Short Story: The Empire of the Ants by H.G. WellsMarch 19, 2010
The Book: “The Empire of the Ants” from The Time Machine and Other Stories by Herbert George (H.G.) Wells. First published in 1905. The edition read was published in 1969 (copyright 1963) by Scholastic Book Services.
The Setting: The Amazon River, South America, Earth
The Story: A Creole boat captain and his British engineer are sent upriver to investigate claims of giant ants (2 inches or so) destroying a village. On they way, they find a boat, with its dead crew, floating in the river, infested with ants. A crewman goes over, and the ants attack him. He dies. They find the village, can see that it’s overrun with ants, and freak out a little. They fire their cannon at it a couple of times and go home. The engineer swears that some of the ants were using their front legs like arms and wearing some sort of clothes…
The Science: The premise here is that there is a kind of ant that is not only an intelligent social insect, but an insect with greater intelligence and an eye toward empire. Now, while there are lots of kinds of ants, and there are probably undiscovered species in the Amazonian interior, so far there are no clothes wearing, tactics using giant ants.
There are ants with venom. There are, according to the internet, really big freaking ants. And ants have complex social mechanisms. But so far, no brain ants have evolved. Le sigh. But it’s a really neat idea, especially in the world of 1905 when the world of species had been less fully explored and such a thing was closer to the realm of possibility.
The Reaction: I like this one. The first half of it is a fantastic exercise in the building of suspense. The ants are an unknown menace that can’t be communicated with. Sure, the whole “these ants have big heads, wear clothes, and use their forearms like we do” bit is a little hokey, but in the 1905 context it would have been super awesome and as it is, it’s still fairly awesome.
The Cover: See The Time Machine.
Etc: The second Wells book I’ve read where there’s an insect like species with different types of the species doing different jobs – the other being The First Men in the Moon.
Next Up: In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells