Indie Review: Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu

I love dinosaurs.

I wouldn’t consider palaeontology a hobby, and I can’t say I do a lot of research into it–but still, dinosaurs are cool. I love the child-like wonder that comes with them, and the sheer majesty of these enormous creatures.
I’m also fascinated by ants. They have an incredibly complex social structure, have developed a sort of culture, and even a rudimentary “collective intelligence.” Remarkable creatures–so when I came across Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu, a story that threw ants and dinosaurs into a symbiotic relationship in a fantasy/science fiction tale, I couldn’t say no. Nor was I disappointed.

The very premise of this novella–a society of ants and dinosaurs that cooperate symbiotically–was enough for me to put down the $0.97 for it. I expected a light hearted story, a fanciful tale of imagination like something out of Jules Verne. It is that, but the story is also a succinct allegory of cooperation, trust, and suspicion. It would present well to young adult readers, but the message works just as well for adults.
The story begins with a tyrannosaur enjoying lunch…until he gets a blob of meat stuck in his teeth. A colony of ants sees the problem and helps him dislodge it–they actually stream into his mouth to pick it apart while the dinosaur holds his lip back with a claw, how awesome is that?–setting the foundation of an alliance. Over the centuries, this partnership grows as both societies thrive, fitting into their own niches. Ants are masters of micro-circuitry, creating a technological infrastructure the dinosaurs couldn’t hope to because of their size. Meanwhile, the terrible lizards build huge machines of travel and industry, alongside a complicated political structure. The ants have fine motor skills and hard science; the dinosaurs have imagination and ambition. Held apart, neither would get very far, but put together they are more than the sum of their parts.
That in itself would make for a nice story about the value in sharing skills, but it’s when their alliance breaks down that we get some real meaning and conflict. There’s a nice contrast between two dinosaur societies as they develop nuclear weapons (and something even more powerful), causing an arms race and cold war that could only end in mutually assured destruction. But this is only a reflection of the real conflict, as the ants and dinosaurs do the same to each other.

It becomes a cautionary tale, begging the question of how far one should blindly trust, and when it’s appropriate to act in your own best interests. As presented, there are no easy answers. Both races seem doomed from the start because of their attitude towards one another, and I kept saying to myself “if only they could set aside their differences and listen…” Which is exactly the author’s intent, I think. The novella is a well presented moral lesson, one as common as common sense: it’s out there, but nobody seems to pay attention to it.

Suspension of disbelief is a required part of science fiction/fantasy, and in a book written for a younger audience it’s more forgiving. For most of this novella, it’s not a problem–my active imagination not only accepts that ants and dinosaurs could be friends, it does an animated happy dance at the very thought–but there were parts that I found challenging. Mostly, the problem lies in the numbers; the main story takes place some 50,000 years after the “primitive” ant colony and dinosaurs meet. A handful of millennia is an incredibly short time for sentient creatures to evolve into the kind of society presented here–and while it sounds like I’m nitpicking, it’s something that gnawed at the back of my head for the duration. I suspect Liu did this to avoid an “alternate history” book where ants and dinosaurs become the dominant species instead of humans, but I think  (personally) that might have been a better way to go with the story. Still, it’s a tiny criticism–really, the only one–of an otherwise excellent story.

The crafting of the story is well done. At times, it’s a bit heavy handed–there are points where the “show, don’t tell” adage is thrown out the window–and there were some bits that seemed difficult to swallow, even given the not-too-serious tone. Dialogue is a bit too expository at points. But I wouldn’t say that any of this is Liu’s fault–it was written for a Chinese audience–or that of his translator Holger Nahm; those languages being as complex as they are, something is doubtlessly lost in the translation. There are probably thousands of translations of the Tao te Ching, but no single one of them really touches on the nuances of the work. Taking that into account, I’m impressed by this book. I found it refreshing because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time presenting a very serious message.

This is the kind of book I’d read to children; the sheer fun of it would make the message easy to pick up on. Of Ants and Dinosaurs is, in short, a wonderfully fun book to read.  Liu has a series of other books available, and each of them looks intriguing and original. I’m eager to read more!

Cixin Liu’s books can be found at Amazon.com. You can also reach him on Twitter

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