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E O Wilson


January 25, 2010

So hungry am I for genuine short fiction — not slabs of novel, or textualizations of screeenplays — that when I turned to pages 56 and 57 of The New Yorker and saw the photograph of ants, I tore to the Contributors page in desperate, lunatic hope that the author of the story, despite calling himself "E O Wilson," was not the celebrated entomologist. Later, this panic would remind me of the behavior of the virgin queens at the end of "Trailhead." Sometimes, denial is all you've got. I came away with an entirely different attitude. E O Mr Wilson's ability to make us care about the ants of the Trailhead colony in much the same way that we care about the collectivity of Middlemarch establishes him as one of the most gifted storytellers ever to appear in The New Yorker.

My resistance to "Trailhead" did not survive the first sentence, "The Trailhead Queen was dead." I'm not going to linger over the sentence à la française; it's enough to say that, on top of the news, always irresistible, of a dead sovereign, the modifier Trailhead adds an exotic specificity. What is a Trailhead Queen, we might ask; but Mr Wilson knows better than to fumble with exposition at this early stage. He seems to know (as if he has been writing fiction all his life), that the arresting thing about the death of the Trailhead Queen, whoever she is, is that her attendants don't register it. They go on about their business as though nothing had happened. This may be a story about aunts, but it seems to have been dreamed up (if, quite definitely, not written by) Edgar Allan Poe.

At first, there was no overt sign that her long life was ending: no fever, no spasms, no farewells. She simply sat on the floor of the royal chamber and died. As in life, her body was prone and immobile, her legs and antennae relaxed. Her stillness alone failed to give warning to her daughters that a catastrophe had occurred for all of them. She lay there, in fact, as though nothing had happened. She had become a perfect statue of herself. While humans and other vertebrates have an internal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone. Hence the workers were at first unaware of their mother’s death. Her quietude said nothing, and the odors of her life, still rising from her, signalled, I remain among you. She smelled alive.

The trick of this is that the writer knows his readers as well as his ants. If the ants are only doing what ants always do, we're no different: we're gasping at a ghoulishness that we can't help projecting upon the scene. The light-handed anthropomorphism is almost entirely conventional. Ants may have no conception of queens or daughters, but the use of such terms is hardly Mr Wilson's innovation. The one arguable touch is "statue," but it does not so much impute the idea of monuments to ants as it does bring the reader into the room. It is a trick, but not a dishonest one; far from making ants sound like wee, industrious human beings, Mr Wilson takes extraordinary pains to make the alien quality of their existence as salient and intelligible as possible. 

Because ants live most of their lives in underground darkness, they cannot communicate through sight or sound. Pheromonal, they think only in taste and smell. The members of the Trailhead Colony transmitted their messages using about a dozen chemical signals, which they picked up by smelling one another constantly with sweeps of their antennae. An ant who was well fed said to a less well-fed nest mate, Smell this, and if you are hungry eat. If the ant approached and was in fact hungry, she extended her tongue, and the donor ant rewarded her by regurgitating liquid directly into her mouth. When a wood thrush flew by the Trailhead mound carrying a grasshopper to her own nest and dropped part of the crushed insect to the ground, a patrolling worker found it in less than a minute and triggered a chain action. The worker examined the grasshopper, tasted it briefly, then ran back to the nest entrance. On the way, she touched the tip of her abdomen repeatedly to the ground, laying down a thin trail of chemicals. Entering the nest, she rushed up to each nest mate she passed, brushing her face close to theirs. With their antennae, her nest mates detected both the trail substance and the smell of grasshopper. The signals now proclaimed, Food. I have found food. Follow my trail! Soon a mob of ants ran out, followed the trail, and gathered around the delicious grasshopper haunch. Some of the first to arrive ran back to the nest, laying trails of their own, reinforcing the message, saying, Come on, come on, we need help. The ants still by the grasshopper piece began to drag it toward the nest entrance. A catbird perched on the branch of a nearby tree saw the activity and swept down to investigate. She pecked at the grasshopper, scattering the ants and injuring several. The ants expelled a pheromone from a gland that opened at the base of their jaws. A chemical vapor spread fast. It shouted, Danger! Emergency! Run!

This is excellent science-fiction writing. It is clear, and it is very strange. That it is also fact, and not the creation of Mr Wilson's fevered imagination, is what's really extraordinary about "Trailhead." Right before our eyes, the hoary traditions of an escapist genre are brought to bear on the world that we actually live in, and not only live in but largely ignore. Who needs the Mutants from Planet Nine?

Before I began reading "Trailhead," and finding that I liked it, I wondered why it wasn't published as a non-fiction article. But, as ought to be clear from the foregoing extract, the writer has made use of a narrative approach that would be jarring in an objective report on ant life. Even though he never lets the reader forget that the thousands of ants in the Trailhead colony work according to a pre-arranged, personality-canceling program, Mr Wilson tells the story from the viewpoint, as it were, of individual creatures responding to very specific conditions, much as Emma Woodhouse responds to Harriet Smith's infatuation with Mr Knightley. Even the simple use of the past tense transforms a bit of routine foraging into an episode. It may be routine for the ants, but most readers will find it even more distinctive — more felt, really — than video would be. This is not science. This is experience — the stuff of all fiction. The fiction here, perhaps, is the sense that we understand, in however small a way, what it is like to be an ant.

I expect that I'm not the only reader to be reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. As in that novel, we sense from the beginning that things are not going to end well for the Trailhead ants. (Properly educated readers who know that they're not will miss some of the suspense.) As in the Ishiguro, we're left with a feeling of futility that won't stay put: just because the ants, like the children of Hailsham, die gruesomely, that doesn't make their lives less meaningful than ours. On the contrary: it forces us to ask after the sources of our own human meanings.

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