By Robert Repino
Soho Press, 2015
“When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may find in that new world, nobody can predict.” So says Dr. Medford at the end of the 1954 film Them!, one of the best-known creature features of the decade. But if you don’t know which iconic monsters the title refers to—or what Man found in his new world of Red-baiting and fallout shelters—let me ruin the surprise: ants. We found massive irradiated ants, eager to supplant humanity as the Earth’s apex predator.
Upon release, Them! impressed audiences by taking its gonzo premise seriously and using inventive visual effects—what today might be called lumbering animatronics. But the film also plucked the public’s emotional strings, which had grown taut during the opening years of the Cold War. The fear of nuclear weapons erasing seacoasts shaped daily life, and even the harnessing of such absolute power seemed to taint the nation’s psyche (see the downfall of nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, born-again pacifist). Thankfully, pop culture proved therapeutic; from James Bond to Star Trek, anything that discussed the Cold War with style or intelligence has been hugged tightly to our chests ever since.
Now, with the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 a year away, we’re living in an era defined by (but not limited to) government obfuscation, vanishing privacy, and murderous extremism. Geopolitics will always fertilize pop culture, and if we open the door upon the Terror Age, we’ll find a landscape busy with superheroes, television anti-heroes, and…more giant ants!
This time around, the six-legged villains populate Robert Repino’s debut novel Mort(e), which, if you couldn’t tell from the adorably striking cover, stars a cat of the same name. When we meet him, however, his name is Sebastian, the house-pet of Daniel and Janet Martini. The newlyweds plan to start a family, and Sebastian grows up watching them renovate their suburban home, thinking about little more than where his next nap should be.
Soon, the Martinis have two children, Michael and Delia. Friendship also forms with a neighbor named Tristan and his dog, Sheba. Quickly enough, Sebastian falls in love with this “creature from another world,” and we realize that Repino has a knack for seeing life through non-human eyes:
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 it was more than enough. The simple act of determining the positions in which they slept became a profound, almost sacred, act, every bit as complex as outright mating. Typically, Sheba preferred to be the big spoon, since Sebastian was so much smaller.
But as Bill Murray’s Dr. Venkman warns in Ghostbusters (1984), “dogs and cats living together” is a sign that the World is Ending. And so Sebastian bears sleepy-eyed witness to Janet and Tristan’s affair, which naturally stirs Daniel’s outrage when he finds out. Then, while Sebastian’s suburban world is torn asunder by screaming matches, the larger world is suffering the less common disaster that is ten foot tall Alpha ants battling—and winning against—human armies across the globe; this is the “war with no name.”
The super ant Colony, led by the Queen Hymenoptera Unus, started its revenge upon humanity thousands of years ago, when the Queen began to
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.
This mention of religion is Repino’s first hint at the serious heart beating in Mort(e)‘s silly body. Early on, though, the silliness stretches out in our lap when we learn that the Colony has not only stashed the Queen on a defended island in the Atlantic, but also erected huge earthen towers. From these towers come hormonal signals that blanket the world, causing the Change in humanity’s subjugated mammal throngs; wild and domesticated animals develop the minds, hands, and muscles needed to rise up against us, and in many cases murder us for the abuse we’ve heaped on the natural world.
Seeing repeated news reports of this apocalyptic scenario, Daniel Martini goes insane and holds a shotgun on his wife and children. A Changed Sebastian intervenes, grabs the gun, and marches everyone into the living room. In such dire circumstances, Repino excels in staging hilarious moments that would fit perfectly in The New Yorker Book of Cat Cartoons:
Sebastian could not resist watching his reflection in the mirror as it moved with him. He could walk upright. And he had grown taller than his master, with lean muscles underneath his fur. His limbs were long and thin. His paws had become functional hands. If he’d had claws, he could have sliced Daniel into bleeding strips of flesh if the man tried to resist him.
Daniel sat on the couch and, for the first time, offered Sebastian a seat on the recliner. Sebastian obliged, cradling the weapon in his lap. Sitting in the forbidden chair so close to Janet, he experienced a moment of panic. But things had changed, and she was in no condition to discipline him now.
As this prologue scene closes, Daniel claims to have killed Sheba. But Sebastian is too faithful, too loyal to the dog for such a malicious comment to stand. The search for Sheba directs the uber-cat’s lonesome journey into the surrounding city, where he spends two months doing what many cat-like humans love best: reading.
The Queen of the Colony finds that, compared to the clear-cut transfer of information via chemicals, words are foolish, contradictory tools that can be used to destroy mankind—“Human speech can mean everything and nothing at once.” Sebastian, however, quickly becomes addicted to the printed word, and Repino’s take on an intelligence discovering reading for the first time feels like a love note to omnivorous bibliophiles:
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. There were several buildings in the city with walls of books rising to the ceiling. Among these volumes he found a few that he liked, stories of knights and dragons. There were comic books, too, along with books filled with numbers and equations. It was so alien, acquiring information this way. It almost felt like theft, and sometimes he
would read a passage and expect the words to be gone from the page, absorbed by his mind. He also felt that he was wasting valuable time. He was reading picture books about men wearing capes while Sheba lay dying somewhere. But 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.
Once on the move again, Sebastian runs afoul of the Red Sphinx, an elite squad of cats who’ve been hunting down and slaughtering the last dregs of humanity. They tie him to a telephone pole for questioning, and when an exhausted Sebestian asks, “Why am I here?” his captors determine that he’s crazy, that he’s got EMSAH.
What EMSAH stands for is Repino’s secret until the end, but Sebastian is told that it’s a contagious human bio-weapon, used to destroy the clear thinking of Changed animals, often resulting in foaming -at-the-mouth, rampages, and/or suicide. After being called a Choker (because of his missing genitalia), our feline hero eventually frees himself by rocking the pole violently for days—like a furry Conan, or at the very least, Jean-Claude Van Damme in Cyborg (1989). At this point he’s invited to join the Red Sphinx by its malicious leader, a bobcat named Culdesac, who says, “Cooked human meat has become a delicacy for me.”
For the next eight years, Sebastian helps stabilize the world created by the Colony. He rises through the ranks of the Red Sphinx, becoming Culdesac’s second while eliminating human resistance and EMSAH infected animals. In doing so, the pet once owned by the Martini’s dies and a new identity is forged:
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.
The problem is, Mort(e) is never allowed to actually see the EMSAH infected. The Colony always steps in once the Changed grunts have finished their wetwork, and only Culdesac has any direct communication with the Queen (via a gruesome translator device). Repino’s first strong echo of modern reality is when Mort(e) acknowledges that a stabilized world brings safety, civilians, and the need to protect them—but protect them from what? Still, he keeps things light by having Dr. Miriam, a chimp, utter the phrase “If you see something, say something.”
Throughout the novel’s second half, Mort(e) never abandons his hope of finding Sheba. As talk emerges of what life will be like for the Changed in peacetime—talk of holding jobs in buildings, watching television, and eating barbeque—a select few question the existence of EMSAH. Mort(e) befriends a former pit-fighting dog named Wawa, and a pig named Bonaparte, and they triangulate upon what the Colony has truly feared all along.
Repino’s inclusion of a porcine character brings the Orwellian Animal Farm motif full-circle. Yet, it isn’t done cheaply, the way an author struggling to bring weight to his narrative might. Mort(e)‘s ultimate message is all the more incredible for surviving the violent and (sometimes) campy story intact. And the message arrives honestly, from someone undoubtedly frustrated by watching the U.S. become a more divisive, embittered place during the last ten years.
Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just ask: whatever your religion, has there been a day when your pet didn’t love you?
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.