Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Plague Clone Blues
by Mark Anthony Ayling

Raise the Black Flag
by Harold R. Thompson

If You’re Listening, We’re Going to Try Something
by Sean Monaghan

Coyote Tears
by Bob Sojka

Apprentice’s Test
by Wayland Smith

Suite 15
by Andrew James Woodyard

by R.K. Nickel

Student Database Notes
by Tim McDaniel

Shorter Stories

Fly Robin Fly
by C.E. Gee

What Do You Think?
by John Hegenberger

by K.S. Dent


Tesla’s Death Ray Wall
by Eric M. Jones

Cats Abound in Science Fiction
by Erin Lale



Comic Strips





Cats Abound in Science Fiction

By Erin Lale

CATS ARE A PERENNIAL favorite in science fiction. A cat on the cover or in the title promises readers a cat character. The cat image serves as a story hook, and in genre plots, a hook must have a payoff. The degree to which the cats within the covers do or do not conform to the biology and behavior of Earth cats determines the payoff for the reader.

Cats in science fiction fall into one of three general categories: normal Earth cats, cats that are the result of changes to normal Earth cats, and cat-like aliens. Both aliens and enhanced cats are often depicted as telepathic, so that they can have dialogue. This article considers the telepathic cat trope first, then enhanced cats that are not telepathic, normal cats, alien cats, and finally TV and movie cats.

The telepathic cat trope

Both cat-like aliens and changed Earth cats are often depicted in written science fiction as telepathic and bonded to a human character. This is a plot device which solves the problem of how to depict the cat character having dialogue with the star trek cathuman character. Readers who delight in cats know enough about them to know that cats can’t form the sounds of human speech. Even if they were intelligent enough to understand human languages, they could not speak them out loud using the natural vocal apparatus of a cat. It is easier to give the cat telepathy than to explain physical alterations that would enable a cat to speak and still leave it looking like a cat.

Alien telepathic cats: Treecats

Treecats in the “Honor Harrington” series by David Webber are aliens from the planet Sphinx. They have six legs, are adapted to their planet’s heavy gravity, and are a tree dwelling, sentient, telepathic species, but are otherwise very catlike. They are only slightly bigger than Earth cats. Main character Honor’s pet, Nimitz, rides on her shoulder in the cover art, drawing in cat loving readers.

Honor and Nimitz have a telepathic bond. Even though a cat / human telepathic bond trope is usually used to provide an excuse for extensive dialogue between a human main character and a character who can’t pronounce human words, Honor’s treecat acts less like a devil on her shoulder whispering advice and more like an actual cat. Nimitz takes out the occasional bad guy, but he is still basically a pet. He is intelligent, but never demands or expects equality with the humans. He does not have his own rank and career in the Royal Manticoran Navy.

Enhanced Earth telepathic cats: “Stardust Station”

Genetically engineered cats star in “Crisis on Stardust Station” by John Taloni. These cats began as normal Earth cats, and became intelligent and telepathic as a result of illegal experiments conducted by humans in space. They look just like regular cats except for being a little bigger. Their social structure mirrors that of Earth domestic cats. Some of the station cats are tame and live with humans, and some are feral and live in the Forest Habitat inside the station.

The ferals live like a feral cat colony on Earth. Their social structure is simpler than that of natural cats, so that the ferals have a single leader, the dominant male. Normal Earth cats of the domestic species living as feral colony cats have a complicated dominance hierarchy in which colony territory is controlled by the females, while dominant males have larger territories that include the territories of several females.

Social interaction within the dominance hierarchy is biologically driven, arising from brain structures whose alteration alters behavior. In their paper “Lesions of hippocampus or prefrontal cortex alter species-typical behaviors in the cat,” Nonneman and Kolb showed that structural changes to the cat brain affect social behaviors of biological significance. The genetic modifications that resulted in intelligence and telepathy in the station cats may have simplified the social structure among the ferals and allowed a single leader to rise.

The ferals live by hunting other creatures in the Forest Habitat, while the tame cats are given manufactured food by their humans. The tame cats sometimes hunt for entertainment. Like normal cats, they are solitary hunters.

The main character is named Mrrowl. He is a tame cat, and lives in his human’s quarters. Like normal domestic cats, each tame cat regards his human or humans as his colony-mates. The tame cats of the station do not have an individual cat leader at the beginning of the story, but allow the humans to lead. Mrrowl ends up leading both the tame and feral cats so that they can all work together to avert disaster. He uses his telepathy to communicate with humans as well as with the other cats, but he formally becomes leader of all the cats after he wins a dominance fight against the feral alpha.

Normal domestic cats regard colony-mates who control access to the food supply as social superiors in the dominance hierarchy, whether those colony-mates are fellow feral cats in a feral colony or humans in a human home. The station cats continue to regard the humans as leaders as well as friends even after the station cats begin using technology and begin following Mrrowl as the leader of all the cats.

Other telepathic cats

Among the many stories with the telepathic cat trope are the SKitties in the “Shipscat series by Mercedes Lackey. Main character Tuf’s pet cat Dax in Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin is a genetically engineered cat who has mental powers beyond those of normal, non-enhanced cats, and even beyond some normal humans.

Lady May in “Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith falls into the category of telepathic cats, and the beings she hunts with her human are called “dragons,” but although this sounds like fantasy, the “dragons” are aliens and the story is set in space. Lady May is identified as a Persian cat, which is an Earth cat breed. The author also wrote two short stories featuring C’Mell, who is an “underperson,” an animal who has been given intelligence and looks human-like. Like Lady May, C’Mell’s basic biology came from Persian cats, but C’Mell is more person than cat. Underpeople are in a struggle for civil rights, and C’Mell’s story serves as a commentary on contemporary human society.

In the “Barque Cats”series by Anne McCaffrey and Ann Scarborough, Chessie and her kind are specially bred to live on space ships. They hunt vermin like normal Earth cats, but they also perform space ship specific tasks such as finding oxygen leaks. The Barque Cats fall into the telepathic cat category. Each Barque Cat is bonded with a human Cat Person.

Enhanced cats who are not telepathic

“Angel Catbird” by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, and Tamra Bonvillain, is a formerly human scientist transformed into a cat-bird hybrid by an experiment gone wrong. The cat and bird instincts that war within Angel come from the biology of Earth cats and birds. The story examines the extent to which biology drives behavior.

Tinker/2 in We3 by Grant Morrison is a cat version of “Ghost in the Shell.” A cat brain has been put in a war robot body. This cat started its life as an actual Earth cat, but has been cybernetically enhanced.

Mort(e) is the title character in Robert Repino’s novel in which animals suddenly become intelligent and rise up against humans. This cat is both biologically and behaviorally a being of Earth, but the development of intelligence in animals is a cataclysmic event rather than a gradual evolution.

In “The Breed to Come” by Andre Norton, a plague that wiped humanity from the face of the Earth also made cats intelligent. A group of highly evolved cats master technology left by the legendary humans.

Lucky, the green cat in Fritz Leiber’s The Green Millenium, is a strange creature that makes main character Phil Gish feel good, but has no real explanation. Leiber’s Gummitch in Space-Time for Springers is more of an actual physical cat than Lucky is. He neither talks out loud nor communicates telepathically, but he is an intelligent cat, at least by his own estimation.

Normal Earth cats

“The Cat Who Walked Through Walls,” by Robert Heinlein concerns the adventures of Pixel, a cat with an ability explained only by saying that the cat didn’t know it was impossible. Pixel gains the ability to talk, so although this is considered a classic of science fiction, it has the talking animal trope in common with stories of the fantasy genre.

In Heinlein’s Door Into Summer, Pete is a normal Earth cat. However, his function in the story is more than simple companionship. Main character Daniel considers Pete to be a great judge of character, and calls him Petronius the Arbiter.

Another time travel adventure is Time Cat by Lord Alexander. Although time travel is a fairly common science fiction trope, Time Cat is considered fantasy. The cat, Gareth, is supposedly a normal Earth cat, but talks during this story, and returns to being a normal non-talking cat after the conclusion of the adventure. No scientific explanation is offered for this phenomenon, nor for the time travel itself.

Normal Earth cats who are the pets of humans in written fiction, and whose story function is mostly just to be a normal pet, include “Mickey in Barbary” by Vonda McIntyre, Sprockets in “Mission to Universe” by Gordon R. Dickson, and Zap in the “Vorkosigan Saga,” by Lois McMaster Bujold, Main character Darian Fray’s pet cat Slag in The Tales of the Ketty Jay series is a normal cat, but some chapters are written from his point of view.

The normal cat named Dragon in the “Rats of N.I.M.H.” is an antagonist character. In that story, it is the rats who have become intelligent, due to experiments by human scientists. Dragon follows his natural cat instincts to hunt rats, and is therefore a danger to the protagonist characters.

Alien cats that work: the Hani

Among the most famous reader favorites are the Hani in the Chanur series by C. J. Cherryh. The Hani are aliens who are similar to Earth lions. The cover art entices readers with a group of proud lions and an anomalous human. It suggests that there is a story behind why there is a human with them, and the book delivers that story. The problem of how the human and the Hani communicate is solved by having the human character teach the Hani’s computer to translate.

The art and the title of the first book, the Pride of Chanur, suggest that the aliens live in prides like Earth lions do, and the book delivers that, too. Lion prides generally include a dominant male, several females, and their offspring. Hani clans follow that structure as well. On their home planet, males fight over territory, and the male of each clan must stay on his home property to defend it from rival males.

The main character is Pyanfar, captain of a starship with an all-female crew. The males of the Hani don’t usually leave their planet. At the beginning of the story, Hani culture says that biology is destiny, and that males are biologically incapable of the nonviolence and cooperative effort needed for work in space. One of the major plotlines of the book is how this sexism among the Hani is challenged and overcome.

In addition to the social structure based on lions, the Hani also have some physical characteristics of lions. They have golden manes, and there is a moment of humor in the book where they discourage the human character from shaving off his beard. The Hani also have claws. Their ship’s control systems are made to be worked with claws, and so the boards are challengingly different for the human character. The Hani are expressive with their ears like cats are, and the Hani also decorate their ears with earrings. They are consistently catlike, even while being a sentient species with a culture that also includes many touches that reference their alien history, technology, and even literature.

Alien cats that fail: the Oriani

Putting a cat on the cover, or using the word cat in the title, is a sure way to get cat lovers to give an unknown new work a try. This strategy backfired in Cat’s Gambit. The Oriani are the aliens purported to be cats in “Cat’s Gambit,” the second in the Kaz Empire series by Leslie Gadallah. The only traits they have in common with Earth cats are fur and a hunting instinct.

At first, they seem to share with Earth cats the instinct to isolate themselves when in pain. However, in the opening chapter it soon becomes clear that main character Ayyah is not going out to be alone because she is injured but rather is going to a public place because she is about to give birth. Wild cats on Earth den up to give birth, but Ayyah has a home already, which she leaves to go to “the birthing caves.” The birthing caves are an area used collectively by her people.

The Oriani live in private dwellings with their mates, and practice monogamy, unlike Earth cats. Their culture forbids discussions of any important topics, and the sharing or expression of emotion. The Oriani are thus the opposite of the telepathic intelligent pet cat trope; they are an intelligent life form who can talk but don’t. They don’t say anything that matters to them, and Ayyah does not begin to have unrestrained dialogue that expresses the things she finds important until she leaves her planet and is the only one of her kind around her.

Oriani culture forbids touch comfort, even between husband and wife. Natural cats use touch comfort with each other, for example, head rubbing, mutual grooming, etc. Natural cats hunt and eat their prey. The Oriani have a hunting instinct, but are horrified at the idea of eating meat.

