Research Notes · 01/23/2015

Mort(e)

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Robert Repino writes about Mort(e) from Soho Press.

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In the fall of 2009, I had a dream about a massive spacecraft — like the mother ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind — hovering over the neighborhood where I grew up. In the dream, the extraterrestrial visitors somehow transformed the pets, livestock, and feral animals into intelligent, bipedal creatures with functioning hands and a desire to hunt down humans. In my groggy state after waking up, I imagined this as the basis of a story about a war between humans and animals, with a simple housecat as the main character. In particular, I recalled a gangplank extending from the ship, with a ghoulish army of animals marching down it, carrying weapons in their pink, mutated hands. Before falling back to sleep, I scribbled the protagonist’s name on the back of an envelope: Mort(e). A name meaning death. Sort of.

I spent the next few days thinking about the consequences of animals getting revenge on their human oppressors. (Hint: they’re not good.) I decided to change the aliens to a colony of intelligent ants, led by a queen who wishes to destroy the humans and remake the world in her image. Her minions inject a hormone into the water supply that causes the animals to rapidly evolve. Thus, the Queen lifts the surface animals from slavery, a “grand experiment” meant to show that she is the one true god on earth. From there, I began to build the framework of the story, setting it not in the main conflict, but in the aftermath, after the animals have won, and the humans are nearly extinct. All the while, I channeled the silly desires I had as a nine-year old to come up with an epic science fiction story similar to Star Wars, Star Trek, and all the other enjoyable junk I grew up with. By then, I had already tried and failed to sell several novels, and even had to part ways with an agent, a truly disheartening experience. So my attitude was, essentially, Fuck it. Who cares how implausible this is? Let’s just have fun.

And as for the cat who gets caught up in this mess: I decided to base him on the Repino family pet, Sebastian (1973–1991). When my parents moved into their first apartment, they became good friends with another newly married couple who lived next door, the Snyders. The Snyders owned a dog named Sheba, and somehow, dog and cat became inseparable friends. I have to conclude that Sebastian began to think he was a dog. The most vivid example of this — reenacted in my book — was when Sebastian attacked a babysitter who was watching my brother and me, growling like a pit bull. We thought he was rabid.

Naturally, I thought Sebastian — who in the novel abandons his “slave name” in favor of Mort(e) — would make a feisty warrior in the Queen’s rebellion. Mort(e) assumes Sheba has been killed in the war, and is wracked with guilt over what he could have done to save her. Later, he receives a mysterious message from the human resistance telling him that Sheba is alive. The humans’ “prophet” has foreseen that Mort(e) will rescue his friend and, in doing so, destroy the Queen. This initiates his quest to discover the true purpose of the war, and the ultimate fate of humans and animals.

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With the basics in place, I began researching a number of fields about which I knew very little. The first area: ants. Along with some scientific works on insect life, I also read E. O. Wilson’s novel Anthill and watched a bunch of documentaries. I may have also re-watched a few giant insect movies, like Empire of the Ants and Them!. I originally hoped that my vision for the Queen would have a firmer grounding in reality, but I had to conclude that her back story would require some wildly fantastical elements. Really, the term “queen” is misleading; ant queens are not rulers, but are instead highly specialized workers. I hope the real scientists out there forgive me, but I decided to make her a lonely monarch, driven mad by the encroachment of the human world into her empire. Moreover, the Queen in my book has the ability to store the collective memory of the colony in her brain, forcing her to relive the horror of the war every moment of every day, like some omniscient self-flagellating god. She does not react well to it.

I also had to do some homework on animal behavior, given that the book includes dogs, cats, raccoons, pigs, monkeys, rats, deer, horses, and bears (oh, my). One of the characters, a dog who calls herself Wawa, is bred to be a pit fighter. I came up with the character around the same time that my favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, signed Michael Vick following his release from prison for running a dog-fighting operation. I’m a little nervous to say that my Internet search history now includes information on the ideal dimensions of the arena, the pre-fight rituals (such as washing down the animals), and the best locations for a hideout.

A lot of science fiction books have explored the questions “What makes humanity special?” and “What does it mean to be human?” Instead, my book asks, “What the hell is wrong with humans? Why do they keep screwing up?” The Queen comes up with a novel answer: humans are evil because many of them believe that a god has created them in his image, and that he has chosen them to rule over the other species, and that he has another life waiting for them when they die. The human resistance, on the other hand, views the war as an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil, with Mort(e)’s quest at the center of a divinely foretold chain of events.

I’ve been an editor with Oxford University Press since 2006, working on several religious studies projects. While I’m hardly a scholar of religion, I had access to a ton of articles and scriptures relating to the subject. Through the vehicle of the novel, I wanted to explore how people engage spiritual experiences and religious dogma, and how, in doing so, they end up adapting and reinterpreting the doctrines, often in response to their present situation. To the Queen, this adaptation is similar to a virus mutating and finding new host organisms. For the humans, this evolution of doctrine results from exegesis, divine intervention, and new revelation. To Mort(e), they’re all nuts, and his rejection of the prophecy brings with it some serious consequences. This was another area I wanted to discuss — how religions can bring people together, and how walking away from one can be both a liberating and isolating moment. Lucky for me, we are in the middle (or perhaps the beginning) of a cultural moment in which there is no shortage of books and social media discussing how and why people convert and de-convert.

Finally, I had to get up to speed on this new wave of dystopian fiction out there. People ask why the downfall of society is such a huge topic these days, and all sorts of pop psychology answers try to pin it on 9/11, the Great Recession, and other large-scale anxieties. Honestly, I think it’s just that the people telling these stories probably wanted to do so back in 1992, but couldn’t at the time (I was 14, okay?), and now they finally have their chance. There are so many novels and movies that I consulted to inform the shape of this book, but the most important were the ones that emphasized solidarity in the midst of the horror. Not surprisingly, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind, but so do, ahem, slightly guiltier pleasures, like the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. That sense of companionship becomes Mort(e)’s answer to the prophecy, the one thing for which he will live, die, and, if necessary, kill. But really, it’s a love story, I swear. A love story with giant ants that eat people.

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Robert Repino earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize among other awards, and has appeared in The Literary Review, Night Train, Hobart, The Coachella Review, and more. Repino is the pitcher for the Oxford University Press softball team and quarterback for the flag football team, but his business card says that he’s an editor.