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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

All Your Human Are Belong to Us: Cats, Authors, and Science Fiction and Fantasy

Since I've already talked about cats in SFF in this "top 10 cats" post, I decided to go after this subject from a different angle:  authors.  On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I conducted an informal survey on the relationship between authors, their cats, and genre.  The results were both familiar and unusual.*

As expected, most of the authors who own cats mentioned that the natural independence of the feline species makes them perfect pets for an otherwise introverted or attention-limited group.  The "cats are not like dogs" sentiment came up several times, though some authors expressed a love of the canine species as well, prompting me to consider whether a "authors who don't own cats" survey would be equally as compelling.  In any case, what we already kind of knew came up in almost every single case:  cats are independent, and authors like having an uncompromising furry creature that is perfectly fine being ignored but won't let you get away with being a neglectful turd (truth).

The more interesting responses were the vaguely fantastic ones.  More than one author suggested that cats seemed to have an otherworldly presence:  they can hear spiders and breach the supernatural, as one anonymous author declared.  These statements were obviously said with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but I think there is an undercurrent of honesty in these statements, too.  Judith Tarr, for example, said that "cats are the distilled essence of the weird" (winner of this year's Most Profound Statement About Cats Award).  So many authors ascribed supernatural "feeling" to cats that it's not surprising that so many fantasy novels have included cats in some form, whether at the forefront or in the background -- urban fantasy especially.  From Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003) to recent novels such as Kristi Charish's Owl and the Japanese Circus (2015) and Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory (2015), cats are a fairly common occurrence in fantasy, active or otherwise
Trying to take over the world one kitty barf at a time...
Part of that prevalence, of course, is historical.  Cats have been part of human history for almost as long as we've we've had what could be called "civilization."  They have been worshiped, given pet status, treated as exterminators, been consumed as food, hunted (in the case of the big cats), and immortalized in our literature (T.S. Eliot anyone?).  They may not have the same symbiotic relationship with us as dogs, but they are undoubtedly a part of the human experience.  There may even be some truth to the notion that cats have some connection to the supernatural that goes beyond normal human experience.  And if not, then they certainly give that impression, don't they?

On the more science fictional side were Martha Wells and Kelly McCullough, who both suggested that cats are about as close to an alien intelligence that one can reasonably get (presumably keeping tapeworms as pets is still a faux pas, which is total crap).**  Wells, for example, stated that "cats are the aliens that live in our houses," which is a curious phrase indeed.  What I find interesting here is that cats are frequently listed on the survey as influencing an author's work, but in some cases, cats are granted a higher state of influence.  There's a duality of function:  on the one hand, cats influence writers by keeping them "in check" or giving them necessary companionship; on the other hand, cats become vehicles for speculative exploration, either directly in the form of actual cats in an author's work or indirectly as inspiration for characters or creatures.
The particular alien-ness of cats is also interesting because they are frequently thought of as one of the only proper companion species which is alien to human beings -- "proper" meaning "creatures which are domesticated so that they seek out companionship with humans"***  Dogs and parrots do not have the same indifference to humans as cats almost always do.  In fact, some parrots bond to a single owner for life, making it quite difficult to find them replacement homes when their human owners do not outlive them.  I need to say nothing of dogs.

But cats are different.  Almost every author in the survey noted that cats take what they want and give what they please, but they are otherwise independent creatures who seem to tolerate our existence.  That is, of course, a human assessment of a cat, so it should be taken with a grain of salt.  I've no more clue what goes on in a cat's mind than any of you for hopefully obvious reasons (I'm not a cat; really).  So reading cats as "alien intelligences" isn't that far off the mark.  More than so many other companion species, cats really do seem removed.  Alien.  Even our attempts to understand them come up short because we filter everything through a human lens.  While this might work for dogs, which have similar mammalian social functions as human beings, it is less clear with cats.  I think that on some level we explain away cat behaviors in humanistic terms to make ourselves feel better; otherwise, we have to admit to living with creatures whose motives are unknown.

The last serious question I had for authors was specific to the topic, which was suggested by Amy Fredericks as one of her patron rewards on my Patreon page:  do you think there is a deeper connection between science fiction and fantasy and cats, or are they a writer thing in general?  Most of the respondents didn't think there was much of a connection.  Cats may be more common among writers, they remarked, but they are otherwise a people thing, and there's no reason to think that cats are somehow more "unique" or "influential" in SFF than they are elsewhere.
The Kzinti are to galactic wars as cat tantrums are to cat scratch fever...
That said, I think it's worth noting that cats are a huge part of SFF literary and cinematic history, as became apparent when respondents listed the work(s) they associated with "cats in sff."  From the Alien franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), and Alice in Wonderland (1951) to Robert Heinlein, C.J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, Theodore Sturgeon, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Diana Wynne Jones, cats have been a common occurrence within SFF at large -- my personal favorite is the Kzinti from Larry Niven's Known Universe.  They're elsewhere, too, but it seems that SFF is the only field capable of bringing to life the strange mythology we imagine for cats.  In SFF, they hear spiders from a mile away, see dead people, become giant intelligent cat monsters, are possessed by evil spirits, detect ghosts and vampires, and take rides on spaceships only to have their day's ruined by slimy aliens.  If Judith Tarr is correct that "cats are the distilled essence of the weird," then SFF is the home where we can attempt to make sense of them -- or at least fool ourselves into the same.

And now I leave you with the single funniest moment in Star Trek: The Next Generation:


*Authors were given the option to remain anonymous.  You can still take the survey if you'd like to add your voice.

**Fun fact:  I once tried to convince the people at a youth camp that I should be allowed to keep a mosquito larva as a pet.  Sadly, the little thing was murdered.

***I admit that this is a faulty definition.

A special thanks goes out to the following authors who took my survey:  David Annandale, Wendy Wagner, Jaime Lee Moyer, Joyce Chng, Celine Kiernan, D. Emery, the Anonymous Author Named Bob, Ruth Francis Long, Ros Jackson, Martha Wells, Michael J. Martinez, Judith Tarr, Anne Leonard, Kristi Charish, C.D. Covington, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Rebecca Levene, Kelly McCullough, Cecilia Tan, Django Wexler, Catherine Lundoff, Tex Thompson, Ginn Hale, Laura (last name?), Stefon Mears, and Michael Ashleigh Funn.


This post was suggested by Amy Fredericks as one of her patron rewards on my Patreon page.  You can have a say in the content for this website, too, by becoming a patron.  Go on, I dare you!

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