Saturday, April 24, 2010

E. O. Wilson, “Trailhead”

E. O. Wilson’s “Trailhead” (TNY, Jan. 25, 2010) is a very peculiar kind of story. It’s about ants. No overarching parallels with human beings, no allegories: just ants. We can presume it was drawn from Wilson’s forthcoming novel on the same subject. I’ll say this for “Trailhead”: it’s daring. It treats the exciting world of insects as fiction, and runs with it. The story is also instructive: you learn quite a bit about ants, and this from a world renowned expert on these insects.

The story starts on edge, with the death of the queen ant. It then rewinds and describes how the colony was created by the queen ant. It was a struggle, and it paid off with a successful and buzzing colony that lasted decades. Then the queen ant died, and she was replaced by the winner in a struggle among a handful of pretenders to the throne. The colony is doomed to die, though, because the new queen is only producing male drones, incapable of inseminating her. A vibrant neighboring colony eventually takes over.

I said it was instructive. It is. But that’s also one of its defects as fiction. A didactic tone, not very seductive for a short story narrator, sometimes takes over: “Even with a brain one-millionth the size of a human’s, an ant can learn a simple maze half as fast as a laboratory rat, and remember the directions to as many as five different destinations when she forages away from the nest.” How can this not veer you away from the fictional world and into the world of popular science?

There are other problems. Sometimes I felt cheated by how the narrator projects things on ants that appear to be all too human. Take these examples: “[the ants] knew that something was not right, that something unnamed had settled upon them, but they did not yet realize the extent of the problem”; “Lamentation and hope were mingled among the Trailhead inhabitants.” Does it make sense to picture an insect lamenting? Hoping?

Sometimes the language seemed amiss. “Pax Formicana”? Really? And how about these amateurish metaphors? The “male was no more than a guided missile loaded with sperm, his life’s work a single ejaculation”; “The Queen was a parachutist who slipped her harness upon landing.” I had trouble digesting those.

I finished the story not enthused to read more of this sort of thing, but rather interested in reading a full-blooded scientific book on ants. Wilson has several to choose from, in fact.


  1. I fully agree with your comment. I happen to be translating what you have called "the forthcoming novel", i.e. "Anthill" and thought almost the same about those parts you mention, which are included in the section of the novel titled "The Anthill Chronicles". In fact I came across your comment when I was searching for the meaning of "Pax Formicana" as if it had a special meaning? The novel is more like a popular-scientific article of some 380 pages and I am having a though time trying to find translations of mostly endemic flora and fauna...

  2. Anon: Thanks for your comment. You have a mighty task ahead of you, an unenviable one too. But at least you'll end up with plenty of things to say about the world of ants. I hope they chose you from the ranks of entomology, rather than from those of fiction, because otherwise I'm afraid you'll find fault with the fictional techniques and the ingenuous anthropomorphisms for every one of those 380 pages. Thanks for dropping by.