Title: We are the Ants
Author: Shaun David Hutchinson
Genre: YA, scifi, contemporary
If you knew the world was ending and you could save it by pressing a button, would you?
To be honest, if given the choice, some days I don’t think I would press the button. Those are probably the days I remember that I have no job, that my future is uncertain, that my relationship with my mom is rocky and awkward at best and that my dad is struggling with dementia and seizures on a daily basis. The easy days are obviously easy but what happens on my darkest days? When my problems seem too much to bear and I feel trapped and it’d be easier to just let go? Is this world worth it?
Our main character, Henry Denton seeks to answer these questions. To be quite frank, I can see why he initially doesn’t want to have anything to do with his life anymore. His mom is always stressed from work; his grandmother is suffering from worsening dementia; his brother Charlie, who is going to be a father soon, bullies him mercilessly; the school bully Marcus repeatedly beats him up. He has no friends and and an all consuming guilt about his boyfriend Jesse’s suicide. Oh, and to top if off, aliens are kidnapping him at random times to do experiments on him and gives him the choice of whether or not to save the world in 144 days. Joy.
The aliens (scifi) comprise only about 3% of the book, the rest is 97% YA contemporary as we follow Henry and see he struggles with asking why his boyfriend would leave him in this world alone and coming to terms about the fact that sometimes there are things that are not his fault. The aliens are really only used as a framing device (and a good one at that) to provide a sense of urgency and realness to the question. It’s one thing for a teenage main character to think about ending the world (he’s not) and another to actually be burdened with the real choice. It really gives a magnitude to the struggles that Henry is facing and a sense of responsibility to Henry.
So this book is mostly YA contemporary. YA contemporaries can easily delve into melodrama, pretentiousness, oversimplification, or worst of all, falsely and forcefully inspirational and there were times when I thought this book was borderline two of the above but it saves itself. There are 2 reasons for this. One is Henry’s narrative voice. His perspective is the perfect balance of sarcastic, biting humor and open honesty.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to believe Charlie and I come from the same parents. I’m tall, he’s short; I’m skinny, he used to be muscular, though most of it turned to fat after high school; I can count to five without using my fingers. . . . Charlie has fingers.”
But I felt for him because he always insists his struggles don’t matter and he goes about his life just trying to survive when I thought he deserved so much more. But even as I hated some of the secondary characters particularly Marcus and his brother, I realize that none of them exist just to give Henry a hard time and make him want to end the world. Every single secondary character gets their own moments to shine and it somehow feels satisfying and so real and not something the author just made up for convenience to the story. That’s when you know an author respects the characters he writes.
The second reason is, the book doesn’t pretend that everything is fine or will ever be fine. It knows that life doesn’t exist as one clear-cut problem and then a clear-cut solution. There’s only problems and possibly routes to solutions and sometimes there is no solution and I appreciated that honesty a lot.
“The universe may forget us, but it doesn’t matter.Because we are the ants, and we’ll keep marching on.”
So does Henry end up pressing that button? I think you already know. But how Henry finds his silver lining is just one of the things that make this book worth reading.