Exclusive Interview: The Prophet Of The Termite God Author Clark Thomas Carlton
There’s been times, over the years, when ants have invaded science fiction and fantasy the same way they invaded your kitchen that one summer. There were the big ones in the 1954 movie Them!, and the regular-sized ones in H.G. Wells’ 1905 short story “Empire Of The Ants” that were made into big ones for the 1977 movie Empire Of The Ants. And now we have The Antasy Series, a science fantasy trilogy by Clark Thomas Carlton that not only has big ants but also regular-sized ants that seem big because humans are a lot smaller. With the second book in the series, The Prophet Of The Termite God (paperback, Kindle) newly available, I spoke to him via email about what inspired this series, what influenced it, and his plans to bring this buggy series to a close.
Let’s start with an overview of The Antasy Series; what is it about and what kind of world is it set in?
The setting is Earth, millions of years from now, when humans have evolved to the size of insects and intertwine with their world. Unknown to the humans, the planet is one great ocean with some islands. The tiny, tenth-of-an inch humans are an extreme outcome of insular dwarfism and they are the last red-blooded species to survive. In this oxygen rich world, the insects have gotten larger — the warrior caste of ants are large enough for humans to ride into battle or use as beasts of burden. The mini-humans of this futurity have survived not by fighting with insects, but by becoming their parasites or symbionts. The world of Antasy is made up of different kinds of ant peoples but there is also a traveling cockroach tribe as well as a beetle people, etc.
And then what is The Prophet Of The Termite God about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the first book, Prophets Of The Ghost Ants?
The Prophet Of The Termite God is a chronological continuation of Prophets Of The Ghost Ants. Termite God is the aftermath of a violent, multi-national conflict that leads to the creation of a new and vulnerable country for its victors. The story has similarities to postcolonial India and to Russia following World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution.
When in relation to writing Prophets Of The Ghost Ants did you come up with the idea for The Prophet Of The Termite God, and how, if at all, did the plot change as you wrote these books?
When the third book is complete, it will read like one big novel. I outlined the major story beats of all three books before I wrote Termite God. I knew my hero’s situation in that book would best be described by the trope “the dog that caught the bus” or in his terms, “the spiderling that has caught a hundred hornets with the first web it has ever spun.” As for my antagonist, I knew it would be about his fight to survive then revive his own mission — something he assures himself is certain because of the prophetic visions he receives from his termite deity.
What surprised me when I was writing Termite God was how much time I spent with my villain instead of my hero. I’ll lose a few readers for saying this, but the outcome of the presidential election of 2016 was a devastatingly sad and shocking event. I took my anger, my sadness, and my despair, and weaved it into an understanding of my villain and his struggles — his story is compelling even if his goals are reprehensible.
What inspired The Antasy Series to begin with?
One of my favorite books I read as a teen is titled The Imperial Animal, which is one of the first texts of Evolutionary Biology. The authors, Fox and Tiger, depict the human species as one whose “better instincts” are not in control. Humans are always expanding their territories to promote the replication of their genes and that makes us inherently war-like. As a teenager, I questioned both the values and validity of religion and I was inclined to blame it for our endless wars as well as for the reinforcement of repressive social systems. But I came to see that humankind has an unquenchable thirst for war and people are always in the process of trying to rise within a hierarchy by pushing down others. Religious beliefs don’t inspire war or create class systems as much as they are used as a justification for them.
I had an idea of this as a kid when I used to sit in the sandy lot in back of our house and observe different kinds of ants. They warred on each other when their colonies grew too close. I sensed these ants’ warring behavior was not something they had any control over. They weren’t capable of truces and negotiations but were little organic robots with a limited software program — certain stimuli triggered single responses Human beings seem be above all that, but we aren’t. It’s only recently as a species that some of us have tried to contain our urge to war and create equality for all humankind. In my distant futurity, ants are naturally still at war with each other. So are the humans whose tribalism is reinforced as a result of parasitizing different kinds of insects that are natural enemies. The black ant people hate the red ant people and they hate the green ant people — and they all hate the cockroach people. That is the essence of my allegory.
The idea for my novels came to me years ago when I woke from a dream in the Yucatan after witnessing a battle for a fallen peanut by two kinds of ants. In the dream, I was a tiny soldier on the back of a black ant and behind me were thousands of other ant riders heading into war against an army of men on red ants. I knew this initial image was the basis for a series I would later call Antasy.
And why is it called Antasy as opposed to Antsy?
