A few weeks ago, I was inspired to write (well . . . to start writing) an epic fiction tale about ants. I dove into the subject, roamed the internet, watched videos, went to the library and read books on ant behavior, including Ants At Work, by Deborah Gordon, a fascinating study of insect society. I was interested in the fact that ants have limited roles in the colony, that they have few choices, and live, fundamentally, for the benefit of the whole nest.
I went as far as to compose a heroine in a vast, old, ant society who is designated to be a queen by the reigning queen and sent off to establish a new nest. The more I learned, however, the harder it became to write my story.
Ant colonies begin with one queen who lays thousands of eggs, most of them female. These ants assume tasks, either as nurturers of the larvae, foragers, patrollers or fertile future queens. Ants have no leaders, no managers, and yet they act through their sense of smell, identifying each other by task and adopting tasks according to the frequency of their encounters with other working ants.
Many ants do nothing in the nest but wander around until provoked by encounters and pheromones to perform a function. The event that drives them to act might be a famine, or a potential flood that compels thousands to start shoring up the tunnels, or an invading creature like a spider or a lizard that stimulates them to attack in vast numbers.
I thought this was an interesting way of looking at human life. We believe we direct our own actions; much of what we do feels like waiting around; but occasionally a tragedy, or a political occurrence, or some other unifying event compels us to rally, to act, either by helping each other or scattering in panic.
As I tried to construct a dramatic tale around this idea, I became stumped by the fact that ants function with the simplicity of algorithms. They have no personal interactions. There are no ant families or relationships. The larvae are attended to by their nurturing ants deep underground and the queen does nothing but lay eggs. There are no principal figures in ant life. No executives, no advisers to the queen, no mothers or fathers. The more I tried to anthropomorphize my ant characters (giving them qualities that made them more interesting to a reader), the more I realized how sad and grim their lives were.
In the end, I realized that the qualities I find interesting in any story—relationships with surprising alliances and conflicting motives—are antithetical (pun intended) to ant life. Ants are more like lines of code. They are fascinating, and capable of building enormous societies, but they have more in common with a virus than with people.
I abandoned the idea. It didn’t make sense to write a story about ants if I had to turn them into people in order to make them dramatically engaging. Conversely, if I took people and turned them into ants in my story, I doubted that they would live long enough to finish the tale.
Be glad you’re not an ant!
Text & illustration copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen