Aug 30 2010 6:02pm

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, Clarkesworld, and elsewhere.

John Adams
3. JohnArkansawyer
How can you skip the sexiest of all catwomen, Fritz (and why skip him?) Leiber's Tigerishka, from [i]The Wanderer?
4. stampey
Good Show Sir has posted a bunch of hilarious cat-people book covers. recommend.
5. peachy
I sincerely hope my (sweet & affectionate) cats never get hold of rayguns - we'd all be toiling in their underground cat-food mines like that. And perhaps that's part of the attraction of felines for sci-fi... it's so very easy to see cats as mute inglorious Napoleons just waiting for their chance. As opposed to dogs, whose affection strikes one as a matter of genetic disposition rather than as a policy of necessity.
Cathy Mullican
6. nolly
Yes, I was going to mention The Wanderer, too. I hated it, but it did win a Hugo, and really should be included in any catalog, even a necessarily-incomplete one.
Michael Grosberg
7. Michael_GR
No mention of the tiger men of Mars from the Buck Rogers comic strip and film serials? Those might have been the very first cat people in SF!

Also, Laser Cats!
Ryan Britt
8. ryancbritt
Oh! You guys are all right. I really missed it by not including The Wanderer. Good call.

As for the Tiger Men From Mars, I thought about it. In fact, I even found an awesome picture of "Tiger Man" from the Gil Gerard era Buck Rogers show. For some reason, didn't end up including it. Maybe I was wrong.
David Levinson
9. DemetriosX
Actually, the most egregious omission is probably Cordwainer Smith's C'Mell. Or does she not count since she is an uplifted cat?

I suppose the prevalence of cat people is connected with the strong affinity that writers in general seem to have for cats, from Kipling to Hemingway to Heinlein. If cats really do change the behavior of humans, maybe one of those changes has storytelling as a side effect.
10. Shard
There's also the Thundercats! How can they be forgotten from this list? They were space travelers.

There was also a race of Kattah's in the video game series Quest For Glory.
Ian Gazzotti
11. Atrus
There's also the fascinating culture of the cat people from Sivao, from the Star Trek TOS novel "Uhura's Song". It's a pity they weren't used much beyond that.
Roland of Gilead
12. pKp
Does the cat-turned-AI in Charles Stross' Accelerando count ? Badass character, but he was an actual cat (and then some), with no man component at all.
Mike Conley
13. NomadUK
I'm allergic to cats, and just plain annoyed at the stunning lack, noted earlier, of dog people. What, no biscuits in space?
14. Raywind
Then there's the feline Sholans, from the Sholan Alliance series by Lisanne Norman. Great first few books, but the series takes a few odd turns near the end.
Phillip Nunemacher
15. philn
NomadUK. I'm with you as I'm also allergic to cats and much prefer dogs.

Why hasn't anyone mentioned the old Traveller RPG? That game included both a race of cats and dogs. Sorry, I can't remember the name of either.
David Levinson
16. DemetriosX
NomadUK@13: The only dogs I can think of are some of Smith's Underpeople and Piper had some Canid aliens in one or two of his books. Other than that, I can't think of any.
David Levinson
17. DemetriosX
philn@15: The aliens in Traveller were basically taken from various SF sources with the serial numbers filed off. The Aslan were, for all intents and purposes, Kzinti, and the dog aliens were from Piper.
18. Stefan Jones
The wolf folks from Traveller are the "vargr". They were actual uplifted wolves. An attempt to create a servant species that didn't work out.

@DemetriosX: The Aslan were not Kzinti clones. The females were sapient. They weren't hair-trigger violent.

* * *
I really don't understand the attraction of cat people. Cats are much more practical pets, but I think canines are a lot more fun to hang out with, and I suspect we'd have a lot more in common with sapient canines than sapient cats.

One of Poul Anderson's Flandry stories had wolf-ish aliens.

And while not aliens, there's Stapledon's Sirius and the creatures from Bakis's Lives of the Monster Dogs. (Both reviewed here:
David Levinson
19. DemetriosX
@Stefan: OK, I homebrewed my Traveller universe, so I don't remember all the details, but I think there was a definite tip of the cap to the Kzinti (and on the Ring, the females are sapient). But the Hivers were definitely Puppeteers with more arms and fewer legs.

Piper's canid aliens were the z'Srauff. I can't remember if they were in anything other than Lone Star Planet, though.
20. Glory B
Don't forget the Chanur Series by C J. Cherryh for the Cat series.

The Martian Fat Cats, by Heinlein in Rolling Stones.

H. Beam Piper had a canine or something similar in one of his Paratime series.

Cats are so standoffish and aloof, that a person can take more liberties with their behaviors.

A dog is much more predictable, and will not get into as much mischief as a cat will.
21. Rowanmdm
How about the Hrrubans from McCaffrey's Doona books?
Susan Davis
22. sue
What about the Treecats from the Honor Harrington novels?
23. Jerry C.
Better late than never, right? Here's a few more. The Salarik in Andre Norton's Plague Ship (1956); Poul Anderson's Tigres; and MZB gave a nod to Niven by haveing the "K'Zimm" in Hunters of the Red Moon.

There's too many nekojin in anime and manga to name them all, but I've got to mention the Ctarl-Ctarl from Outlaw Star. Especially the memorabel Aisha Clanclan.

Now pass the catnip...
24. Jerry C.
Forget what I just said about MZB. Her nekojin were called
Mekhars. (I need to lay off the cat-nip...)
25. Christopher Byler
The classic SF strategy game Master of Orion and its sequel had the Mrrshans, a race of matriarchal cat people. (I assume that, like the hani, their social structure is based on lions.)

And how can this thread possibly have gotten this far without anyone mentioning the cat on Red Dwarf?
26. ROBIN M.
Don't forget Anne McCaffrey's Barque cats from her Tower or Catalyst series. I thought this was going to be about the high percentage of Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors owned by cats. Its as close as they get to aliens.
27. myst44
I will have to add Charles Stross' Accelerando to the list. In fact, in the end its all tidied down by the cat!
Cassandra Farrin
28. welovetea
Seriously, as a dog person, this just gives me the heebie-jeebies. :P
Ryan Britt
29. ryancbritt
weloveta: I think I'll do one on dog-people at some point. Stay tuned. ;-)
30. Abyss
Weber's mil-sf STARS AT WAR series featurs the Orion, a cat-person race. His COUNCIL WARS series also has a cat-person pirate ship captain whose origin tale is quite funny (pun intended).

Kathy Wentworth's HRRIN series is titled after its own cat-peeps.

The DREADSTAR comic featured Oedi, last surviving cat-person of his genetically created and subsequently wiped out race.
31. Gerald Fnord
I think cats are favoured by people with trouble with Authority because they're often a small parody of it...there's something satisfying about a dictator who isn't that much of a threat, and can be shut out the room if needs be.
32. euphbass
I also loved the two races of cat people in the ST:TOS novel "Uhura's Song" - ever since reading that, I've wanted my own prehensile tail!

And Cat from Red Dwarf is awesome of course!

For those of you wondering about dog people, one of the Thundercats annuals I had as a child featured their enemies, the Thunderdogs. Exact same concept, but canine. And uglier *g*.
Christopher Bennett
33. ChristopherLBennett
Wouldn't that Killrathi character named Hobbes more likely be an allusion to Hobbes the tiger from Calvin and Hobbes? After all, the comic strip was ongoing when Wing Commander began.
Karen Simley
34. Simka
How about the Leontines from the Chronicles of Elantra by Michelle Sagara?

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