This article on entomology, ants, and fantasy is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert.
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My friend Clark Carlton has a new epic fantasy out called The Prophet of the Termite God which takes place in a world where humans are micro-sized and have developed their cultures around insect hordes. This week, I’m pleased to host a discussion between Clark and entomology researcher Wyatt Parker to discuss the science and science fiction in Clark’s series.
About the Contributors
Wyatt Parker graduated from Binghamton University with a degree in environmental science. He worked in the Prior Invasion Ecology lab for two and a half years where he conducted ecology research, completing an honors thesis about seed dispersal mutualisms between ants and under-story forest flowers. He is now pursuing a masters in business administration at the Binghamton University School of Management. You can find him on LinkedIn.
Clark Thomas Carlton is an award-winning novelist, playwright, journalist, screen and television writer, and producer of reality TV. He was born in the South, grew up in the East, went to school in the North, and lives with his family in the West. As a child he spent hours observing ants and their wars and pondered their similarity to human societies. You should check out his website or follow him on Twitter.
Let’s Talk Ants and Science
First, we’ll let the author ask the questions.
Clark: Outside of children’s literature and animated family movies where ants use human language, what do fiction writers and the movies usually get wrong about ants?
Wyatt: I would say the biggest two things authors get wrong about ants is that:
- An ant could survive on its own. Ants are very dependent on others in the colony for brood care and resource acquisition, so myrmecologists often think of ants as a whole colony called a super organism rather than the individual ants themselves. In a fictional setting, if the ants were separated from the colony for an extended period of time, they would probably end up dead.
- Main characters that are male ants. Male ants in colonies have a specific role of following a queen ant when she goes to a new nest and mating with her. After, the queen will lay eggs and the males will die. The queen only lays male eggs when the queen is planning on moving to a new nest (called “swarming”), so the males’ only reason to live is to mate with the new queen to make more ants. It isn’t often portrayed this way, but perhaps understandably so.
Clark: Do you know the movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids? If some tiny human beings, just a few millimeters tall, were to encounter an ant, how do you think the ant would respond to them? How would various species of ants respond if they were to meet tiny humans?
Wyatt: I have seen the movie – an absolute classic! How an ant would act if they were to meet a tiny human is entirely dependent on the species. For example, the ant species Aphaenogaster rudis is distributed throughout much of the world and is a mid-sized brown ant. Its diet consists primarily of invertebrate species it finds, but interestingly it is also known to distribute most north eastern under-story plant seeds (up to 40%!).
It can be assumed this particular ant would consider humans as prey and attack us. On the other hand, Euprenolepis procera is only found in Malaysia and is completely specialized to find and eat one particular fungus. They live a completely nomadic lifestyle. As they are so tuned to finding and harvesting that one mushroom, if they were to encounter a small human, they might not even spare a glance.
Clark: The ant in Honey does not speak or communicate directly with the kids but she does interact with them in a friendly way. Do you think ants have any kind of thinking or mental processing? Do ants have anything like our emotions?
Wyatt: As fun as the idea would be, I don’t think ants on an individual level have complex emotions. To simplify it, insects are selfish, and ants will only do things that are beneficial for themselves or their colony in the long run. Some people hypothesize that ant colonies are complex and might have something of a semblance to emotion, but I myself am skeptical.
Some ants have been seen taking fellow ant colony members infected with dangerous fungi and throwing them off the side of a large rock, presumably never to be seen again. This was because that ant was a risk to the colony, potentially being able to spread the deadly fungi. But the ants don’t act in any regard like they have an emotional connection to one another–if an ant of the same colony were to lose the pheromone associated with that colony, an ant that just saw it two minutes ago might help in swarming and killing it. Everything is done for the colony.
Clark: Is there a fictional book or a movie that does deal with ants in a realistic way?
Wyatt: The Antman movies by Marvel are pretty accurate! Both movies often get fact checked in entomology classes and although we might disagree on the best place to mount an ant (thorax vs neck), it comes out with a passing score. I can’t speak for the movie’s accuracy in terms of physics and pym particles, though.
Clark: What are some books and movies that get ants completely wrong? How do they get them wrong? What are the worst examples?
Wyatt: Of all the ant-based media I’ve consumed, A Bug’s Life is probably the most inaccurate. It portrays a happy world where bugs of all types live together in relative harmony. This simply isn’t true; insect life is much harsher and scarier. Ant colonies generally either hide from or fight/consume other insects they come across.
This isn’t always the case – some ants are specialized to herd aphids like cows; sometimes an ant will cover itself in pheromones and trick other ant/insect species into take care of it. In general, insects cannot communicate and wouldn’t be living in peace together. Also the main character is male and goes on a long adventure away from the colony, which I reference in question 1 as being the most common ant mistake.
