Review: ‘The Empire of the Ants’ by H. G. Wells

The most successful and satisfying period of H. G. Wells’s long writing career ran from around 1894 – something of an annus mirabilis for him and the short story – until around 1904, when The Food of the Gods appeared. But there are some gems to be found after 1904, including novels such as In the Days of the Comet, The War in the Air,and The World Set Free, and there are some fine later stories.

Of these mid-career stories, ‘The Empire of the Ants’, published in Strand magazine in December 1905, is one of the finest among the shorter works.

‘The Empire of the Ants’ concerns a group of men travelling to a fictional location in the Amazon basin in South America to help the locals deal with a plague of ants. The captain of the ship, Gerilleau, describes the ants to Holroyd, a Lancashire engineer who is part of the group.

In particular, he describes how the ants attacked a house one afternoon and partially destroyed it. When it looked as though the ants had gone, the son of the family ventured back into the house, only to be attacked and killed by a swarm of the ants.

The crew come upon an abandoned boat on which the bodies of two men are aboard, both in a strange state of decay. The deck of the ship is awash with moving black specks: the ants. The captain orders his lieutenant to go aboard the ship and investigate. The lieutenant gets stung by the ants and dies that night. The captain and Holroyd deliberate about what to do about the ants, and the captain decides to fire the big gun on the ship.

The narrator concludes ‘The Empire of the Ants’ by acknowledging that his narrative is ‘fragmentary’ because that is how Holroyd related it to him. He comments that Holroyd has become obsessed by the ants, and has warned the English that they should prepare before it is ‘too late’. The narrator also details the way the ants have spread across South America.

He remarks that what makes the ants such a ‘serious pest’ is not so much their power of organising themselves into ‘a single nation’, but their poison, which is similar to snake venom. He notes that Holroyd believes that, in several decades’ time, the ants will have reached Europe, having already displaced humans from South America entirely.

‘The Empire of the Ants’ is perhaps Wells’s most consummate variation on a key theme in his work: that of humans being threatened by an animal species which highlights man’s vulnerability. Although technology comes to the crew’s rescue when the captain fires his ‘big gun’ and temporarily removes the threat of the ants, they return soon enough. Despite all of his scientific breakthroughs, man is still at the whim, and mercy, of nature.

In Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss convincingly argues that the modern genre of science fiction has its roots in the Gothic, or what we might call, after Ann Radcliffe and David Punter, ‘the literature of terror’. These roots are obvious in the case of a founding text like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), of course, but many of Wells’s stories and novels can also be productively linked back to earlier Gothic tropes.

‘The Empire of the Ants’ is a good example of this cross-fertilisation: a new threat emerges which has the potential to destroy mankind, or at least unseat man from his throne; this threat is at first imperfectly understood, treated with fear and suspicion. And early on in Wells’s story, he (or rather, his narrator) makes the ‘moral’ of the story explicit:

In a few thousand years men had emerged from barbarism to a stage of civilisation that made them feel lords of the future and masters of the earth! But what was to prevent the ants evolving also? Such ants as one knew lived in little communities of a few thousand individuals, made no concerted efforts against the greater world. But they had a language, they had an intelligence! Why should things stop at that any more than men had stopped at the barbaric stage? Suppose presently the ants began to store knowledge, just as men had done by means of books and records, use weapons, form great empires, sustain a planned and organised war?

Behind Holroyd’s worry, of course, as the word ‘evolving’ makes clear, is Darwinian evolution, that Victorian scientific discovery which offered ‘Gothic’ writers a whole new range of possibilities. A new killer species might evolve as the result of some genetic mutation; an existing species might evolve to become sentient. In more recent times, such an idea has been turned on technology, too, with computers and robots gaining sentience, only to turn on man (see Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series, or The Terminator, or some of Vernor Vinge’s fiction).


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