I mean, come on, tiny, tiny humans who ride ants and locusts around like horses! Who share mounds and pheromone signatures with various species of ants! As if Edmund O. Wilson started writing science fiction! Or at least epic fantasy! I mean, who's been peeking at my Christmas list?
So yeah, my expectations for this were unreasonably high going in, and I had to sort of grit my teeth and risk them being unmet to even start reading this book. The question thus becomes: were they met?
More like confounded. Prophets of the Ghost Ants is one of the most unusual novels I've ever read, and may genuinely qualify as unique. Though I suppose there might be some who want to describe it as Dune with insects, that still doesn't quite capture it. For one thing, the fanatical monotheistic desert tribe are the bad guys. Though there is something very Muad'Dib-ish about our hero.
Anand*, starts out life as the lowest of the low, a bottom-of-the-heap half-caste** among a vast tribe of humans-and-leafcutter ants (the humans are essentially parasitizing the ants, but no one but Anand ever wants to face up to that fact) but soon learns a bit more about his true heritage and special destiny, like so many fantasy heroes do. In this case, it's because his mother came from a tribe of roach-herders, and while this bit of interbreeding makes Anand even more revolting to the leafcutter people, the roach-herders think he's destined to improve their lot, by improving the way they get treated. He gets betrothed to a very pretty girl and just has to wait until he's sixteen to take up his exalted role in his mother's tribe.
But until then, he's stuck being an ant guy. And when the human queen of the leafcutter tribe gives birth to a daughter, by tradition and necessity, the mound must fission (after the fashion of anthills), with a certain percentage of the mound's ant and human populations striking off to found a new colony elsewhere. Guess who has to go with them.
Even worse: there are other populations of insects-and-people out there, also expanding their territories. And some of them don't like what leafcutters do to the landscape, no, not at all. And while some of them are secular, somewhat happy-go-lucky quasi-anarchist/demarchist types who ridicule the idea that people should be as socially stratified as ants, some others are religious fantatics, who live with and ride the titular ghost ants (though for the purposes of this book, ghost ants are all the way transparent, and don't just have see-through abdomens. Oh, and they're also huge [for ants] and aggressive as hell, so, um, yeah) and won't rest until all the humans in their world worship the termite god who originally gave them succor in the desert to which their founders were banished long ago -- a desert caused by the defoliating, despoiling ways of the leafcutter tribes. D'oh!
So in the midst of its speculations about what life might be like for a humanity that is the only vertebrate land animal to survive a series of stellar disasters, and could only do so by evolving into something as small as the arthopods that are the planet's only other survivors, Prophets of the Ghost Ants is at bottom a clash of civilizations. The leafcutter tribe is top-down, its rigid social structure not dictated so very much by its coexistence with/parasitism on its ants as by a set of inherited religious beliefs enforced by a fat and lazy priestly caste; the anarchic freedom-lovers are willing to live and let live as long as no one tries to coerce anybody; the ghost ant riders are a dire threat to both. And moving among them all as a sort of triple (if not quadruple) agent is Anand, emissary to the leafcutters from the democracy, spy on the ghost ant fanatics, but really only looking to reconnect with his beloved roach tribe and his destined bride. Would I have enjoyed this without the insect angle? Probably not nearly as much, since stripped of its entomological content it would just be another bog standard fantasy plot, albeit with a welcome attention to the idea that feudalism isn't the only way to go, with a little bit of Moses of the Mandricanthites thrown in for good measure.
What saved it for me was the little things, like for instance, the way that water behaves in this world, which Carlton got very, very right. At the scale of an ant, surface tension becomes much more of a force than we experience at this scale; an ant can pick up a drop of water, hold it above its head, and collapse it into its mouth.**** And this is very much in evidence in Prophets of the Ghost Ants, as when Anand, in a highly symbolic gesture, "made a show of dunking his hands in the bulging dome of water in the basin." This coupled with details about scents and pheromones, and the relish with which Anand plays on the fact that even in this world, most people have an unreasoning fear/disgust reaction to roaches, kept it fun for me.
Oh, and the battle scenes. I think Carlton had the most fun cooking those up and imagining all the different military applications for, e.g., rhinocerous beetles and night wasps and locusts, oh my. Wonder if he's read Jeff Lockwood.
Of course it turns out this is merely book one of a planned "Antasy" trilogy. Aren't they all. Except, well, he had me at Antasy.
*This is the second time in as many books I've run into an important character seemingly named after an important disciple of the Buddha; a professor in Nexus was explicitly so named, as befits a Thai monk and teacher. Here, though, we only get sly references to the possible, er, additive qualities of such a name. Amusing coincidence, anyway.
**It's one of the conceits* of Prophet of the Ghost Ants that the teeny tiny humans adopt the rigid social structures of the species with which they co-habitate, from a queen who gives birth to multiple (as in five or six) sons almost every time (daughters are rare, and have consequences) and who actually rules the mound through, in the case of Anand's leafcutter ant people, 127 castes of worker.
*And this novel has many conceits, starting with the idea that humans that tiny would still be as intelligent and neurologically plastic as you and I are, though I'm not sure a brain reduced to that scale could possibly be complex enough? Anyway, this strikes me as almost as funny as the stereotypical giant human-sized insect scenario which I know for a fact is physically impossible because the muscle-to-exoskeleton ratio of creatures that big would not allow them to move at all. So what; we've rolled with Them! all this time, so I can roll with ant-sized people with human-sized intellects. And yes, this is my first footnote of a footnote. I'm turning into David Foster Wallce.
***He has written some literary fiction, Anthill, but I've yet to read it.
****I first learned of this from Richard P. Feynman. Yes, that Feynman. Of the diagrams and figuring out what went wrong with Challenger. He was a curious character.