Tag: cats in science fiction

Cats In Games: Cyberpunk 2077

I’ve been playing Cyberpunk 2077 lately, as readers of this blog may have guessed by some of the references, and it is everything the hype said it would be: A dystopian story set in a grim, hyper-corporatized, ultra-capitalist future in which the masses worship the gods of consumption, virtually everything that humans come in contact with is synthetic, and nature is a forgotten dream that may or may not exist beyond the seemingly-infinite concrete and chrome of human sprawl.

It’s Bladerunner writ large and interactive, a retrofuturistic nightmare in which people voluntarily have their own eyes plucked out to replace them with brain-interfaced digital lenses and biomechanical grotesqueness is the societal norm. A future in which a person’s life amounts to the price their internal organs can fetch on the black market and the only civil liberties that exist do so by the forbearance of megacorporations.

Even if you’re not a gamer, unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably heard of the game. It is, after all, one of the most highly-anticipated pieces of consumable media in modern history, and familiar actors have lent their voices and likenesses to the production.

One of the most depressing aspects of 2017’s Bladerunner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott classic, is the utter disconnect from anything natural.

Future Los Angeles is so choked with smog that the city exists in a perpetual twilight gloom. Animals have been purged from the Earth, and humanity has turned to farming insect larvae for protein in processed foods. Vegetation is so rare that the sight of a single sprout near the dusty carcass of an old oak tree fascinates Ryan Gosling’s antagonist character, K.

Drawing heavily on Bladerunner — as well as the seminal 1988 Japanese film Akira, William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), and even the 1979 action thriller Warriors (which is itself based on Xenophon’s Anabasis from 370 BC) — Cyberpunk 2077 is about violence, hedonism and human greed.

There is no room for the beauty of animals or nature in a future like this.

That’s why it’s surprising to find cats stalking the dim alleys of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City.

Keanu and the cat.
Keanu Reeves’ character, Johnny Silverhand, is quite enamored with Nibbles the Cat.
Nibbles the Cat.
A Sphinx cat in Cyberpunk 2077.

The player’s character, V, can stop and pet stray cats he encounters throughout the game.

There’s even a hidden opportunity to adopt your own stray and take it back to your apartment in the game. Johnny Silverhand, the wise-ass character played by Keanu Reeves, is particularly fond of Nibbles the stray, who can be found amid piles of trash in the hallway outside V’s apartment.

Nibbles “doesn’t really do much besides lay around and take up space,” Screenrant notes. “Basically exactly what a cat does in real life. What an immersive experience.”

In another scene, V is conducting recon on a corporate target with Takemura, a Japanese ally, when a cat slinks by and lays down about 20 feet away.

Takemura says the cat is the first animal he’s seen in Night City, “except for the cockroaches, of course.” Then he wonders if the cat is a bakeneko, a Japanese spirit.

Night City is a technological achievement so impressive that it takes many hours just to get your head wrapped around how big and detailed it is. It’s easily the largest virtual city ever created, but it’s not just about sprawl — the city is truly vertical, from hidden subterranean depths and accessible street-level locales to highways, apartments and offices that claw at the sky, their peaks towering over ubiquitous flying car traffic.

The game is a form of entertainment, but it’s also a warning: This could be our future. Some would say it’s even likely to be our future.

Most of us are disconnected from nature. We’ve forgotten the stars and the night sky, which have been blotted out by smog and light pollution. We have wiped out more than two thirds of all the wildlife on the Earth and innumerable species teeter on the edge of extinction, including almost every example of iconic megafauna, from tigers and jaguars to orangutans, chimpanzees and elephants.

The interregnum caused by the global pandemic has reminded us that we share this planet with billions of other minds, with animals cautiously poking their heads out at the edges of civilization, wondering where all the humans have gone.

It’s fun to play in a dystopian future, but I don’t want to live in it.

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Cats In Movies: 1985’s ‘Explorers’

When I was a kid, my best friend’s dad had a trove of science fiction on VHS tapes, running the gamut from 1950s flying saucer classics to 80s fare like The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator and Explorers, a little-known Disney film that quietly came and went from theaters in 1985.

The Joe Dante-directed movie attained cult status in subsequent years via home video, and it’s easy to see why: Explorers is the stuff kids’ dreams are made of.

The movie follows three boys who dream of a bizarre symbol — a symbol that, when entered into a computer, spawns self-writing code that generates a floating sphere.

