Tuesday, February 09, 2010

E. O. Wilson's 'Trailhead'

In the 25 January edition of the New Yorker, there's a short story by the great entomologist and evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson. Written in limpid, crystalline prose, it tells of a young man's erotic awakening at the hands of his French-horn teacher.

Just kidding. It's about ants.

First impressions weren't promising. This is from the very first paragraph.

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.

and it made me think I was in for a piece of science-writing-by-any-other-name, groaning under the weight of exposition, with the odd clunky attempt at a literary flourish (that 'knight's armour' metaphor). And adverbs ('fully'?). I hate adverbs.

But I was wrong. It's actually rather good. It does feel under-edited (perhaps because the humanities types at the New Yorker lose their nerve when confronted with biology) and over-pedagogical, as Wilson tries to cram in every ant fact and concept he can (and as he probably knows more about ants than any person that's ever lived, that's quite a lot of information).

But as the story, of the fall of a doomed and besieged ant colony, gathers pace, it's gripping.

What I liked best was that I at first thought my emotional reaction was anthropomorphic, in that I was empathizing with the ants (in an accompanying Q&A the interviewer says the story is "the Iliad told from the point of view of ants").

But then I thought the effect was actually anti-anthropomorphic, and that the powerful thing is that the ants' blindness, both literally and to any sense of meaning and destiny in their lives, brings home nature/evolution/the universe's massive indifference about whether any living thing survives or flourishes.

It was also cute to see Wilson slip in a quick ride on his current hobby-horse, which is that we should take a more group-centric view of insect sociality than many of his colleagues allow. There are a few strategic mentions of the 'superorganism'.

The interview reveals that the story is an extract from Wilson's forthcoming novel Anthill, which mixes the ant's-eye view with a human narrative (involving a French-horn teacher, for all I know).

That'll be interesting to see - although the description on the website isn't doing the book any favours ('Astonishing, inspirational, even magical: a naturalist’s novel about an Alabama boy who heroically tries to save a sacred forest').

But what I really want, in my ideal world, is for someone to make a movie of the book's ant sections. Showing always beats out telling in depictions of the living world.

On the evidence of 'Trailhead', this movie would barely be fiction, so the brilliant folk at the BBC Natural History Unit could do it. Or they'd be ideal for Guillermo del Toro. How about this for an example of something that's all too rare in science and nature writing - the perverse.

Within a week, the constant licking of the royal corpse in the Trailhead Colony began to break it into pieces.

Get to it, Guillermo.

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