Real life cats have a strong maternal instinct. Like other mammals, terrestrial cats bond with their kittens at birth, and defend, protect, feed, teach, and care for them. The Oriani routinely murder their newborns. They practice eugenics by choosing only the one strongest ubermensch from each litter to survive. The mother kills the rest of her own kittens.

Reader expectations of cats are violated, because the Oriani are too uncatlike. They are neither noble, admirable lions like the Hani nor adorable kitties like cats of Stardust Station. Readers pulled in by the art and title find no payoff.

The Oriani would have been easier to accept if they had been presented as totally alien, rather than as analogous to cats. They could still have had some surface physical similarities to cats without actually implying that they are cat-like. A story that does that successfully is Doomrock, by Jack Ryan. The aliens in Doomrock are described as having fur tufts on their ears. The reader might picture the fur tufts of a lynx, but the aliens are not actually described as feline, so when details of their biology and culture deviate from those of Earth felines, it does not violate reader expectations. The aliens in Doomrock are biologically very different from Earth cats, being a monosexual species. The reader can accept that because they have not been told to expect cats.

Other alien cats

Peter in “The Smile of the Sphinx,” by William F. Temple is an alien who looks like a cat. His species originated on the moon. They have been impersonating Earth cats since they came to Earth during the time of ancient Egypt.

The Kzinti in the Man-Kzin Wars series, originated by Larry Niven, are tiger-like aliens. In “Red Planet,” by Heinlein, Willis the Bouncer is a companion that doubles as a soccer ball.

Movie and TV cats

Movie and TV cats tend to be more normal cats than the ones in written fiction. Perhaps that is because movie and TV cats are played by live cats, and live cats are interesting to look at even if they don’t interact with characters the way that people do. TV and movies are visual as well as auditory media, and some things appear on the screen just to look good. Also, the telepathic powers and bondingalien cat to a human partner common in written fiction are vehicles for internal dialogue. Characters in TV and movies are rarely given any internal dialogue, even the humans.

Jonesy is main character Ripley’s pet cat in the Alien series. Jonesy is a normal Earth cat. His main function in the story is to be loved and saved by Ripley.

Orion, the cat in “Men in Black,” is an ordinary cat with an extraordinary collar fob. His fob is a plot device, a mystery to solve and an object that various characters want.

Spot is Data’s pet cat in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Spot is a normal Earth cat. His function in the plot is to show character moments for Data, who is an android whose motivation is to become like humans.

The villain Blofeld’s cat in the James Bond movies just exists to be a pet. Whether the Bond movies qualify as science is a question of the line between hard science fiction and extrapolation of science fact into fantastic technology.

The cat in The Incredible Shrinking Man is a family pet. It becomes a danger to main character Scott when he becomes small enough to trigger the cat’s natural instinct to hunt prey.

Exceptions to the tendency of movie and TV cats to be normal cats mostly include characters played by humans. The character Cat in “Red Dwarf” is a member of the species felis sapiens, which evolved from normal cats but now look humanoid. This character is played by a human actor. In the classic Star Trek, good character Isis could shape shift between cat and woman, and so could villainess Sylvia. An exception the exception is Jake in The Cat from Outer Space, who looks like a regular cat but is telepathic.

Although a cat on the cover and in the title usually promises a cat character in the story, there is a famous exception to that rule. The “Shrodinger’s Cat” trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson is named after a famous thought experiment in theoretical physics. His target audience would understand that reference. Cat keywords in titles that do not reference physics are expected to deliver cats. end

Further Reading

Cat colony behavior.
Cat behavior in a domestic setting.
History of cat domestication.
Cat behavior towards humans.
Some criticism of a study of the cat-human bond.
On the mammalian mother-baby bond.
On the human-animal bond.
On the relationship between cat biology and behavior.
On feral cat colony behavior.
On brain biology and cat behavior.
On territoriality and social behavior of lions.

Erin Lale is Acquisitions Editor at Caliburn Press. She was the editor of “Berserkrgangr Magazine” and owner of The Science Fiction Store. She recently edited the anthology “No Horns on These Helmets.” Her latest novel is “Planet of the Magi.”


the bone wall