Mort(e) by Robert Repino
Trying out new authors is never a bad thing. After all, every familiar and well loved favourite author was new to us once, and whilst recommendations from trusted friends (or even from strange people who write long winded internet reviews), are all very well, sometimes you just want to strike out on your own, crack open the mystery box and see what you might find. It was this process after all which lead me to such amazing discoveries as Justin Cronin and Tim Powers. Unfortunately, just as you have the chance of running across an unsung hero, so you have an equal chance of running across something mediocre, or worse.
What attracted me to Robert Repino was the sheer weirdness of the idea. A species of hyper intelligent ants who begin a war of total extermination against humanity, and as part of that war create a hormone which makes most animal species bipedal and sentient, it sounded like an old-school Doctor Who monster gatecrashing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The book’s main character, and the one we spend most time with is Mort(e) nee Sebastian. Beginning with his life as a house cat and his friendship with the dog Shiba, the action quickly details how he gains sentience before being recruited into the feline special ops squad Red Sphynx and how he takes a leading role in the war against the last humans on the planet. Nine years on however, and the war continues, with the humans deploying a devastating weapon, Emsah; an engineered virus which causes all animals who catch it to go into a suicidal rage. It is not Emsah however that changes Mort(e)’s world, but a message he sees on the basement wall of his old house hinting that Shiba, the one creature he truly loved is still alive. His quest to recover Shiba and investigate the source of Emsah takes Mort(e) to the last outpost of human resistance on the planet, and eventually into the heart of the ant colony to confront its queen the ancient and fearsome Hymenoptera Unus.
I had my reservations about Mort(e) right from the first chapter when, despite dealing with the instinctive and sensory world of a cat, Repino’s style is stark to the point of brevity, simply detailing the action in plain, unornamented sentences with about as much feeling and nuance for emotion and experience as a set of assembly instructions for flat pack furniture. Even the (supposedly), transcendentally beautiful relationship with Shiba, a relationship that is Mort(e)’s literally only positive feeling in the entire book is described so coldly as to be cheerless, highlighting as it did that physical intimacy was as close to mating as the neutered Mort(e) could come.
Still, style isn’t everything, and many books survive on the nuance of their characters or the complexity of their worlds or plots. All hope of that fled however when (again in the first chapter), Mort(e)’s owner quite literally stamps on puppies just to show how evil humans are, just before Mort(e) remarks that being a house cat is synonymous to being a toy and a slave. I will be the first to admit I don’t have the most positive view of our own species, Repino however makes me look like a cock eyed optimist. Some authors have an axe to grind, Repino has an entire logging industry. From sly digs against human lust or greed, to details of atrocious actions by humans, even stopping the plot dead to show the backstories of minor characters such as a dog in an illegal fighting arena or a pig called Bonaparte being left to starve in his sty; complete with a peppering of political terms just in case we didn’t know it was an Animal Farm reference. Repino’s detailing of human failings goes way beyond a mere character perspective, or even a universal view to verge on paranoia.
That there are many species (pigs and cattle most prominent among them), who would probably have a dim view of humanity if they achieved sentience I don’t doubt, Repino however makes the hatred of humanity unvaried from all animals, including the main character. Since on a daily basis I risk my own life on the paws, special logic and indeed good intentions of Riva my guide dog, I have a fair few problems with Repino’s premise here.
Apparently justified by this hatred of humanity, Repino also gave us a bald, bare bones list of Mort(e)’s military actions, how he set fire to a human village, picked off those fleeing the flames and ate their corpses afterwards, how he succeeded in a siege where the defenders were twelve year old children, even how he hands over humans to be prisoners of the ants where they’ll be experimented on or devoured (Repino reminds us that the ant warriors especially like the taste of children). And this is the main character whom we are supposed to empathise with and whose perspective we are supposed to follow throughout the rest of the novel.
Even with his fellow animals, Mort(e) doesn’t so much have a chip on his shoulder as a block, supposedly because he is only capable of feeling love towards one other creature. He frequently indulges in nasty asides and is, well catty.
Any hopes I had for the interesting exploration of a world populated by humanised animals were also dashed. Repino doesn’t go beyond a surface examination of each species other than mentioning one or two basic traits, pigs have hooves (apparently not trotters) and eat, well like pigs, dogs are obsessed with being part of a pack, cats are agile with good eyesight and racoons like rotting refuse. of course part of the reason for this might have been because Repino, as a break from telling us how horrid humans are, concentrates on the racism and petty bureaucracy of the animal society. Even in the Red Sphinx, the only hints at military order we get are remarks by Cul-de-sac, the Red Sphinx leader on how it’s quite okay to beat your subordinates to death if they disagree with you.
