When I think of the cross section of fiction and insects, movies like Mimic, in which scientists genetically engineer a new, cockroach-killing insect (obviously it backfires and the insects try to take over the world), come to mind. Or, going back, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Sphinx, or H.G. Well’s The Empire of the Ants (in which giant, mutated ants are capable of human mind control!). So when I saw that renowned entomologist E.O. Wilson wrote “Trailhead,” a story about ants for the New Yorker’s fiction department, I was curious to discover what kind of sci-fi world he would create. As it turns out, his fiction seems more than anything like, well, science.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s a wonderfully crafted tale about the birth, life, and death of an ant colony. It’s got several sci-fi elements: it’s based on scientific fact, features creatures with super-human abilities, and has a few battles for power thrown in. But it’s all plausible; Wilson could be describing any colony. The ants, we’re told in the beginning, follow their instincts, working for the good of the whole, the ‘superorganism’. Still, it’s a great read, written with literary flair and littered with fascinating tidbits about ants:
Older workers who were healthy but approaching the end of their natural life span also emigrated to the nest perimeter. From there, they often became foragers, exposing themselves to a much higher risk from enemies. When defending the nest, the elders were among the most suicidally aggressive. They were obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: humans send their young men to war; ants send their old ladies.
I kept waiting for the twist. For the ant that would refuse to follow her pre-programmed existence and exert a little free will (that’s right, SHE. Most ant colonies are female-dominated societies, contrary to what the movie Antz asserts…maybe the ‘z’ in Antz is supposed to tip us off to the fact that it isn’t based on fact.). But—spoiler alert—it never came. There is no hero. No foil. Maybe that is the twist.
Perhaps “Trailhead” is science fiction: It does, after all, take the reader into a setting, a world, contrary to our own reality. I like to think that fiction-lovers who perhaps haven’t ever given much thought to the ants scurrying across sidewalks, picnic blankets, or hiking trails, will now look at these insects with a sense of wonder and appreciation. I certainly will.