E. O. Wilson’s fiction piece “Trailhead” appeared in the January 25, 2010 New Yorker. The story is science fable, science fiction. The main character in the story, the protagonist, might be the queen ant, or could be the entire ant colony, the superorganism. The antagonist is a capricious nature, and there’s the rub, for the ant is nature, and it’s a curious narrator who separates one from the other to argue a moral.
This is not the first time Wilson has used science fiction to illustrate a sociobiological theory. In On Human Nature, he creates a “superior extraterrestrial species,” that eats humans, easily justifying their appetite using the same argument that humans use to eat animals. Meanwhile, the aliens are mostly interested in Earth’s ant population.
What makes “Trailhead” fiction includes the idea that nature, or someone, dispenses luck. But what is luck? From the OED we get “locken to entice.” While, as the OED points out, this is the verb, not the noun, Wilson, in addition to giving us “By luck she had found an ideal site to build a nest,” says “…the dice fell right for the Queen of the Trailhead Colony.” Who rolled the dice? Who or what dispenses luck? In any case, isn’t one man’s luck another’s misfortune? And why is it considered lucky to merely prolong a meaningless life? Answers to these moral questions are implicit in the story, where we find “altruistic workers,” “self-sacrifice,” “viciousness,” and “taboos.”
But luck drives the theme, for as lucky as the Trailhead Colony queen was, the Streamsider Queen was even luckier: “The Streamsiders had not chosen this site for their own protection. They were just lucky that their Queen had landed there.” Are we lucky that our parents met, that the Big Bang occurred, that our ancestral genes wound up close, but not too close, to the sun?
The story ends with the defeat of the Trailhead Colony by the invading Streamsiders. “With luck a few survivors [Trailheaders] might then reassemble and restart the colony elsewhere. That is, if they had a real queen. But, of course, they had only their inadequate Soldier-Queen.” The end comes, and “The ants were a doomed people in a besieged city.” They’ve run out of luck.
Then comes the most surprising part of the theory; the ants are given a choice: “Finally, all that the Trailheaders knew was terror, and the existence of a choice – they could fight or run from the horror.” If luck exists, they will make a run for it.
Note: Norton has published Wilson’s first novel (he’s 80 years old), “Anthill,” this month.