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.