The first inkling I had that my immediate future would be anything but the usual routine of academic life was on the fifteenth of June, 1952. I was studying in the Sterling Library of Yale University, poring over a description of Pueblo customs of New Mexico. As usual, New Haven in June was hot and humid, and several flies (creatures which I abhor) were buzzing about me. Undergraduate classes had been suspended for the summer; therefore, the library was almost deserted.
Summary: This book was chosen to be a light read during a busy time, so there's not a huge amount to say about it, beyond the basics of the story itself. The narrator, who is never named, is an archeology professor at Yale; he joins an expedition to the Yucatan led by his department chair, William Appel. The department is putting together an archeological expedition, but due to severe budgetary shortfalls, they lack the money to fund the expedition completely. Because of this, they will be teaming up with Professor Hutchins from the Biology Department; Hutchins is a British entomologist with an independent grant. They also expect to cooperate with an independent British archeological expedition. In addition to Appel and Hutchins, there will be a graduate student whose specialization is Yucatan civilizations, Riccardo (sic) Diaz, and coming along to be research assistants are Ray Semple and his wife Pat, as well as our neighbor. But Semple and the narrator have archeological backgrounds in other areas (as noted in the above passage, the narrator specializes in New Mexico); and Pat Semple has a Master's degree that qualifies her to assist Professor Hutchins.
In an early conversation with the narrator, Diaz notes that a great deal is unknown about ancient Mexican civilizations, and gives as an example the Teka people, who are known only from one artifact, called the Teka Stone, which locates them just south of Uxmal. The Teka Stone has, instead of the usual serpent-based designs, a picture of a man composed entirely of carvings of little ants.
Shortly afterward they meet their pilot, Juan Hernandez, who flies them out in a tiny rickety plane that is decades old. A storm comes up and they crash. While they are waiting for search and rescue, Ray Semple stumbles on some ruins, which turn out to have patterns exactly like those of the Teka Stone. That night, they are forced to abandon camp in a hurry due to a massive column of army ants (the book doesn't use the term, but the usual word for this is a 'raid') moving in their direction. The column turns out to be immense, vastly larger than a typical army ant raid, and to box them in on three sides. They are forced to retreat to another ruin of Teka design, an ancient temple with a sacrifical altar. While briefly looking around, they stumble on skeletons of Spanish conquistadors in a cave, but when they attempt to leave the cave, they find the opening sealed by a living curtain of ants. In the morning they discover an inscription in Spanish that, translated, would be:
Fifth of May 1532
Fifteen Knights of the Santa Rosa
Four are alive now
Our captors are not human
Hutchins notes that none of the behavior they've witnessed is, in itself, unusual: legionary ants engage in large foraging raids, and even capture other insects. What is unusual is the sheer scale of it, which dwarfs anything he's ever heard of. Another case of it is soon discovered: the ants are leaving them mushrooms, which they seem to grow themselves. Ants growing fungus is not unusual, but actual farming mushrooms is a bit much. And soon it becomes even stranger. They are visited by large groups of ants that come into the cave, mill around, and then leave; and this behavior, when explained, only raises further questions, because it soon becomes clear that they are forming Mayan hieroglyphs. And then one day, it is Spanish sentences. They write sentences in response, and then one day the ants form a Spanish sentence that, translated, comes to:
"I am the ruling ants of Teka and Uxmal."
It turns out that the Teka civilization, which had a powerful ant-worshipping cult, had an unusual pasttime: they bred ants for things like running mazes and solving little games, on which they wagered heavily, and quite by accident they managed to stumble on a variant kind of ant that in turn began influencing the breeding of new generations of ants, continuing the intelligence-breeding of the Teka. The ants eventually began to manipulate the Teka themselves; the Teka already regarded ants superstitiously, and the ants, now starting to take over and re-organize other colonies of ants, began systematically to arrange raids to get what they wanted; in an attempt to placate the Ant God, the Teka began sacrificing humans to them, and the ants, always ratcheting things in their favor, began to take deliberate advantage of this new factor. Eventually this went too far, and the Teka civilization became irreparably weakened. The ruling colony of ants had by this time become partly dependent on the Teka, and it had to rethink its ways in order to survive over the next several centuries. Now, however, it is ready to re-emerge, and, again ratcheting things up, it has a more ambitious target in mind: it will begin a conquest of the entire human race by assassination (it has bred ants that are highly venomous) and blackmail (it has already begun extending its network of ants).
One by one the prisoners die in various ways. Appel is sacrificed on the altar to make clear that the prisoners should not try to escape, paralyzed by a particular kind of ant venom and torn apart by ants. Diaz is made the representative of the Teka ants to the Mexican government, and Ray Semple, to the U.S. government, and they are both poisoned when they fail. Hutchins lucks out by having a heart attack while trying to escape. Hernandez, the pilot, who blames himself for their predicament,sacrifices himself in order to make up for it.
How do the prisoners escape? How do they foil the plans of the ruling ants of Teka and Uxmal?
Since the whole story is bound up in these questions, it would be hardly fair to say, now, wouldn't it.
Favorite Passage: It's obviously the one that sticks in the mind:
Then one day our writing ants left us a message that worried us a great deal.
"You cannot escape me."
"I will destroy you."
"Do not anger me."
Again we exclaimed our innocence, and our desire to be friendly; we asked if we might be released. It seemed strange to us the first person singular was being used in all of the ants' questions and replies. I suggested we ask: "Who are you?"
The answer came later that day.
"I am the ruling ants of Teka and Uxmal."
Recommendation: You are not missing anything by not having read it. On the other hand, if you want a light, easy read of a pulp fiction kind, with a bit of H. Rider Haggard in its style, and it happens to come your way, it's an enjoyable read, in the way a fun short story might be.