The Blue Ants (1963) is a 'history' of the Sino-Soviet War of 1970 (no, that never happened). Narrated as a dry research paper, the book recounts the events leading up to the explosive conflict between the two Communist powers.
The book is intentionally dry - almost entirely featuring nations as the abstracted protagonists. The one individual to gain any real attention is Feng Fong, the Napoleon-obsessed Chinese dictator with dreams of world domination. Feng Fong is totally devoid of sympathy. When the reader is introduced to him in the early pages of The Blue Ants, he is revising his own memoirs and changing allegiances. Later, he grows into a ruthless political adversary, assassin and Machiavellian monster. His ambition and cunning are both admirable, but the man himself is a right bastard.
If any hero exists in The Blue Ants, it is military technology. The author stops short of salivating over individual pieces of equipment, but gushes effusively over tactical maneuevers. Cavalry charges are emoted with lavish intensity and Newman's descriptions of anti-rocket jamming technology are near-pornographic.
Although undoubted flawed, the best parts of The Blue Ants are the tiny bits of faux-historical throwaway material. The (nuclear) Israel-Egypt conflict. The Chinese-manipulated siege of the Panama Canal. Even the Soviet manipulation of the global economy by buying lots of cheap cotton (SINISTER). These miniature (and ultimately, irrelevant) political ploys take up most of the book. If it weren't for the orgasmic descriptions of dirty bombs and tank encirclements, the war itself would be anti-climactic.
The book has two major weaknesses. First, as noted, the lack of human protagonists makes for incredibly dry reading. The author injects the occasional 'vox pop' style look at life on the ground, but ultimately, The Blue Ants reads like a recitation of someone's game of Axis and Allies.
The second, and more painful, weakness, is the awkward interjection of the Western powers as the book's ultimate heroes. The US and Britain both serve as interesting foils for the first three-quarters of the book. China and the USSR use the 'free world' as a pawn in their struggles, but when the West gets involved as an active participant at the end of the book, it smacks of laziness. The US 'saving the world' is the obvious conclusion, and not the interesting one.
By choosing to format the novel as a pseudo-historical document, The Blue Ants martyrs itself - sacrificing any sort of engagement for the dustier pleasure of world-building. A balance isn't impossible to find (Max Brooks' World War Z proves that the documentary format can work), but The Blue Ants never comes close. Although the book has a few brief moments of purely-strategic interest, it is, overall, about as interesting as overhearing two strangers discuss a game of Civilization II.
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