Warning: this review contains major spoilers for “We are the Ants”. And mentions themes that may upset some readers.
What would happen if you were abducted by aliens, and they offered you the choice to save the world with the push of a button? Would you press it and continue on?
That is the question our main character, a teenage boy named Henry Denton, is given one night. He has been abducted before by the aliens, and he expected that night to be another series of experiments he couldn’t comprehend, but tonight is different. Henry is told the world will end 144 days into the future, and the extraterrestrials that have abducted him since he was thirteen tell him he can save it. All he has to do is press the big red button, and the world is saved.
Can he do it though? Should he do it? After all, his life is no less than a living hell. On top of being the social outcast called Space Boy (guess why), his divorced mother is miserably keeping the family together as a waitress, his older brother has dropped out of college to take care of his pregnant girlfriend, named Zooey, his grandmother is slowly losing the battle with Alzheimer’s, and his boyfriend Jesse Franklin committed suicide the year before while struggling with depression.
Add all of the trauma together and the intense bullying from Marcus McCoy, who took advantage of Henry’s loss in order to get inside his pants and now does everything to make his life even more miserable, and yeah. So should Henry Denton press the button and save humanity?
For a while, he decides not to, and patiently waits for the incoming apocalypse.
That is until he meets Diego Vega, an artist his age with a secret past that challenges Henry’s beliefs and resolve to not push the button. With Jesse’s death still fresh and his misanthropic views clashing against Diego’s comforting guidance and hope for humanity, will Henry make the choice to save the world?
Meanwhile, can he heal the wounds inflicted by himself, his friends and family, and see a future worth living with him in it?
Alright, going in the plot feels like a stock setup for a Twilight Zone episode, and I felt like I was going to experience that for the next 450 pages. However, the way it is written and structured, Shaun David Hutchinson does everything to make “We are the Ants” more than just a philosophical essay. For an entire book focused around a yes/no choice, “We are the Ants” is a powerfully spoken perspective on trauma and moving on from painful experiences.
And all of it revolves around Henry Denton, who is a very complex, emotionally troubled teenager you cannot help but want to hug. Despite his pessimism and cynical view of everyday life, you see in flashbacks of him and Jesse and moments of him and Diego how likable he is. He can be humorous, he can be literate, he can show much enthusiasm in his schoolwork and be optimistic about life’s smallest moments. He constantly thinks of Jesse each and every chapter, and you feel loss in each sentence. However, that ends when he falls in love again.
In a way, he’s kind of like Shinji Ikari from Evangelion if he were more well-spoken. You feel how much grieving he’s been through and feel sorry for this kid, especially with his torturous and creative bullies (seriously, read to see what I’m talking about), but it’s the relationships Henry forges that redefines his beliefs and makes him question his role in the universe.
Then we have Diego Vega, a teenage boy whose mysterious past makes you question his being with Henry. Even before you learn the reason why, his intellectual personality wins you over right away. You and Henry cannot help but marvel at his artistry, his love of changing clothing styles every day, the way he looks on the bright side of everything, his childish arguments with his older sister, the car he owns and named Please Start, and how he makes Henry feel alive again.
Two things I admire about Diego is his resolve to escape his tempered past actions, which involved him being convicted of assault because he attacked his father as he was beating his mother to near-death. The kicker is when Diego’s mother doesn’t testify against her husband, so he’s sent to juvie for a year and moves away with his older sister. From this, you see how much he cares about the people he loves and will do anything to protect them. And you completely understand why he constantly changes his appearance and taste in clothing every day he meets with Henry. The second item is how he listens to Henry and recognizes his feelings. Instead of dismissing the alien abduction stories, he slowly understands him and takes what is spoken seriously, and only wants Henry to press the button because he wants him to decide on his own.
And when they’re together, their chemistry is sweet and endearing to watch.
Surprisingly, I also enjoy the side characters, and how they do everything to overcome their struggles and personal demons. I love Henry’s optimistic but distant ex-friend Audrey (who was best friends with Jesse before he died) and how they reconcile their friendship over the course of the book, I enjoy Henry’s eccentric science teacher Ms. Faraci and how she’s doing everything to be a good role model. I especially Henry’s anachronistic grandmother who has the memory and innocence of a child, but the sage advice of someone her age. They all have humorous and quirky moments, but also those heartfelt moments that make me believe they walked out of a Kyell Gold novel.
I even like seeing Henry’s older brother Charlie transform from a deadbeat, immature yet caring twat into a thoughtful family man who wants to give his child the father he never had. Sadly it doesn’t happen after Zooey tragically has a miscarriage, and the scene where he breaks down in front of Henry is just traumatizing and hard to read.
And then there is Marcus.
Good God. Out of all the bullies in young adult novels I’ve read, Marcus McCoy is by far the most despicable, parasitic, egotistical, hypocritical, insufferable character I have seen. At first you assume he’s the average popular rich kid who doesn’t understand suffering, but then you see how he used Henry’s grieving loss to have a secret relationship with him, and the emotional turmoil that scars him. And when Henry realizes this early on, he goes out of his way to hurt, maim and humiliate ‘Space Boy’ in the most disgusting, verbally and physically abusive ways possible. All because Henry is refusing his lecherous advances. He even goes beyond his Moral Event Horizon and attempts to sexually assault Henry near the book’s end.
