From the “author to watch” (Kirkus Reviews) of The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley comes an “equal parts sarcastic and profound” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) novel about a teenage boy who must decide whether or not the world is worth saving.
Henry Denton has spent years being periodically abducted by aliens. Then the aliens give him an ultimatum: The world will end in 144 days, and all Henry has to do to stop it is push a big red button.
Only he isn’t sure he wants to.
After all, life hasn’t been great for Henry. His mom is a struggling waitress held together by a thin layer of cigarette smoke. His brother is a jobless dropout who just knocked someone up. His grandmother is slowly losing herself to Alzheimer’s. And Henry is still dealing with the grief of his boyfriend’s suicide last year.
Wiping the slate clean sounds like a pretty good choice to him.
But Henry is a scientist first, and facing the question thoroughly and logically, he begins to look for pros and cons: in the bully who is his perpetual one-night stand, in the best friend who betrayed him, in the brilliant and mysterious boy who walked into the wrong class. Weighing the pain and the joy that surrounds him, Henry is left with the ultimate choice: push the button and save the planet and everyone on it…or let the world—and his pain—be destroyed forever.
Consider your life for a moment. Think about all those little rituals that sustain you throughout your day—from the moment you wake up until that last, lonely midnight hour when you guzzle a gallon of NyQuil to drown out the persistent voice in your head. The one that whispers you should give up, give in, that tomorrow won’t be better than today. Think about the absurdity of brushing your teeth, of arguing with your mother over the appropriateness of what you’re wearing to school, of homework, of grade-point averages and boyfriends and hot school lunches.
Think about the absurdity of life.
When you break down the things we do every day to their component pieces, you begin to understand how ridiculous they are. Like kissing, for instance. You wouldn’t let a stranger off the street spit into your mouth, but you’ll swap saliva with the boy or girl who makes your heart race and your pits sweat and gives you boners at the worst fucking times. You’ll stick your tongue in his mouth or her mouth or their mouth, and let them reciprocate without stopping to consider where else their tongue has been, or whether they’re giving you mouth herpes or mono or leftover morsels of their tuna-salad sandwich.
We shave our legs and pluck our eyebrows and slather our bodies with creams and lotions. We starve ourselves so we can fit into the perfect pair of jeans, we pollute our bodies with drugs to increase our muscles so we’ll look ripped without a shirt. We drive fast and party hard and study for exams that don’t mean dick in the grand scheme of the cosmos.
Physicists have theorized that we live in an infinite and infinitely expanding universe, and that everything in it will eventually repeat. There are infinite copies of your mom and your dad and your clothes-stealing little sister. There are infinite copies of you. Despite what you’ve spent your entire life believing, you are not a special snowflake. Somewhere out there, another you is living your life. Chances are, they’re living it better. They’re learning to speak French or screwing their brains out instead of loafing on the couch in their boxers, stuffing their face with bowl after bowl of Fruity Oatholes while wondering why they’re all alone on a Friday night. But that’s not even the worst part. What’s really going to send you running over the side of the nearest bridge is that none of it matters. I’ll die, you’ll die, we’ll all die, and the things we’ve done, the choices we’ve made, will amount to nothing.
Out in the world, crawling in a field at the edge of some bullshit town with a name like Shoshoni or Medicine Bow, is an ant. You weren’t aware of it. Didn’t know whether it was a soldier, a drone, or the queen. Didn’t care if it was scouting for food to drag back to the nest or building new tunnels for wriggly ant larvae. Until now that ant simply didn’t exist for you. If I hadn’t mentioned it, you would have continued on with your life, pinballing from one tedious task to the next—shoving your tongue into the bacterial minefield of your girlfriend’s mouth, doodling the variations of your combined names on the cover of your notebook—waiting for electronic bits to zoom through the air and tell you that someone was thinking about you. That for one fleeting moment you were the most significant person in someone else’s insignificant life. But whether you knew about it or not, that ant is still out there doing ant things while you wait for the next text message to prove that out of the seven billion self-centered people on this planet, you are important. Your entire sense of self-worth is predicated upon your belief that you matter, that you matter to the universe.
