100-Character Breakdown: A profound, emotionally complex YA novel with a brilliant and subtle sci-fi theme.
Genre: Young adult, sci-fi, LGBTQ
Publisher: Simon Pulse (January 2016)
Shaun David Hutchinson’s We Are the Ants combines a number of moving parts that seem like they might not fit, but he manages to stitch these threads into a remarkable novel.
Every so often, aliens abduct 16-year-old Henry Denton. By now, this is a routine procedure, but that changes when the “sluggers” inform him that Earth will end in 144 days, and Henry can save it if he just pushes a red button. But Henry — known as “Space Boy” to his classmates — isn’t sure it’s worth it. His family’s had its share of struggles: his brother dropped out of college and got his girlfriend pregnant, his grandma has Alzheimer’s, his father abandoned them, and his mother is barely keeping the family — and herself — together. Between dealing with that, losing his boyfriend Jesse to suicide, and the nonstop bullying at school, Henry can’t decide if the world is worth saving.
The novel’s sci-fi theme is conceptually brilliant and beautifully subtle; it gives the young adult book a central point to orbit around while also acting as a device that forces Henry to reexamine his life. And within the circumstances of Henry’s life, Hutchinson manages to portray numerous complex issues: suicide, bullying, sexual orientation, dementia, love, pain, hope. We Are the Ants tackles moral questions at every turn, and somehow the book never seems to fall off track. Each of the characters furthers these themes, and most of the characters are complex in their own right. The sluggers might actually be among the least complex characters, but they still shine in their nuanced and comedic interactions with Henry. Along with all these themes and characters, Hutchinson squeezes in another element: Henry’s scenarios of how the world could end. These scenarios are interspersed throughout the chapters. They provide another look at Henry’s character (he loves science) while also adding tension to the plot (nothing makes that 144-day, button-pushing deadline more suspenseful than a list of ways the world may end).
This genre-blending novel stacks elements on top of more elements, but Hutchinson writes with a finesse that keeps it all together. With such profound storytelling and complexity, We Are the Ants is easily one of the best young adult novels of the year.