Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review - Prophets of the Ghost Ants by Clark Thomas Carlton


Short review: In the future humans have shrunk to the size of insects and tamed the ants. But they still have bloody wars over religion, wealth, and power.

Haiku
From the lowest caste
To warlord and then ruler
Still the size of ants

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: In the far future, humans have shrunk to the size of insects and now live a parasitical existence dependent upon the ants, roaches, and termites that are now comparatively the size of draft animals. All of the larger creatures have disappeared, leaving the planet to the insects and the now diminutive humans who coexist with them, but the same lust for power and wealth familiar to those living in the current world remains. Against this backdrop, Clark Thomas Carlton has crafted a story of love, betrayal, oppression, religious strife, and war that remains epic despite taking place in an area that is likely no bigger than a football field.

In the miniaturized future world Anand lives as a member of the midden caste, the lowest caste of the leaf cutter people in Mound Cajoria on the Holy Slope, enduring a life of hard labor and privation while the nobility and priesthood live in opulent comfort. It turns out that not only is Anand a member of the lowest caste, he is a half-breed, the child of a leaf cutter man and a woman of the roach people, who the leaf cutters find both fascinating and revolting, and as such he is the most despised member of the most despised social group on the mound. And from there Anand embarks on a journey that takes him from the lowest of the low to the height of power, although not in a manner or with the results that one might expect.

Early in the book, Anand is taken to meet his mother's people, where he discovers that his birth was not an accident, and the Roach people, or Britasytes as they call themselves, want him to serve as a bridge between their people and the Slopeites of Mound Cajoria. After Anand has been feasted and feted, he falls in love with a Britasyte girl named Daveena and pledges to marry her, but then he has to return to his life of drudgery and oppression in Mound Cajoria. He finds himself setting out for unknown territory with half of the mound dwellers when the colony splits, gets captured by a hitherto unknown group that call themselves the Dranverians, learns a new way of life that rejects the castes and the gods whose priesthoods enforce them, and then returns to Cajoria to liberate his people with the teachings of the Dranverites, only to find that war has come upon the Slopeites in the form of a new threat from the ghost ant-allied servants of the termite god Hulkro.

Through the story, Anand learns and grows, eventually ending up as the innovative war-leader of a movement of disaffected workers from the slope, collections of roach allied people, and the ally of the reluctant noble classes of the various Slopeite mounds as they confront the shared menace of the servants of Hulkro. In the end, victory on the battlefield coupled with the foolishness of his enemies and a political marriage brings Anand to a position he could have only dreamed of at the outset of the book. And yet everything does not finish with a fairy tale wedding. Yes, he marries the princess, but she despises him. Yes, he reforms his kingdom, but at the cost of thousands of lives. Yes, he implements some of the egalitarian reforms espoused by the Dranverites, but his means of accomplishing them causes the Dranverites themselves to reject him. Triumph, it turns out, is a mixed bag.

To a certain extent, the story of power politics and religious intolerance is only half of the point of the book. Slopeite society is unjust, but it seems that a large part of its unjust nature is driven by the symbiotic relationship humans have with the ants they live with. The ants have a rigidly structured society, and so the humans that live with them wind up with one as well, a pattern replicated throughout the various insect allied societies that show up in the game. Human society has become a reflection of insect society, and it should surprise no one that the strictures that insects live under seem ill-suited to humans. And humanity seems to have almost no other choice because humans have not so much domesticated the insects in their lives as they have simply fooled them into not noticing that they live among them by bathing themselves in the insect recognition scent.

Even after Anand has conquered and married the vain Princess Trellana to secure his political position, the stark fact remains that humanity is entirely dependent upon the insects they live among. Everything the humans eat comes from the insects they live with. The dwellings the humans live within are carved out of the nests of the insects they live with. The insects serve as beasts of burden and weapons of war for the humans. When wild insects show up to prey upon the humans, they need their insect allies to help fend off the predators. And so on. And each of the microscopic societies that make up the patchwork quilt of humanity seen in the book is markedly different, and the cause of this seems mostly to be that they have conformed their human lives to accommodate living among their insect companions. And even still the characters remain very human. The nobility exploits the lower classes. The priesthood lies to royalty. Wars take place over religious differences. And so on.

But despite the attention to detail in so many places in the book, there are other areas where physics and biology simply hand waved away. At the tiny scale the story takes place at liquids work work very differently from the way we are used to due to the fact that surface tension would become a significant issue, and yet this never seems to be accounted for in the book. Rain would be something of a natural disaster, causing what would be comparatively torrential flooding with even a summer shower amounting to a deluge that would submerge entire nations. The physics of the very small would fundamentally change the way that tiny humans interact with their environment. The reduced amount of mass for humans would mean that they could tall from a comparatively great height without fear of injury. One human punching another human in the face would be completely ineffective at that size, as their tiny muscles would be unable to generate enough force to cause damage.

The humans in the book seem unaffected by their small size other than the fact that they are now tiny, a development that seems more than moderately implausible. There isn't a direct correlation between brain size and intelligence - after all, some animals such as whales and elephants have larger brains than humans - but there does seem to be a minimum brain size below which one cannot go and expect intelligence, and the humans in Prophets of the Ghost Ants clearly have brains well below this size, and yet seem to be just as intelligent as full-size humans. Everything about the humans in the book other than their size seems to have been unaffected by this radical scale change. Despite the story being presumably millions of years in the future, humans still come in a variety of skin tones, and darker skinned humans are still discriminated against. For a portion of the book it seems like some humans have become enormously more fecund than humans are at present, but then it is revealed that this is simply a byproduct of the diet that they eat. Similarly, for a time it seems that some humans have developed an ability to prevent the spread of fungus through any mounts using their urine, but this too is revealed as a side effect of their diet.

The lack of attention paid to these details seems out of place in the book, because Carlton clearly spent so much time making sure that so many other elements made sense. The human interactions with the insects around them are controlled by using the insects' instinctive reactions to various pheromone scents. Carlton clearly understands how difficult it would be to harness the use of fire on this small scale, and how dangerous it would be as well. Though set in the far future, human technology has regressed to a primitive state in many areas, and this seems to be in large part because of the difficulties that would be inherent in using heat to generate electricity to power technology at such a tiny scale. The result is a fictional setting in which it seems that a fair amount of care has been taken to consider the ramifications of some of the conditions the characters find themselves in, but in which others seem to be simply hand-waved away without much thought.

These issues aside, Prophets of the Ghost Ants remains an engaging piece of fiction built upon an imaginative idea. Even though everything takes place on a very small scale, the scope of the conflict remains epic and the nature of the conflict remains quintessentially human. The book has so much packed into it - from an exploration of class divisions, to the religious hypocrisy of the ruling and priestly classes, to the causes of religiously driven wars, to a coming-of-age story for Anand - that any reader will almost certainly find multiple levels of material in it to interest them.

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