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Empire of the Ants [Mass Market Paperback]

Bernard Werber
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 2 1999
Here is the stunning international bestseller in the tradition of Watership Down but with a dark, original twist. Unique, daring, and unforgettable, it tells the story of an ordinary family who accidentally threaten the security of a hidden civilization as intelligent as our own--a colony of ants determined to survive at any cost....

Jonathan Wells and his young family have come to the Paris flat at 3, rue des Sybarites through the bequest of his eccentric late uncle Edmond. Inheriting the dusty apartment, the Wells family are left with only one warning: Never go down into the cellar.

But when the family dog disappears down the basement steps, Jonathan follows--and soon his wife, his son, and various would-be rescuers vanish into its mysterious depths.

Meanwhile, in a pine stump in a nearby park, a vast civilization is in turmoil. Here a young female from the russet ant nation of Bel-o-kan learns that a strange new weapon has been killing off her comrades. To find out why, she enlists the help of a warrior ant, and the two set off on separate journeys into a harsh and violent world. It is a world where death takes many forms--savage birds and voracious lizards, warlike dwarf ants and rapacious termites, poisonous beetles and, most bizarre of all, the swift, murderous, giant guardians of the edge of the world: cars.

Yet the end of the female's desperate quest will be the eerie secret in the cellar at 3, rue des Sybarites--a mystery she must solve in order to fulfill her special destiny as the new queen of her own great empire. But to do so she must first make unthinkable communion with the most barbaric creatures of all.

Empire of the Ants is a brilliant evocation of a hidden civilization as complex as our own and far more ancient. It is a fascinating realm where boats are built of leaves and greenflies are domesticated and milked like cows, where citizens lock antennae in "absolute communication" and fight wars with precisely coordinated armies using sprays of glue and acids that can dissolve a snail. Not since Watership Down has a novel so vividly captured the lives and struggles of a fellow species and the valuable lessons they have to teach us.

From the Hardcover edition.

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In the early 21st century, in a Paris rapidly turning tropical thanks to global warming, Jonathan Wells tries to get to the bottom (as it turns out, quite literally) of his Uncle Edmond's obsession with ants. Jonathan and his family have been left Edmond's basement apartment; their benefactor's sole request is, "ABOVE ALL, NEVER GO DOWN INTO THE CELLAR." Meanwhile, in the great city of Bel-o-kan, a reproductive ant, the 327th male, is fighting for survival, having had his olfactory Identikit stripped by traitors of his own tribe.

Both males--human and ant--are determined to solve their separate quandaries, and Bernard Werber cleverly juxtaposes their adventures and those of their survivors. Their stories must somehow be linked, but it will be hundreds of imaginative and educational pages before we come upon the solution. Empire of the Ants was first published in France in 1991 and eventually in England in 1996 in Margaret Rocques's spryly formal translation. ("Ants are not especially well-known for their conviviality, especially when advancing in formation, armed to the antennae.") Werber has studied formic civilization for 15 years, and his observations more than pay off. We knew they were industrious little things, but why did no one ever tell us about their powers of invention, accommodation (in both senses of the word!), communication, and above all determination?

In fact, as the narrative makes increasingly clear, ants seem to have a lot more going on than the pale pink things stomping around above them, who seem doltish in comparison. Of course, as far as the creepy crawlies are concerned, humans are "so strange you could neither see nor smell them. They appeared suddenly out of the sky and everyone died." Empire of the Ants is by turns frightening and very funny. As more and more humans disappear down the cellar of 3, rue des Sybarites, we come to identify with the six-legged of the world. Werber, too, must have tired of his Homo sapiens, since the ant sections increase in length as the human ones decrease. No matter. Who would miss the perils of the young queen who tries to found her colony on a strange impervious hill--which turns out to be a tortoise--or the hilarious scene in which a spider swathes the 56th female in inescapable silk, only to be distracted first by a mayfly (they have shorter shelf lives than ants, who can be eaten slowly alive over an entire week) and then by a younger arachnid: "Her way of vibrating was the most erotic thing the male had ever felt. Tap tap taptaptap tap tap taptap. Ah, he could no longer resist her charms and ran to his beloved (a mere slip of a thing only four moults old, whereas he was already twelve). She was three times as big as he, but then he liked his females big." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

