A.J. Colucci’s debut novel reads like a classic 1950s creature-feature.
For me, that is not only something good, it is something downright great.
The Colony has all of the elements of enduring films such as Them. There is a threat to all of humanity; in this case, a supercolony of genetically transformed ants infecting Manhattan. They are overly large (although not exactly ‘giant’); they are apparently impervious to all pesticides and other known means of extermination; they are secretive and almost impossible to track down unless they are in attack mode; and, from all evidence, they live only to kill … specifically rats and humans.
There is a complicated love-triangle. A brilliant scientist, Paul O’Keefe, dedicated to understanding ants and their ways but stymied by everything he learns about this new species; his ex-wife, Kendra Hart, brilliant in her own right, fiercely independent, and equally dedicated to research, almost exclusively among colonies of fire-ants; and her one-time lover, once Paul’s close friend and academic rival, who may hold the key to discovering the most elusive secret of all … a queen ant.
And there are the multiple external complications. Who engineered the new species and why? What role can the major pesticide company play in resolving the crisis? Why is the FBI agent assigned to protect/accompany Kendra Hart so secretive, enigmatic? What does he know about the ants? And, above all, what is the role of the U.S. military in the sudden crisis?
Like the films of the 1950s, The Colony is fast-paced, scene after scene moving readers closer to a final confrontation between human and interloper. It pits human technology (in the ’50s it was atomic power; here it is genetic research and chemical-based solutions to problems of food and agriculture) against something uniquely outside of nature … and in the end, nature itself must be harnessed to combat and destroy the threat.
There are key differences, also, of course. The relevant sciences have been upgraded to cutting-edge—genetic manipulation, computers, super-sophisticated radar among others. The characters, in particular Dr. Kendra Hart, are nowhere as stereotypic as their predecessors; the two male scientists are still movie-star handsome and fully capable of setting Kendra’s heart a-flutter, but they are also deeply flawed in key ways, while Kendra is in many senses the strongest of the three. She gets a mandatory chance to be a ’50s ‘screamer,’ she is subject to panic attacks stemming from claustrophobia (and there are plenty of tunnels in The Colony), she is allergic to any number of things, including the venom of fire ants — but in spite of all of these drawbacks, she plays a starring role in almost every event. The villains are almost as concerned about the future of the human race as they are about power and money; and, in good ’50s fashion, they get their just deserts in highly appropriate ways.
All in all, The Colony is a fun read, a page-turner in the best sense of the term. It does not hesitate to pay tribute to its roots, and in doing so, it transforms those roots into something both comfortingly familiar and strikingly contemporary. It is, in sum, a virtual compendium of SF/F visual clichés made verbal and, not incidentally, handled magnificently.
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