Alien convergences

I have just woken from a hideous nightmare, the sort of dream that haunts you for days afterwards. I have visited, or been sent to, a terrible world, and to make things worse it had strange parallels to ours, only it was alien and mechanical. I am standing on a wide highway, with robot-like workers rushing in either direction. On either side of this stream miniature versions scurry everywhere, patrolling the margins, ceaselessly on guard. Such is the flow of traffic that the earth has long since been beaten flat; not a shred of vegetation obstructs the road. In one direction the army of helots marches empty-handed, but towards a truly immense forest which I can see only dimly as there is something not quite right with my vision. My sense of smell is, however, overwhelmingly acute, and wave after wave of olfactory messages urge me to obey the twin commands of unceasing work and obedience. Still looking towards the distant forest, I see that from this direction the army returns, each worker scurrying forward with a parcel of food. New olfactory orders are issued, and I am impelled to follow the returning stream. After walking for hours I am driven into a set of huge subterranean chambers. Here the activity is at a frenzy, yet there is also an underlying order. My senses reel: from the ceilings hang huge clumps of what look like some sort of fungus, but it is being tended with the utmost care and attention. Now I can see workers busy with weeding; others seem to be applying herbicides, and yet more are either collecting pieces of the fungus or extending the zones of cultivation. Yet for all its strangeness this world is a little too familiar for comfort. The workers rushing past me are indeed literally bug-eyed monsters, sinister antennae constantly in motion, with hardened carapaces, and in some cases carrying miniature versions of themselves. But it is also clearly an organized society, a vast underground city entirely dependent for its well-being on the ceaselessly maintained fungus farms. As I awake from this dry and soulless world, I realize suddenly that I have not been among the extraterrestrials, but have been mingling with the leaf-cutting ants who quite independently of humans have invented agriculture.

figure 8.1 Attine ants at work. Left: with mandibles poised above a leaf. Right: with a minima. (Photographs courtesy of Cameron Currie, University of Kansas, Lawrence.)

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