Book Review: Empire of the Ants by Bernard Werber

Wow, those were the exact thoughts when I finished the book this time and back when I first read it over twenty years ago. I love this book, and I’m sure I didn’t fully understand it back then, but the effect was the same. This book is something different. The book is written from three perspectives humans (note the plural,) uncle Edmond, and ants (plural here as well.) The writer portrays ants and their dynamic with each other and the rest of the world so vividly that it swept me away. Having now read a thing or two about ants, I can fully appreciate the way Werber mixes facts with fiction and wove a believable story from the ants’ perspective. The empire or should I say empires are full of individual stories, taking into account what is to be part of millions of others with responsibilities and expectations given by nature (worker, future queen, warrior, scout…) and yet have individual needs. It would be easy to think the Werber’s ability to tell a story from an ant’s perspective stops there. Still, it goes beyond the personal narrative. It grows into a community with detailed descriptions of communication, desires, histories, wars, past, future, how time is perceived and managed (temperature! Meet me when it is 20 Celsius,) how duties go, and how a rebellion can come out of necessity and secrets, and by accident. Not to mention healthcare and problems with parasites and wasps and termites.

All that makes this book fantastic read, stepping more in-depth into the consciousness of the creature another than human. But, unfortunately, there is a but, the book falls short with its human characters and the story they go through. It feels naive and out of tune with the complexity of the ants. Okay, some of it is deliberate, giving as a mirror of our shortcomings, yet, the occasional emotionless and childlike dialogue feels forced, making the characters seem thin. Still, as I write this review, I feel that it was the mystery involving the humans, keeping my curiosity up and the story compelling despite its lack of depth compared to the ants. It is no wonder as our human brain is drawn to need to understand and know why and what is happening. Unfortunately, the mystery was better than the actual ending. I was a bit disappointed. Now before you file this book to maybe or won’t be reading pile because of the ending, I have to say the journey was worth it. Werber nailed seeing the world from another perspective, both the ants and outsider, Edmond Wells.

Edmond Wells is a dead uncle who leaves his house to his sister’s kid in his will, and there the story will begin. Following his encyclopedia entries and scattered thoughts, which are one of my favorite parts. Here are a couple of quotes from him:

“TOTALITARIANISM: People are interested in ants because they think they have managed to create a successful totalitarian system. Certainly, the impression we get from the outside is that everyone in the anthill works, everyone is obedient, everyone is ready to sacrifice and everyone is the same. And for the time being, all human totalitarian systems have failed.
“That is why we thought of copying social insects (like Napoleon, whose emblem was the bee). The pheromones that flood the anthill with global information have an equivalent in the planetary television of today. There is a widespread belief that if the best is made available to all, one day we will end up with a perfect human race.
“That is not the way of things.
“Nature, with all due respect to Mr. Darwin, does not evolve in the direction of the supremacy of the best (according to which criteria, anyway?). Nature draws its strength from diversity. It needs all kinds of people—good, bad, mad, desperate, sporty, bed-ridden, hunch-backed, hare-lipped, happy, sad, intelligent, stupid, selfish, generous, small, tall, black, yellow, red and white. It needs all religions, philosophies, fanaticisms and wisdom. The only danger is that any one species may be eliminated by another.
“In the past, fields of maize artificially designed by men and made up of clones of the best heads (the ones that need least water, are most frost-resistant or produce the best grains) have suddenly succumbed to trivial infections while fields of wild maize made up of several different strains, each with its own peculiar strengths and weaknesses, have always managed to survive epidemics.
“Nature hates uniformity and loves diversity. It is in this perhaps that its essential genius lies.”

“SOMETIMES, WHEN: Sometimes, when I go for a walk in the summer, I notice I have almost stepped on a kind of fly. I look at it more closely and see that it is a queen ant. If there is one, there are thousands. They writhe into car windshields. When they are exhausted, they lose all control of their flight. How many cities have been annihilated by windshield wipers on a summer road?”

‘THE TIME OF CONSPIRATORS: The most widespread system of organization among human beings is a complex hierarchy of “administrators,” powerful men and women who supervise, or rather manage, smaller “creative” groups whose work is then appropriated by “commercial” personnel in the name of distribution. The administrative, creative and commercial personnel make up the three castes that nowadays correspond to ant workers, soldiers, and reproductive forms.
‘The struggle between Stalin and Trotsky, two early-twentieth-century Russian leaders, is a marvelous illustration of the change from a system favoring the “creative” group to a system favoring the administrators. Trotsky, the mathematician and inventor of the Red Army, was ousted by Stalin, the conspirator. A page had been turned.
‘It is quicker and easier to get ahead in society by exercising charm, uniting assassins and putting out disinformation than by producing new ideas and things.’

“IT WAS LONG THOUGHT: It was long thought that computers in general and artificial intelligence programs in particular would mingle human concepts and present them from a new angle. In short, electronics was expected to deliver a new philosophy. But even when it is the same: ideas produced by human imaginations. It is a dead end.
“The best way to renew thought is to go outside the human imagination.”

Sorry about the long quotes, I got excited. In all of them, there is food for thought, even if you don’t agree with everything. Anyway, thank you for reading, and have an “antsy” day! (Note without the agitation.)

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