Title: We Are the Ants
Author: Shaun David Hutchinson
Publisher: Simon Pulse, imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, science fiction
My rating: 3/5 stars
“I saw the world from the stars’ point of view, and it looked unbearably lonely.”
There are a few things Henry Denton knows, and a few things he doesn’t.
Henry knows that his mom is struggling to keep the family together, and coping by chain-smoking cigarettes. He knows that his older brother is a college dropout with a pregnant girlfriend. He knows that he is slowly losing his grandmother to Alzheimer’s. And he knows that his boyfriend committed suicide last year.
What Henry doesn’t know is why the aliens chose to abduct him when he was thirteen, and he doesn’t know why they continue to steal him from his bed and take him aboard their ship. He doesn’t know why the world is going to end or why the aliens have offered him the opportunity to avert the impending disaster by pressing a big red button.
But they have. And they’ve only given him 144 days to make up his mind.
The question is whether Henry thinks the world is worth saving. That is, until he meets Diego Vega, an artist with a secret past who forces Henry to question his beliefs, his place in the universe, and whether any of it really matters. But before Henry can save the world, he’s got to figure out how to save himself, and the aliens haven’t given him a button for that.
This is a difficult book for me to review because if I had any strong reactions to it, they were equally positive and negative and they kind of neutralized each other. There were a couple of things I liked and some that I didn’t, and the rest was rather muddled and repetitive and kind of made me feel like I was trying to run in waist-deep water.
I’ll start with the things that I did like and the reasons I can see why this book is so widely appreciated. I really can see the appeal of a contemporary meets sci-fi concept. My ears perked up when I heard there were aliens (okay, I was mostly here for the aliens), but I also loved that there wasn’t too much sciencey explanation to wade through like the heavier sci-fi out there. This book made me feel like how I do when I read magical realism – there is enough of the uncanny to keep things interesting but handled in an understated, minimalist way.
Then of course there’s the fact that we can check off the diversity box. Honestly, I really loved that there is a queer main character, yet it wasn’t really about the issues that sometimes go hand in hand with that. Though Henry is struggling with many aspects of life, his struggles are never about that part of his identity and it is refreshing to read diverse books that normalize being queer in such an unselfconscious way. His family is a great example of a healthy support network and never once second-guess Henry’s sexuality. Hutchinson so confidently writes Henry as just being who he was born to be with no need prove that he is equally worthy of love as someone who is straight, it’s just the truth. I love that we are finally in a time where diverse books can exist without question. We still have a long way to go but I’m so happy this book exists for how normalizing it is.
I really wish I could say that I enjoyed the rest of the book, however. After the initial concept and narrative was established, things sort of fell apart for me. I really didn’t enjoy any of the characters and I thought most of them were quite selfish and abrasive most of the time – Henry especially. I did not relate to the way he grieved the loss of his boyfriend at all. I mean, he is given the chance to save the world from destruction and he can’t see above his own personal issues to find one redeeming quality with the world. I get that there are some statements about mental health and depression being made here but there’s depression and then there’s.. thinking everyone in the whole world should literally cease existing because his boyfriend isn’t alive anymore and his life stinks? There aren’t even any of the all too real global-scale issues explored here that could have presented a real case for letting the world reset. It just comes across as so small-minded that Henry would make this decision for most of the book solely based on his own little life. If, like he is so fond of pondering, life is so meaningless, then why should the whole world suffer because of his meaningless little struggles? Where is the anger about actual issues like how capitalism is raping our planet, or child starvation, or human trafficking? I could go on and on.
The book then continues on in a long-winded rehashing of Henry’s existential crisis, and how he won’t allow himself to be loved by those around him. For a huge portion of the book, hardly any development is made with the plot or characters. Henry has the exact same conversation over chapters and chapters and still makes no progress. It was quite frustrating to read.
And there were too many details about certain relationships withheld for dramatic tension that just didn’t feel natural. These types of devices really draw me out of a story and make me hyper-aware of the author’s intention of creating drama. For example, we are given no hints of why Henry is harbouring such strong resentment towards a certain past friend, and the big reveal was disproportionate to the build-up. There is even a ‘plot twist’ about a certain character turning out to being gay after Henry assumes he is straight for much of the book when an ex-girlfriend is mentioned. Surprise! There are a few more letters than just “G” in “LGBTQ”.
Regardless of how much I enjoyed aspects of this book, it was undermined by the execution of the story and I was left feeling a big resounding “meh” upon finishing. However, I am sure that there are many out there who will feel represented by Henry in a real way, and for that reason I am glad this book was written.
Have you read We Are the Ants yet? I’d love to hear how you felt about the book below!