Translator: Elizabeth Hanlon
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Genre: Alternative History/Social SF
Publication Date: 2020
The Cretaceous Era. Two great empires coexist in peace. But while the ants and the dinosaurs have achieved great things together, the differences between them are great. Can this alliance survive, or will doubt and suspicion lead to extinction . . ?
I know Cixin Liu as the author of books on the harder end of the SF spectrum. I could talk about The Three-Body Problem all day long. But in his shorter fiction, Liu also deals with the mythic. A race of gods coming home to retire? Sure, why not. Of Ants and Dinosaurs lies on the more whimsical end of his writing, but that’s a relative concept when talking about Liu. On the face of it, a book about ants and dinosaurs creating a thriving civilisation is utterly ridiculous. Yet Liu treats the idea with perfect seriousness, and that is why this works. Yes it’s funny, but it’s also very, very clever.
As with a lot of his works, Of Ants and Dinosaurs covers a massive expanse of time. Several thousand years, in fact. As a result, there aren’t really any characters until the final act of the book. It isn’t until around thirty pages in that we even get any dialogue. In other novels, Liu’s writing tends toward the direct and factual, with little room for metaphor and simile. That is absolutely not the case here. It’s a testament to his versatility, and a credit to translator Hanlon, that this book feels unique. There are direct addresses to the reader, for a start. The overall effect is that this feels like a story being told by the campfire. It’s simple, but lyrical. Evocative, yet sparse. This is a pretty short book, and it feels even shorter. Not in the sense that it skimps on detail, but in that it washes over you without you fully noticing.
The story itself is one of the sort that draws me to Liu’s writing. We’re not concerned with individual struggles here, but the rise and fall of entire civilisations. Two civilisations, to be precise. Liu’s dinosaurs are perhaps the more ridiculous of the two. Using entire trees as the handles of massive axes, living in thousand metre tall buildings, the dinosaurs are as big as they come. This is where the satirical element of the book come sin, as the dinosaurs are clearly an exaggerated parody of aggressive capitalist tendencies, devouring all in their path while proclaiming their own greatness. In contrast, the ants of the title are humbler creature, not really having any individual ego, but equally believing that they are the supreme species on Earth. personally, I think the ants are better realised, with their pheromone-based technology, and sprawling cities the size of a football pitch. if the dinosaurs are capitalist, then the ants are communist. Of Ants and Dinosaurs might not be the most subtle book when it comes to allegory, but neither is it all spelled out for the reader. You can read this as a satire of the modern world, or you could read it as an entertaining story. Both work, and both are valid interpretations of the story. Like all the best books, this is multi-faceted. Liu isn’t here to pick a side other than civilisation’s, and when civilisation is imperilled, it’s everybody’s fault.
Much of the book reads like a fairytale, but in the final chapters we get some purer science fiction from one of the modern masters. Anti-matter weaponry abounds, and it goes about as well as you’d expect. With a clear analogue in the nuclear arms race, this is as close to a cautionary tale as the book strays, but while it has an important message at its core – a planet that cannot unite will die together – it’s never unnecessarily didactic. yes, you can learn a valuable lesson from this book, but Liu isn’t going to force it on you. if you walk away from this thinking new thoughts, it’s because you willingly opened your mind.
Though it’s a very different piece to the rest of his work, Of Ants and Dinosaurs stands proudly among Liu’s other novels. It’s a little lighter, yes, but that just makes the heavy topics more accessible.