I know I wanted to see him earn his comeuppance when he told him this: “I’m not surprised Jesse hanged himself. I’m just surprised he didn’t do it sooner.” Wow, bullying is one thing but to say THAT to the guy you’re trying to use for sex?
Honestly, Marcus McCoy makes Chip from “Twisted” look like Pope Francis.
Despite the depressing subject matter and deep philosophical debates on humanity, “We Are the Ants” has a quirky charm that engrosses you into its pages. The humor, even the dark humor, is funny. You feel like a teenager again, with the hell that is high school, hanging out with friends and lingering towards the responsibilities of adulthood close on the horizon. Shaun David Hutchinsin also incorporates interesting ideas in as well. For example, there are segments every few chapters where a scenario says what the end of the world will be life. From nanite robots to time travel to even a scenario involving the Earth being a computer program.
So yeah this seems like the perfect book huh? It takes a simple plot that includes intense subjects like suicide, overcoming grief and acceptance of what you can’t control and what you can control; like who you are. There’s a good mixture of eccentricity, humor, drama and heartfelt romance between Henry and Diego.
Are there flaws? Kind of, but it’s more of my personal opinion. I honestly feel like the story could’ve been more powerful. Don’t get me wrong; it is a really good novel with an amazing protagonist and commentary on the effects of losing a loved one (especially regarding suicide), and I highly recommend reading.
However, we never have an epilogue on the aliens. By the end of “We Are the Ants”, you believe this will be the most perfect ending for a book you can think of. And for the most part it is. Henry has returned from the psychiatric hospital after confessing to his mother about Jesse’s death, the button and surviving an attempted rape by Marcus (who we will definitely never see again, thank God). Sadly, we may also never see Diego again after he went on the rage and beat Marcus to a bloody pulp, unintentionally breaking the terms of his parole. Henry’s mom has quit her dullard waiting job and now works her dream job as a chef for an expensive restaurant. Henry then goes to Zooey and Charlie’s wedding, and is happy to learn Zooey has decided to major as an obstetrician after her miscarriage. Afterward, he finally comes to terms with Jesse’s death.
It is now the final night before the end of the world, and Henry is watching a movie with his family and Audrey, waiting for it to happen. Then, the doorbell rings, and in walks Diego and reconciles with Henry. They walk to the beach hand-in-hand, and join with Audrey to watch the moon rise on the ocean waters. Diego asks Henry if he would’ve pushed the button, despite not being abducted for some time, and Henry replies that he would, but “Honestly? It doesn’t matter.”
The End. What the hell?
Now, I’m all for these kinds of endings, but this book does not warrant it. With a plot dedicated to deciding whether or not humanity deserves to be blown up, we do not get an epilogue, nor do we see the aliens again halfway through the book. You could make the argument that all of it is in his head, but I’d call BS with all of the evidence proving that Henry isn’t having blackouts that last for days and suddenly appearing on the side of the road buck-naked.
When it’s all said and done, you could make the argument I was more lenient with open endings such as in “Guardian” and “Twisted”, but to be fair those endings involved the fate of a few characters. This is the entire planet, and a fate that’s been building up to throughout the entire novel.
Maybe if the alien element wasn’t in and “We Are the Ants” focused on Henry coming to terms with Jesse’s death, I’d be more lenient. Honestly, in the large scheme of things, that’s all this book could’ve been about. With other science fiction books involving LGBT characters, it made sense. “Willful Machines” included AI into the romance and the story, “Proxy” and “Guardian” had the romance as a subplot with the grander story the focus. With “We Are the Ants”, we never know if the world will blow up, why the aliens chose Henry and why they didn’t abduct him again since Thanksgiving. You didn’t even need to explain that much or have a massive payoff a la “Lord of the Rings”, but at least have a resolution, a final chapter or an epilogue where Henry wakes up on the UFO again with his hand over the button. Give us a sense of closure! I know that this is fictional and the story was more about coming to terms with a loved one’s death and acceptance of yourself, but the only reason I’m making a big deal about this is because Henry was making a big deal about it.
However, I’ll admit that this is a really good book. For having such a simple plot, “We are the Ants” takes advantage of everything it can (well, almost). I won’t pretend what I explained is a big problem, but the rest of the book is straight-forward. It could’ve had more closure, but then again it’s the characters and the way they work through their traumas and dilemmas that make us enjoy it.
For me, the book isn’t a masterpiece, but it could’ve been if the author had tied up all loose ends involving whether or not the world actually does end. Overall though, the book is enjoyable and has some great moments of character, chemistry between our protagonists, quirky humor, dark humor and existential philosophy on the perspective of the human spirit.
If you have the time, give this one a read and form your own opinion, because even though it’s not perfect, “We Are the Ants” is very close in all the right ways. It has heartfelt drama, heartfelt redemption and heartfelt characters that bring you out of Earth’s orbit.
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