Fiction Reviews

Of Ants and Dinosaurs

(2010 / 2020) Cixin Liu, Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 250pp, ISBN 978-1-789-54611-8


The title pretty much gives the game away - it is about ants and dinosaurs. In particular, it is about the joint civilisation they created. Back in the Late Cretaceous period Earth was home to not one but two intelligent civilisations - the ants of the Formican Empire and the dinosaurs of the Saurian Empire - and, what is more, at the same time.

With both races yet to develop their civilisations they were simply getting on with their lives, day-to-day survival, but then something unusual happened. A Tyrannosaurus Rex had enjoyed a large lizard for lunch but had a problem - a sliver of meat stuck between his teeth was proving most troublesome. The mayor of the nearby ant town saw the problem and came up with an idea - they would enter the dinosaurís mouth and cut free the sliver, which to them was huge, and pick clean all its other teeth whilst they were at it. Somehow this worked. The next day the dinosaur returned to get its teeth cleaned again. Soon the news spread and other dinosaurs came along for the service. Then the ants discovered how to deal with troublesome teeth - a mixture of their ability to cut out diseased flesh and decayed teeth, along with being able to apply the painkilling and antiseptic herbs they had long known about. Ants were now dentists to the dinosaurs!

As time went on, the ants found more things to do for the dinosaurs and a culture of mutual dependence grew. Both groups found that this mutual cooperation allowed them to develop independent civilisations. The dinosaurs were good at big things but, with their huge, clumsy hands, their dexterity was extremely limited; ants, on the other hand, were very small and very nimble - they could do all the really fiddly little jobs the dinosaurs could only dream of. Technology boomed; despite huge dinosaur hands, microelectronics was easy if the ants could do all the tiny bits for them.

For thousands of years the two civilisations thrived. There were odd disputes, unsurprisingly, but both sides had too much to loose if things got out of hand. Whilst the ants were very small and had little impact on their world, the dinosaurs were very big and were gobbling up resources; furthermore, their processes were creating major pollution problems. Ecological collapse was looming and the situation could not continue for ever; either the dinosaurs would have to curtail their ways before they destroyed the world as they knew it, or the ants would have to stop them.

The book tells the tale of the how the civilisations rose, succeeded, and their ultimate fates. It does so at a slow and very steady pace; it is never exciting, there is no tension, but it does steadily build up the story and take you through their history. It is written more like a text book than a novel and feels flat.

I liked the story and, indeed, I have been impressed before by the authorís imagination. However, like other of his tales I have read, there was nothing gripping to engage my enthusiasm. It is a good story, nicely told and filled with many interesting details, but when I finally put it down I felt I had reached the factual end of a history book rather than the satisfying end of a novel.

Peter Tyers


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