Robert Repino’s War With No Name science fiction series began with an immediately compelling premise: What if animals gained sentience and rose up against humans? But the heart of the series lies in an interspecies friendship between Mort(e), a former housecat, and Sheba, the dog who was his best friend before the world changed forever.
With the release of Malefactor, the final novel, Repino looks back on the surprising, heartwarming origins of the War With No Name series.
In the fall of 2009, I awoke from a strange dream and immediately began scribbling everything I could recall in my notebook. Groggy and working by the light of a Manhattan streetlight, I remembered an image of my old neighborhood in the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill. An enormous spaceship hovered directly above my parents’ backyard, with a metal gangplank extending from the hull to the grass. A strange energy pulsed from inside the ship. And all the pets and stray animals in the neighborhood suddenly, as if on cue, rose onto their hind legs in a comical but hideous impersonation of humans. At that moment, all hell broke loose. The animals attacked, dragging the humans from their homes, cornering them against cyclone fences and manicured shrubs. It was grotesque and liberating at the same time because, in my mind, I was among the animals, yearning for some kind of revenge, unable to ignore my instincts to kill and to protect my territory. By the time I was done, I asked myself what an uplifted animal would choose as a name. And without thinking, I wrote what felt like a nonsense word: Mort(e). I fell back asleep.
The dream could not have come at a better time. I was between my second and third failed novels. Book number three—a somewhat autobiographical work set in the Caribbean—was about to go out to agents, a miserable process that had already left me in despair the previous two times I tried it. I had come from the MFA world and had produced mainly literary work up until then, with a few short stories published here and there. And now, with this dream still rattling in my head, I had to ask: Could I change course and write a completely bonkers novel about a war between humans and sentient animals?
All my sad little eggs were in one basket with this goofy mess of a science fiction novel, part epic, part Saturday morning cartoon.
So, while novel number three began its journey through the meat grinder, novel number four—Mort(e)—came to life a few months later. By then, I had replaced the aliens with a hyperintelligent ant colony. Insects that are treated like pests would have a more coherent motivation to wage war with humanity, and would hark back to some of the weird B-movie entertainment that helped to raise me like Them! and Phase IV. That first draft opened with the aftermath of my dream, with the humans tied up and carted away by their new animal overlords. And from there, I let it rip, creating a war story with characters who find themselves permanently damaged by their pyrrhic victory over their sworn enemy.
But believe it or not, all of this was meant to be a love story. When I asked myself who the protagonists would be, the answer was simple. Before I was born, my parents adopted an orange and white cat named Sebastian when they moved into their first apartment. In the unit below lived another married couple, who owned a big dog named Sheba. My parents became such good friends with the couple below that they named them as my godparents when I came along a few years later. Sebastian and Sheba, meanwhile, had an adorable friendship, often falling asleep together on the landing of the steps that connected the two apartments. That experience may have convinced Sebastian that he was a dog. There is a scene in the novel in which the cat protagonist fiercely “protects” the house from a babysitter, which is word-for-word reenactment of an incident from my youth. My mom still loves to tell that story. And so, Sebastian and Sheba were the perfect couple to place at the center of the chaos of war.
While Mort(e) continued to grow, my previous novel crashed and burned. Though I found someone to represent it, the book languished for over a year on submission. Eventually, I had no choice but to part ways with the agent I had spent nearly a decade trying to find. Over five years had passed since completing my MFA, and everything felt like it was going backward. By then, all my sad little eggs were in one basket with this goofy mess of a science fiction novel, part epic, part Saturday morning cartoon.
As I tried to focus on the positive, I found the book changing as well. In later drafts, I deemphasized the spectacle of the premise in favor of the simple, platonic, interspecies love story. That’s been the backbone of the entire series, which I think made it attractive to a new agent and, eventually, to a publisher. The series now includes three novels and a spinoff novella. Somehow, as I moved on from a demoralizing period in my career, I was able to conclude the War With No Name on a relatively positive note with Malefactor, focusing more on redemption rather than revenge, and forgiveness rather than judgment. Frustration and despair may have given birth to the project, and even sustained it for a while, but what’s the use in that if it doesn’t lead to something better?
Author photo by Nicholas Repino