How would your pets react if they suddenly became intelligent, bipedal creatures capable of war? Spoiler: not good for humanity. So is the premise of Mort(e), a new novel by Robert Repino. Part satire, part speculative fiction, critics have already worn out comparisons to Orwell’s Animal Farm. Repino read from the novel at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn and was joined by Ryan Britt, author of the forthcoming Luke Skywalker Can’t Read.
In Repino’s novel, a hormone added to water allows animals to develop human like qualities. This change immediately leads to the slaughter of humanity and a bloody war. In the aftermath, Mort(e), a cat, seeks out his former human companion.
“Let’s talk about violence and death,” Repino says to segue into reading a segment of pig cannibalism.
Britt observes that Repino’s writing is wholly serious even though it could quickly devolve into silliness, but both the words and the reading hold true to a more serious intent. Repino recognizes that the novel is completely improbable and thus needs the seriousness to hold it together. But also he knows that the humor comes from treating the topic absolutely seriously. He says it took him until the third draft to wholly understand that.
“If I was trying to be silly, it wouldn’t work,” Repino says.
The novel is more like Elect H. Mouse State Judge in that regard, Britt says, as in Mort(e) wholly accepts the world as natural, while Orwell is almost entirely allegorical.
Repino explains his intention: he wanted to make a science fiction epic. There is lots of language, he says, that he invented. The audiobook actor had an entire list of words that he needed to know how to pronounce.
In the first draft, Repino opened the novel in the future. Humans had been enslaved and the animals were left. But he realized that structure meant a huge information dump. He calls it a really bad move. Eventually he decided to make the ant queen a stronger character–and a semi-omniscient narrator. She takes memories from the collective mind of her colony giving her a great perspective.
“Its obvious I’ve seen [Star Trek] episodes with the Borg,” Repino says. He then quotes Jean Luc Picard, captain of the Enterprise.
Star Trek is not the only influence though. He drew on action movie tropes as well, including “cheesy” action sequences. Many were edited out.
There is theology in the book as well. Repino says he worries that someday people might misinterpret his writing. The ant queen, for instance, sees religion as a human fault. He is concerned that somehow people might see this as associating atheism with the negativity of the queen when he believes issues like religion are much more complex.
The clash of ideology interests Repino. “I remember reading Achebe at just the right time,” he says, meaning Things Fall Apart. He also says Camus’s The Plague offers a profound explanation of evil.
Britt observes that many of the characters in the novel are introduced in the narrative as they are becoming aware of themselves, as if it was an awakening. Repino agrees, calling an awakening a great way of describing how the animals morph into more human-like creatures. For the animals, it’s a frightening transition.
While Repino did do some research into his animals, he mostly did enough to learn that most of the things that happen aren’t plausible. Ants don’t have a magical language, like the ant queen, and the queen isn’t some hierarchical position issuing orders, for instance.
The advantage of science fiction is that usually there is no need to explain to the distinction between authorial biography and narrative fiction. “I had an unsuccessful stint with an ant farm,” he jokes. He also adds that he once had a babysitter who was attacked by his cat, but otherwise its all an invented world.
When it comes to world building, the most important advice Repino has is to avoid information dumps. Authors have a limited number of those they can get away with, he says.
The story initially came to him as a dream. In that version, a spaceship orbited earth and started converting animals. That way it seemed less appealing to him.
“I always wanted to write a science fiction epic,” he explains.
He almost didn’t. He says his writing career was at a crossroads when he started writing Mort(e). It was freeing, he said, to write what he really wanted to.