Friday 19 August 2016

The Cats of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Many years ago, the great and incomparable Terry Pratchett uttered a truthism: 
"If cats looked like frogs we'd realise what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember."
He also said:
"In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this."
It does explain a lot.

Cats have been human companions for almost ten thousand years, and only dogs have been human companions for longer. This is probably why science fiction and fantasy authors tend to assume that in the future there will still be cats around, and even fantasy worlds with a ton of non-human races will also have cats showing up. Anthropomorphised cats - usually alien and fantasy races based on cats, but sometimes magically-transformed actual cats - are also commonly found in the genre. So I thought it'd be interesting to put together a greatest hits collection of cats in science fiction and fantasy (and yes, we do dogs as well).

Greebo, the lord and master of all feline activity in the Kingdom of Lancre.

The greatest - and certainly smelliest - cat in the history of genre fiction is Greebo, the cat/familiar of Nanny Ogg, one of the witches of Lancre. Greebo is old, scarred from a thousand battles and incapable of backing down from anything. Greebo is an unrepentant sex pest of a cat, having fathered definitely hundreds and potentially thousands of kittens across the kingdom. Possessed of an uncanny intelligence and the combat nous of a barbarian warlord, Greebo is noted for having killed at least two vampires in battle, near-mortally wounded an elf warrior, surprised a she-bear and chased a wolf up a tree. In fact Greebo has only lost an engagement once, when he chased a vixen into her den where her cubs were located. However, it is hinted that Greebo's mastery of battle is a result of him knowing when to fight and when not to: when confronted by Legba, the black cockerel of the voodoo witch Mrs. Gogol, he immediately backed down.

Greebo will not suffer to be touched by anyone other than Nanny Ogg, who, despite her normally formidable powers of observation and good judgement of character, remains convinced that he is a fluffy and friendly kitten rather than a furball of nightmares who is still wanted for crimes committed across the Disc, incurred when the witches travelled across the continent to Genua and then back again. In Genua Greebo was briefly transformed into human form. In this form he was six feet tall, well-muscled, with a mane of black hair and clad in form-fitting leather, along with an eyepatch over his bad eye. He exuded a kind of "greasy, diabolic sexuality". Fortunately he was returned to cat form before tremendous damage was wreaked on the population of Genua.

Greebo once furthered the cause of quantum science when, through experimentation, confirmed that a cat, upon being left in a box for an extended period of time, could in fact exist in one of three potential states: Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious. Upon the box being opened, the quantum waveform collapsed into one outcome, to whit, Greebo bit the face off the elf opening the box.

Greebo, of course, is the true star of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels and plays a substantial role in Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum and Wintersmith.


Having lived for circa 60 years, Jones might be the longest-lived cat in history in the Alien continuity.

Jones, the rat-catcher of the deep space mining vessel Nostromo, is a survivor. In fact, in the current Alien canon, he's sole crewmember of the Nostromo not to get killed by the xenomorph (it even got Ripley in the end). He also has the sense to stay at home in Aliens when Ripley zooms off to engage the xenomorphs on LV-426. Neill Blomkmap's off-on again Alien 5 will apparently eject both Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection from continuity but I suspect Jones will have long since moved on to the furry cat home in the sky.

Even Frankenstein knew that his slobby owner's plan to retire to Fiji to raise sheep and horses was moronic.

Frankenstein is a small black cat born on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Dave Lister, the lowest-ranking crewperson on the mining ship Red Dwarf, buys her to alleviate boredom. Horrified at the discovery there is an unquarantined animal on board, Captain Hollister orders Lister to turn over the cat so it can be cut up and dissected. When he refuses to promise to put the cat back together again afterwards, Lister refuses and is put in temporal stasis for the rest of the trip, forfeiting eighteen months pay (in the novel continuity Lister does this deliberately so he can get back to Earth faster). Unfortunately, a lethal radiation leak wipes out the crew and forces the ship's AI, Holly, to take the vessel into deep space until the radiation danger has passed...which takes three million years. When Lister wakes up, he finds himself quite possibly the last surviving human being in the entire universe. The only other living humanoid on board is a bipedal descendant of Frankenstein's kittens, known simply as "Cat", a vain and preening creature who can't maintain his concentration on anything other than sleeping or eating for more than five minutes.

