Book Review: Mort(e)

As I mentioned in the last post, science fiction is my jam. But that doesn’t mean I will like all science fiction. We science fiction lovers always have a particular taste, which is why it can be so difficult to recommend a science fiction novel to a science fiction lover. Recently I read this Library Journal review of a new sci-fi novel:
“This intriguing debut… set in a postapocalyptic world based on interspecies rivalry rather than communism, with a little religion on the side, this imaginative story can be taken as a somewhat satirical examination of the role of the individual in society. Highly recommended.”

So it was with great excitement (and some trepidation) that I picked up Mort(e) by Robert Repino. This is Mort(e) in a nutshell: In the future, ants will hatch a scheme to seek revenge for a past wrong dealt by humans. As part of their plan, they give sentience (and hands) to humanity’s pets and let them take their revenge. The endgame is the destruction of the human race, and there seems little we can do about it.

Mort(e) by Robert Repino

Mort(e) by Robert Repino

The book really reminded my of Kurt Vonnegut, specifically Galapagos, which similarly offers a dystopian future in which animals take over (in a way – read the book to find out more!). Repino’s language is also similar to Vonnegut’s straightforward prose that serves to disguise clever, tongue-in-cheek satire.
Mort(e) – the housecat formally known as Sebastian – was a character I immediately identified with and loved, thanks to his growing awareness and sweet love of Sheba, a female dog he risks all to find after gaining sentience. But don’t worry about spoilers. Repino’s plot moves remarkably fast, and everything I’ve mentioned occurs within the first 30 pages.
I especially loved how Sebastian describes achieving literacy through books he finds:
“He read what he could find, and felt the list of words growing inside his head like weeds, like fungus – a simile he used after reading a biology textbook. … he could hardly get enough of the texts. He slept less and less because he could not wait to read again. He would often feel intense relief to find that the books he had left nearby were still there when he opened his eyes.” (p. 48).
Mort(e)’s journey is complex and heart-breaking, but it is carefully interspersed with memories of Hymenoptera Unus, the ant queen who has plotted the downfall of humanity for thousands of years, since what I gather to be a village of Incans destroyed her colony back when these early humans were known to make blood-sacrifices to their gods. But you don’t feel too bad for the humans. Repino is too good for that. Instead, he creates sympathy for the ants and has the ant queen describe the humans in this way:
“These creatures killed for pleasure, yet regarded only their own suffering as significant. Such a species could not be reasoned with. They could be shown no mercy” (p. 34).
The real tension evolves when Mort(e) fears that the uplifted animals that helped bring the humans to their knees were starting to embody the same evils that humans themselves displayed. Repino then brings up a central point: Is evil a human trait? If it’s not, does that mean that we can still choose to not be evil, the way animals seem to lack evil motivations? This is what the type of dystopian novels like Galapagos and Mort(e) have the power to do: To analyze and judge the actions of humanity, without focusing on existing humans or governments; to show us to ourselves in a shape we slowly recognize over the course of the novel. About halfway through, I stopped thinking of Mort(e) as a cat, which meant that I could start to see certain human truths in him. Mort(e) asks the question we’ve been asking ourselves since we had a concept of the past and the future: Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes ad infinitum?
Dystopian futures often have the unfortunate premise that we will destroy ourselves, leaving behind a broken world in ruins. But I think great novels about dystopian futures also offer us hope. The small acts of kindness that allowed Mort(e) to rise above the fray and seek love instead of revenge is a lesson for us all. As is the idea that the animals around us deserve dignity and kindness every bit as much as we do. Oh, and maybe it is time we learned to never underestimate an ant!


One thought on “Book Review: Mort(e)

  1. Pingback: Envisioning the future: The importance of science fiction | Beta Librarian

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