Where does this special bond between science fiction writers and cats come from, whether as inspiration, work companions or even characters in their stories?
As in the novel “Space-Time for Springers” by Fritz Leiber, which explores the history of cats through the ages using a machine, I offer you a journey into the feline life of great sci-fi writers.
An inexhaustible source of inspiration
In the Middle Ages, the cat was associated with witchcraft and was persecuted a lot. His independence, his womanliness, his nocturnal and mysterious behavior, his temporary fits of madness and his proximity to humans worked against him at the time when witches were burned. Historical documents even report that there were courts to judge them specifically! At the opposite extreme, in ancient Egypt cats were worshiped and deified through the goddess Bastet and today they have become stars thanks to the power of social networks (see the phenomenon around Grumpy cat).
Throughout the ages, the cat has inspired human societies with everything and its opposite. And despite this feline omnipresence there still remains a mystery. As Rilke wrote: “Who knows cats? – Can it be possible, for example, that you pretend to know them?”
At a time when animal rights are becoming an important social issue, the cat is a precursor because it is the only one in the animal kingdom to have already been considered as a person in its own right. Its tumultuous history, freedom and flexibility across different eras and cultures have made it a source of inspiration and a privileged acolyte for many artists and writers.
“If you want to be a psychological novelist and write about human beings, the best thing you can do is keep a pair of cats.” – Aldous Huxley
Some science fiction writers have expressed their love for cats, considering them to be perfect workmates due to their ability to be independent, calm, and cuddly at the same time.
For example, the author Robert A. Heinlein had a cat named Pixel who often slept on his desk while he wrote. He included it in several of his novels such as The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and Beyond This Horizon.
While Philip K. Dick had several cats and often talked about them in his correspondence.
Thus in a letter to the author Ursula K. Le Guin, he writes: “My cats are intelligent and sensitive, and I am sure that they think, feel and remember. They are fascinating to observe”.
Although for Philip K. Dick these feline friends was more than simply pets; they seem to play a significant role not only Dick’s emotional state and authorial experience, but also his ontological philosophy. For example, he was convinced that his cat Pinky was the reincarnation of his editor Tony Boucher who died prematurely of cancer… Then just after the premature death of Pinky, Dick felt a series of extra-sensory phenomena. To learn more about this experience, read his journal The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
He did not write cat-centric stories but some of his characters often talk about cats. For example, in ”“, the main character Anne says a long cat joke.
First movie adaptation of The door into summer
Robert A. Heinlein quotes about cats
“Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.”
“I have spent too much of my life opening doors for cats — I once calculated that, since the dawn of civilization, nine hundred and seventy-eight man-centuries have been used up that way. I could show you figures.” – The door into summer
In the movie “Star Wars”, the character of Chewbacca is largely inspired by cats, with his thick coat and his vocalized language. Likewise Carlo Rambaldi, the designer of E.T. admitted to having been inspired by his Persian cat to design the flattened face and the large eyes of the famous alien.
Other scifi writers chose to explore concepts related to feline biology in their works. For example, in “Zoological Retrogression” by H.G. Wells, cats are used to represent a species that has evolved to perfection, while the opposite in the Chinese political satire “Cat Country” (猫城记) written in 1933, Lao She describes cat-men so spineless and deceitful that they themselves contribute to the extinction of their species.
More recently in France and still on the theme of the evolution of species, Bernard Werber (The Ants) released the novel Tomorrow the Cats, which describes the decline of the human species to the benefit of rats and cats. These ones join forces with the last surviving humans to face hordes of rats in Paris.
Ray Bradbury, writer of Fahrenheit 451, explains the link between creativity and cats :
“That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you. If you try to approach a cat and pick it up, hell, it won’t let you do it. You’ve got to say, “Well, to hell with you.” And the cat says, “Wait a minute. He’s not behaving the way most humans do.” Then the cat follows you out of curiosity: “Well, what’s wrong with you that you don’t love me?”
Symbolic and mystical cats
Cats have also been used in more gothic science fiction stories as key characters or as symbols. For example, in “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe, the cat represents guilt and madness of the main character.
H.P. Lovecraft was also a great cat lover, especially for the abyssinian breed and often mentions them in his stories. The Cats of Ulthar story is one of his most famous tribute to his beloved cats. And also the cats from the moon’s dark side play an important role in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. In his stories, Lovecraft also often used cats to create an atmosphere of mystery and the supernatural, sometimes portraying them as keepers of secrets or beings with mystical powers.
“It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroë and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.” – The Cats of Ulthar, 1920, H.P. Lovecraft
“The cat is such a perfect symbol of beauty and superiority that it seems scarcely possible for any true aesthete and civilised cynic to do other than worship it. We call ourselves a dog’s “master”—but who ever dared to call himself the “master” of a cat? We own a dog—he is with us as a slave and inferior because we wish him to be. But we entertain a cat—he adorns our hearth as a guest, fellow-lodger, and equal because he wishes to be there. It is no compliment to be the stupidly idolised master of a dog whose instinct it is to idolise, but it is a very distinct tribute to be chosen as the friend and confidant of a philosophic cat who is wholly his own master and could easily choose another companion if he found such an one more agreeable and interesting. A trace, I think, of this great truth regarding the higher dignity of the cat has crept into folklore in the use of the names “cat” and “dog” as terms of opprobrium. “
H.P. Lovecraft, Cats and Dogs.
To finish by quoting a contemporary author very feline-loving who is close to my heart, Stephen King who has often placed the cat at the heart of several of his novels and short stories. We think of course of Church, the Chartreux brought back to life by a mystical practice in Pet Sematary.
But the sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep seems to me its finest tribute to the cat’s mystical powers. Azrael, the cat living at the hospice where Dan works has the special ability to feel when someone is about to die. He then informs Dan who comes to comfort the patient in his last moments.
Other SciFi authors who have also expressed affection for cats:
Isaac Asimov had a cat named “Poky” and wrote several stories with cats like the short story “Time Pussy“ about four-dimensional cats.
Ray Bradbury was a great lover of cats and often wrote about their beauty and grace. In an interview he said: “I have my favorite cat, who is my paperweight, on my desk while I am writing”.
Neil Gaiman also likes a lot kitties and has written about them in several of his stories, including “Coraline” and “The Sandman”.
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about cats in “Catwings“. She also wrote a poem about her cat named Pard called “Doggerel for a Cat”.