases an assortment of odd items, and over the protests of his wife, disappears down the cellar again, and does not return. Shortly afterwards, she goes down to look for him. When she has been gone for two days, a policeman and eight firemen go down -- and disappear. Then Nicolas goes down into the cellar, and disappears. Another seven policemen, equipped with mountaineering gear and radios, go after him. Of those seven, only one returns: covered in cuts that look like knife wounds, and completely insane.

Empire of the Ants is really a mystery, posing plenty of questions. Who are the rock-scented ants, and why are they trying to kill the three who know about the great threat to the ant metropolis? Who is behind that threat? Where does the mysterious tunnel on the lowest level of Bel-o-kan lead, and why is there a whole other store of food down there? What is in the cellar of 3 rue des Sybarites -- and what is its connection with the ants? What is the answer to Uncle Edmond's favourite intelligence test, which is the password to the secret heart of the cellar? And where is the manuscript of Edmond's great work, The Encyclopedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge?

The human side of the plot is a bit frail, a problem that's exacerbated by the slightly stilted dialogue common to much French-to-English translation. But there isn't much dialogue anyway, and the true enthrallment of the book lies in the scenes of ant life, which lead the reader into a fascinating alien world. This is not the Orwellian totalitarianism of T.H. White's anthills, but a place where words are smells, where a few hundred metres can encompass a thriving civilisation five thousand years old. The russet ants of Bel-o-kan are highly technologically advanced; they have mushroom beds, tanker ants who store honeydew, greenfly herds, long-distance weapons and more. The ants are determined to survive at any cost, and to develop their knowledge of the world. The ants explore, they do research, they learn -- but not as humans do it.

Werber has a knack for bringing these tiny aliens to life, and I found myself more in sympathy with the poor confused 327th male than with the unfortunate human inhabitants of 3 rue des Sybarites. Even more fascinating is the fact that ants undoubtedly do all the things described and more, which makes us question our own self-classification as the "superior" species. The book is seeded with excerpts from Uncle Edmond's Encyclopedia, describing the ants' culture from a human perspective, a device which, combined with the intimate glimpses of their daily lives, illustrates the superficiality of human scientific observation.

The real question, the final question left at the end of the book when all the other mysteries have been solved is this: Are humans really ready to communicate with another species? And, more frighteningly, what happens next -- when our efforts have drawn the attention of the other species to us? Read Empire of the Ants, and contemplate it.

In the few seconds it will take you to read these four lines:
40 human beings and 700 million ants will have been born on Earth.
30 human beings and 500 million ants will have died on Earth.

HUMAN BEING: A mammal between 1 and 2 meters in height, weighing between 30 and 100 kilos. Gestation period: 9 months. Mode of nutrition: omnivore. Estimated population: over 5 billion individuals.
ANT: An insect between 0.01 and 3 centimeters in length, weighing between 1 and 150 milligrams. Egg-laying capacity limited only by sperm stock. Mode of nutrition: omnivore. Likely population: over a million trillion individuals.

EDMOND WELLS,
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELATIVE AND ABSOLUTE KNOWLEDGE

Copyright © 1998 Katharine Mills

When Katharine Mills was twelve, her lifetime ambition was to read every book in the world. She has since recognised her folly, but is doing the best she can. She works as a graphic designer, and is known on a first-name basis at all her local book stores. Katharine and husband are presently engaged in renovating an old house, and wondering when the transition point from "local eyesore" to "century home" occurs. If she had her life to live over again, she would, like Edward Gorey, probably choose to live it with cats who are somewhat less loopy.


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