Source of book: Borrowed from the library.
Every once in a while, I read a book on a complete whim, in a fit of either caprice or madness, perhaps. This is one of those books.
I believe I ran across this one in an online review from one of the magazines I read from time to time. The premise sounded both out there and intriguing, so I gave it a shot.
This book is classified as science fiction, which I guess fits, but it also defies any true classification. I might call it a dark fantasy, or a modern parable, or something of the sort. So, it becomes “science fiction” for marketing purposes. Like all truly great fantasy, the point isn’t escapism, but escape from the complications of our personal associations. When a narrative is removed from things we know to things we can only imagine, we can free ourselves from the entanglements of familiarity. Thus, an idea need not come with the current political baggage, but can be seen in a new light.
The premise is thus: a colony of ants, led by a nearly immortal queen, has vowed revenge against humanity for the destruction of antkind in the distant past. For millennia, she has plotted her revenge. The ants mount a war against humans, using super-evolved ant warriors (“Alphas”) the size of humans, but with superhuman strength. The secondary part of her plot is to convert pets and other animals into humanoids, so they can replace the exterminated humans. If this succeeds, the animals can become the citizens of the new utopia on the surface, while the ants rule the subterranean realms - while controlling the surface dwelling animals, of course.
Into this futuristic war of extermination is thrust Mort(e), a neutered house cat. Okay, so he was “Sebastian” in his previous role - his “slave name.” He gets to pick his new name after he has proven himself in the war against humanity. He chooses Mort(e) after reading Le Morte D’Arthur while holed up in the library during the war. The name is significant. He represents death (Morte) because he has killed, and will kill again. But he is also “Mort,” the everyday guy if the peace ever comes.
The first part of the book tells of the war and of the history of the characters. Eventually, however, the war becomes a nervous occupation. Mort(e) retires, and attempts to start a normal life. However, he is haunted by the memory of a dog he was friends with before the war. Sheba. Is she alive or dead? The driving force in his life becomes that of finding out. Because, after all that has happened, his love for her is still the most powerful force in his life.
In order to find her, he must get to the heart of “EMSAH,” a supposed germ engineered by the surviving humans.
Mort(e) draws extensively from the language and themes of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s allegory of Communism - and one of the most influential books I have read. The similarities are many. The animals rise against the human oppressors, and yet they do not become truly free, but rather the pawns of a greater power. In Animal Farm, the pigs become the new humans - the oppressors. In Mort(e), the ants call the shots.
I am still not sure exactly what allegorical point the author intended to make in this book. Perhaps I am overthinking it a bit, though, because the story is compelling even without the layer of allegory.
Some things I liked: Mort(e) is a great character. The loner cat is (as the original review I read pointed out) very much like the loner detective in a hard boiled tale. He never, ever does what anyone expects him to, and makes his own way in the world and the plot as he wishes, and somehow comes out on top.
I also liked the tension between the two great forces. On the one hand is the power of the ants. They are the perfect robotic force. To use other science fiction analogies, the ants are the Borg, the droid army, the storm troopers. They are absolutely under the control of the queen, and they lack personality and autonomy.
On the other side are the humans. The survivors have adopted a peculiar form of religion, which inspires them to self sacrifice against hopeless odds.
In this book, religion has a peculiar role. On the one hand, the portrayal isn’t flattering. From the prehistoric origin of the war to the present, the old men have sacrificed the weak and the young to the gods in an attempt to gain favor and preserve their own lives. This is certainly the worst of religion: the superstitious sacrifice of others. (See the burning of witches, child sacrifice, and other embarrassing moments in history.) On the other hand, religion is the only hope the humans have to survive and overcome the ants. It is only through suicidal self-sacrifice that they can aspire to win a hopeless war.
After all, the ants are suicidal because the workers and warriors are expendable. They have no individuality, but are wired by chemical signals to obey the queen without question. For humans, who have free will, to match this, they must have some belief to unite them. For the author, this is the belief in the afterlife. After all, who in their right mind would throw away their only shot at this life for a greater good?
Caught in the middle are the animals, who are essentially lab rats for the queen ant. Will they adopt the religion of the humans and thus prove failures in her eyes? Will they docilely obey her without question? Is there a third way?
This is where the allegory is unclear, but perhaps even better for all that. The heart of free will is a paradox. To be able to choose love requires the option to choose hate, or it isn’t a choice at all. Ultimately, Mort(e) is driven by his personal love, even if it brings him no real hope of a future. Are these the only choices then? Blind religion that leads to hate, love without a transcendent hope, and logical but cruel obedience to a higher yet tyrannical cause? There is no perfect result available in the universe the author has created. And yet, he cannot foreclose all hope. In spite of the illogic of religion (as portrayed), the inexorability of mechanical fate from the ants, and the hopeless solipsism of personal love, it is possible for good to prevail in this mess. And ultimately, religion evolves to become a force for reconciliation, the individual quest for love and belonging are bent toward the good of all, and free will triumphs over totalitarianism.
This book is not for everyone. It is dark, violent, and cynical at times .It portrays the worst of humanity all too well, as well as the worst of ideological genocide. In some ways, it is much like Animal Farm, except more hopeful, if that makes sense. It is, in any case, a compelling page-turner, with a fully developed and believable universe.