Funny! Antasy is a combination of ant and fantasy. Antsy means people who have ants-in-the-pants or a nervous disposition. The Yiddish word is shpilkes, a word in common use in Hollywood when a deal may be in the offering. Maybe “antsy” could come to mean people who like ants — sort of like people who like art are “artsy.”
Now, The Prophet Of The Termite God, like Prophets Of The Ghost Ants, is a science fantasy story. But are there any other genres or subgenres or combinations of them at work in The Prophet Of The Termite God? And if so, are they also in Prophets Of The Ghost Ants?
My tent is staked in the camp of science fantasy as my work has elements of both. Plenty of science fiction authors have dealt with tiny people, including Crichton, and earlier Asimov shrunk some humans to microscopically small. I don’t know that anyone else has ever written of a humanity that got small enough over the eons to infiltrate the insect world. When some readers hear the word “fantasy” they usually associate a lord, his lady fair, a wizard or two, and some dragons at a castle, but that’s not what I write. For years, Ghost Ants sat on the desks of two of the Big Five publishers, both of whom had qualms about its categorization, calling it a “genre straddler” and “too outside the box” or “literary fantasy.” That’s something I’ve heard all my life about my screenplays etc — “too original” or “years ahead of its time.”
One of the studio coverages I read of Ghost Ants said I had created a new genre, an eco- or bio-fantasy. The one novel I think that comes closest to it is Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, better known by the more poetic name of The Long Afternoon Of The Sun. It has an outrageous but delicious premise where the Earth stops spinning and one side of it turns into a massive and vicious jungle. In that world, the humans have shrunk to a fourth of our size and taken on green skin to survive in a world where trees are meat-eating predators and some can toss bombs. Some of the trees have eyes and of course, there are some giant, predatory insects in this world. Hothouse has a wobbly premise but it’s a great read and it’s also a blend of sci-fi and fantasy.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on The Prophet Of The Termite God but not on Prophets Of The Ghost Ants?
I read a lot of history as well as religious literature and mythology. Termite God is informed by Russian history, both its pagan past as well as its more recent upheavals in the 20th century. I also did some reading on the Children’s Crusade as well as read some biographies of Aleister Crowley.
How about movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big influence on The Prophet Of The Termite God? Like maybe a certain superhero movie about a guy who can talk to ants…?
Ha! Well, of course I knew of Ant-Man. As a kid I was a Marvel junkie, but even then I knew enough about ants to realize that Ant-Man’s powers over ants were questionable. Originally, Ant-Man wore a helmet that allowed him to communicate telepathically with ants. Ants don’t communicate that way or have anything like real thoughts — they relay messages with chemicals that are detected by the sensors in their antennae.
I was also very taken with the scenes in Honey I Shrunk The Kids where the characters make friends with Anty, an insect they assume is male. Those visuals are fantastic, but nearly all ants are sterile females and they would either attack another entity that was not a sister from its colony or flee from it. After sniffing out the kids, Anty might have raised her gaster and shook it to release a recruitment scent to bring more of her sisters to defend the colony. Or she might have killed the kids then returned home, leaving a scent trail, so that her sisters could follow it back to her meaty food find.
As I mentioned in the intro, The Antasy Series is going to be a trilogy. What is the last book going to be called, and when might it be out?
Book 3, The Ghost Ants Of Gryllodesh, will be a conclusion to events set in motion in Books 1 and 2. I’ve always known the arc of this narrative and I know how it will conclude. My training as a screenwriter is all about setting up payoffs. Readers should be surprised by an outcome but not in disbelief. I hope to complete the last book in about a year.
As you know, some people like to wait until every book in a trilogy is available before reading any of them, and some then read every book in rapid succession. Is there any reason why you think someone shouldn’t do this with The Antasy Series? Or should but shouldn’t binge them? Or should wait and binge them?
Truthfully, as much as I’d like an audience to read my books now, the best way to read a series is in succession when it’s complete. The readers who have enjoyed Termite God are the ones who recently read or re-read Ghost Ants and they can keep the characters and narrative straight. Antasy has an intricate, sprawling story which is what readers of epic fiction like and expect, something to geek out on. If a reader really liked Book 1, they won’t wait to read Book 2, but it’s certainly understandable if someone wants to wait for the completed trilogy. I just binged on Don Winslow’s The Power Of The Dog, which is a fantastic trilogy, and that was the best way to read it. It’s got multiple locations and hundreds of characters and it would be tough to remember all that happened if the reading is two or more years apart between books.
