I Can Has Ray Gunz! Cat-People in Science Fiction

Let’s face it, in less than 10 years, the universal symbol for the Internet won’t be a corporate logo, but instead a quirky and highly recognizable “lolcat.” Funny cats playing the piano, speaking French, and dishing out dangerous levels of cute-overload are definitely the reigning overlords of cyberspace. And while this elevated worship of felines on the Internet is something science fiction did not predict, it probably should have. A dabble of research reveals the depiction of cat-people in SF occurs much more than dog-people or fish-people and is nearly tied with lizard-people.In short, the attack of the cat-people has been underway for some time now and shows no signs of slowing down!

Frequently, cat-people tend to be the kinds of alien species one would want to avoid. In various permutations of science fiction, cat-people are marauding around the cosmos and extending their paws and claws in a mad grab for interstellar domination. The best and most notable example of the dangerous sort of alien cat-people is the Kzinti from Larry Niven’s “Known Space” fictional universe. The Kzinti first appeared in Niven’s short story “The Warriors” and more notably, “The Soft Weapon,” which was later adapted into the animated Star Trek episode “The Slaver Weapon.” Though these space-faring kitties are a tough bunch, humanity eventually triumphs in a series of books (written by authors besides Niven) called The Man-Kzin Wars. The humans seem to emerge victorious for the simple fact that the Kzinti are too aggressive, and frequently attack before they’ve thought their strategies through completely. Further, the Kzinti are fanatically patriarchal, meaning they significantly underestimate the ability of female humans, which comes in handy on more than one occasion.

Though the Kilrathi from the Wing Commander series are essentially the faux-Kzinti, they don’t seem to have the same overt sexism. They recognize Angel (Col. Blair’s girlfriend) as one of the best fighter pilots and warriors among the humans. This is, of course, right before brutally murdering her at the beginning of Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger. It’s also no coincidence that the turncoat Kilrathi who initially helps the humans (only to turn on them in the end) is named Hobbes, an allusion to the philosopher who described the state of nature as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Dangerous litters of cat-people feature in both old and new versions of Doctor Who. The 2nd Doctor encounters cat-people in a non-canonical novel called “Invasion of the Cat People.” Also, a race of Cheetah People threatens the 7th Doctor and Ace in the story “Survival.” More recently, in the 10th Doctor adventure “New Earth,” cat-people belong to something called the Sisterhood of Plenitude. These matrons of a future hospital don’t hesitate before flashing their claws, though it’s their insidious and medically unethical plot which is even more frightening. However, when The Doctor returns to New Earth in “Gridlock,” he meets Thomas Kincade Brannigan, a helpful cat-person who is married to a human woman and has a litter of kittens. This seems to help The Doctor get over his previous distrust of cat-people and by the time he regenerates into the 11th Doctor, he’s having little telepathic chats with regular cats like the one he had in last season’s episode “The Lodger.”

So maybe not all cat-people are sinister, but rather helpful and cute like Brannigan or lolcats. And while there was that crazy cat-lady who tried to attack Captain Kirk in The Final Frontier, it seems like there’s some nice cat-people on Star Trek. The most prominent of the cat-people in Star Trek again comes from the short-lived animated version of the original series in form of the character M’Ress. Various sources frequently claim that the animated Trek was an opportunity for the writers to do all sorts of crazy aliens, as they would not be limited by the budget of a live action show. Along with the three-armed navigator, Arex, M’Ress was a great example of this. Acting as a sort of substitute communications officer for Uhura, M’Ress’s presence on the bridge was essentially to let us know that those little 60s mini-skirts would be super practical if you happened to have a long furry tail.

The list of cat-people could go on for much, much longer: C.J. Cherryh’s Hani, all the characters from Thundercats, the blue skinned Na’vi from Avatar… what is it about cat-people that SF loves so much? Perhaps it has something to do with the notion of a witch’s familiar, a sort of magical creature that can bolster and support another fantastical being. Talking cats pop up in everything from Lewis Carroll to Neil Gaiman, but then again, talking animals are all over the place in general. The actual anthropomorphic depiction of cats seems significant somehow. The phenomenon of lolcats seems to emphasize cats as both devious and wise at the same time. Many people who have cats as pets will constantly tell you that cats don’t perceive themselves as subservient to humans. Instead, humans in the minds of a cat (lol or otherwise) are the servants. Cats are also great survivors, and the whole always-landing-on-their-feet thing might be appealing to humans as a science fiction concept.

From my smidgen of research, it looks like the only animal-aliens that have an edge on cat-people in terms of sheer numbers are the portrayals of insect-people. The bugs beat out cat-people, but only by a whisker. Personally I’ll take cat-people any day of the week, because I sort of am a cat-person by default.

If Kafka had written about Gregor Samsa transforming into a kitten, instead of a cockroach, we might be living in a very different world. It’s possible we might see the following quote all over the internet: “I can has The Metamorphosis?

Ryan Britt lives in Brooklyn were he is reading constantly by either direct download into his noggin or by good old fashion reflected light. His work has appeared on Nerve.com, Clarkesworld, and elsewhere.


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