But you don’t.
Because we are the ants.
• • •
I didn’t waste time thinking about the future until the night the sluggers abducted me and told me the world was going to end.
I’m not insane. When I tell you the human race is toast, I’m not speaking hyperbolically the way people do when they say we’re all dying from the moment our mothers evict us from their bodies into a world where everything feels heavier and brighter and far too loud. I’m telling you that tomorrow—January 29, 2016—you can kiss your Chipotle-eating, Frappuccino-drinking, fat ass good-bye.
You probably don’t believe me—I wouldn’t in your place—but I’ve had 143 days to come to terms with our inevitable destruction, and I’ve spent most of those days thinking about the future. Wondering whether I have or want one, trying to decide if the end of existence is a tragedy, a comedy, or as inconsequential as that chem lab I forgot to turn in last week.
But the real joke isn’t that the sluggers revealed to me the date of Earth’s demise; it’s that they offered me the choice to prevent it.
You asked for a story, so here it is. I’ll begin with the night the sluggers told me the world was toast, and when I’m finished, we can wait for the end together.
All Henry wanted was to be left alone, to live his life in peace. But that was not to be. King-of-the-jocks Marcus won’t leave him alone, alternating between bullying Henry and hooking up with him. His grandmother won’t leave him alone, as she needs more and more help from her family as she slides into dementia. His brother, Charlie, continues his brotherly torture of Henry, even with the distraction of a pregnant girlfriend. The kids at school won’t leave him alone—most of them taunt him mercilessly, while Audrey and Diego insist on trying to get close. Even the memory of his former boyfriend, Jesse, who committed suicide, continues to haunt him. But worst of all are the sluggers, the aliens who have been regularly abducting Henry since he was young. They have stepped up their game, presenting him with a terrible choice.
The sluggers know when the world is going to end, and they are forcing Henry to decide whether or not to save it. But how can Henry be persuaded to save a world that seems to contain nothing but suffering for everyone on it? Does saving humanity mean letting them be destroyed, or forcing them to continue their pitiful lives?
1. We Are the Ants begins with a quote by famous sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Why do you think the author chose these words to be the first that you see? What does it tell you about the story that is to come? Does your understanding of the quote change throughout the course of the book?
2. Why is the book called We Are the Ants? What relation does Henry’s hypothetical ant have to the human race? How does all this fit into Henry’s overall theory on the purpose of life? Does the meaning of Henry’s statement “We are the ants” change from the beginning of the book to the end?
3. Henry says of Jesse: “He didn’t kill himself because of a single overwhelming problem; he died from a thousand tiny wounds.” What are some of these tiny wounds? Why does Henry blame himself for Jesse’s suicide? What effects does the suicide have on Henry’s life now?
4. Nobody seems to understand why Henry allows Marcus into his life. What does Henry see in Marcus that the others can’t? Are there any other reasons that Henry thinks he should be with Marcus? Why is Marcus attracted to Henry? How does their relationship change over the course of the story?
5. In the doomsday scenario “The Meteor,” Frieda Eichman watches the meteor named after her father destroy the earth, and she whispers a phrase in German that translates to “I’ve missed you so much, Papa.” Do you think she regrets naming the meteor after her father? What does it mean to her that the world is ending? Do any of the other characters in the book have similarly fraught relationships with their fathers?
6. Why does Audrey want Henry to be part of her life again? Why does he continue to push her away? What do you think is the turning point that allows them to be friends again?
7. Why do science and math appeal to Henry so much? What do these two subjects offer that he doesn’t get from the other aspects of his life? How does his interest in science help him deal with all the things that happen to him?
8. How does Nana describe her Alzheimer’s disease? How does Henry feel about her decline? What effect does her disease have on the different members of Henry’s family?
9. Henry comes up with a number of different possible doomsday scenarios for how the world could end. What does his ability to think up all these catastrophes tell you about what kind of person he is? Do any of the scenarios reflect on how he feels about his fellow man? Do any of these seem likely to ever happen?