Clark: Did any books or movies inspire your interest in ants, regardless of their accuracy?
Wyatt: Although I brought up the movie earlier, it’s worth mentioning how Antman influenced my decision. At the time the movie came out, I had just changed my major from electrical engineering and switched out of a battery research lab to join an ecology lab. I was given the choice to either study gall forming wasps or seed dispersing ants. The main character in the movie has a masters in electrical engineering and ended up with the ants. I took this as a sign and immediately told my adviser I was interested in the ant project.
Clark: It has been observed that myrmecologists are very often religious skeptics. Do you have any ideas about why that may be true and how the two are connected?
Wyatt: This is a very interesting question! It’s not a topic that ever came up in my research or for class, but I’d be happy to take an educated guess. Many of the interesting quotes about ants come from a Harvard professor named E.O. Wilson. He’s written many books on ant identification and is considered the father of sociobiology and how insects interact with one another. He was well-known for his appeal to the religious community to further investigate their beliefs through science. I believe this process of discovery was conveyed through many of his nonfiction books.
That, paired with religious skepticism becoming more acceptable, is leading to a higher rate of people asking questions and looking to science for answers.
Clark: The social insects — ants and bees — seem to be the ones that most capture our human imagination. What do we see in them that truly reflects our own nature and what do we project on to them?
Wyatt: I think the biggest thing about social insects that fascinates humans is how complex and perfect they seem. For example, bees and ants help one another with brood care across multiple generations, in a seemingly gratuitous exchange. Humans love to project social norms and expectations onto non-human organisms, and from a simple point of view their lives seem wonderful: a loving community, brood care from family, and a safety net for shelter and food.
But the life of social creatures is different and more complex. They are part of a hive with the purpose of protecting the nest and the queen. They lack individuality and are overly dependent on one another for survival. Life is often violent and short. Humans and ants share one common goal, and that is to survive. But the means of that survival are so different; even ants in the same genus can have drastically different life styles. The commonality between ants and humans is resiliency and the ability to adapt. If humans are the dominant mammal of Earth, E.O. Wilson and I think ants are the dominant insect.
Let’s Talk Ants and Fantasy
Now, we’ll let Wyatt ask the author some questions:
Wyatt: What is your methodology for research? As a student I’d rely on advisers and academic literature, but with your prior knowledge and network, is that any different?
Clark: I was always interested in ants, insects and other arthropods and had some general knowledge of them, and I’d read a number of books that were written for laymen. I had a chance conversation with an entomologist and told him about my idea for a novel and asked him what I should read. He told me about Wilson and Holdobbler’s The Ants. At the time, there was no Amazon and the book had to be ordered from a company that specialized in books on entomology.
The Ants was a challenging and fascinating read because it was thorough and written for entomologists. It stimulated my imagination with some extraordinary illustrations and photographs. Some of the ants depicted were sleek and elegant and looked like Italian sports cars. Others were tubby and hairy and had heads like tomahawks or kiwi fruits. I knew I was going to be creating imaginary insects for my distant futurity but in order for them to be credible, they had to be based on actual species.
I’d also read some particular studies of different ants and their mating or warring behavior which were in pamphlet form at the time. Before that, I had been reading books like The Imperial Animal and Dawkins’ Selfish Gene which was an immersion into the early texts of evolutionary biology. I’m an artist, not a scientist, so I have no real methodology for writing fiction except to follow my feelings whereas scientists have to follow facts. But I do want my fiction to be informed by science.
Wyatt: I’ve heard about how the story was inspired by ants in the Yucatan, a dream, and an experience at Burning Man, but what parts of your books came from other inspirations/sources?
Clark: I’ve traveled quite a bit in Mexico and a little in India. I’ve always been fascinated by race and religion and the interplay between the two. India and Mexico are two very different nations but they have something of a similar history. The light skinned Indo-European conquerors of India both interbred with and subjugated the darker skinned Dravidian natives. The former created a rigid caste system that maintained a higher status for themselves as rulers, priests and warriors while the darker skinned were condemned to lives as laborers.
The Spanish did something similar in their own conquest of what became Mexico and created a class system based on skin color and ethnicity. The Spaniards consolidated their hold over the natives with the “magic” of their more powerful god, including western diseases like small pox which decimated the indigenous peoples. To a great extent, these caste systems are still confining masses of people to a permanent lower status and the best means of “keeping people in their places” is depriving them of an education. The same dynamic can be seen in Brazil, the American South and more subtly, in Thailand, Japan etc where darker skin is a disadvantage.
I’ve always had a fascination with and an admiration for the men and women who have refused to accept the status imposed on them at birth. In America, the best known examples are men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass. Everyone knows who Gandhi was and what he achieved for India but in the West, we are less familiar with a greater hero, Ambedkar, who was the founding father of the Indian Republic and the chief author of its constitution.
