BlurbIn the early 21st century, in a Paris rapidly turning tropical thanks to global warming, Jonathan Wells tries to get to the bottom (as it turns out, quite literally) of his Uncle Edmond's obsession with ants. Jonathan and his family have been left Edmond's basement apartment; their benefactor's sole request is, "ABOVE ALL, NEVER GO DOWN INTO THE CELLAR." Meanwhile, in the great city of Bel-o-kan, a reproductive ant, the 327th male, is fighting for survival, having had his olfactory Identikit stripped by traitors of his own tribe.
Both males--human and ant--are determined to solve their separate quandaries, and Bernard Werber cleverly juxtaposes their adventures and those of their survivors. Their stories must somehow be linked, but it will be hundreds of imaginative and educational pages before we come upon the solution. Empire of the Ants was first published in France in 1991 and eventually in England in 1996 in Margaret Rocques's spryly formal translation. ("Ants are not especially well-known for their conviviality, especially when advancing in formation, armed to the antennae.") Werber has studied formic civilization for 15 years, and his observations more than pay off. We knew they were industrious little things, but why did no one ever tell us about their powers of invention, accommodation (in both senses of the word!), communication, and above all determination?
In fact, as the narrative makes increasingly clear, ants seem to have a lot more going on than the pale pink things stomping around above them, who seem doltish in comparison. Of course, as far as the creepy crawlies are concerned, humans are "so strange you could neither see nor smell them. They appeared suddenly out of the sky and everyone died." Empire of the Ants is by turns frightening and very funny. As more and more humans disappear down the cellar of 3, rue des Sybarites, we come to identify with the six-legged of the world. Werber, too, must have tired of his Homo sapiens, since the ant sections increase in length as the human ones decrease. No matter. Who would miss the perils of the young queen who tries to found her colony on a strange impervious hill--which turns out to be a tortoise--or the hilarious scene in which a spider swathes the 56th female in inescapable silk, only to be distracted first by a mayfly (they have shorter shelf lives than ants, who can be eaten slowly alive over an entire week) and then by a younger arachnid: "Her way of vibrating was the most erotic thing the male had ever felt. Tap tap taptaptap tap tap taptap. Ah, he could no longer resist her charms and ran to his beloved (a mere slip of a thing only four moults old, whereas he was already twelve). She was three times as big as he, but then he liked his females big."
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