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. Or the 1977 film by Bert I. Gordon about giant killer ants in the Everglades.
Compare A Rustle In The Grass, another book about a war between two different types of ant.
This book and its sequels involves the following tropes:
- 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.
- Cancer gets cured by communicating with it as if it was a being with a level of sapience.
- 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.
- Decoy Protagonist: In the first book, it seems as though prince 327 is going to be the protagonist... [and then he gets killed, Worker 103 683 becoming the actual protagonist throughout the books.
- Devoured by the Horde: In the first book, a hungry woodpecker and lizard find themselves eaten from the inside out by the russet ants.
- Early-Installment Weirdness: In the first book, some ants are shown understanding the concept of humor and even laughing, and call the humans "humans". In the next books, ants are shown as not knowing what humor even is and refer to the humans as "fingers".
- Famous-Named Foreigner: Subverted: the main family is named "Wells", but are French. A character asks if they are related to H. G. Wells.
- A Glass of Chianti: Wells describe in his encyclopedia how African slaves thought that the wine the White slavers were drinking was human blood.
- 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.
- Like a God to Me: A kid communicates with the ants and gets them into some sort of cult, leading them to believe he is their all-knowing god.
- Mad Scientist: Edmond Wells doesn't sound like the most stable scientist there is.
- 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.
- Reed Richards Is Useless: They actually find a cure for cancer from the ants... by making a machine that communicates with cancer like how they communicated with the ants.
- Reverse Psychology: How the Wells family go inside the basement. Edmond specifically told them not go go so that they'd go.
- Series Continuity Error: 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. When 103 finally laughs in the end of the third book, it's treated as a revolutionary moment.
- Shout-Out: As noted above, the family's name, to Well's short story. A few characters even make the comparison to the author.
- 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.
- The 'Verse: The character of Edmund Wells also appears in Werber's The Thanatonauts series, which contrasts by inserting downright supernatural elements alongside hard scientific sci-fi.
- 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.