Cats have played a key role in many SFF stories, but for Red Dwarf  (which returns for its eleventh season next month) they basically provide the very rationale for the show's existence and underpin its premise, which is pretty good going.

Kittenbus, the younger - and somewhat less nightmare-inducing - form of a Catbus.

The Catbus is an outrageously cute/despair-inducingly disturbing (delete as appropriate) form of conveyance from the Studio Ghibli film My Neighbour Totoro and its short spin-off, Mei and the Kittenbus. It's a giant cat with many legs which has been hollowed out (urgh) and turned into a vehicle, with its eyes serving as giant headlights and a permanent, rictus-like grin jammed onto its face and unleashing a haunting "miaow" in lieu of beeping a horn. It reminds me a bit of that stuffed dead cat that got turned into a drone. Younger catbuses (catbusi?) are known as kittenbuses, but are only big enough for a single child passenger.

Slag, the ship's cat of the airship Ketty Jay, as realised by Anjakes on DeviantArt.

If there was one thing missing from Firefly, as I'm sure everyone knows, it was a cat. That kind of low-down cargo ship was crying out for a ship's cat to get all up in everyone's business. However, Joss Whedon was probably enough of an old hand at Hollywood to know that trying to get a cat to act on-screen is an exercise in futility. Books, of course, have no such limitations and Chris Wooding's excellent saga The Tales of the Ketty Jay (which is basically a steampunk Firefly in a totally non-derivative and equally-awesome kind of way) features a feline crewmember of the good airship. Slag is an old cat, fond of catching rats and loyal (in a relaxed kind of way) to his crewmen. Part of the genius of the books is that we regularly get chapters told from Slag's perspective and the cat actually gets his own character arc throughout all four books. Slag is an ever-present character in the series very few of the other cats in this list are, which an impressive and surprisngly non-mawkish achievement.

The cover designer clearly went to town on this one.

Pixel is a timeline-hopping cat who appears in the novels The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset by Robert Heinlein. The cat has the inexplicable ability to pass through solid matter, apparently a result of its "inability to know any better". At one point the cat gains the ability to talk.

Sir Pounce-a-Lot and Anders (before going psycho), by Morteraphan on DeviantArt.

Ser Pounce-a-Lot is a cat who appears in the Dragon Age video games from BioWare. He debuts in Awakenings, the expansion to the original Dragon Age: Origins, as a small kitten. The Warden (the player-character) can give the kitten to his follower Anders as a gift. Anders raises the kitten to adulthood, occasionally producing it to talk to during idle moments. The cat can be deployed in battle as a means of healing the party mid-combat, although how logically this is achieved is never explained.

In Dragon Age II a rather grumpy Anders will confirm that he had to relinquish the cat at the behest of his fellow Grey Wardens after finding it distracted him. It is possible that this lack of feline affection contributed to his brutally ruthless decision to declare war on the templars at the end of the game. To the annoyance of fans, Sir Pounce-a-Lot likewise failed to reappear in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Some fans theorise that Dragon Age IV may feature Anders and Sir Pounce reunited as a battle-hardened adventuring duo stalking the wilds of Thedas.

Spot was a particularly resilient and hardy space-travelling cat who served with distinction on two of the Federation starships to bear the name Enterprise.

Spot is an interstellar feline and crewmember of the Galaxy-class starship USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D). Spot is adopted by android crewmember Lt. Commander Data as part of his ongoing attempts to understand humanity. Data's attempts to train Spot backfired when he inadvertently discovered the cat had instead trained him to feed and pet her upon command. Spot was noted for her calmness under pressure, at one point being transformed into an iguana with no after-effects. At one point Spot gave birth to a litter of kittens. Spot was noted for her intolerance of people she didn't like, unprovokedly attacking both Riker and La Forge. Apart from Data, she was only affectionate towards Lt. Reginald Barclay. She and Worf developed a mutual dislike for one another, but following Data's destruction in the battle with Shinzon Worf reluctantly agreed to adopt the animal. Later he cited the then-aged cat as having a "true warrior's spirit" hidden behind a facade of lazy indolence.

Spot appeared regularly in Seasons 4-7 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as the movies Generations and Nemesis.

