I just finished reading the novel Mort(e) by Robert Repino. To call it speculative is by far an understatement. It’s about an apocalyptic future in which a psychic colony of giant ants gifts sentience (and human-equivalent size, and opposable thumbs) to domesticated animals, instigating a human-animal war. The Colony claims to be working with the animals against the human scourge, but it’s more likely that the ants’ Queen is on nobody’s side but her own. Our hero Mort(e) is a neutered, declawed housecat (formerly named Sebastian; post-Change animals tend to discard pet names as “slave names”). While everyone around him is taking sides in the war, Mort(e) just desperately wants to reunite with his pre-Change companion, a female dog named Sheba, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to do so, even if that means allying with the dwindling human resistance.
Yeah. It’s a lot.
Unfortunately, even with this complex and intricate premise, the novel still couldn’t do right by its women.
The book begins with an introduction to pre-Change Sebastian, written in such a convincing cat-voice that I was willing to continue on despite the weirdness of the premise. Once our protagonist is established, we are introduced to our primary villain in one of the few parts of the book from the point of view of the ant Queen (who is named, sufficiently dramatically, Hymenoptera Unus).
The Queen is a strange figure. Arguably the most powerful being on the planet, she is able to bioengineer specialized troops, create the hormone that instigates the Change, and monitor nearly everything happening on the surface of the planet through the chemical signals she receives from her colony. She hates human sentimentality and waste, but other than that, I’m hard-pressed to describe her justifications for hating humans besides “one time we went to war against them for rulership of the planet and lost”. Despite this hatred of humankind’s emotional responses to events and each other, she is nevertheless motivated by her own desire for vengeance. I wanted to find her compelling, but in the end she wasn’t well-developed enough for me to feel justified in cheering for Mort(e) against her.
Once he has gone through the Change, Mort(e) joins and, much later, retires from a special forces unit called Red Sphinx, which fought against humans on the side of the animals. As the human-animal war appears to be in its final stages, he’s called back up from his retirement by his replacement as the RS’s second-in-command, a dog named Wawa. Lieutenant Wawa (yes, she named herself after the convenience store chain) was a fighting dog named Jenna in her previous life, who escaped from her keepers after the Change.We get a whole chapter of her history from her point of view about how pre-Change Jenna was desperate to feel like she was a part of a pack with the other dogs her master kept. Her defining memory was the death of the dog she considered a mentor after a match went wrong. Wawa is the first dog allowed to join the previously all-cat special forces unit that Mort(e) used to help command, and despite her fighting prowess, she suffers from a bit of impostor syndrome and still maintains her desire to find a meaningful bond with other animals like the one she had before the Change.
However, Mort(e) continually rejects her for these desires throughout the story. Despite the entire plot revolving around his own desire to regain his “pack”-like bond with Sheba, he considers Wawa’s openness to bonding with anyone she likes distasteful, and rejects even cuddling with her at night when she is afraid. When he and Wawa join with the human alliance, Wawa is entranced by the community the humans have formed around the cobbled-together religions they still cling to. She joins them immediately, feeling like she’s finally found her sense of purpose, but Mort(e) again shoots her down when she eagerly invites him to join the humans’ sect.
And then there’s Sheba. Sheba is the most frustrating figure in the novel in terms of female representation. Mort(e) has put such a premium on reuniting with her that he’s willing to let the rest of the world burn in order to get to her. She becomes something super-canine to him; she’s not just his dog friend anymore, but a pure symbol of Mort(e)’s happiest and most peaceful pre-Change memories. He spends years fighting and killing his way through what remains of humanity, and then through the other animals and the ant Queen herself to get her back. However, upon finally finding her again, he discovers that she never underwent the Change. She’s still the same handless, higher-consciousness-less dog he cuddled with when he was still Sebastian the housecat. And while he does salvage a remnant of the Change hormone from the wreckage of the ant colony and gives it to her, the book ends before we see her Change. Even though the entire book has been devoted to this dog, the book ends without ever giving the reader a deeper look into Sheba’s psyche. She begins the novel as a friend and equal to Mort(e), and the story ostensibly ends with Mort(e) giving her the chance to become his equal and friend again on the higher plane of existence he’s reached. But in the meantime, she’s nothing more than the pure figurehead for his desires, regardless of the fact that those desires are nonsexual.
There are other women who play lesser roles, but they’re no more nuanced. The most notable of these is the Archon, the human leader of the resistance. She’s fanatically devoted to her belief that Mort(e) is the messiah she’s looking for, so much so that she is willing to steer a kamikaze ship into the ants’ colony to assist him in taking the Queen down. That’s her whole character.
The most frustrating thing about all of this is that it’s clear that Repino was trying. There’s arguably gender parity within the cast of characters. There are long sections devoted to Wawa’s backstory, and two full chapters from the Queen’s point of view. The problem is that despite the effort, the characters are still falling prey to tropes left and right. A story with tons of female characters can still be sexist in portraying those characters, even if it’s trying its best to make them empowered. I would have liked to see the female characters with more agency, playing their own part in the story, rather than just existing to give Mort(e) something to react to for better or for worse.
On top of these issues, Mort(e) is a pretty heavy-handed novel for a book about, basically, furries in the apocalypse. The discussions of religion, sentience, and the afterlife were unfailingly grim, and it doesn’t end with much of a sense of hope for the future. Most depressing to me, however, was the idea that, even in such a complicated acid-trip of a future, the story still hadn’t progressed past leaning on unpleasantly sexist tropes.