Atta; A Novel of a Most Extraordinary Adventure, by F.R. Bellamy – Book Review By Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
“Here is another of my reviews that was published ten years ago, edited in a manner that I didn’t like. This is my original review, so it’s a bit different from the printed version.”
Atta; A Novel of a Most Extraordinary Adventure, by Francis Rufus Bellamy.
NYC, A. A. Wyn, Inc., September 1953, hardcover $3.00 (216 pages).
“It is with a singular bitterness that I begin this memoir of my youth.
Here at my table, west of the Mississippi, I can turn in my chair and gaze out my window at sixty acres of green hillside, orchard, and valley. They are the actual scene of the greater part of the adventures I am about to relate, adventures for which I myself can vouch.” (pg. 1)
Two pages later the narrator, Brokell, says these events happened forty years previously. 1953 minus forty years would be 1913, which would explain why he was riding about the countryside in a horse-and-buggy, and why he writes in such an old-fashioned, formal style.
Brokell is waiting in a flowery meadow with a box of candy for his betrothed. She is late, and after a half-hour he notices that red ants are crawling all over the candy. Infuriated (“Darn you, anyhow!” I said aloud.”), he picks up a rock and starts smashing the ants. Suddenly:
“For scarcely had my missile left my grasp before I was conscious of a hitherto unseen dark mass in the sky above me. Even as my own missile left my hand this mass became instantly larger in size and rushed down at me and the earth.” (pg. 7)
Brokell awakens to find himself in a bizarre landscape which bewilders him for many pages (until page 90!), but which the reader instantly recognizes as the ground from an ant’s-eye view. He is attacked by a monstrous beetle which he slays with a steel lance he finds (a broken needle; he shelters inside a discarded thimble). After wandering dazedly for a day, he comes upon a trapped animal:
“One of the most grotesque creatures I expect ever to encounter in my life lay stretched on the ground, almost beneath a rock that had evidently fallen upon him, pinioning one of his legs. He lay nearly on his back, his other legs, of which there seemed to be three, lying limply outstretched beside him, mute evidence of his exhaustion. He had apparently given up the struggle to free himself at the exact moment when I caught sight of him. Now both his arms lay lifeless at his side, and his head had fallen back upon the pebbles, his two large, extremely wide-set eyes staring faintly at the sky. He was clad in a sort of dull brownish leather-like material, burnished in places until it looked like natural armor. And two delicate feelers projected from his enormous head, weakly tapping the boulder beside him from time to time as if he considered some despairing plan of moving it from his imprisoned leg.” (pg. 27)
Brokell frees Atta and nurses him back to health over the next month, during which they learn to communicate. “In his own country, he said, he was one of the leaders of a populous city long established, which in the far distant past his ancestors had conquered. He himself was of the present ruling class, a circumstance that had allowed him to go out on a scouting expedition.” (pg. 38) Atta comes from a warrior Caste within one nation of the land of Formica (which Brokell eventually realizes is within one meadow in western Iowa). Atta does not think much of Brokell’s soft skin; but he is very favorably impressed by the crude bow and arrows, ax and club, and other portable weapons that the human makes. Atta leads him to aphids, which give the ants milk, but as a warrior he does not know how to milk them; Brokell, a farmer, figures out how to feed them both. Brokell breaks a green beetle, Trotta, for riding.
After wandering together for several weeks, Atta and Brokell are captured by the Rubicundians, a nation of red Formicans. Most of the ant nations enslave each other’s citizens when they can, so Atta accepts this as natural. It is Brokell who insists they escape, especially after they meet Subser, another slave from Fusa, Atta’s nation of brown ants, who knows the way back there. It is a return to home for Atta and Subser, but Brokell must prove his right to be there:
“‘That is the South Entrance,’ said Atta. ‘It is closed at night.’ He hesitated. ‘Subser is merely the name of all the Cutters,’ he added with no change of tone. ‘The first Cutter was named Subser.’
‘And Atta?’ I asked.
‘My name is Atta,’ he said, ‘as my father’s was before me, and his father’s, and his father’s. We are of the Maternity Guards and always have been.’ He plucked a piece of a long creeper and began chewing it while he continued to stare at the distant gateway. ‘I have brought you here to tell you,’ he said at length, ‘that Subser is right about the tests. I can be of help to you only in bringing you before the Great Oval. Beyond that, there is no such thing as friendship in Fusa. Our cities are not as you have described yours to me. Do you understand?’” (pg. 120)
Brokell must prove his value in the Great Oval, a vast stadium where thousands of Fusans watch him defeat several different Formican gladiators and a monstrous Wolf Spider with his portable weapons while riding Trotta. Brokell is awarded citizenship, but soon learns that while the Fusans are eager to exploit his talents as a leader and warrior in battles against other Formican nations, they are hostile to his attempts to teach other Fusans to fight in his manner. Eventually Brokell loses favor with Fusa’s political leaders for being a Stranger and advocating Individuality rather than strict conformity to authority; and only Atta stands by him.
Atta is an old-fashioned novel, in the style of the World War I-era pulp adventures. It is a bit of a mystery as to why it was first published as late as 1953, and was one of the few books published in hardcover by A. A. Wyn, the publisher better-known for his Ace Books paperbacks. (Bellamy says in his dedication that he originally started Atta in collaboration with Walter Brooks, the author of the Mr. Ed talking horse fantasies for adults and the Freddy the Pig series for children.) It was virtually unknown in its hardcover edition, but it became one of Ace Books’ first paperbacks in 1954 with The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster. That was reviewed at the time in several s-f magazines. Leinster’s novel was considered pretty good, but Atta was universally condemned as positively antediluvian.
Atta is still interesting as an early example of the human-mistreats-animals-and-is-transformed-to-live-among-them adventures, and can be read as a forerunner of such modern examples as the 2006 Warner Bros. movie The Ant Bully.