Monday, December 19, 2016
Book 89: I don't think Disney will be adapting this one any time soon.
I've always been a fan of the 'funny animal' genre of comic; back in the 1980s one of my favorite comics was "Captain Carrot And His Amazing Zoo Crew," which is more or less the antithesis of what people want out of comic books, if I judge correctly most other comics on the market.
"Funny animals" are animals that are basically people, animals that are basically human except they may or may not wear pants.
One thing I've always wondered, though, is why, if animals became like people, they would mimic people exactly or as exactly as they can? I started thinking about that again when I watched part of Zootopia with Mr Bunches (he didn't like it, and I can say it wasn't all that great seeming, frankly), but it holds up with any 'funny animal' book or comic or movie: the animals always seem to form themselves into a semblance of human society, with slight alterations: a giant sentient chicken might, for example, have a house that resembles a coop.
Mort(e) solves the "why do animals act like humans" solution somewhat simply, and also may help explain why it would be that if a mouse suddenly became sentient and walked upright and had opposable thumbs and the like, he might act more like a human -- and along the way, Mort(e) is a very good book.
Mort(e) is about an animal uprising, told (mostly) from the perspective of a former housecat. In the first chapter, we experience life through Mort(e)'s eyes, back when he was called "Sebastian" and was a cat in a household of a mother, father, and two kids. The chapter is actually fairly convincing; it feels like the dim recollections of a cat, or I guess it feels how I imagine that must feel. (My own explanation for why 'funny animals' act like humans is that we, as humans, have shortcomings in our imagination: we can't conceive of what it would be like to have a nonhuman brain in a nonhuman, or mostly nonhuman, body, and so we ultimately will always fall short of truly imagining a nonhuman society; when we imagine how a housecat looks at life, we are a human imagining how a human would imagine a housecat looks at life.)
(The exception to this might be Watership Down, a book which I only vaguely remember as being very good. I should re-read that. By this point, the only thing I remember about Watership Down is that it was about rabbits, and I remember my mom saying she hated the book because of the rabbits screaming. I don't remember any rabbits screaming?)
At the end of the first chapter, Sebastian grows larger, has his front paws turn into hands, and begins to be sentient, able to think critically and learn and act and talk (in English.) He [SPOILER ALERT!] shoots the dad that was in the family and wanders off to find his best friend, a neighbor's dog named "Sheba."
From there, the book unfolds as a war on humans, with the war being actually caused by ants, led by their nearly-immortal queen, Hymenoptera Unus. We meet her in the second chapter, and Mort(e) truly gets good whenever the ants are front and center: we get a solid look at how the human-ant war (a war that only the ants seem to realize is a war until it's too late) started and how it developed to its current state, where Hymenoptera Unus has managed to develop a way to disperse hormones in the air that cause all animals to mutate into more-or-less human types, with hands (animals with hooves don't get hands, to their shame) and ability to talk and reason, and these animals become the infantry in the ants' fight -- backed by "Alphas," ants that are the size of humans and can walk on their hind legs.
It's the ants in Mort(e) that are really the high point of the book: the way their society is described, their history, their communication, and the like, really does seem alien, while the ants' reasons for the war are all too human: They are disgusted by how humans act and think, seeing us as the kind of mindless disgusting bugs we think of them.
Sebastian, as I said, starts out to find his friend, and soon falls in with a military organization known as the "Red Sphinx" (their emblem, a sphinx, is of course a lion with a human head) run by "Cul De Sac," a bobcat who was chosen by the ants to lead them. Rechristening himself "Mort(e)" to get rid of his slave name, "Mort(e)" becomes an elite commando. (The name itself was chosen from when Sebastian, newly aware, read a book of old stories, Le Morte De Arthur, but he put the (e) in parentheses so that he could be Mort, a regular guy, or Morte, death. Just goes to show there are literary hipsters even among forcibly evolved animals.)
The reason the animals mimic humans is actually part of the theme of the book -- the animals must struggle with their new lives while coping with the ongoing effects of their old. One, Wawa, is Mort(e)'s predecessor after Mort(e) retires, and she in particular is an interesting character, having been raised as a dogfighter before the war, and wanting desperately to be part of a pack; another, Bonaparte the pig (apparently a callback to Animal Farm, which I never read and I'm not going to so don't bother telling me to) was the only one of a group of pigs trapped in a barn to gain sentience, thereby avoiding being cannibalized by the dominant boars in the barn (the rest of his story is terrifying and strange, so I'll not spoil it.)
Religion and the way societies evolve is the other theme of the book, but that only slowly develops out of the rest of the story until it becomes apparent that religion is in fact one of the things the book is concerned about (it's not in any way a religious story, but does deal with how and why people believe the things they believe.)
One of the questions the book works on is whether the way our, or any, society shapes up is inevitable: Do we adopt the structures of our society, including religion and prejudices and war and fear because they are the natural end result of our being a certain way (able to think, self-aware, tool-using) or are they forced on us by higher powers demanding our allegiance and testing us to see if we are worth it? It's an interesting idea, sort of a reverse engineering of the anthropic principle: the universe is the way it is because that's the only way a sentient people could make it be.
Even without those questions Mort(e) is a very very good book, gripping and interesting, and Sebastian/Mort(e) is one of the more interesting characters in any book I've read. Well worth reading.