March 30th, 2011

wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - Adventures Among Ants

Book Nine

Adventures Among Ants by Mark W. Moffett

Moffett knew from a young age that he wanted to be a field biologist – traveling the world in search of the most interesting animals he could find. And ever since his childhood, he’s had an abiding interest in ants.

And who could blame him? There are thousands of species of ants, found all around the world, and once you get down and really look at them, they display some amazing behaviors. They communicate through a series of smells, functioning almost as a group organism to take care of the nest, forage for food, and move from place to place. Some species of ants live their whole lives without touching the ground, while others ravage the ground they walk on, devouring everything in their paths. Ants are nature’s workhorses, utterly communistic in their behavior and presenting a model of order that humans should envy.

We follow Moffett as he travels around the world to find the most interesting representatives of ant-dom. In India, he found the marauder ant, a vicious species of ant that goes on raids to find food near its nest. Connected by a complex system of trails, the marauder sends out every able-bodied ant it can muster, from the tiny workers to the (comparatively) giant soldier ants. They find, subdue, and dismember their prey with frightening efficiency, and carry it back to the nest, all without a leader to give them instructions or make sure they’re going the right way. Each ant just knows what her job is, and just does it. In that way, the ant super-organism takes care of itself.

In Africa, he hunts the famous African army ant, a species that is famous for its terrifying raids and voracious appetites. They swarm out around their nest, devouring anything in their path, sometimes raiding other nests for food and larvae. When army ants come, the lucky prey gets out of the way.

Ants are not confined to the ground, of course. The weaver ant is a tree-borne species that has mastered its domain with harshness and efficiency. The Amazon ant kidnaps pupae from neighboring nests and raises the young ants as their slaves. The leafcutter ant invented agriculture fifty million years before humanity even walked the earth, and the Argentine ant lives in supercolonies that cover hundreds of square kilometers and engage in violent, no-quarters war with each other.

The sheer variety of ants on this planet is astounding, and Moffett shows an unstoppable enthusiasm for the little critters. What’s more, he’s an outstanding photographer, who has developed his technique and equipment to be able to get some remarkable shots of these tiny, tiny creatures in action. The hardcover edition that I have is printed on nice, glossy paper, pretty much in order to showcase Moffett’s photographic work, which he has regularly done for National Geographic Magazine.

What’s more, he continually seeks to find connections between ants and humans, who have more similarities than one might expect. We both live in large, complex societies, where individuals take on specific roles that often last that individual’s lifetimes. We engage in wars, slavery, and varied communal activities that benefit both the individual and the society at the same time. Like us, the ants build highways and infrastructure, communicate over distances, tend gardens, hold territory, plan for the future and learn from the past. And they started doing all this thousands of millennia before we even thought about standing upright. We are not the same as ants, of course – ants are unmoved by things such as status, greed, or ambition, but their instinctual dedication to the greater good of their colony is probably something that we could use a good dose of.

For all that, however, I don’t think this was the right ant book for me. Written by a person who truly loves ants, I think that would be the best kind of person to read it. I don’t have a particular fondness for the little buggers, and there were a lot of times where I had to stop and start over, or where I found myself looking for anything else to do rather than continue reading, which is never a good sign. It isn’t Moffett’s fault, I think. He put a lot of work and detail into this book, assuming that the reader would find ants just as fascinating as he does.

And I don’t.

Oh sure – I find them fascinating in abstract, but not quite fascinating enough to get into the down-and-dirty details about how they construct trunk trails out of their nests, or the exact division of labor that exists between one class of ant and another. I’m not sure what I thought the book would be when I saw Moffett on The Colbert Report, but it wasn’t quite enough for me to sit down and devour the way I hoped it would be.

If you like ants – or you know someone who does – this is a great book, and it gives an excellent insight into what it means to be a field biologist (lots of staying in one place, apparently). For anyone who really loves insects in general, and ants in particular, this book will be a welcome addition to their bookshelf.

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“Is [an ant] intelligent? To my way of thinking, yes. We know a worker can evaluate the living space, ceiling height, entry dimensions, cleanliness, and illumination of a potential new home for her colony – a masterly feat, considering that she’s a roving speck with no pen, paper, or calculator.”
- Mark Moffett, Adventures Among Ants
wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - The Way of Kings

Book Ten

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

There are times when I hate having grown up to be a fantasy fan. Most of the time it’s when I pick up a book that seems promising – maybe because it’s from a familiar author, or because you heard from a friend of a friend that it was good – but it turns out to be disappointing. Stock characters, old and tired plotlines, and a world that’s basically Tolkien with some greasepaint and false noses added on. Given the number of people who write fantasy, the odds of coming across a truly interesting world with compelling characters and a story that has some surprises is difficult indeed.

Fortunately, it looks like Sanderson has managed to pull it off.

The world of Roshar is a strange and tempestuous place. The seasons come and go in unpredictable ways, sometimes bringing with them great highstorms that are so powerful that even the plants of this world have evolved ways to hide from them. It is a world filled with spirits, ubiquitous beings called spren, which pop up for almost any reason. There are the spren of nature – windspren, firespren, rotspren, riverspren and the like. There are spren that seem attracted to humans, like alespren, gloryspren, anticipationspren and logicspren. No one really knows what they are or why they exist, but they are everywhere in this world.

