‘Anthill’ by E.O. Wilson is that renowned biologist/naturalist’s first venture into fiction. And while I am loath to use the word “unique” he employs a technique here I have never encountered before. In the midst of a 370 page novel devoted to the story of a boy growing up in South Alabama, is a story of the life and complex societal organization of ants. Wilson, one of the world authorities on that subject, delivers what could be seen as a scientific paper, in a highly palatable narrative about the ants in their home and how they may view the world.
The novel as a whole is not bad, but not spectacular, outside of course of the story of the ants, which is outstanding and I have nothing to compare it with. Even if one didn’t want to devote time to the whole book reading the 70-page section “The Anthill Chronicles” would be worthwhile.
While the bulk of the novel is reasonably entertaining, I found it more so for the slice of Alabama life and values I was exposed to. In some ways they fit my cliché bias of how people in the Deep South look at the world. Of course the main character Raff Cody doesn’t fit the stereotype.
Since Wilson is from this part of Alabama one can’t help but suspect that some of the story is autobiographical.
The story starts with Raff, about 11 years old. His family takes him to a tract of wilderness land and lake not far from their community. This tract is a sample of pristine Alabama nature that has been preserved from any kind of development for 150 years, by an old wealthy southern family.
As Raff grows up his experiences and exploring in this area become the primary focus of his life. He goes off to study biology at Florida State University. On graduating he goes to Harvard Law School with the intent of getting the legal tools to protect this wilderness or as much of it as he can.
And he returns to Mobile to do exactly that. And he does it with a deft touch from within the development establishment.
There is no graphic sex in the book, outside of course of the queen ant and drone. There is some “deliverance” style violence, with interesting disposal of bodies.
We are introduced to an old style wealthy southern family and its values and political interests.
The importance of traditional conservative Christian ideology, or at least the warped kind, comes in. Curiously, from my point of view, Christians here oppose conservation and effort to ameliorate environmental damage. They seem to have a vested religious interest in the world going to hell in a hand basket with some kind of salvation following. Maybe with some deliberate Wilson irony, Christians are involved in the violence. Not Christians with lions in the Roman Coliseum, but not far off it.
Curiously blacks and the issues surrounding race are barely alluded to.
On the whole it is a painless introduction to the wisdom of one of the world’s foremost scientists.