It's about the Wells family, who have inherited a house from their dead uncle Edmond Wells, an eccentric scientist who was obsessed about ants and apparently discovered very strange stuff about them. In his will, he has left the instruction to "never ever go down in the basement".
Meanwhile, at a russet ant (Formica rufa) colony, a young male ant, 327, finds out that a whole group of ants were instantly killed under mysterious circumstances. He tries to alert the ant colony, at first suspecting the nearby dwarf ant colony, but they don't believe him. Attacked by strange stone-smelling ants, 327 allies with with a princess ant, 56, and a soldier ant, 103 683, in investigating the mysterious circumstances, and uncovers a conspiracy that goes deeper than any of them realize.
Not to be confused with (though obviously partly inspired by) the 1905 short story of the same title by H. G. Wells, in which a species of intelligent and poisonous ant is shown to be slowly taking over South America.
This book and its sequels involves the following tropes:
- A God Am I: A kid communicates with the ants and gets them into some sort of cult, leading them to believe he is their all-knowing god.
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: A computer becomes sentient in the third book and dead-set on fulfulling the will of its Knight Templar user, its very minerals becoming hostile to attackers.
- Ant War: Especially the first book, which shows a battle between the Formica rufa (red wood ant - called "russet ant" in the story) colony and the dwarf ants, and later between the Formica rufa and Linepithema humile (Argentine ant).
- Artistic License Biology: You should not take everything Werber writes at face value. Do you, for example, honestly believe a man could freeze himself to death just by believing he is in a cold chamber? Also the level of intelligence of the ants and other bugs must be taken with a grain of salt.
- Ascended Extra: Edmond Wells doesn't do much in this series, given that he's, well, dead. He does show up and plays a pretty big part in the second book of the Thanatonauts trilogy as an angel, and later as a trainee-god.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Melies and Laetitia Wells.
- The Cassandra: 327. The ants don't want to listen to him when he tries to warn them about the ant-slaughter he has witnessed, since he fails to bring proof. The ant MIBs didn't help.
- Continuity Drift: An ant is described as laughing and doing humor in the first book; the following two ignore this and claim that ants do not know the concept of humor.
- Devoured by the Horde: In the first book, a hungry woodpecker and lizard find themselves eaten from the inside out by the russet ants.
- Famous-Named Foreigner: Subverted: the main family is named "Wells", but are French. A character asks if they are related to H. G. Wells.
- Humans Are Bastards: Werber loves this trope: playing it straight and subverting it.
- Humans Are Cthulhu: Obviously, when it happens through the point of view of ants, due to both the size and the culture difference between us and them. Throughout the series, the humans are referred as the "Fingers", since this is the part of us ants usually interact with. And when ants encounter human buildings, cars or others, they take them for Alien Geometries due to the sheer size and incomprehensibility of them. Oh, and the reason why so many ants got killed instantly in the first book's beginning? They were just stepped on by an old grandma. Then again, ants are sort of a little Cthulhu to humans, as well.
- Humans Are Ugly: Arthur Ramirez uses a small TV screen in order to show the human world to the ant 103th. After seeing some models, the soldier ant said in her head that she find the human females very ugly!
- I Am A Humanitarian: When the human protagonists are stuck in the basement with nothing to eat, one of them decides that they should resort to cannibalism. They then get in a bloodthirsty fight. This also happens with 56, who is forced to eat her own eggs so that she has enough energy to lay an egg that can hatch.
- Miranda Rights: The stories are set in France, but when Méliès goes arrest Laetitia, he recites the Miranda Rights.
- New Media Are Evil: 103 693 manages to learn most of mankind just by watching TV for several days. Her verdict is not nice to hear. She has lots of nice things to tell too.
- No Infantile Amnesia: The grandmother remembers when she was just born as she crawls through a wire tunnel.
- Overly Long Name: 103 683 decides to just go by "103" in the third book, since her name is too damn long and she has been told the story of an ant who died because it took too long to call her from danger...
- Poison Is Corrosive: The russet ants have the ability to fire concentrated formic acid from their abdomens, capable of eating through thick exoskeletons in seconds.
- Reverse Psychology: How the Wells family go inside the basement. Edmond specifically told them not go go so that they'd go.
- Shout-Out: As noted above, the family's name, to Well's short story.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: 103 683 gets in a fight with an ant who is sick of getting through many dangers just to bring a cocoon to humans. The other ant gets its head chopped off and makes a cynical, "The Reason You Suck" Speech to 103 683. The latter doesn't care much, and her comrade 23 interrupt the speech by kicking in the head.
- You Are Number 6: Only queen ants can get a proper name. The rest are all referred to by their serial number.
- Zerg Rush: The ants in general of course, but the Dwarve Ants as despicted as being especially good at this, due to them possessing multiple queens in each colony.