Ambedkar was born as a dalit, or untouchable and yet he rose to the greatest prominence and fought to end the caste system. He split with Gandhi over the latter’s refusal to denounce the Book of Manu, Hinduism’s religious text that justifies its class system based on race. Racism and slavery, sadly, are a part of our biology as humans and they are impulses we need to overcome in the same way we must resist our impulses to kill, steal, rape and torture. In the Antasy series, the tiny humans see a caste system in their ants and there are ants that are also enslavers of another ants – the humans see this as something natural, the will of the gods, and transfer those ideas to their human societies.
Wyatt: When it comes to the scale of life, smaller organisms tend to have smaller lifespans. With the shrunken humans, does time feel warped? As in, does one day/night cycle feel longer to the humans in your books? Does this translate into how long the smaller humans are expected to live?
Clark: There is a good reason my series has been called ‘science-fantasy’ or ‘high fantasy’. The most fantastical element of my world is that the humans are very much like current humans except that they are a tenth of an inch tall. I’m fascinated by the notion of island dwarfism in which we’ve seen various species, including humans, get smaller in order to survive with fewer resources.
I took this to an extreme in my world but I know that if we were to get smaller than mice that we would start to resemble them — we’d have round bodies, fur and smaller brains with less intelligence. But we know that larger breeds of dogs only have about seven years or so of life and smaller ones have life spans of 17 or more. To make the humans of my world relatable, they live about 70 years and have pregnancies that last for several months. Some of them, like mice, do give birth to litters. They also have larger, wider feet for walking over sharp sand grains and they do have larger ears, like rats.
I’m also aware that the physics of my world are inaccurate — a punch in the face would have far less impact and an arrow shot from a bow would have a short trajectory and might lack the force to penetrate an enemy. I’ve taken plenty of liberties for the sake of good story telling.
Wyatt: Another scale question. In the second book, you include a map of the setting of the novel. How big an area does this map represent? The book taking place in an area the size of a Walmart parking lot would be very different than if it were to take place in an area smaller than a typical bedroom.
Clark: The known world of my series is definitely closer to a Walmart parking lot than a bedroom. The ants of my different nations are all like Argentine ants that live in super colonies. There are 100 human inhabited ant mounds that make up the United Queendoms of the Holy Slope and all their ants are cooperating kin even as they have a different queen/mother at their individual colonies.
The colonies are all about a day or two’s ride atop a “speed ant” from each other, or a few days to a week on foot. When Anand, my protagonist, ventures south to the Dustlands, it takes him a few weeks of hiking to reach that border. I imagined that each human inhabited ant mound of the Slope is at the center of an acre or two with enough trees, plants and other insects to provide food for both the mound’s ants and their human parasites.
Wyatt: Do entomologists ever reach out to fact-check you? Are there stand-out stories on that matter?
Clark: Most of the entomologists who have enjoyed this book go with the fantasy elements and appreciate that my insects are not humanized or beyond the realm of the possible —they act like real ants. One entomologist let me know that actual leaf cutter ants are a kind of orange where mine are yellowish. I was aware of this, but I wanted these ants to have a yellow chitin since the race of humans that parasitized them have yellowish skin: a mark of their higher status over the dark-skinned working castes.
A famous arachnologist who likes my books busted me on creating a trap door spider that is also a parasitoid — the females of this imaginary species capture humans, stun them, then lay their eggs on the captive’s skin for her spiderlings’ first blood meal. I knew I was creating a new kind of spider, one that emulated parasitoid wasps and flies, but I had read of at least one spider that provides food for its young. A parasitoid spider might be outside the possibilities of evolution, but as a story point, it was just too good to leave out of my narrative.
The Antasy Series by Clark Carlton
Both familiar and fantastic, Clark T. Carlton’s Prophets of the Ghost Ants and the recently released sequel Prophet of the Termite God explore a world in which food, weapons, clothing, art—even religious beliefs—are derived from Humankind’s profound intertwining with the insect world.
In a savage landscape where humans have evolved to the size of insects, they cannot hope to dominate. Ceaselessly, humans are stalked by night wasps, lair spiders, and marauder fleas. And just as sinister, men are still men. Corrupt elites ruthlessly enforce a rigid caste system. Duplicitous clergymen and power-mongering royalty wage pointless wars for their own glory. Fantasies of a better life and a better world serve only to torment those who dare to dream.
One so tormented is a half-breed slave named Anand, a dung-collector who has known nothing but squalor and abuse. Anand wants to lead his people against a genocidal army who fight atop fearsome, translucent Ghost Ants. But to his horror, Anand learns this merciless enemy is led by someone from his own family: a religious zealot bent on the conversion of all non-believers . . . or their extermination.
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