Sunday, October 18, 2009

Short SF Review #11: "Revolt of the Ants"

"Revolt of the Ants," by Milton Kaletsky
Appeared in
Amazing Stories, April 1940

Continuing, the ants said: "We are excellent engineers, architects, agriculturists and herdsmen. We are far better economists than you because every ant has a job and enough to eat. We live together without laws, courts and police. We ants have no drunkards, thieves, politicians or lunatics; no moral troubles, no poverty, no swing bands, no fake stock salesmen and no taxes. We actually practice what we preach. Can you humans say the same? You will never eliminate all your faults and defects by yourselves, so we must do it for you. Good day."

For much of the twentieth century, science fiction was popularly pigeonholed as a genre of nerds and weird loners more concerned with fanciful spaceships than the problems of the present day. Today, thankfully, the general impression isn't nearly as skewed and science fiction has come into its own - though, to be honest, a lot of it isn't called science fiction so bluntly, and some of its writers have no desire to be known as science fiction authors. Take Harlan Ellison, who expressed his reasons why in a 1980 interview available on YouTube. Until Star Trek and Star Wars started to gain traction in popular culture, science fiction was a genre of ray-guns and rocketships, found in magazines with lurid covers of monstrous aliens menacing scantily-clad women, and even then it took a while for the pendulum to shift.

"Revolt of the Ants" by Milton Kaletsky, while including neither ray-guns nor rocketships or scantily-clad women, is firmly within that school of science fiction. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, it only ever appeared in print twice. The most recent was Science Fiction Adventure Classics, March 1972, which I've never encountered. Where I found it was right at home, right where it was meant to be, in the seventy-year-old pages of the April 1940 issue of Amazing Stories (cover story: David Wright O'Brien's "Fish Men of Venus"). I found it in a Wrigleyville bookstore while wandering Chicago and bought it on the spot for $15, but the magazine would have been a bargain at three times the price.

This is an actual god damned pulp science fiction magazine, the source of that pigeonholing. Aside from minor age-related yellowing around the edges of the pages, it is in excellent condition. See for yourself.

Of the six stories in the April 1940 Amazing, "Revolt of the Ants" may at once be the closest to reality and the most ludicrous. A calm day at the White House is shattered when thousands upon thousands of ants stream into the Oval Office and, as they are "very intelligent animals" and have become literate by "examining children's elementary reading books and dictionaries" in landfills, demand the right to vote.

I'm not sure if this is just ludicrous or awesomely ludicrous. I'm going to summarize the plot here as well; considering how obscure this story is, locating a copy might be an adventure in itself.

The human characters in the story seem to take the idea of intelligent, communicative ants fairly well in stride. Only a few weeks go by before the Supreme Court rules that ants born on American soil are, in fact, natural-born American citizens and thus fully capable of exercising the right to vote. Considering the actual political environment of 1940, when racist Jim Crow laws were still very much in force throughout much of the United States, I can't help but see this as extremely forward-looking and optimistic on the part of the author.

Matters become complicated when the newly-enfranchised ants wish for the extension of that privilege to bees and termites, and the President plays his trump card - the ants, bees, and termites can vote when they reach the age of twenty-one years, the same as any other citizen.1 The insects, being "noble, honorable, efficient and intelligent" by their own description, respond to the human-centric laws of the United States of America by formally declaring war on humanity.

It isn't much of a war, actually, as wars were considered in 1940. It's more of a sustained global terrorist campaign waged by insects, conducted by bees "stinging at everyone they could catch" and termites forcing the cancellation of baseball games as they "ate the bats into uselessness." Truth be told, throughout the story the insects prove themselves to be on an entirely different plane of morality than 21st century human terrorists - their tactics never go beyond vandalism and annoyance, and there's no mention in the story of any human actually dying as a result of the "war." Plenty of ants, bees, and termites are, though - after four months of this asymmetrical warfare, their numbers are halved through sustained human chemical warfare.

Still, the war against the ants brought humanity together, and the climax of the story finds the President of the United States at a conference meant to unite the quarreling political parties and fight as a united front. Into this, representatives of the Grand Supreme Council of Ants, Bees, and Termites (yes, really) deliver a new message - an end to the war and an indictment of humanity, effectively summarized by their last statement: "To hell with you."

Predictably, of course, as soon as the spectre of insect bites and insomnia from nighttime swarming attacks is lifted, humankind's newfound amity dissolves into political backbiting - "Brotherhood broke up in a riot. The United States was back to normal."

I found an earnest simplicity in "Revolt of the Ants" that was, frankly, endearing. There's none of the social or futurological speculation that is the foundation of the genre, little characterization - the characters are ciphers, nameless and referred to only by position - or plot twists and suspense; it's a story about ants that revolt.

Of the story's assumptions, one of two which struck me as particularly unusual was the idea that the ants were individually intelligent. The concept of an insect revolt isn't that sophisticated, but a more modern treatment would likely have given the ants a hive mind, like the hornets in Neal Asher's Polity universe. It may be that the concept of a hive mind was what was sophisticated then; one of its first substantial uses was by Olaf Stapledon in 1930, only ten years before "Revolt of the Ants" was published.

The other odd assumption was the ants' mention of swing bands as a particular negative of human society. This would appear to be the personal view of author Milton Kaletsky; the "Meet the Authors" section of the magazine tells me that in addition to swing, he disliked "liquor, modern art and poetry, economics, dictators and the movies."

Kaletsky also expressed a desire to "see Halley's Comet when it returns in 1986." I checked up on this. According to the ISFDB, Milton Kaletsky wrote his last piece of short fiction in 1942 and died in 1988. I can't know if he was in a position to see that "source of tears," as Eilmer of Malmesbury is reputed to have called it, but - it made me feel a bit better.


Previous Short SF Reviews:

1 Looking into this led me to a bit of history I wasn't previously aware of. In 1940, this actully was the voting age. In the United States, it wasn't standardized at 18 until the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971.

1 comment:

  1. Awesomely ludicrous. Also ludicrously awesome.