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Review - Anthill - Edward O. Wilson


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It was a struggle to decide whether or not to include this book in our reviews, as it's a novel. If we're just dealing with a novel by a science writer we tend to cover it in our SF section, but here the novel has the obvious intent of educating about scientific issues, so falls into that rare and hugely difficult-to-write category of a popular science book in novel form. Like pretty well every other one we've encountered so far, Anthill is interesting but very flawed.

The book broadly divides into three sections. In the first we hear of the upbringing of young, would-be-naturalist Raphael 'Raff' Cody. This is very old fashioned, and frankly rather amateurish novel writing. It's episodic, nothing much happens apart from an encounter with a gun-totin' madman (this is, after all, Alabama) and frankly it's a touch dull. If it wasn't for the promise of better things to come, I would probably have given up half way though this.

The second section describes the life of a couple of ant colonies in an area of wilderness that Raff is fond of. This part of the story is pitched at the ant level, without the excessive anthropomorphism of the animated movies that have already mined this territory. Having said that, the suggestion that the ants would consider human beings gods verges on this fault. However it's a much more gripping (if rather miserable) story than the first section - somewhat inevitably, given the fact that the author is 'Mr Ant.'

The final segment is back to Raff. We seem him pass through Harvard law school (and an encounter with radical environmentalists) only to take a job with a land developer that has its eyes on Raff's favourite tract of wild land. Rather unbelievably he works for the dark side for a few years, just so he's in the right place to win over the land developer's chief executive and persuade him that the best thing to do financially is to just develop a few homes and keep the place a wilderness.

So far, so predictable. But there is also a bizarre section of this final part where a Christian fundamentalist takes a dislike to Raff, apparently because he supports science and won't explicitly agree to the idea that everyone is going to be judged in the next few years and the righteous will be carried up bodily to heaven in 'the rapture'. Because Raff won't instantly accept his way of thinking the preacher decides to kill him. But things turn out very different, thanks to the aforementioned gun-totin' madman.

The message of this last section seems to be the only real justice is blasting people with shotguns, and the American South is full of Christian fundamentalists who will kill you if you disagree with them. It was just so out-of-kilter with the rest of the book that it totally threw me.

So did this work as popular science? There are a few mini-nuggets of information (and tediously long descriptions of wildlife) in the 'bread' of this literary sandwich, but the key is obviously the central ant section. There was a fair amount of information there, and it was certainly very readable. But I got an awful lot more in reading a book about ants like The Lives of Ants. I really couldn't see a lot of benefit from the novel format - if anything it made the information harder to absorb, and certainly restricted how much could be said. I'm afraid I don't think this book would have been published if it hadn't been by a famous author, and I found the whole thing, including the way the page edges were rough like an old hand-cut book, fake and ineffective.

Hardback. Also on Kindle: Visit bookshop

Review by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007