The sphere is an an airtight, transparent, inertia-less magnetic bubble. The boys soon realize they can make the sphere move and manipulate its size. More importantly, they can ride in it.

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Wulfgang (River Phoenix) and Ben (Ethan Hawke) activate the sphere for the first time, before Wulfgang’s cat shows them how to make a space ship out of it.
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The dream symbols from Explorers: Not bad for 1985 computer-generated graphics.

Naturally, they build their own space ship out of junk parts — an old Tilt-A-Whirl ride, a garbage can, a TV screen and washing machine doors for windows — and use the magnetic bubble as its invisible shell.

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The boys build a space ship, which they dub Thunder Road, out of parts found in a junkyard.

After their first flight — in which they lose control of their new ship, crash through the snack bar at a drive-in theater and draw the attention of police — the kids refine their invention, discovering a way to reach outer space.

Explorers is Ethan Hawke’s first movie. He plays Ben, the dreamer of the trio, the kid who lays on his roof at night and gazes at the stars, wondering what’s out there.

The late River Phoenix also made his film debut with Explorers and plays Wulfgang, the proud nerd and young scientist who uses his computer to control the ship-in-a-bubble.

And former child actor Jason Presson plays Darren, the kid who comes from a rough existence with an alcoholic dad, and befriends Ben and Wulfgang when he defends them from bullies at school. (This being the 80s, the bullies are very blond, very stupid and very cruel.)

So where does the cat come in? By showing the three kids the potential of their invention, of course.

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Wulfgang’s cat jumps on the keyboard, sending the sphere zig-zagging through his basement.

Wulfgang and the boys first conjure their magnetic sphere into existence in using a computer in Wulfgang’s basement lab, and marvel at it as it hangs in the air, impenetrable and seemingly immobile.

That’s when Wulfgang’s orange tabby does what cats do and flops down on the keyboard, sending random spatial coordinates to the sphere which then zig-zags throughout the basement. As the sphere tears holes in old junk, punctures a window and comes to rest a few feet away, the boys realize it can not only move, it can be guided.

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Takeoff!

Every boy dreams of exploring space at some point, and Explorers is that dream realized through a child’s eyes. Three kids from the suburbs build a ship that can reach outer space, offering answers to the tantalizing questions about what’s out there.

We’re not the only ones with fond memories of the movie. A Hollywood script-writing duo which includes the director of True Detective has been working on an updated version that would play out as a live-action TV series. Here’s to hoping if their project gets the greenlight, the cat stays in.

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Book Club: The Game of Rat and Dragon

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!

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The story originally appeared in the October 1955 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction.
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Alternate book cover.
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The cover design from the online edition of the story.

NASA: We’re Pretty Sure Cats Can’t Commandeer Our Spacecraft

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:

 

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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.

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LOL humans think we can’t fly spaceships.

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?

With at least one alien race recognizing cats as the supreme rulers of Earth — sorry, Felinia — is it really far fetched to imagine cats commandeering spacecraft to explore the final frontier and the Great Big Litter Box in the Sky?

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The Cats of Star Trek

Fair warning: It’s about to get real nerdy up in here.

Cats have been a mainstay in science fiction, more so than any other animal.

Whether it’s Cordwainer Smith’s spacefaring cats obliterating aliens in “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” Sigourney Weaver’s Jonesy the Nostromo ship cat surviving the eponymous Alien, or Fritz Lieber’s beloved Gummitch the Super Kitten, felines have long played major roles in speculative fiction.

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.

The Caitians

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A Caitian science officer in his Starfleet uniform. Source: STO

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:

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A Caitian Starfleet officer from 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.

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Klingons have been redesigned several times through the decades thanks to larger budgets and advances in special effects.

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:

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My Caitian character: The blue uniform indicates he rose through the ranks as a science officer before becoming a member of Starfleet’s admirality.

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.

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Kzinti warriors from Larry Niven’s Ringworld. The feline aliens were later introduced to the Star Trek universe by Niven himself when he penned a series of Trek comics.

 

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.

Thanks — or no thanks — to JJ Abrams, there are even “sexy Caitians,” like the pair we see in 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness. In the film we see Captain James T. Kirk, played by Chris Pine, waking up in a bed with two women. Both women have long, feline tails, and Abrams would later confirm they’re the alternate universe version of Caitians.

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These Caitians are quite different. (Star Treek 2009 reboot.)

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!)

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Credit:Jenny Parks
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The crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation as kitties. Credit: Jenny Parks