10. How does the nickname “Space Boy” impact Henry’s life? What things—good or bad—come from his reputation? Does it have any effect on his ability to form new relationships?
11. Immediately after Henry is attacked in the shower, he says, “I wish I were dead. Because you can only die once, but you can suffer forever.” Do you think he truly believes this? What events from his life would lend credence to this statement?
12. Why does Henry agree, at one point, to press the button if the sluggers don’t make him return to earth? Why do you think they do not agree to this proposition? What do they offer him instead?
13. What do Diego’s paintings reveal about his past and his emotional state? Is there another way that Henry could have learned so much about Diego? Does Diego’s painting of Henry capture who he is? If so, how?
14. Diego does not believe in letting the past define him, instead choosing to focus on the moment he’s in and what he can make of his future. Does Henry agree with this philosophy? What does Henry stand to lose if he lets go of his past?
15. Does Henry believe that there is a pattern and a meaning to life? In what ways would believing in fate help him deal with his emotions? Do his views change over the course of the book?
16. Why doesn’t Henry push the button when he is first given the choice? At what point does he change his mind? What makes him decide that the world is worth saving? Would Henry’s friends and family have pressed the button?
17. Which of the people in Henry’s life have abandoned him? Why does he feel responsible for these desertions?
18. How does the prospect of being a father change Charlie? Do Henry’s attitudes toward Charlie also change during the course of the story? How does the addition of Zoey change the family dynamic?
19. At one point, Henry says that Jesse was “definitely the best of me.” Why would he think that? What do you think is the best part of Henry? What would his friends and family say is his best quality?
20. What do you make of the document that Henry turned in for his Chemistry extra credit assignment? Why did he turn that in? Is this what Ms. Faraci had in mind for the assignment? Was Henry emotionally ready at the beginning of the story to share his thoughts and experiences with his teacher?
21. Discuss your thoughts on the book’s ending. Were the sluggers real? Did Henry have a chance to change the world?
1. Jesse isn’t able to conquer his demons, and chooses to end his life. Find out if there is a suicide hotline or some sort of peer counseling group in your area with which you can volunteer.
2. Henry wonders if the sluggers communicate through the secretion of chemicals like insects, or through codified movements like bees. Choose an insect or animal, and research how they communicate. Write a short essay about your findings.
3. Write your own end-of-the-world scenario, like those that Henry imagined. Can you also think of a solution to your doomsday scenario? If so, write it into the ending of your story.
4. Henry is bullied by his fellow classmates—particularly Marcus—and it makes his life miserable. Do you have an anti-bullying initiative at your school? If so, how can you support these efforts? If not, come up with a plan to combat bullying and propose it to your counselor or principal.
5. Create a self-portrait that captures a significant moment in your life, your emotional state, or your true essence. You can use paint, like Diego does, or choose another medium, such as drawing, photography, collage, etc.
6. Henry’s extra credit project takes the form of a journal. If you do not already keep a journal, start one now. Keep track of the events in your life and how you feel about them.
7. Astronomy is an important part of Henry’s life, helping him make sense of what’s happening to him and his place in the world. Choose a topic from the world of astronomy to learn more about, and write a report about what you discover.
8. As baby boomers get older, more and more people are suffering from Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Association is doing excellent work, raising funds and doing research. Find your local chapter and pitch in. And learn more about the organization: http://www.alz.org/.
9. Henry’s mom is a trained chef, but it’s not until the end of the book that she begins to take pleasure in cooking again. Choose a dish that you’ve never made before, and learn to make it. Or, if you’ve never cooked before, try taking a cooking class to learn the basics!
Guide written in 2017 by Cory Grimminck, Director of the Portland District Library in Michigan.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Shaun David Hutchinson is the author of numerous books for young adults, including The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, At the Edge of the Universe, and We Are the Ants. He also edited the anthologies Violent Ends and Feral Youth and wrote the memoir Brave Face, which chronicles his struggles with depression and coming out during his teenage years. He lives in Seattle, where he enjoys drinking coffee, yelling at the TV, and eating cake. Visit him at ShaunDavidHutchinson.com or on Twitter @ShaunieDarko.