Truth is Stranger than Fiction
The Colony, my debut novel, is sometimes categorized as science fiction. It’s actually fictionalized science –a small but growing genre made popular by the late, great Michael Crichton. Often referred to as “science thriller,” these novels combine real-life scientific theories and facts with the high-speed action and suspense of a thriller. Whether the antagonists are cloned dinosaurs, self-replicating nanobots, or alien spores invading earth, what makes these stories so interesting is that they’re possible.
The Colony is about a supercolony of ants that attack Manhattan, which sounds pretty sci-fi if you’re reading the jacket, but just about everything in the book is based on true science and technology, as well as the actual capabilities of real killer ants. The protagonists, two divorced entomologists brought together to save the city, are both at the top of their field. That meant I had to at least give the impression of knowing everything about ants. So I started my research in the non-fiction section of the library, then moved on to myrmecology text books and scientific journals, studying ant morphology, pheromones, swarm intelligence, and interviewing several entomologists who helped me decipher the technical jargon. I’m a research junkie and must have spent a thousand hours on the internet while writing the first draft.
Within six months I felt like I had about as much working knowledge of ants as a second-year grad student. More importantly, I discovered that these insects were more bizarre than any monster I could dream up. Here are just a few ant facts that prove truth is stranger than fiction:
- Fire ants are attracted to electrical systems, and have been a leading cause of traffic light failures in many parts of the southern United States.
- Driver ants in Africa sweep the forest floor in columns of 22 million and are the only known ant to attack people with the intention of killing them for food. They sometimes enter the nose and mouth of their prey and asphyxiate them to death.
- A queen slave-maker ant will fake her own death, enticing ants from other colonies to drag her to their nest. Once inside, she kills their queen, rolls around in her scent and takes over the colony. She lays her own eggs and as her soldiers mature, they emerge to attack other nests, tearing their victims apart and scurrying off with thousands of eggs to be made into new slaves.
- In Australia, Yellow Crazy Ants killed tens of millions of animals by spraying formic acid into their eyes and leaving them blind.
- In the Amazon, a new species of fungi turns ants into zombies. A week after being infected, ants enter a "zombie-like" state. The fungus then grows out of the head of the ant, releasing spores into the air, which rain down onto unsuspecting ants.
- The largest termite mound ever found is 41 feet tall.
- Every worker ant in a colony is female – the only job of the males is to fertilize the queen.
- Army Ants live in temporary nests that they form by linking their bodies together. These living nests protect the queen inside.
- It is estimated that the weight of all ants on earth is equal to the weight of all humans.
How can you not write about ants after reading that? What we know from books like Jaws and Jurassic Park is that real-life monsters can make a story more terrifying than creatures from our imagination. Ants are scary, no doubt about it. Most of the comments I get from readers focus on the attack scenes, how realistic they feel. Here is an excerpt from the first attack in my novel:
“…Cries of agony were muted behind the clear plastic shower curtain as Jerrol sat slumped at the bottom of the tub, groaning in wet clothes and sneakers, as heavy steam engulfed the room. The insects held tight to his legs from sock to knee. Their three-hook claws pierced his shins, stinging again and again… The pain was excruciating; mandibles biting and filling their jaws with meat. Jerrol hunched over his knees, digging fingernails deep and scratching away layers of flesh. A few ants spun down the drain in a river of bloody water, but most were burrowing farther into the wounds. Small knobby bumps moved under the skin of his kneecap where black tunnels of ants were visible as they fed and crawled freely about. A searing heat pulsed from the side of his left foot where a tremendous amount of blood poured into the tub. He peeled back the top flap of his sock with frantic shaking fingers. Underneath were the tattered remains of flesh and sinew, and a hole the size of a quarter where white ankle bone protruded from the center.”
Creepy, right? You’re swatting at your leg, aren’t you? The truth might not always be stranger than fiction, but stories are certainly scarier if we think they can happen. The universe is amazing; from insects, mammals and ocean life to the stars, planets and beyond. So if you ever find yourself contemplating what to write about, you might head for the backyard. Vampires and zombies are nothing compared to what a swarm of ants can do to a grasshopper. And if you want to get a close-up view of these fascinating insects, check out the antcam on my website: http://ajcolucci.com/antcam.php
About The Colony
Thomas Dunne Books, November 13, 2012
Hardcover and eBook, 304 pages
A series of gruesome attacks have been sweeping New York City. A teacher in Harlem and two sanitation workers on Wall Street are found dead, their swollen bodies nearly dissolved from the inside out. The predator is a deadly supercolony of ants--an army of one trillion soldiers with razor-sharp claws that pierce skin like paper and stinging venom that liquefies its prey.
The desperate mayor turns to the greatest ant expert in the world, Paul O’Keefe, a Pulitzer Prize–winning scientist in an Armani suit. But Paul is baffled by the ants. They are twice the size of any normal ant and have no recognizable DNA. They’re vicious in the field yet docile in the hand. Paul calls on the one person he knows can help destroy the colony, his ex-wife Kendra Hart, a spirited entomologist studying fire ants in the New Mexico desert. Kendra is taken to a secret underground bunker in New York City, where she finds herself working side by side with her brilliant but arrogant ex-husband and a high-ranking military officer hell-bent on stopping the insects with a nuclear bomb.
When the ants launch an all-out attack, Paul and Kendra hit the dangerous, panic-stricken streets of New York, searching for a coveted queen. It’s a race to unlock the secrets of an indestructible new species, before the president nukes Manhattan.
A.J. Colucci's debut novel is a terrifying mix of classic Michael Crichton and Stephen King. A thriller with the highest stakes and the most fascinating science, The Colony does for ants what Jaws did for sharks.
THE COLONY is her first published novel. Visit her online at ajcolucci.com.