There are a couple of tantalising hints at interesting world building, such as a mention of sanitation workers clearing old human remains from houses being held in esteem, and a culture of animals who were previously pets giving up their “slave names”, but as is usual in this novel these facts are simply stated outright and explored no further. Indeed, Mort(e) is the only name we have a clunky explanation for, that without the parenthetical E it could mean death, but with the E it could simply be a regular name. Yet, Repino gives us a long list of names of Red Sphinx members which range from Han and Duke to Bin Laden (not to mention Cul-de-sac ), and no idea of why animals might have chosen them or much by way of personality at all. Indeed, speaking of character, the only topics of conversation seem to be fear of the Emsah virus and the horribleness of humanity, that and insulting each other.
If all this wasn’t dismal enough, Repino also treats everyone to repeated and constant complaints about religion, about how all religion involves irrational fear of death, a search for significance and a belief in an afterlife, because you know everyone who believes any religion everywhere is apparently a nutcase prepared to kill or die at the drop of a hat and nobody with religious motivations can possibly do something nice, though being as according to Repino nobody is ever nice anyway that isn’t much of a surprise. When it is finally revealed; after dragging through more tossed aside unpleasantness than you’d find in Pol Pot’s personal organiser, that “Emsah” is actually short for “messiah” and those animals who go into suicidal fits, including one lovely description of an animal volunteering to be flayed alive (you know that crazy religion), have picked up religious faith, and that the actual virus is the work of the ants I was nothing short of numb.
Of course, when we eventually meet the human resistance they’re all one dimensional zealots who have formed a half baked theology that Mort(e) is their messiah (because apparently religious people will believe anything). It is interesting to note that despite token references to a crescent and star of David, all the religious zealots we meet are of course very loud evangelical Christians, just as; despite equally token mentions of flags from UK and the Caribbean, all of the world’s last humans are of course from North America. Though being as Repino is so bent on misanthropy that he fails to explore a world of talking animals and giant ants, I shouldn’t be surprised that the view he gives of the human world is just as narrow.
Usually when composing book reviews I try to be fair and highlight the author’s good points as well as point out their flaws, even in books I wouldn’t recommend. With Mort(e) however, I am quite honestly struggling to find anything positive to say.
The perspective of Hymenoptera Unus, the books antagonist (emphasis on the ant), might have been an interesting one, detailing as it does the colony’s scent language, her assimilation of information and of course her contempt for all humans, if Repino’s bald style hadn’t robbed her of all menace. Similarly, the details of her treatment of human captives, using them as experiments or as food sources might have had a macabre or horrific turn to them, had the rest of the book not been peppered by equally briefly described, equally pointless atrocities. Likewise, if Repino had reserved the human hating for Hymenoptera it might have been easier to take and provided her with a measure of personality, but again, humans are hated pretty much equally by everyone.
Even a sequence when Mort(e) wears an ant translation helmet which converts scent based information into understandable thought fell utterly flat thanks to Repino’s style, since not content to tell us that the ants began information exchange with prime numbers and DNA sequences, he has to list all the prime numbers up to 93 and give us several lines of gene sequences into the bargain, not to mention take a little time to fill up space with strings of ones and zeros or morse code.
The one moment where Repino approaches some sort of friendship between his characters had the subtlety of a brick and the originality of a train time table, when Wawa, Mort(e)’s dog companion asks him to cuddle due to a canine, (and/or typically feminine), desperation for comfort and in best angsty hero fashion he refuses, because apparently he can only care about one person at a time and he’s too busy hanging on to his memory of Shiba to think about anyone else.
The book’s ending, when it comes is equally disappointing. The humans, despite being on the verge of extinction suddenly have advanced cyberpunk technology such as air dropped torpedoes that can turn into submarines and then into drilling machines. The ants, despite how Repino has remarked on how far they outstrip useless old humanity don’t have an Achilles heel so much as an Achilles from the waist down. Indeed, given their easy defeat I might have wondered how they conquered the world in the first place, accept that Repino is careful to remind us how stupid humans, and especially those who have any sort of religious belief are. With a little offensive mangling of a beautiful old hymn on a blood stained battlefield, the book came to a close, supposedly with the conclusion that love is greater than god, though given the unremitting deluge of dismal the actual conclusion Repino seemed to be aiming at was that “love”, not god was the mythical thing that didn’t exist which everyone was searching for and nobody would ever find.
I began Mort(e) because of its unique premise, unfortunately a unique premise is really all the book has going for it. A limp arrhythmic style and plodding pace continually slowed by not so much preaching as bitching, a one dimensional view of religion that doesn’t so much criticise as caricature, a main character who begins the book an unrepentant mass murderer who hates everyone accept his dog, and finishes the book exactly the same way, a dislikeable and flat secondary cast who parrot the author’s gloomy views and a pointlessly abrupt conclusion. Frankly Mort(e) is one of the worst books I’ve ever read, indeed, somewhat ironically for such a truly misanthropic work, it has the dubious honour of receiving the lowest rating I’ve ever given.
Thankfully, since I have a slightly less dim view of humanity than Repino, I can hope that my next experiment with a new author fairs better.
This Mort(e) book review was written by Dark
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