The greatest kingdom in Roshar is that of Alethkar, which is barely a nation at all. A loosely bound alliance of ten high princes, the people of Alethkar are a hostile, ambitious, violent folk whose first and greatest love is battle and winning. Since the assassination of their king by the savage Parshendi, they have been involved in a seemingly endless siege of revenge on the great Shattered Plains.

The greatest warriors of Alethkar – or any nation – are those who wield the amazing shardblades. Swords that seem to condense out of mist, the shardblades can cut through anything, though if they cut through a person their effects are a little more subtle. A warrior armed with a shardblade, wearing shardplate armor, can use the incredible power of stormlight to achieve feats that no normal man could survive. Bound within glowing gemstones and restored by the howling winds of the highstorms, stormlight is Roshar’s greatest treasure.

Within this world we follow an ensemble cast which, while adhering to certain fantasy archetypes, still is made interesting and worth watching. Dalinar, the brother to the dead Alethi king, is searching for a way to hold together the weak nation that his brother formed. He has been learning of the old ways, the teachings of the vanished and reviled Knights Radiant, in the hopes that they can help hold his people together.

On the other end of Alethi society is Kaladin. Once a promising young surgeon, Kaladin joined the army in hopes of being able to fight on the Shattered Plains. He made it there, but not as a soldier – as a member of a bridge crew, one of the most expendable resources in the entire war. He became the lowest of the low, forced to find a reason to stay alive.

In a city far from the fighting, young Shallan Davar has fought to become the ward of the great heretic scholar Jasnah Kholin. While she has ostensibly come to learn from the woman, her true purpose is to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster, a device which, if used properly, can turn something into something else – stone into smoke, glass into blood, a man into fire. With this, Shallan hopes to revive her family’s flagging fortunes after the death of her father. What she discovers with Jasnah, of course, is far, far more.

Then there’s Szeth-son-son-Vallano, truthless of Shinovar. Poor, poor Szeth. From a race of people known for their peaceful and easygoing natures, Szeth is the most powerful assassin the world has seen. He can harness the stormlight to manipulate gravity, making him able to do the impossible while he uses his shardblade to cut down anyone in his way. In truth, though, Szeth wishes only one thing – to find someone who is good enough to kill him, and end his tormented life.

As you may have guessed, it’s a complicated tale, and Sanderson doesn’t hold to this whole “Give the reader time to get used to it” style of writing. If you’re not paying attention from the beginning, you are likely to be very, very lost within the first chapter or so. But once everything settles down, the story turns into a fast-paced, multi-leveled adventure that takes place in a world that is imaginative and fascinating.

The characters are enthralling, too, with many levels and – most importantly – flaws. While Kaladin is a brilliant organizer and leader, he has to fight continually against the despair of realizing what his life has come to. The easy thing would be to allow himself to die, but he knows he can’t let himself do that. Dalinar, plagued by visions of what might be Roshar’s ancient past, is fighting centuries of Alethi martial tradition by trying to bring the high princes together and end the war, rather than allowing it to go on. He’s pulled between the love of his nephew, the king, and his frustration that the king won’t be strong enough to do what needs doing. Shallan, who left her home with a clear purpose, is finding that nothing was what she thought it would be. Jasnah isn’t an evil woman, despite being a heretic, and her plan to steal the soulcaster becomes less and less certain the more she learns.

All of these characters are at the front edge of thousands of years of history, much of it shrouded in uncertainty – legendary Knights Radiant who fought Voidbringers before giving up their duty and turning against mankind. What actually happened is unknown, and perhaps won’t ever be known. But the effects of those events echo to the present day, causing problems which our characters will eventually have to deal with.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to Sanderson is that when I finished the book, I immediately went back to the first page and started reading again. There are very few books that have inspired me thus, but this one did – especially after the cascading Big Reveals at the end, which explain a lot, and cast a new light on a whole lot more.

What’s more, I found myself wishing that I had access to an animation studio while I read the action scenes. Fights can be hard to do in written form – there’s a tendency to either describe too much or too little, and very often the reader gets slowed down trying to visualize what’s happening in the story. Sanderson is very, very good at writing action, something I first noticed in Towers of Midnight. Even when Szeth is hopping from floor to ceiling to wall, flinging people around like toys, the action was very clear in my mind’s eye, and it’s something I would love to see animated, if not done in live action.

And yes, to get back to why I hate being a fantasy reader sometimes, it is the first book in a series, which means I’m likely to be following it for quite some time. There’s nothing truly wrong with that – there are plenty of series that I’ve followed in my day – but I never look forward to the waiting game that you have to play as the author works on the next book. To be fair, though, Sanderson is busy right now finishing up my favorite series, The Wheel of Time, so I think I can give him a little latitude.

In any case, if you’re looking for a dense, fun new series to read, definitely pick this up. I plan on getting into some of his other books, mainly in order to have something to do while I wait for the next one of these.

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"The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Too often, we forget that."
Hoid, The Way of Kings