Data once wrote a poem about the cat, Ode to Spot, which follows in its entirety:
Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,
An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature;
Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses
Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.

I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
A singular development of cat communications
That obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
For a rhythmic stroking of your fur to demonstrate affection.

A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
You would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aid in locomotion,
It often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.

O Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display
Connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.
 Spot's reaction to the poem is not known.

The Cat That Launched A Thousand Memes.

Lying Cat (a recurring character in comic book series Saga) is a very large feline and constant companion to the bounty hunter known as the Will. Lying Cat shares most common feline traits, but her size makes her formidable in combat. Lying Cat's most distinguishing feature is the ability to tell when someone is lying. Upon detecting deceit, the cat will simply growl, "Lying". This includes even when people are lying to themselves about some kind of emotional distress. One drawback to this power is that the cat will say it even if the person lying is her owner/partner, the Will.

Mrs. Norris and her master, a rare example of cat-and-human team villainy in SFF.

Mrs. Norris is the pet cat of Argus Filch, the caretaker of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The cat is grumpy and ill-tempered, like its owner, and possesses a strong bond with him, apparently able to alert him to any misbehaving children in the school grounds. The cat was briefly petrified by the Serpent of Slytherin, but later made a full recovery (although some claim her mood was worsened by this incident).

Mrs. Norris is, unusually for SFF, an antagonistic cat. She appears in the Harry Potter novels and movies. Some fans theorised that Mrs. Norris had some kind of magical bond with Filch but J.K. Rowling confirmed she is merely a normal - if nasty - feline.

Balerion, a cat with all the attitude, self-confidence and unreasoning love of violence of Gregor Clegane.

Balerion the Black Dread was the greatest dragon in the history of Westeros, a terrifying monster that helped its rider, King Aegon Targaryen, conquer an entire continent.

Three hundred years later, its namesake prowled the halls of the Red Keep in King's Landing. Originally a sweet kitten owned by Princess Rhaenys Targaryen, the cat seems to have not borne the death of his mistress (brutally killed during the Sack of King's Landing) very well. It had a torn ear (some fans theorise sustained during the Sack) and a disposition that was less "mean" and closer to "psychotically vicious". Perfectly willing to attack and kill even the largest crows and ravens in the rookery (to the despair of Grand Maester Pycelle), the cat is a legend in the Red Keep. He once stole into the dinner hall and snatched a quail out of the hand of Lord Tywin Lannister, a feat which earned the cat the respect of Robert Baratheon. The cat later evaded capture at the hands of Arya Stark (whilst being trained in water-dancing by Syrio Forel) and bullied the kittens belonging to Tommen Baratheon before being run off. At about twenty years old, the cat's belligerence shows no sign of abating.

Balerion, of course, is one of the more memorable animal characters of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Although Rhaenys's kitten and the black monster of the novels are not 100% confirmed to be the same cat, various official artwork and George R.R. Martin's comments suggest they are.

Haviland Tuf, a man who distrusts humanity and prefers the company of felines.

Dax is the genetically-enhanced master feline of the interstellar seedship Ark. Created by Haviland Tuf, the cat is notably larger than most felines and has formidable psi powers, capable of detecting subterfuge and deception and alerting his owner to any risks present. Dax is the largest and most capable of a number of cats living on the Ark, most of whom defer to his superiority.

Dax is another feline of George R.R. Martin's creation, being a notable character in his 1986 SF novel Tuf Voyaging.

