The more I read of Robert Repino’s novel Mort(e), which I found on the new SF shelf at a Columbus Barnes and Noble, the less affected I found the title. This novel’s protagonist is a talking cat who renames himself so that he is both an ordinary fellow swept up by extraordinary circumstances (Mort) and a fierce warrior fighting to the death (Morte) for truth, justice, and a new more animal-friendly American way.
At first Mort(e) is called Sebastian by his owners. “These were his people,” he thought, “and he belonged with them. This was home. He was safe here. There was nothing else to life. There didn’t need to be.” Then he became friendly with a neighbor dog, Sheba: “because he was neutered, with no exposure to cats since his birth, cuddling with Sheba was the closest Sebastian had ever come to experiencing physical intimacy. But when the apocalyptic events that Sebastian’s owner Janet has been watching on TV reach his own neighborhood, people flee. Talking animals, armed and walking on two legs, move in. One night Sebastian’s paws turn into hands (crippled at the knuckle, as he had been declawed), he can understand and use human speech, and he finds himself standing on his hind legs. He protects his family and helps them escape the neighborhood, where all the animals are killing their former masters. No matter where he looks, though, he can’t find Sheba.
In the second chapter, we learn the story of Hymenoptera Unus, the Queen Ant who has initiated the animal takeover of the world after centuries of experimenting with ways to eliminate humans. She is especially interested in human language: “how could a species procreate, build, innovate, and survive with such an appallingly inadequate system, she wondered. It was the study of language that made the Queen realize how easy it would be to turn the humans against themselves.”
Sebastian changes his name when he joins up with a military organization called the Red Sphinx:
“Sebastian based his name on a word he had come across in one of the old libraries. A word meaning death. He had died. He had killed. And he would kill again. So the name fit. But it could also be a normal name, the name of a regular guy named Mort who was meant for a life surrounded by loved ones. That life was still out there, but it would have to wait. Hence the need to keep the letter e in parentheses. Things could go either way. They could always go either way.”
Mort(e)’s leader in the Red Sphinx, a bobcat who has named himself Culdesac, tells him they are fighting “to reclaim a land overcome with evil. The evil of men who believe that they are our rulers, men who cannot be reasoned with. Who are insane enough to spread a disease so dangerous that it could wipe out everything, including themselves, all to please a father in the clouds who doesn’t exist.” They call the disease EMSAH and believe the humans are spreading it. As part of their job, they come across several troubling scenes of animals who have died all together at one time. At one town they come across, Mort(e) and his fellow soldier Tiberius “watched the ants dismantle the town, removing every trace, converting all the inhabitants into nutrients. Mort(e) imagined white blood cells acting in the same way to repel viruses and bacteria. EMSAH had cleansed the town. The Colony would now clear out the EMSAH.”
It becomes clear to Mort(e) that Culdesac believes the Ant Queen’s plan will save the earth, and that the humans’ belief in an afterlife can only result in groups like one who took refuge from him, after the Change, in a church, pushing one of their group outside the door every day in order to appease him. “On the fifth day, the survivors made a run for it, only to be surrounded by Alpha soldiers. The ants offered the final delicacies to Culdesac, but he declined. They were unworthy prey. As he suspected, the survivors were old men—the church elders—who had managed to stay alive by convincing the others that their god wanted younger, weaker ones as sacrifices. Through the translator, the Queen had told him it would be like this.”
In an inevitable homage to Animal Farm, one of the officers in Red Sphinx is a pig called Napoleon. He is showing all the late-stage symptoms of EMSAH: “Paranoia. Delusions. No concern for living or dying. Talking in nonsequiturs.” After Napoleon is “infected,” more of Mort(e)’s friends and comrades-in-arms become infected with what he gradually has come to realize is less of a disease and more of a belief. “It’s not a pathogen,” he said. “It’s a belief. A thought-crime. It may be the most seductive idea that the humans ever came up with. It certainly fooled them for long enough. Still does, I imagine. “Death-life,” he continued. “Life after death. Afterlife. The Queen didn’t even have a word for it.”
Mort(e)’s search for Sheba has become symbolic to both those on the side of the ants and those who believe in an afterlife. Humans “saw the cat as a beacon, a light spreading outward, calling others toward it” while the Queen sees that his “quest mirrored the basest desires of the humans: as escape from death, an exception from suffering, a chance to live like gods themselves. Love was a word these mammals used to make up for the fact that they could not join as one, as the ants could with each other, as the Queen had once done so completely with her mother. Love was an illusion, a smoke screen that masked the humans’ capacity for hatred.”
Working together, humans and animals finally manage to start defending themselves against the ant plan for the earth. They will eventually have to make a new plan, although Mort will not be part of it, as he continues to downplay his role in the new animal-inclusive religion.
Slightly less funny and satirical than a synopsis of events makes it sound, Mort(e) is a well-paced and entertainingly-told story about the meaning of life and the uses of language.