Staff Review: Anthill by E.O. Wilson

Reviewed by Ward

Anthill is the debut novel of famed biologist E.O. Wilson, and an unusual one at that, not least because of the fact that a) its author was a respectable eighty years old at the time of its publication a few months ago (he turned eighty-one in June), and b) he already has a long list of successful non-fiction works under his name.

Why then this sudden, if not risky transition to the field of fiction? Had Wilson not already published his autobiography Naturalist some fifteen years ago, it would have been tempting to look at Anthill not as a novel, but as a memoir rather. With old age upon him, writing a thinly veiled autobiography and passing it off as fiction might have been the perfect way for the man behind the mask of the much respected (and two-time Pulitzer prize winning!) biologist to try and preserve his complete persona for future generations, instead of ‘just’ leaving behind his intellectual legacy in the field of biology—as impressive and valuable as that legacy may be.

This somewhat cynical perspective becomes especially tempting when considering the many similarities that exist between Wilson and the novel’s protagonist, Raphael Semmes Cody, better known as Raff. Like his creator, Raff is an Alabama native, becomes an Eagle Scout (the highest obtainable rank) with the Boy Scouts of America, makes the move to Boston to study at Harvard, and, of course, is absolutely fascinated with the workings and wonders of the natural world, and then those of ants especially.

However, the fact that Wilson is already widely read and published and has more than proved himself in the field of biology, as well as shed a light on his personal life with the abovementioned Naturalist, leads me to conclude that Anthill must be more than a ‘mere’ trip down memory lane for Wilson, and may have been written with a different goal in mind.

Could it be then, that the story of Anthill is so unique or captivating that it simply had to be told? To be perfectly honest with you, no. As great a biologist as Wilson may be, this novel makes it clear that writing fiction is not his strong suit. Anthill is too bogged down with literary clichés and stereotypes in order for its characters to ever really come alive, whether those be Raff the young idealist, his radically green/feminist girlfriend at Harvard, the mysterious and possibly dangerous recluse Frogman and his rumored 1,000 pound alligator, or the religious fanatics that make an appearance at the end of the novel.

The fact that Anthill is flawed as a novel does not mean that it is without its merits, however. On the contrary. The middle section of the book, effectively titled “The Anthill Chronicles” is absolutely fantastic. Here, we follow the lives and fates of a number of anthills located at Dead Owl Cove, a section of the Nobokee wilderness close to where Raff grew up. And as tedious as the part leading up to these chronicles may have been, as alive and exciting these chronicles are themselves. By leaving the human world behind and zooming in on the ants, Wilson manages to sidestep the traps and limitations that confine him as a novelist, and as the biologist in him takes over, the book shifts gears. In essence, Wilson is on home turf here, and it definitely shows in his writing.

Somewhat ironically perhaps, I actually found myself caring more about the fate of these ants than that of any of the human characters I had encountered in the novel so far, which says a lot about not only the subpar characterization of the people in the novel, but also about the vividness and skill, and especially the obvious love for the subject, with which the world of the ants is depicted. And in that way, Anthill can be said to be successful in at least one respect, namely to show and convince the reader of the importance and complexity of the natural world and all the creatures that it harbors, not least of all the oft overlooked and trivialized insect world. For as Wilson states in the prologue:

“This is the story of three parallel worlds, which nevertheless exist in the same space and time…The smallest are the ants, who build civilizations in the dirt. Their histories are epics that unfold on picnic grounds…Human societies are the second world…Thousands of times greater in space and time is the third of our worlds, the biosphere, the totality of all life, plastered like a membrane over all of earth…Humanity…can perturb it, but we cannot leave it or destroy it without perishing ourselves. The cycles of the other species can be destroyed, and the biosphere corrupted. But for each careless step we take, our species will ultimately pay an unwelcome price—always.”

A dire warning, to say the least. This prologue, together with the main storyline of Raff trying to save the Nobokee tract from being developed and preserve it in its natural state, shows that environmental concern may have been at the top of Wilson’s list when writing this novel. And while he fails to rouse any real concern by writing from a human point of view—Raff is simply too flat a character to be able to carry this torch—he manages to do exactly that by showing us how fragile and easily disturbed our balance with the natural world really is when writing from the perspective of the ants. Thus, Wilson at least partly succeeds in getting his ecological concerns and conservationist ideals across, though be it indirectly.

However, as much as I can sympathize with its ecological message, the true strength of Anthill lies in its ability to bridge the gap between fiction and science writing. Had Wilson not taken the leap to writing fiction, I might never have come across his work at all. Now, thanks to Anthill, my curiosity has been piqued, and I actually look forward to trying some of Wilson’s non-fiction work in the future. Especially if it is written in as riveting a style as “The Anthill Chronicles”.