Robert Repino’s 2015 science-fiction novel, Mort(e), introduces us to a near-future Earth where ant pheromones have transformed the globe’s animals into sentient bipeds who have launched a war against humanity. In the novella Culdesac, Repino expands his complex world from the perspective of a transformed bobcat, Culdesac, responsible for leading an elite squad of soldiers, the Red Sphinx, against the humans. Culdesac is a fast-paced science fiction adventure that functions well as a standalone story while offering greater insight into the literary world Repino created in Mort(e).
The novella follows Culdesac and his squad over several days while they hold a strategic position—a town resettled by animal civilians. Many of the animals lived in the town as pets, service animals, and livestock before the change. The town is under threat from both the human army and the spread of EMASH, a biological weapon unleashed by the humans. Eventually, the Ant Queen calls on Culdesac to evacuate the civilians, many of whom resist the call, and Culdesac must choose between forcibly evacuating them or defying the Ant Queen.
An opening chase scene shows how Repino uses clever details to create fast-paced action. Culdesac is trying to hunt down a human, and the human tricks him by tossing a bottle of urine from a cliff, allowing the narrator to explain how Culdesac’s cat senses remain sharp despite his transformation. When the man is caught, we learn that the animals enjoy eating meat—only now the meat they consume is human flesh. This first chapter provides helps us understand this disturbed world: humans and sentient animals are at war, and it isn’t going well for the humans.
In Mort(e) the main character is a typical housecat. He wavers in affection and loyalty, but he enables readers to find sympathy for both the animals and the humans. Culdesac provides none of that ambiguity; he sees the humans as decidedly problematic. We are meant to side with the animals and acknowledge the failures of modern human society. Culdesac is constantly thinking of his pre-change life in the woods, a wild bobcat prowling with his mother and brother, their habitat shrinking at the hands of humanity. Repino’s ability to convince us of the faults of our own society speaks to his skillful crafting of his characters.
Still, Culdesac is still a wild animal at heart, and in showing us this cruel, barbaric side, Repino casts some doubt on Culdesac’s anti-human positions. Culdesac is vicious and unrelenting, a true monster:
Culdesac raked his claws on the human’s chest, opening a void in the man’s insiders that glistened even in the dark. Hot blood erupted from the wound, drenching Culdesac’s arm. The man dropped to his knees and keeled over, letting out a final moan. But it was not enough for Culdesac. He pinned the man in the dirt and kept slashing. Left, right, left right, left right. The cloth streamed outward from the corpse in sopping wet ribbons. The skin tore away, exposing the rib cage.
We are meant to wonder whether an eye for an eye is any kind of justice at all. Culdesac’s sad life before the change generates sympathy, but his gruesome brutality undermines it. Do humanity’s crimes against animals warrant this?
Culdesac is so defined by the war that he is incapable of seeing a future without it. And yet in this novella the future is quite literally being constructing in front of him. The village that the Red Sphinx are occupying is theoretically the end goal of the conflict, but civilian life is incompatible with the horrors of war that have created Culdesac.
Repino builds suspense and unleashes twists in a way that feels both natural and unpredictable. When we first meet Nox, a domestic cat turned brothel owner, her affection for hot coffee distracts Culdesac (and us) from her true ambitions. She is a natural foil to Culdesac—two felines abused by humanity for different reasons—and as a civilian with a stake in the town, she understands the possibility of peace in way that the consummate soldier does not. The differences between them generate tension, and the question of whether one of them will betray the other lingers until the very end.
Absent from the novella is the duplicitous Ant Queen. In Mort(e), she is far more threatening and her goals are less clear. Culdesac communicates with her, but we never see her ulterior motivations, and that limits her overall as a villain. The result is a lack of opportunity for Culdesac to question his role in the war.
Culdesac is a great followup to Mort(e). The brevity of novella and the focus on a single point of view help to simplify the storytelling, amplify the action, and hasten the pace. Repino has crafted an innovative and unique science fiction world and any time among his creations is well spent.