Wells: Empire of the Ants

June 22, 2009

The Empire of the Ants, and other stories
H.G. Wells (Scholastic, 1977)
152 p. First reading.

There is a long tradition of regarding sight as the noblest of the senses, not least because of the readiness with which metaphors of sight enter into discussions of our rational faculties. H.G. Wells’ story “The Country of the Blind”, about a man who finds himself trapped in a village where everyone is blind and knowledge of sight has faded from social memory, is a very fine reflection on the gift of vision. In this story it is not primarily for its practical advantages that sight is loved — the blind inhabitants of this place have organized their physical surroundings such that sight offers no great advantage — but for its contribution to the inner life, by exposing us to the beauty of the visible world. The story is also about kinds of knowledge, including self-knowledge, and how we calibrate our own openness to the world with an eye to what is socially approved. All in all, it’s a thought provoking and moving piece.

“The Empire of the Ants” doesn’t rise to the same level, though it is also very good. The story is told obliquely, driven by rumour and imagination, and it develops a potent atmosphere of anxious anticipation. Wells asks us to consider the fragility of human life subject to the destructive power of nature. Built around a slow, upstream river journey, its atmosphere composed of equal parts heat and dread, it reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (Conrad’s story was published three years prior to Wells’, but I know of no reason to claim the one influenced the other.)

The book is filled out by three other stories. “The Crystal Egg” is a sometimes humorous tale about a proprietor of a curio shop who becomes obsessed with a palantír-like crystal. I am told that the story is to Wells’ The War of the Worlds much as The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings: a fairly minor prelude into which a central element of the larger work enters almost as a curiosity.  Finally, there are two stories about magic: “The Man who Could Work Miracles” and “The Magic Shop”. Both are about genuine magic, not magic tricks. (The further distinction between genuine magic and miracles is not as easy to make, but given the essentially arbitrary nature of these acts contra natura I prefer “magic”.)  Of the two tales, it is the former that is the better. It well illustrates the perils of having omnipotence without omniscience.

These stories were originally published between 1897 and 1905. I am impressed by Wells’ ability in the short story genre. The quality and range of his style is even better than I had been led to expect from reading The Island of Dr. Moreau.

***

Related reading:

  • “The Country of the Blind” (pdf)
  • “The Empire of the Ants” (pdf)

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