Book Review

Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu translated by Elizabeth Hanlon

A satirical fable, a political allegory and an ecological warning from the author of The Three-Body Problem.

In a sunlit clearing in central Gondwana, on an otherwise ordinary day in the late Cretaceous, the seeds of Earth’s first and greatest civilization were sown in the grisly aftermath of a Tyrannosaurus’ lunch.

Throughout the universe, intelligence is a rare and fragile commodity a fleeting glimmer in the long night of cosmic history. That Earth should harbour not just one but two intelligent species at the same time, defies the odds. That these species, so unalike and yet so complementary should forge an alliance that kindled a civilization defies logic. But time is endless and everything comes to pass eventually…

The alliance between ants and dinosaurs, was of course, based on dentistry. Yet from such humble beginnings came writing, mathematics, computers, fusion, antimatter and even space travel a veritable Age of Wonder! But such magnificent industry comes at a price a price paid first by Earth’s biosphere, and then by all those dependent on it.

And yet the Dinosaurs refused to heed the Ants’ warning of impending ecological collapse, leaving the Ant Federation facing a single dilemma: destroy the dinosaurs, destroy a civilization… or perish alongside them?

Of Ants and Dinosaurs is quite an unusual novel. It reimagines the late Cretaceous period as a symbiotic relationship between dinosaurs and ants develops.  It begins with a Tyrannosaurus Rex unable to dislodge the meat caught between his teeth following a meal.  A piece that a group of ants are able to remove, leaving the dinosaur in peace and comfort.  This initial assistance paves the way for further interaction, developing into a bond between these unlikely allies and allowing for further discoveries in science and technology to the benefit of all and culminating in an advanced civilisation not entirely dissimilar to our own.  It sounds odd – it is odd – and yet it works well as an allegory and the novel carries a stark warning about the use and abuse of Earth’s resources that is particularly pertinent today. 

For the first 1000 years of Cretaceous civilisation, relations between the ant and dinosaur worlds were harmonious and, on the whole, frictionless. This was due in large part to their interdependence.

The initial phases of the ant-dinosaur alliance are difficult, not least due to the difference in size between them and their initial difficulties in communicating with each other.  They are – with time – able to overcome these barriers, and find that their skill sets are complimentary, with the ants better suited to small, fiddly tasks while the dinosaurs prove to have the more creative minds, allowing for developments in science and technology.  I think that this leaves an imbalance in the relationship.  The ants take on much of the labour – they are more dexterous and able to perform the smaller jobs that the dinosaurs can’t manage.  They are presented as being more logical in their thought processes, whereas the dinosaurs are more creative, able to think and dream and extrapolate ideas in such a way as to enable progress.  You’d think that the dinosaurs might take on the literal heavy-lifting, but there’s no evidence of them doing so.  It seems to me to be very much a case of a working class vs. an elite group. 

Science seemed weak and inadequate, so religion was born, and religious fanaticism rapidly reached fever pitch in both worlds.

While this ant-dinosaur alliance works well for the most part, there are moments of tension.  The first war between them is down to – what else? – religion, as both sides claim that they have been created in god’s image.  You might think that the dinosaurs have a clear advantage in such a scenario, and yet the ants prove devious in their tactics, using their smaller size and intimate knowledge of dinosaur anatomy – those first steps in dentistry developed into medicine and adding a whole new meaning to invasive surgery as the ants enter the dinosaurs’ bodies to fix whatever needs fixing – and using their greater numbers to perform stealthy attacks against which the dinosaurs have little defence.  It highlights the pointlessness of such conflicts as neither side can get an advantage, and eventually have to agree to disagree in order to bring the war to an end.

We know that this civilisation won’t last, and I liked the way in which Cixin Liu brought this alliance to an end.  It may seem like an odd concept on the surface, and yet it does work as an allegory and a warning as to the dangers of big tech, destruction of the natural world, and continuously draining the Earth’s resources in our pursuit of advancement.  Of Ants and Dinosaurs is a short novel that examines a present day concern in an unusual and interesting way. Recommended.


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