"Don't go into the cellar" is the warning given the Wells family as they move into the dingy Paris flat inherited from Jonathan's Uncle Edmund. But when the family dog disappears down the basement steps, the Wellses follow, one by one, into the mysterious darkness below. Uncle Edmund was an eccentric author and scientist whose particular passion was ants. Thus, it must follow that the mystery of the Wells's basement lies in the parallel universe of an exotic ant kingdom. Struggling to rebuild what was once a vast empire in the face of the terrors of contemporary human society, the ants are compelled to deal with cars, tools, and other technopredators. The sf movies of the 1950s are immediately brought to mind here. The one-dimensional humans definitely take back seat to the anthropomorphized ants as characters in this novel of survival. Werber tells us much more about the intelligent and highly structured world of the ant than we may care to know. Readers captivated by Richard Adam's Watership Down might be attracted by this premise but will quickly tire of the novel's uneven characterization and didactic style. Not recommended.?Susan Gene Clifford, Aerospace Corp., El Segundo, Cal.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Have you ever been fascinated by ants? If not, after reading this book, you will. This is a war/detective/adventure/thriller strory set up in the empire of the ants. There are also co-starring a couple of humans and a dog, but the main character is young female ant.
The author knows what he writes, he have studied ants for years, and the book is filled with real and accurate details. So, you could almost believe that this is (almost) true story after all (with an exception that ants aren't really *that* smart the author tries to pretend)...
The only (minor) drawback comes from the translation (the original title is in French).
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Aug. 25 2002
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Ants communicate by exchanging pheromones, and Werber claims to have mastered this language and to have translated it into French.
When I first heard of this novel, I thought the author sounded slightly eccentric. No surprise - the story is definitely strange. However, the novel is fascinating. The story intertwines two plots: one involves the exploits of some ants, and the other is about some human characters. The ants are differentiated, and have personalities. I'll tell you right now that the ant story is far more interesting! I almost wish the author hadn't bothered with the humans. The two stories do connect. Since much of what kept me avidly reading was trying to figure out how the two stories meshed, I won't give you any hints here.
The novel gave me a new view of ants. Before, if they intruded into my consciousness at all, it was just as annoying pests. Now, I view them with interest. For a few months after reading the novel, I even tried to avoid stepping on or disturbing ants when I came across them. (News flash - the reviewer is also slightly eccentric.)
Anyway, this novel is exceptionally interesting, and may even give you a new view of the universe.
By the way, the original of this novel is in French, and Werber has written two sequels. For French students, I think the French is slightly more difficult than that of, for example, Pierre Boulle in "The Planet of the Apes": especially at the beginning, there were a lot of terms relating to ants that I was not familiar with. However, I could still follow the story, and with repeated exposure gradually learned the terms.
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Format:Mass Market Paperback
My review is related to both his books, but mainly to the second one, which I read more recently.
I read the Hebrew version of this book. The translation is really bad and there are numerous mistakes.
Regarding the book itself: there are pros and cons, but basically I liked this book.
The good points are: mainly the interesting facts about the ants~{!/~} lives, many of them I know to be true. They appear in the main text of the book and also in the recitations from the fictive ~{!.~}encyclopedia of absolute and relative knowledge~{!1~}. Many other thought provoking and interesting ideas and facts are recited there, which I really enjoyed. There are a few riddles, that are easy to solve, and I liked the way in which it involved the reader (me) with the book. I also liked the main idea of the book, about communicating with ants, and about the ants as intelligent societies, like human societies.
The bad points: I didn~{!/~}t find emotional depth in the human and/or ant characters. The author simply reports the story instead of building more emotional depth to it. The ants as characters are described from a human point of view, and not from their own. Many of the facts are explained in a way that a human reader could understand, but then I miss the ant~{!/~}s point of view. I also feel that the ants~{!/~} society has become too much like our own. I expected to find new dimensions and understandings, and things we could learn from the ant~{!/~}s society, but the ant~{!/~}s society was too human-like.
