A heartbreaking yet hopeful journey ... with aliens
We Are the Ants follows Henry Denton in the worst year of his life. His mother is struggling to keep the family together; his brother is a college dropout with a pregnant girlfriend; his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s is progressively getting worse; his boyfriend committed suicide the previous year, and the guy he is sleeping with bullies him at school. But that is nothing compared to the aliens that have been abducting him on and off since he was thirteen. Usually, they probe and experiment on him, but this time the aliens offer him the opportunity to avert a global disaster by simply pressing a red button. They’ve given him 144 days to make up his mind. The only issue is Henry doesn’t think the world is worth saving; that is, until he meets Diego Vega, an artist with a secret past. Diego forces Henry to question his beliefs and his own place in the universe. But before Henry can save the world, he must figure out how to save himself. And the aliens haven’t given him a button for that.
This is an incredibly nihilistic novel; the dark tone is heartbreakingly sad, and there were many moments I was on the verge of tears. With a novel that focuses on mental health and the fate of the world in the hands of a depressed boy, you wouldn’t think that the penultimate message is one of hope, but it is. This book is about a potentially suicidal boy exploring the world and trying to find something good in it. It’s about love, friendship, and the different types of family we make for ourselves.
Henry was a remarkable protagonist and I connected with him on a deep, personal level, which doesn’t often occur with male characters. He was intelligent, comical and expressive, but he lived in a haze of depression and self-loathing after the suicide of his much-beloved boyfriend, Jesse. Henry attempted to navigate life without Jesse, but all that resulted in was the loss of a close friendship and the beginning of a secret, abusive relationship with the school bully. Then he met Diego and things started to turn around for him, and he began to think that perhaps the Earth was worth saving after all.
It is important to note that We Are The Ants was not a romance, although it could be viewed as one as the romance element was a part of the story. Henry was not suddenly cured of his depression simply because he fell for a cute boy – he was still a very flawed, sad character who was trying to make sense of the devastating death of a loved one. I think many readers will be able to connect with Henry and feel for his situation.
All of the characters in this novel were highly complex individuals – even the background characters, like Henry’s family and friends. At the beginning of the novel, Henry’s brother was a college dropout who beat up his brother and pissed in Henry’s desk bin (as brothers do?), but once he discovered that his girlfriend was pregnant, his character underwent a wonderful development: he found a job, treated Henry a lot better, and started building a nursery. He understood he wouldn’t be the perfect father, but he would try his best. I think we can all gleam a lesson from that. And Henry’s mother started the novel as a disillusioned waitress, who wanted nothing more than to work as a chef. She was encouraged by her family to aspire to reach for this life-long goal and became happier for it.
Marcus, the popular boy Henry dated who seemed to have it all, was actually a frightened, insecure boy trapped in the closet. One moment, he was quite loving to Henry; the next, Marcus was violently beating him and humiliating Henry in front of his gang of fellow bullies/friends. And Diego, while a sensitive artist who Henry felt safe around, also had a secret and volatile past. So while the immediate plot of the novel was about Henry – and the novel was written from his POV too – We Are The Ants featured a wide-arrange of complicated and multi-layered characters, who each progressed through some intense characterisation. Each character was there for a reason and they all had a story to say.
The plot of the novel was quite unique and fascinating, and a large reason as to why I picked up the book in the first place. I loved the inclusion of the aliens and Henry’s scenarios as to how exactly the Earth will be destroyed. There was a reason why this novel didn’t get the full 5 star rating, and I can’t reveal that reason without spoiling the conclusion of the novel. This issue only became apparent after I read What We Pretend to Be, a collection of short stories about other people’s abductions, as well as Henry’s first abduction. Before I read this story, I thought the point of We Are The Ants was to be an existential piece, but now I am not so sure. Perhaps it was legitimate all along? If that is so, it potentially opens some plot holes within We Are The Ants. If you don’t take this short story into account, then the novel makes perfect sense.
Hutchinson's writing was wonderful and so in tune with the tone and the thoughts of a teenage boy (a pattern I am sensing in all of his novels, thus far). Henry's voice was sardonic and his perspective of the world pessimistic, and yet the novels reads as potentially philosophical. Henry weighed his options regarding the fate of the world very carefully and took a frank look at what living life - and what death is - actually means. Despite the fact that the book has dark themes and is quite heavy, it is a quick read as the writing and the scenes progressed quickly, but with respect for the structure of the book, too.
We Are The Ants was a raw and hopeful YA novel that refreshingly combined the usual sci-fi elements and presented them through the discourse of a depressed teenage boy. The novel tackled issues regarding sexuality, depression, suicide, mental health and disease with finesse and sensitivity. While the ending was somewhat ambiguous (made even more confusing by that short story) the central message that can be gleamed from the novel is that, while our lives are small and, more often that not, do not affect a wide-group of people or influence history, they are still important and worth living.