Tag: cats in science fiction

Bud’s Book Club: The Man-Eaters of Kumaon & The Game of Rat and Dragon

Welcome to the inaugural post of Buddy’s Book Club, where we’ll read stories about cats and stories involving cats!

We’re going to start things off easy with a classic short story of the cat canon, which is available for free online via Project Gutenberg, and a seminal book about big cats from a man whose name is indelibly linked with them.

The Game of Rat and Dragon (1954) by Cordwainer Smith

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Read it here for free from Project Gutenberg, a collaborative effort to create a digital archive of important cultural literary works that have fallen into the public domain. For those unfamiliar with Project Gutenberg, it’s completely above-board, legal and safe for your devices, and the story opens in plain HTML with illustrations included as image files. You can read the story in a browser or download it onto a reading device, tablet or phone.

The Game of Rat and Dragon first appeared, as so much short fiction of the era did, in a digest. Although Smith had penned it the year before, the story was published in Galaxy Science Fiction’s October 1955 issue and became an instant classic among cat-lovers and science fiction aficionados. (There is considerable overlap between the two, not surprisingly: Introverts whose imaginations run wild when they look to the stars tend to have many of the same personality traits as people who prefer the more sublime antics of cats.)

The Game of Rat and Dragon imagines a far future in which humanity has become a star-faring culture, meaning we’ve conquered interstellar flight and have begun to colonize planets in star systems other than our own.

There is, of course, a problem. The dark, lonely void between stars isn’t as empty as we thought it was, and is inhabited by invisible (to the human eye), inscrutable, inexorable entities eventually dubbed “dragons.”

When dragons attack they leave only death and insanity in their wake, putting the entire idea of interstellar travel at risk. Imagine if there was a not-insignificant chance of your passenger jet being attacked by impervious creatures every time you hopped on a plane. It wouldn’t be long before the entire air industry collapsed and the world suddenly became a much bigger place, with other continents unreachable by air.

Who can help humans with this problem? Cats, of course! To say more would be to spoil the fun. Meow!

Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944) by Jim Corbett

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Available as an ebook for 99 cents from Barnes and Noble.

Jim Corbett was a sportsman, the son of a government official in the British Raj who was raised in India’s jungles and came to know them intimately. He’s best remembered as the fearless hunter who finally brought down the infamous Champawat tigress, who officially claimed 436 lives over a years-long rampage as a man-eater, and likely many more that went unrecorded.

To understand the gravity of Corbett’s accomplishments, it’s necessary to understand the effect of a man-eater on rural India. The people living in India’s tiny villages are subsistence farmers. If they don’t farm, they don’t eat.

But when a man-eater as dangerous as the Champawat tigress claims an area as its hunting grounds, everything grinds to a halt: Farmers refuse to tend their fields, villagers disappear behind locked doors, and a simple walk to a neighboring village becomes an impossibility unless escorted by a group of two dozen or more armed men. Even then it’s a risk, for as Corbett notes, when tigers become man-eaters they have no fear of humans and will kill people in broad daylight, even when they’re in groups.

And yet for all their power and predatory instincts, tigers are never deliberately cruel and don’t harm humans willingly. Tigers become man-eaters by unfortunate circumstance, usually due to negligence or stupidity on the part of humans.

The Champawat tigress, for example, was like any other big cat until a human hunter took aim and shot her in the mouth, destroying one lower canine completely and shattering another. The tiger could no longer take down her usual prey, or at least not without serious difficulty. At some point — perhaps after encountering the body of a person it did not kill — the tigress realized she could survive on human flesh.

If that hadn’t happened, those 436-plus souls wouldn’t have been lost, an entire region wouldn’t have been brought to its knees, and the tigress would have continued life as normal.

The vast majority of the time, tigers are content to let humans be.

“I think of the tens of thousands of men, women and children who, while working in the forests or cutting grass or collecting dry sticks, pass day after day close to where tigers are lying up and who, when they return safely to their homes, do not even know that they have been under the observation of this so called ‘cruel’ and ‘bloodthirsty’ animal,” Corbett writes.

Despite his reputation as the man to enlist when a man-eater terrorized a region, Corbett saw the way things were trending a century ago, and begged people to let the big cats live undisturbed.

“A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage,” he wrote, “and that when he is exterminated — as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support — India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.”

Corbett would undoubtedly be deeply disturbed by the situation today, with only some 4,000 wild tigers remaining in the entire world, and the glorious species mostly reduced to spending life in captivity, constantly sedated so that idiots can pay to take selfies with them.

The Man-Eaters of Kumaon follows Corbett on 10 hunts of man-eating tigers and leopards. It’s also a story of life in the British Raj, rural life in India, Corbett’s jungle adventures, his love for his loyal hunting dog and his turn toward conservation.

Schedule:

We can do the short story in a week, yeah? Let’s shoot for one week for The Game of Rat and Dragon, and two weeks for The Man-Eaters of Kumaon. We’ll adjourn and discuss in follow-up posts. Happy reading!

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.

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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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