Of Ants And Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu (book review).

Cixin Liu is well known for his big concept novels, hard Science Fiction and far-future extrapolations: ‘The Three Body Problem’, ‘Ball Lightning’ and ‘The Supernova Era’ being the novels already translated into English. His latest work to be translated, ‘Of Ants And Dinosaurs’ comes as somewhat of a surprise then. It is literally a book about ants and dinosaurs, an allegorical tale of the civilisation that flourished on the Earth in the late cretaceous period.

It’s written in a fun and informal style and could hardly be more different to his other works. The tone means that at first I was under the impression the book is aimed at younger readers, but in fact the development of the ant and dinosaur societies and the extrapolation of their possible technologies and interactions mean that this book is just as enjoyable for adults who are looking for a light-hearted and fast-paced read.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel ‘Children Of Time’ portrayed the development of a spider civilisation in cooperation with ants which developed over many generations. That book developed things logically based on biological possibilities, where Cixin Liu takes a much more fanciful and satirical angle with ‘Of Ants And Dinosaurs’. The cooperative civilisation he describes mirrors human society in most respects, taking the dinosaurs through the steam age and into the nuclear era with ants carrying out the fiddly technical work.

Like Pierre Boulé’s ‘Monkey Planet’/‘Planet Of The Apes’ in which the ape city is remarkably similar to Paris, the dinosaurs’ capital Boulder City has all of the features of a human city, though on a much larger scale. Airships and aeroplanes big enough to carry tyrannosaurus rexes don’t sound particularly airworthy, but Cixin Liu describes such marvels with cheerful aplomb, painting a wonderful picture of this advanced civilisation that conquered the world in the unimaginable past.

The two civilisations of ants and dinosaurs are given certain over-riding characteristics that inform their development and reactions throughout the book. Dinosaurs are great thinkers and daydreamers, coming up with new ideas and concepts which they sadly can’t implement due to their lack of manual dexterity. Ants are logical, persistent, marvellous builders and engineers, but unable to formulate new ideas as individuals.

Despite the mutual dependence of their societies, they continually disagree and come to loggerheads threatening the destruction of their civilisations throughout their shared history. It’s not lost in the reader that the pointlessness of their arguments is a thinly disguised allegory of human history. The threats of mutually assured destruction and environmental degradation are portrayed bluntly, but Cixin Liu manages to avoid turning this relatively short volume into an opportunity to lecture or moralise.

The book maintains its generally light-hearted feel to the end, even amidst wars, espionage, destruction and mayhem. We can all see where it’s heading, after all, there are no dinosaurs here today driving round in building-sized cars. The ending will not come as a surprise, but it’s surprisingly poignant to see the results of the ants and dinosaurs continually disagreements come to a head. There’s nothing too deep and philosophical here.

Yes, it’s a fable or an allegory from which lessons can be learned, but there’s no need to learn them from this book. You can just enjoy the story and watch history unfold in a quirky and thoughtful way. I enjoyed it a lot and it makes me wonder what else Cixin Liu has written that we haven’t seen yet. His short story collection ‘The Wandering Earth’ displayed a wider variety of styles than his novels, but still nothing like this. I shall await the next translation eagerly.

Gareth D Jones

May 2020

(pub: Head Of Zeus. 250 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78954-611-8)

check out website: www.headofzeus.com


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