Thursday, 9 February 2012

Tourism, Ants and Hellstrom's Hive

Do you like ants? My father did. He spent a period making little plaster containers with sliding glass tops. In these he encouraged ants to go about their business and watched them at it. My mother raised her eyes a lot during this time: indulgent but slightly embarrassed and slightly concerned, I think. Anyway, the fad declined and he went on to bees.
A few weeks ago I attended a lecture by Tim King. I have his card in front of me as I type. It’s a plain visiting card except for one thing: a very realistic picture of a brown ant alongside his address. He gave a fascinating lecture in which he points out that ants have been about for a long time – much longer than us. He also claims that they, as a community, are highly intelligent (though I wasn’t entirely convinced by this).
Whilst travelling in Turkey I became interested in ants. They have big ones and small ones there and they worked together in teams to clear up the crumbs that fell as I ate my lunch in lonely, forgotten places. This, and the strange underground cities that exist in that country, moved me to write a short story called The Tourist Touch. It’s about the corrupting effect of tourism on a village that lies above an underground city and is paralleled by observation of the cold reaction within a nearby ant colony. It is part of my collection of stories called Turkey Trove.
At the end of Tim King’s talk I went to the front and told him about my story since it seemed relevant to his lecture. We exchanged cards and later I emailed the story to him. He liked it and suggested a few, mostly welcomed, changes. He also recommended that I read Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert (you remember him, he wrote all those Dune books). So I downloaded it onto my Kindle for £4.99 (more expensive than the paperback!)
I enjoyed it. Frank Herbert is a well-respected sci-fi writer and it shows. The book was a bit slow to start - scene setting perhaps - then becomes rather exciting. The plot is simple. For years a group of people in America have been living like ants. Hellstrom is their current leader and they have created a wondrous secret hive that extends some mile or so below ground and contains thousands of specialised people: workers, breeders, thinkers, organisers and so on. Like the insect colonies that they admire they have evolved a community where loyalty to the hive transcends individualism. In the story snoopers from a US government agency discover them and the whole thing unwinds from there. I will say no more because you may want to read it sometime and I could spoil the experience.
The world that Frank Herbert created in the hive is interesting and thought provoking. I found my sympathies edging towards its inhabitants rather than the agents and this may be deliberate since the author portrays the agency as a community torn by ambition, suspicion and intrigue. Still it made me think and that’s one of the things I want from a good book.

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