Insects have long been ready protagonists for horror and thriller fiction. A few famous examples that come to mind are H.G. Wells’ 1903 story The Valley of Spiders and Carl Stephenson’s 1937 story Leiningen Versus the Ants. In the wild and terrifying days of the nuclear 1950s, it seemed that the only way that people could imagine insects as truly scary was to make them gigantic:
But the more science learns about insects, the more we learn how amazing they are, and the more their natural behavior provides imaginative fodder for horror fiction. Wells and Leiningen, for instance, didn’t need to introduce any supernatural behavior to make their insects terrifying.
Now, in this fine tradition, comes Chuck Wendig’s Invasive:
As is quite clear from the cover, the primary threat of Invasive is ants… lots and lots of ants.
FBI futurist Hannah Stander has her planned visit to her parents interrupted by work. She has been called to a cabin in the Adirondacks, where the horribly mutilated remains of a person have been discovered — surrounded by the bodies of many ants. An analysis of the ants suggests that they were genetically modified, and the genetic markers lead to the biotech company Arca, run by the eccentric and visionary billionaire Einar Geirsson.
Stander travels to Arca’s research facility on a remote Pacific island known as Kolohe Atoll to hunt for answers. There she meets a curious and brilliant collection of researchers, any one of which could be involved in the macabre death in the Adirondacks. But as she learns more about the work being done, actions are taken to hide Arca’s secrets… even if it results in the deaths of everyone on the island.
Invasive is a fast-paced and fun read, and filled with unexpected twists and turns. It is also meticulously researched, and the villainous ants are, with some inevitable fictional liberties, based in real-life ant behaviors. This is even clear in the dedication of the book: “To Gwen Pearson and the fine folks at the Purdue University Bug Barn.” The ants have a particularly gruesome way of killing, which I won’t spoil here, that is a clever perversion of innocent ant activities.
The broad strokes of Invasive may seem familiar to those who have read the works of Michael Crichton, in which there is often a remote high-tech research facility in which the experiments go horribly wrong. First I should note — and I think this is vague enough to not be a spoiler — that there is a dramatic, indeed catastrophic twist about 2/3rds of the way through Invasive that is surprising and very different from anything I remember of Crichton.
There is a bigger difference between Wendig’s writing and Crichton’s writing, however. I used to be a very big fan of Crichton’s techno-thrillers, but it slowly dawned on me over the course of a number of years that Crichton was practically a Luddite in his writing. Science and technology are the villains in most of Crichton’s novels. In Jurassic Park, this is painfully overt, as “chaos mathematician” Ian Malcolm basically gives the “tampering in God’s domain” speech. Even in The Andromeda Strain, in which scientists attempt to defeat a deadly alien virus, it is revealed in the end that their efforts were for nothing — the virus mutates itself into a harmless form without any human intervention. Crichton’s low point was State of Fear (2004), a story about eco-terrorists committing murder to draw attention to climate change; the book is filled with Crichton’s own researched “facts” describing global warming as a hoax perpetrated by scientists with an agenda. In short: reading Crichton, one realizes that he was generally pessimistic about the promise of technology.
In Invasive, Wendig presents a more nuanced and thoughtful view. This is laid out clearly by an introductory quote by Hannah Stander at the beginning of the book:
The future is a door.
Two forces–forces that we drive like horses and chariots, whips to their backs, wheels in ruts, great froth and furious vigor–race to that door.
The first force is evolution. Humanity changing, growing, becoming better than it was.
The second force is ruination. Humanity making its best effort to demonstrate its worst tendencies. A march towards self-destruction.
The future is a door that can accommodate only one of those two competing forces.
Will humanity evolve and become something better?
Or will we cut our own throats with the knives we made?
Our technology, Wendig (through Hannah) seems to be saying, can be used to take us to a glorious future, or destroy us. This may seem at first glance like a trite statement, but throughout the novel different characters interpret this challenge in surprising and increasingly complicated ways. To put it another way: different characters have different and often quite broad interpretations of how to make the world a better place.
One final touch of the book is worth mentioning: the first page of every new chapter includes some life-size images of ants! At first it just seems cute, but as the plot intensifies and the ants get nastier and nastier, it can get genuinely creepy to turn the page and see a few ants in front of you.
Overall, I found Invasive to be a fun, fast-paced, creepy, and well-thought-out thriller..