Now, normally, at this point in my author interviews, I ask if there has been any interest in adapting their book into a movie, TV show, or video games. But given that the blurb on the front of both Prophets Of The Ghost Ants and The Prophet Of The Termite God is from Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds producer Lawrence Bender, I suppose I should ask when the Quentin Tarantino movie is coming out, and what role Samuel L. Jackson is playing?
Well, Quentin writes his own stuff, and I don’t know how interested he is in taking on an epic fantasy. But Samuel L. Jackson could play Hapkut, the husband of a Dranverish general who is revered for his ability to make contained fires that provide his nation with the chemical means of defeating invaders and destroying their insects.
Seriously, though, I understand there was interest at one point in adapting The Antasy Series, right?
Blecch! The screen project is a painful chapter of my life and it’s a tangled and thorny tale. Ouch. I admit my disappointments are entirely self-inflicted so excuse any remnants of self-pity. You have to expect disappointment if you venture into the dark and dangerous maze of a major film project, but the prize is so beautiful, you have to take that journey. Lawrence Bender and his development executive Janet Jeffries were major champions of the book and they worked with screenwriters/producers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary of Face/Off to get us very close to the fabled green light. But, again, it was something “too new.” It wasn’t outer space, it wasn’t the Middle Ages or time travel or aliens.
Also, the production companies that were interested wanted 75% of book, movie, video game and merchandising fees, which was appalling. Lawrence did interest a major film director in the novel, who was looking for “my own Avatar,” and there was a scheduled meeting at his palatial home and a lot of excitement and shpilkes, but the director eventually signed on to continue with a very successful and noisy franchise and that was the end of it.
One of the reasons I wrote this story as a novel is so that it could be appreciated as a stand alone work of art, not as a proof for a film or TV series. I’ve been a script doctor and ghost writer, as well a writer for hire on many screen projects, and only the worst of them ever went into production. I wrote some screenplays I’m really proud of which were also-rans and their only purpose now is to collect dust and feed silverfish. No one ever sits at home and says “I think I’ll read a great un-produced screenplay” but plenty of people, like me, still love to read novels. I am grateful my books found a readership.
Werb and Colleary are now working in television and developing new series and they would love for this to be one of them. Lawrence and Janet are reading Termite God now and are also working in TV. We had imagined a movie trilogy for Antasy, but a cable series would be much better suited to its elaborate world building.
If a TV show was going to happen, who do you think they should cast in the main roles, and who should direct it when Tarantino says he’s too busy doing Star Trek?
Years ago we had plenty of casting ideas but none of them would work now. The leads are mostly teenagers. We had in mind Steven Strait from The Expanse when he could play a teen. We liked the idea of Cate Blanchett [The Lord Of The Rings] as Queen Polexima and George Clooney [Solaris] as Commander Tahn. I would like all the surviving cast members of Star Trek and Next Generation to play the Learned Elders of Dranveria. I think Conleth Hill from Game Of Thrones would make an excellent Pious Dolgeeno.
And what if it was a video game?
I have to completely date myself and say that the last few I played over a decade ago were Soulcalibur, StarCraft, and Halo. Maybe Soulcalibur helped with some of the swordplay in my work. Occasionally I check in on the games my nephews are playing and I’m astonished by them, by their production values. Games can be the enemy of writers — a kind of crystal meth that eats all time. I have no access to them at home. They are too tempting.
Finally, if someone enjoys Prophets Of The Ghost Ants and The Prophet Of The Termite God, what similar fantasy novel would you suggest they read while waiting for The Ghost Ants Of Gryllodesh to come out?
My editor has compared my work to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, as well as to the Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, but those are not comparisons I would make. I’m a fan of Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass or His Dark Materials, but our settings are nothing alike even if we have similar themes.
Like almost everyone who loves science fiction fantasy, I revere Dune by Frank Herbert. I hesitate to compare my work with one of the greatest masters of the genre, but we share a fascination for religion, psychedelics, and the dynamics of upending a repressive hierarchy. I have always thought Herbert’s work to be more fantasy than science-fiction and see it as a means of exploring the psychology of religion which is something I like to do. I’m a fan of the latter day Dune books written by Herbert’s son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson which are set in the Dune universe. They read as stand-alone books and don’t have to be read in order if you knew the early novels.
And I’m very late to the party on this one, but I’ve been reading Stephen Baxter’s work. I’m finishing up The Time Ships, which is the authorized sequel to the great, great grand daddy of science fiction novels, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Stephen’s novel Evolution is also a sort of sequel to The Time Ships as it takes us millions of years into the future to see what has become of humankind and it’s astonishing writing.