But the pros compensated for the cons. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the natural world around them and to those who enjoy a good stimulation to their minds.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Imaginative, wonderful....but ends terribly July 5 2001
Format:Mass Market Paperback
The blurb on the cover of the paperback edition of this book isn't far wrong - "What Richard Adams did for rabbits in 'Watership Down', Bernard Werber does for ants." But it isn't totally accurate.
For most of its almost 300 pages, this is a fascinating novel contrasting a vividly imagined world - the insect kingdom - with the equally fascinating and well thought out mystery of a deep and dark subterranean passage beneath the new home of Jonathan Wells.
Werber's description of life in the ant world is fully detailed, extremely captivating, and totally believable - which is not surprising, since - according to the small biography at the end of the book - Werber is "a scientific journalist who has studied ants...as an avocation." Little by little, we learn that there are some mysterious goings-on in this little corner of the insect kingdom, and it is up to Werber's ant heroes to solve them. His description of the equally mysterious goings-on in the Wells' cellar is just as fascinating. And you eventually realize that these two stories must be connected in some way, although you have no idea how.
But the climax and the connection, when it's finally revealed, is completely idiotic, and straight out of a 1950's s/f pulp magazine. I was expecting a much better resolution than this, and I turned the pages expecting to discover that this was nothing more than an ant dream, and the true climax was about to be revealed. But no - this was it.
The book reads almost as if Werber had gotten tired of writing it, and wanted to finish it quickly. Well, he certainly did that - but at the expense of what could have been a truly incredible piece of fiction.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read
Werber is a great story teller. I read the trilogy in french and all his other books. Too bad they are difficult to get in english when available.
Published 18 months ago by MP
2.0 out of 5 stars Good, if you're about fourteen
I think I would've enjoyed this book when I was a kid. However, the truth is, from a mature adult perspective, this book is interesting at times, but at others, its just plain... Read more
Published on May 18 2004 by Dean B. Johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars engrossing, near perfect fiction
This is a wonderful story written in a way that makes it near impossible to put down. It leaves you with many thoughts that will follow you around for days. Read more
Published on Jan. 29 2004 by A. Price
5.0 out of 5 stars unputtable-downable
Bernard Werber is a genius. The way he jumps back between the fascinating heirarchial ant world and that of the individualistic off-kilter humans is wonderful to read. Read more
Published on Jan. 14 2004 by Torgny Hylen
4.0 out of 5 stars Something different and interesting
Empire of the Ants is a great read. I got bogged down a few times by an over abundance of details, but not enough to make me lower my rating of this book. Read more
Published on Oct. 29 2003 by Avid Reader JKK
5.0 out of 5 stars great
It was my favorite book. It just puts images in your head. ne of the most thought provoking books ive read. Read more
Published on Oct. 24 2003 by Brett Badeaux
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful Science Fiction
Simply wonderful. All too often the ever elusive "Sense-of-Wonder" is completely absent from modern SF. Not so with this one. This is a keeper!
Published on Sept. 14 2003 by Myles S. Cabot
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book I've ever read
I like to think I've read many great books. But the BEST of them all, in my mind, is whithout any doubt Bernard Werber's masterpiece. Read more
Published on Feb. 28 2003 by Ouri
4.0 out of 5 stars Who Knew?
Empire of the Ants is absolutely fascinating. I have never read such a good story with such detail from a non-human animal's point of view. I definitely recommend this book. Read more
Published on Jan. 9 2003 by Daniel Crews
2.0 out of 5 stars Idea has potential, but story is poorly written
The fictional book Empire of the Ants was written by Bernard Werber and contains two stories: the ants and the humans. Neither is good enough to make this book worth reading. Read more
Published on May 19 2002 by Avi Norowitz
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