Published by Simon and Schuster on January 19th 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Social Themes, Friendship, Dating & Relationships, Depression & Mental Illness, Social Issues, Dating & Sex
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We remember the past, live in the present, and write the future.
3.5 Stars. One of the best ways to get me interested in a book is to tell me there is a character that is obsessed with outer space! I picked this book up for the science and the aliens, but it is mostly a high school drama. Despite the concept, it was very realistic. It wasn’t what I expected, but that wasn’t such a bad thing.
Your entire sense of self-worth is predicated upon your belief that you matter, that you matter to the universe. But you don’t. Because we are the ants.
Aliens have been abducting Henry Denton since he was thirteen years old. When he is sixteen years old, they finally communicate with him. The world is ending in 144 days, but Henry can prevent the disaster if he pushes their red button. For most people this would be an easy choice, but Henry isn’t sure the world deserves a second chance. He is a “punch line at school, a ghost at home.” He’s relentlessly bullied at school, his boyfriend Jesse committed suicide, his mom is struggling to make ends meet, his dad abandoned the family, his immature brother is about to be a father, and his grandma is suffering from Alzheimer’s. He struggles with the guilt that he is the reason for his dad’s abandonment and his boyfriend’s death. He’s exhausted by life’s endless disappointments and humiliations and thinks the world might need a clean slate. But one day he meets Diego, a mysterious new student, and he starts to get the tiniest bit curious about what the future might hold if he does push the button.
As human beings, we’re born believing that we are the apex of creation, that we are invincible, that no problem exists that we cannot solve. But we inevitably die with all our beliefs broken.
The first chapter packs a punch. “Life is bullshit.” It hooked me from the opening line! We Are the Ants is 455 pages, but it reads like 250-300 pages. The writing is breathtakingly gorgeous when Henry waxes philosophical about the universe and our place in it. It deals with so many issues, but it never felt like too much. The central focus is mental illness, suicide, and bullying. The peripheral issues become part of Henry’s decision-making process.
During the 144 days, Henry asks the people in his life “If you knew the world was going to end, and you could press a button to prevent it, would you?” Not many people believe Henry is actually getting abducted by aliens, so it’s treated as a hypothetical question. It was really interesting to read everyone’s answers and the reasoning behind their answers. One of the things I loved about Diego is that he believes Henry, but his main goal is to help Henry see the beauty in life and to help him want to push the button. Henry also writes short essays about all the ways the world could end and those appear every few chapters. Some of his theories are scarily realistic while others are hilarious.
“If a kid looks like he doesn’t give a shit, it’s not because he doesn’t believe in himself anymore; it’s because no one else believes in him”
“If you want people to treat you normal, you have to act normal.” “I never asked to be treated normal, Charlie. I just want to be left alone.” Henry is an awesome character and so easy to root for. He is nihilistic, but he has a great sense of humor and an interesting way of looking at the world. It is heartbreaking to witness the endless violence committed against him, but it is even more heartbreaking when you realize he doesn’t think he deserves any better. The supporting characters were all interesting and none of them felt extraneous.
One of the great things about this book is that Henry has positive relationships outside of his love life. He forms a sweet relationship with his brother’s girlfriend. He has an amazing bond with his grandmother. He has a supportive teacher that sees what a hard time he is having and tries to help him, while also giving him space. She reminded me of teachers I had in high school, coincidentally also in the sciences. I also loved the appearance of Dr. Janeway, which I’m assuming was a reference to the captain in Star Trek: Voyager! My least favorite characters were Jesse and Diego, but we are seeing them through Henry’s idealization (especially Jesse). I loved how Henry actually has to deal with his issues within himself and is not completely “cured” by finding love again.
“The world pretty much sucks. But the bad shit that happens doesn’t cancel out the good.”
The book’s length is probably what made all of the characters feel so real, but some parts felt too long. Reading the obsessive thoughts of a passive character for 450 pages was exhausting. The repetition drove me from empathy to exasperation by the end. The abuse/apology cycle happened one too many times. His progression was slow; it was one step forward and two steps back, until we go about twenty steps forward at the end. It’s definitely realistic, but not always riveting. Henry is abused at school, but he doesn’t even get a break from violence at home. His brother Charlie is constantly harassing him. The way Charlie lashes out at Henry seems way beyond “brothers fight, and then they move on”: Charlie’s age, the one-sidedness, the frequency, and the description of Henry’s injuries. It makes the typical annoying sibling behaviors take on a cruel tinge. While we do learn that Charlie is more complicated than we previously thought, his awful treatment of Henry is just accepted.
“Depression isn’t a war you win. It’s a battle you fight every day. You never get to stop, never get to rest. It’s one bloody fray after another.
I didn’t get the kind of ending I expected, but it was appropriate. Hutchinson drew a parallel between Henry’s situation and Jesse’s depression and suicide in a really unique way. It’s a very realistic and honest story. It really emphasizes the importance of the bonds with our fellow humans (I’m thinking especially of a touching scene involving Henry’s grandmother and photos). I thought a lot about the The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness while I was reading. That book also had a unique premise and a focus on mental illness, but I never really connected with the characters. If you liked the idea of The Rest of Us Just Live Here but were hoping for something a little deeper, you’ll love We Are the Ants. Warning: bullying, violence and sexual content.
The universe may forget us, but our light will brighten the darkness for eons after we’ve departed this world. The universe may forget us, but it can’t forget us until we’re gone, and we’re still here, our futures still unwritten. We can choose to sit on our asses and wait for the end, or we can live right now. We can march to the edge of the void and scream in defiance. Yell out for all to hear that we do matter. That we are still here, living our absurd, bullshit lives, and nothing can take that away from us. Not rogue comets, not black holes, not the heat death of the universe. We may not get to choose how we die, but we can choose how we live. The universe may forget us, but it doesn’t matter. Because we are the ants, and we’ll keep marching on.