Tag: science fiction

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.

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!)

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

What If Cats Had Opposable Thumbs?

Three robots on a sightseeing tour of post-apocalyptic, post-human Earth sit on a filthy couch in a decaying home and marvel at what’s in front of them.

“What’s the point of this thing?” one of the robots asks, leaning forward intently.

“Apparently there’s no point,” his tiny red droid friend says. “[Humans] just had them.”

“Well that’s understating their influence,” the third robot chimes in. “They had an entire network that was devoted to the dissemination of pictures of these things.”

The camera pulls back and we see what the robots are looking at — a cat, digging his claws into an old ottoman and stretching his back with a yawn.

The scene is from Love, Death and Robots, a new science fiction anthology series from Netflix. Each episode is an adaptation of a different short story from some of the best SF novelists working today.

Given the ubiquity of cats on the Internet, it’s probably not far-fetched to imagine archaeologists in the distant future — whether alien, machine or some sort of post-singularity humans come to see their primordial birthplace — would draw the conclusion that humanity built an instantaneous global communication network for the sole purpose of sharing cat images.

“All the evidence suggests primitive humans worshiped these quadrupedal, furry little beasts,” some expert on 21st century humanity might say.

In the Netflix episode [SPOILER ALERT!] the robots complete their tour at a nuclear silo, reflecting on humanity’s demise by its own hand.

But it wasn’t just nuclear winter that spelled doom for humans, the little red robot says: The nail in mankind’s coffin was bio-engineering cats to give them opposable thumbs.

The tomcat from earlier, who’d been tagging along with the robots and demanding they pet him, finally breaks his silence and speaks to the stunned robots.

“Yes,” the cat says, casually wiping a paw against his fur. “Once we could open up our own tuna cans, that was pretty much it for the human race.”

The episode ends with the cat conscripting the robots as his new servants, using a clever bit of leverage explained in an earlier scene.

So what would cats do if they had opposable thumbs?

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Mine would be into the treat bag like a crack addict, shoveling junk food in his mouth until he can’t eat anymore. He’d open up his own cans as well, no doubt, eating his way through all the delicious turkey.

He’d probably steal my phone not because he has any interest in using it, but because anything that takes my attention away from him Must Be Destroyed!

And he’d gain the ability to open every door, not just those with handles instead of knobs. A Buddy with opposable thumbs is a Buddy who’d never allow me to use the bathroom in peace.

As for Love, Death and Robots, the “3 Robots” story isn’t the only one in which cats play an important role. In another episode a team on an archaeological dig accidentally unleashes an ancient vampire. Bullets and explosives don’t even phase the undead, but cats — regular meowing house cats — cause it to recoil and flee in terror.

So remember: If you ever come face to face with a vampire, hide behind your kitty!