There are, of course, too many cats in SFF to count in one article. Other notable examples include:
  • Mogget, from the Sabriel novels.
  • Isis, Gary Seven's shapeshifting cat from the classic Star Trek episode Assignment: Earth!
  • The Amazing Maurice from Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents.
  • Rowl, from Jim Butcher's The Aeronaut's Windlass.
  • Mister, from The Dresden Files.
  • Tailchaser from the classic Tad Williams novel Tailchaser's Song.
  • Spangle, from Michael Marshall Smith's Only Forward.
  • Lady May, from Cordwainer Smith's Game of Rat and Dragon.
  • Bast from Neil Gaiman's American Gods.
  • Sir Pounce, also from A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.
  • Mr. Bigglesworth, Dr. Evil's evil cat, from the Austin Powers movies.
  • Baudelaire from Phantom 2040.
  • Petronius Arbiter, also from the works of Robert Heinlein.
  • Zap the Cat from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga.
  • Orion from Men in Black.
  • Lylan from Lloyd Alexander's Castle of Llyr.
  • The cigarette-smoking mutant cat of Transmetropolitan.
  • Musty, the cat of the witch Rhea of Coos, in Stephen King's Dark Tower series.
  • In a similar vein, Churchill from Pet Semetary.
  • And the cats of Earth when they appear in the Dreaming, in Neil Gaiman's Sandman.
Cat-inspired races are also common in the genre. Notable examples include: the Kzinti of Larry Niven's Known Space novels, the (almost certainly Kzinti-inspired) Kilrathi of the Wing Commander video games, the Caitians of Star Trek (most notably regular crewmember Lt. M'Ress in Star Trek: The Animated Series) and the Khajit of The Elder Scrolls ("Khajit has wares if you have coin").

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Anonymous said...

-Crookshanks in the Harry Potter novels, though he's half-Kneazle.

-There's a cat in the Renshai novels (Mickey Zucker Reichert) who has a telepathic bond with her owner. and I think some other characters as well, though I haven't read that series in a while.

Cats are the BEST.

srs said...

No Aineko?

The Hobbit said...

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, (despite its title) also heavily features a cat named Princess Arjumand.

Sarah Hipple said...

But what about Mogget? (Of the book Sabriel by Garth Nix).

Mogget is sarcastic and fish-loving and obstructionist and somehow also (sort of) manages to save the day.

Jens said...

Cat lovers might be interested in a series of anthologies edited by Andre Norton and Martin Greenberg in the late 80s and 90s by the name of Catfantastic (link).

Robert Atlas said...

A number of Paul Anderson's stories featured feline races. And of course there were many cats in the works of Andre Norton.

Mitchell Hundred said...

I believe that Cath Palug also merits a mention here.

Robert Atlas said...

Based on his stories, I'd say Fritz Leiber was fond of 3 things: cats, chess and girls. His best-known story with a cat was Spacetime for Springers. (Springer refers to the cat and is also the word for chess knight in German).

Tanaros said...

Great article, as always.
I believe that you forgot to mention the treecats from David Weber's Honor Harrington universe. A great addition to the main character and the setting as well.

Anonymous said...

Nimitz and and the other Treecats from he Honor Harrington Series deserve a mention too

Wastrel said...

Definitely worth mentioning is Fennel, from Robin Hobb's "Tawny Man" trilogy. Fennel is able to communicate with the protagonist, Fitz, but has no particular affection for him or for anybody else, and has no real plot significance, being entirely focused on sleeping in warm places and being given food. In other words, it's a cat, and the fact it can (sort of) talk to the protagonist doesn't stop it being a cat...

On the subject of anthropomorphic cats, D&D has (had?) a race of rakshasas. Technically, these are demons that can take the form of any anthropomorphised animal (iirc?) but invariable seem to be tigers. They wear impeccable clothing (often smoking jackets going by the illustrations...), and have their hands attached backwards.

Anonymous said...

What about A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny
Graymalk: Snuff's (protagonist) best friend

James D. Cormier said...

Such unforgivable sidelining of Tailchaser's Song cannot stand! ;-)

Anonymous said...

No mention of Anne McCaffrey's 'Talents' series, and its prodigious felines? :( Such sadness. The standout would be Rascal, a barque cat, from McCaffrey's The Rowan.

Anonymous said...

Myau from Phantasy Star is my favourite cat. and then Cthulhu Saves the World made their own Lovecraft-flavoured version of Myau.

PCBushi said...

Nice post. Good to see cats getting some recognition. Seems these days it's en vogue to pick a team (cats or dogs) and trash the other. Both can be great companions and can make for some memorable characters (if often ancillary).

Melinda P said...

I’m very late to this party, but I think Solembum, of the werecats in Christopher Paolini’s Eragon saga, definitely deserves at least an honorable mention. He is a solid supporting character in the series!

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall a poem with the premise that cats were escapees from an alien star ship millions of years ago. The aliens tried to call them back but, cats being cats, ignored them and were lift behind on Earth. Anyone else remember that one?