In what I hope will become a semi-regular feature, we’ll recommend a book or short story prominently featuring cats, then follow it up with a discussion post.
The Game of Rat and Dragon is a good pick to start us off easy: Humans turn to cats to help them overcome a cosmic threat in this classic science fiction tale. It’s a short story and the entire text is available online from Project Gutenberg.
Casual readers shouldn’t have any trouble following along even if they’re not familiar with the SF genre.
Click here to read The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith, one of the most imaginative and influential SF scribes of the 1950s.
The story was originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction in October of 1955 and has been featured in countless SF collections and digest in the decades since.
We’ll follow up with a discussion post in a week or so. Happy reading!
If you’re a cat servant working from home in the social distancing era, you know cats have given themselves a new job: Supervising their humans’ professional activities.
It comes naturally to curious felines, who normally supervise mundane household chores like cleaning the litter box.
Among those working from home these days are NASA and ESA engineers, physicists and anyone else whose primary work responsibility is dealing with data rather than hands-on technical work. Many of them have cats and, well, cats are naturally helping themselves to the work:
Daniel Lakey was in the middle of an important meeting when an unauthorized participant decided to chime in.
“He appeared at the door, jumped on the table, meowed in my face, walked across the keyboard, put his furry ass in my face, and eventually curled up sweetly on the desk next to the laptop,” Lakey recounted to me recently.
It was Sparkle, Lakey’s fluffy brown-and-white cat. Sparkle stuck around for the rest of the virtual meeting, in fact, mewing every time Lakey stopped petting him.
Like many people in the pandemic era, Lakey is doing his job from home, with a new set of colleagues who might be less cooperative than his usual ones; his new workspace is now wherever his two young kids and two cats aren’t. Lakey is a spacecraft-operations engineer who works on the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter, which means that he spends his days managing a spacecraft flying millions of miles away from Earth. The work is complex and precise, and usually doesn’t involve feline input. Sparkle interrupted a teleconference only that one time, but what else could he do?
That thought recently became a point of public discussion when Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist at NASA, tweeted:
The Atlantic’s Marina Koren reached out to Straughn, who assured her “commanding spacecraft is a labyrinthian process from start to finish, with all kinds of checks and fail-safes along the way.”
“As absurd as the scenario might seem, it would be nearly impossible for a cat to briefly become a spacecraft-operations engineer, whether at NASA or ESA,” Koren wrote, after speaking to several NASA employees who assured her cats aren’t capable of flying the complex vessels.
Most operations require physical access to control rooms and can’t be operated remotely, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory spokesman Andrew Good said
“Some of those commands require a mouse clicking on certain options, so it’s not just an issue of commands being written and sent up with typos,” Good told The Atlantic. “A person has to make conscious choices for spacecraft commands to go up.”
While NASA says it would be “nearly impossible” for cats to hijack spacecraft normally used to service orbital telescopes or make supply runs to the International Space Station, cats love a good challenge. And what is the ISS, really, but a big metal box that would be fun to play in?
They’ve been mousers on interstellar starships, companions on long-haul freighters and — like Speaker to Animals, the Kzin from Larry Niven’s classic science fiction novel Ringworld — warriors of galactic repute leading dangerous expeditions to alien worlds.
Star Trek is no different.
Mention the topic of cats to any Trekkie and the first thing that probably comes to mind is Spot, the orange tabby cat who belonged to Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Spot was a mainstay on the Enterprise-D, earning the respect of the Klingon Commander Worf and serving as Data’s muse for a hilarious poem in the cat’s honor, “Ode to Spot.”
One of the highlights of Star Trek: The Next Generation is watching the gruff Klingon learn that, unlike dogs, cats don’t give a damn about commands.
But cats play a much bigger role in the wider Star Trek universe than even many Trekkies realize.
As fans of Star Trek know, the Federation is an alliance of peaceful worlds and races committed to exploration of the galaxy, friendship with new species and non-interference with developing civilizations.
What many may not realize, however, is just how many species are involved in the Federation. Some, like the Bajorans, Andorians and Betazoids, are seen pretty frequently in Trek shows and movies, but others have made only a few on-screen appearances.
Among the latter are the Caitians, described in Memory Alpha (the wiki of canon for Star trek) as “a warp-capable species resembling felines.”
Their home planet is known as Cait to other races, and Ferasa to the Caitians themselves, and is located within the Lynx constellation. They made their first live-action appearance in 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:
Because of its origins as a network television show, budget has always been a major factor in the way aliens are depicted in Star Trek.
The show’s writers have come up with an elaborate back story for why so many alien species are humanoid, closely representing humankind, but the minor differences of most species — the ridged foreheads of Klingons and elfin ears of Vulcans — are for the most part remnants from the days when production crews had little money or time to create elaborate props and effects.
It’s also the reason why the Klingons, for example, were radically redesigned in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, with its lavish budget and SFX.
With a species like the Caitians, however, you either go all-in or not-at-all. That’s why the species has made only three appearances in Trek films to date, and why most of their exploits have been reserved for Trek novels and comics.
But the internet loves cats, and Star Trek Online, the massively multiplayer online game set in the Trek universe, saw enormous positive feedback when it added Caitians as a playable species back in 2011.
Here’s my very own Caitian starfleet captain from the game:
According to Star Trek lore, the Caitians share distant ancestry with the Kzin, the aforementioned war-like race of feline aliens from Niven’s Ringworld books.
That’s because Niven himself had a run as a writer for Trek comic books in the 1980s, and wrote his own creation into the wider Star Trek universe.
Just like cats have a range of personalities, and breeds have their own unique characteristics — the gentle giant Maine Coons, the talkative Siamese — the felines of Star Trek have different lineages and dispositions.
While the Caitians are peaceful and staunch allies of humans and the Federation, the Kzinti are a bunch of war-loving lunatics who find great joy in blowing things up.
Maybe, just maybe, a handful of you non-Trekkies have made it this far. Maybe your love of cats kept you interested in this story, and you’re thinking to yourself, “I wonder what Star Trek is all about…”
In the spirit of the Federation, I leave you this parting gift. During these dark days of quarantine, should you browse Netflix and find yourself tempted by Star Trek: The Next Generation, here’s a guide to the entire cast that imagines each of them as cats. And not just any cats: Each kitty resembles its Enterprise crew counterpart.
Live long, my friends, and prosper!
(Star Trek Cats by artist Jenny Parks. Check out more at her site!)
Chronicling the adventures of Buddy the Cat and his various criminal enterprises.