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Literature / Professor Mmaa's Lecture

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A 1943 novel by Stefan Themerson (first published 1953), Professor Mmaa's Lecture is a satire set within a termite colony.

It follows two plots: one, that of termite academics, studying the physiology and social organization of a particularly fascinating mammal—a bipedal, bald primate known as homo.

But while the insectoid scientists are busy conducting research on living homo specimens and spinning it into university lectures, the termite colony's society—eerily similar to that of humans—is being shaken by social dissent and political games. Mound-shaking events are coming...

A quite amusing and interesting novel. Apparently, the bilingual author wrote both the English and Polish versions, which do seem to differ a bit. (Note that this trope list is based on the Polish version, and thus might be inaccurate for the English one.)

This novel contains examples of:

  • Ant War: Wars between termites and ants are mentioned frequently. And one indeed erupts at the end.
  • Cannibalism Superpower: Eating other termites' "associative substance" is a way of transferring memories and knowledge. Of course, it's done after the donor's natural death.
  • Disability Superpower: While the termites are all blind (not that there's a whole lotta light deep inside the mound...), they 'see' with their acute sense of smell. Their language even reflects this ("unforesmelled"), and their "disguises" and "masks" involve solely altering one's smell.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Dr. Arsene's Private Detective; Professor Soul's First and Second Assistants.
  • Exact Words: It is untrue that fifty feeders are imprisoned in the highest of highs to starve. It is untrue that fourty-nine feeders are imprisoned. At the time of asking it's fourty-eight feeders.
  • Expospeak Gag: A lot of times with the termite scientists.
  • Foreshadowing: The student Nonobody wonders what are the chances an opportune cataclysm of some kind would occur before prof. Mmaa asks him for his homework. Guess what happens near the end.
  • Gag Nose: The termite Queen is very sensitive about her nose.
  • Gulliver Tie-Down: A horde of termites catching a drunk human in a ditch and promptly tying him down For Science!, using miniature cement strings (presumably made with their advanced Organic Technology). This includes tying down every single of the man's hairs separately.
  • Hold Your Hippogriffs: Several of termite sayings and expressions are variants of our own.
  • Humanity Is Young: "As young as a nymph" (termite young).
  • Humans Through Termite Eyes: What the book is most remembered for.
  • Ingesting Knowledge: Termites can eat human documents and writing, mentally noting the layout of ink and thus "reading" them. They also eat other thermites' associative substance to aquire their memories.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: The termites thoroughly research a house which has been the site of a murder, then, in their report, off-handedly mention finding a horizontal homo in the ground and a piece of metal within its heart.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: Some of the chapter titles.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The termites unwittingly deliver the karmic punishment to the wicked monsieur D'la G'and Ch'pelle, first causing his mansion to crumble and then turning him into their mind-controlled war machine.
  • Loose Lips: Professor Soul's Second Assistant, a born snitch. Born with auditory organs all over his body, he registers so much input at all times that he feels a physical need to dump this baggage out of his memory onto a number of VIPs.
  • Narrator: An "impartial chronicler" who supposedly has witnessed all events first-hand, though it doesn't explain how could he know the characters' private thoughts, or know what happened in places where the characters were explicitly alone.
  • Organic Technology: Pretty much all of termite "technology" is made up of genetically engineered termites that function like machines.
  • Photographic Memory: The termites' "associative substance" (their brain equivalent) gives them a near-perfect memory.
  • Promoted to Scapegoat: Dr. Sigismund Kraft-Durchfreud receives the honor of providing therapy for the Queen herself. He stops being happy when he learns that the higher-ups have done so in order to put the blame on him (and shift the termite society's attentions away from valid concerns) in case the Queen goes ill or infertile.
  • Puppeteer Parasite: Several termites acts as this in the ending, directly controlling a human's brain to turn him into a mindless Weapon of Mass Destruction. Though really, the guy deserved it.
  • The Rashomon: The ending depicts the events of the novel from the perspective of humans living near the termite mound.
  • Satire: On many aspects of humanity at once.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: The termites Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Also, the queen is named Gertrude and the ant ambassador - Fortinbrass.
  • The Shrink: Dr. Sigismund Kraft-Durchfreud, a sympathetic depiction of a psychiatrist.note 
  • Stutter Stop: The reserved Dr. Brillat-Beetonin, afflicted with a stutter, suddenly loses it apparently by sheer force of will and becomes a charismatic rebellious leader. Until an actual crisis occurs, at which point he panics and reverts back to his old self.
  • Tactful Translation: The interpreter present at the talks between the termite Prime Minister and the ant delegate does wonders in translating the ant's suave Trouble Entendre into the Minister's blunt plain talk, and vice versa.
  • Termite Hard Drive: Libraries are simply assemblies of termites whose purpose in life is to remember specific texts and recite them verbatim when requested.
  • Xenofiction: Sort of, as the entire termite culture is still very much mappable onto human culture.