We Trade With Ants: A Short Story Series

What if ants could talk? What if we could trade with them? I wrote a short story to answer that question.

We Trade With Ants: A Short Story Series

I recently started writing short fiction. The first one runs today in the excellent newsletter, The Browser. You can find my story here (and for free):


What if ants could talk? What if we could trade with them?

This is the first in a series of many, many, short stories I've written that explores every aspect of that one question.

Today's story is a self-indulgent first contact story in which humans work out how to talk to ants from scratch. First contact stories are my favorite kind of Sci-Fi, but they always SKIP OVER THE GOOD STUFF by giving either humans or aliens a magic translator. NOT HERE. I thought this story would be too self-indulgent and nerdy for anyone to care but I kept getting good feedback on it so I decided to run with it.

There's more to come that explore everything from agriculture to espionage to economics to diplomacy, human vs ant rights, and more.

There's another reason I'm writing this story. I was deeply inspired by @KatjaGrace's article "We don't trade with ants,"

In it she pointed out that the main reason we don't trade with ants isn't because they have nothing to offer us, but because we can't communicate with them. The minute I read that article this series basically started to write itself. I am deeply indebted to her for inspiring me.

Another inspiration is Edwin Abbott. He once wrote a book called Flatland, which is about the 4th dimension by way of analogy. We can't visualize the 4th dimension easily. But we can visualize the 3rd, and the 2nd. So he wrote a story about a 2-dimensional character meeting a 3-dimensional one.

The inhabitants of Flatland are awed by the powers of the 3-dimensional creature - it can shrink and grow and disappear, and take items out of locked boxes without breaking or unlocking them (in reality, what's happening is the 3-dimensional creature is just moving "up" and "down" about the z-axis, something the 2-dimenaionsal creatures can't even imagine, let alone do).

By going down a dimension, we gain some ability to make intuitions about what going up one might be like. And so one aspect of this short story series is to imagine what it would be like for a sub-intelligence and a super-intelligence to meet.

Would one annihilate or enslave the other?
Would they trade?
Would there be war?
Would there be peace?
Would things get weird? How?

In "We Trade with Ants," the ants are the sub-intelligence and humans are the super-intelligence. I started trying to answer these questions in my fictional world... and constantly found myself surprised by the answers.

Does this make this a perfect analogy for humans meeting super-intelligent AI or aliens? Probably not, just as plenty of things learned from going from 2D 3D don't apply going from 3D 4D.

But some of them might, and it's no worse a thought experiment than anyone else's.

I hope you enjoy this short story, and please send me your feedback. There will be many more of these to come. Also, if you are a subject matter expert in any field (agriculture, manufacturing, medicine, law, heck, even poetry or literature)– and you can concretely imagine how having talking ants at your disposal would change your day to day life, please get in touch with me because it will likely become fodder for a future entry in this series.

Have a great day.

Lars Doucet