Mort(e), by Robert Repino – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Mort(e), by Robert Repino. Illustrated by Sam Chung.
NYC, Soho Press, January 2015, hardcover $26.95 (358 [+ 1] pages), Kindle $12.99.
“Before he took his new name, before the animals rose up and overthrew their oppressors, before there was talk of prophecies and saviors, the great warrior Mort(e) was just a house cat known to his human masters as Sebastian. It was a time that now returned to him only in dreams and random moments of nostalgia that disappeared as quickly as they arose. All of it except for Sheba. The memory of her was always digging at him like a splinter under a nail.” (p. 3)
The first dozen pages of Mort(e) are Sebastian’s early life as a housecat, and his meeting Sheba, the large, slobbery dog of the man next door. It’s not until page 14 that Sebastian first learns of the war to exterminate humans, when he observes one of “his masters” watching the TV news:
“It was always the same: a river of text flowed beneath explosions, people running, buildings on fire, green trucks rolling along highways, men and women with helmets marching, building bridges, demolishing things, using flamethrowers to burn massive hills of dirt. And in between all the images were videos of creatures that Sebastian had seen crawling in the grass outside the window: ants. They were always on the television, always marching in a line, sometimes covering entire fields and picking apart dead farm animals. Sebastian saw people running away from ants the size of the Martinis’ car. The monsters could walk on their hind legs, and their jaws were strong enough to lift a human at the waist. […] All the channels were playing the same thing now. Nothing buts ants and fires. But this time, there was footage of a new creature. A pack of wolves, walking on their hind legs, approaching the camera. One of them carried a club in his hands the same way Daniel would hold a hammer. This was followed by a choppy clip of a group of animals marching alongside the giant ants. Sebastian could hear people screaming.” (pgs. 14-15)
Sebastian gets out of his house and briefly becomes a feral cat, until he changes: “That night, while he sat behind the Martinis’ garage, the hair on his paws fell away. He was not alarmed. He simply brushed away the remaining strands, stretched out the toes into fingers, and rubbed the paws together.” (p. 20) Sebastian quickly begins to understand human speech, stands upright and grows to human size.
When the humans in his neighborhood are all killed or evacuate, and the changed pets are left to take over before the giant ants arrive, Sebastian leaves to search for the missing Sheba, who is probably dead.
Chapter Two focuses on the ants. The protagonist is Hymenoptera Unus, the thousands-of-years-old Queen of the Colony who launched the war to exterminate humans. Warfare between the humans and ants was practically eternal. The Colony’s previous Queens – the Lost Queen and the Misfit Queen — had died because of the humans. Hymenoptera Unus was smarter and able to plan a longer-term conquest:
“From that moment on, she developed a plan for vengeance that would take millennia to execute. The Colony would acquire knowledge the way humans gobbled up resources and land. The ants would create an army with warriors who were larger, stronger, and more vicious than even the most bloodthirsty human. They would study and exploit all aspects of mankind’s existence: language, community, physiology, history, and science, as well as religion, that anti-science that animated the humans, driving them to either greatness or destruction. They would exert dominion over the other ant clans and make contact with other species who viewed the humans as a mutual enemy. The Colony now had a goal beyond mere survival. Its subjects had purpose. They observed history in linear rather than circular terms. Like their enemy, they had an apocalypse to anticipate.” (p. 39)
The true history of the unnamed war of human extinction, from the ants’ viewpoint, is related. The reason for the other animals’ expansion is explained.
Chapter Three, and the rest of the novel, is the cat’s story. Sebastian survives. He reads human books and he learns. He encounters other intelligent cats who insist on examining him for EMSAH:
The cat stared at him. He tossed the can of tuna aside and turned toward the municipal building. ‘He says he doesn’t know what EMSAH is.’
Atop the roof, the black cat stepped closer to the ledge. She motioned for him to continue and then folded her arms.
‘The humans infected the animals with a virus,’ the cat said. ‘After we became smart.’ He tapped his temple with his index finger. ‘It’s some kind of weapon. A bioweapon. The virus breaks down your vital systems. Makes you go crazy. We’re not sure how contagious it is. And there is no cure.’” (p. 55)
The smart animals are involuntary allies of the Colony. The male cat explains, “‘The Queen started the war. We’re the soldiers who are helping to end it. In return, we will be in charge of the surface.’” (p. 58)
Sebastian joins the other cats, a military unit named the Red Sphinx. He takes the name Mort(e). But he never truly becomes one of the others. And he continues to search for Sheba.
Years pass. Mort(e) gains and loses friends. He leaves the Red Sphinx and joins the animals’ new civilian society. He returns to his former home when he was a pet; now as its owner. But he remains a loner. He has doubts about the animals’ alliance with the Colony, the underground ant super-nest; and about the animals’ ability to build a new society more successful than the humans’ had been. There are side stories about some of Mort(e)’s acquaintances, especially Col. Culdesac of the Red Sphinx, a bobcat; Lieut. Wawa, a half-breed pit bull dog; and Specialist Bonaparte, a pig.
When a wave of suicides and suicide-murders spreads through the animal civilization, Mort(e) is reactivated into the Red Sphinx and put in charge of a unit investigating whether the killings are the result of stress and fatigue or due to a new outbreak of EMSAH. Or whether the last human survivors have unleashed a new strain of EMSAH. The final half of Mort(e) takes Mort(e) amidst the last humans, to the leadership of the Colony and Queen Hymenoptera Unus, and answers the questions of whether Sheba is alive or not, whether the animals’ new world is stable, what the Colony’s true goal is, and whether Mort(e) should join with the other animals or the humans or the Colony — or remain a loner.
Mort(e) is unusual. It’s a real puzzle. Unlike most fiction, where the reader can guess what the ending will be and the real question is how the story will get there, you don’t know until the end whether the animal world will succeed, or whether Mort(e) will personally survive. Repino’s writing is skillful. Whether his explanation for how the animals grow hands, stand up, and grow to human size is entirely believable, at least he tries to create a reason. The setting is not the usual furry civilization, but there are plenty of scenes of the animals’ society:
“‘Get up, soldier, Wawa said.
‘This isn’t boot camp,’ Rigel [a bear doctor] said. ‘You have to –’
‘Quiet. We’ve got enough problems around here without you running your mouth.’
Rigel threw her hands up and headed for the door. ‘See you at the processing station, Lieutenant,’ she said.
Bonaparte propped himself up and sat on the bed, facing Wawa through the bars. His hooves rested on his chubby knees. ‘The humans are watching us,’ he said.” (p. 226)
Read it. You may not like the dramatic and sometimes grisly way that things happen, but you won’t want to miss Mort(e).
The sentient beast has long been a staple of fantasy fiction and its antecedents in myth and folktale. The modes range from tales such as Richard Adams’s Watership Down or Laline Paull’s recent The Bees, in which readers are lent the power to eavesdrop on the secret yet naturalistic lives of critters in the everyday world, to worlds populated by human-acting animals (think of the Duckburg of Carl Barks or the Grandville series by Bryan Talbot) and, of course, satire on the order of Orwell’s Animal Farm.