A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra Series
Sept 4, 2014 Garneau Pub, Edmonton, Alberta
Part Seventeen – Cats and Science Fiction
Question: We have long wanted to do a conversation about cats and Science Fiction, and just generally about cats in fiction. This is highly appropriate for an internet blog, since as we all know, the internet is made of cats.
But, in addition to these general considerations, an even better motivator is that your children’s story “The Summer Cottage Mystery – A Children’s Story” , which prominently features a lost kitten, made #1 in Amazon.com and Amazon.uk over the Labour Day long weekend.
Answer (Helena): Yes, that was nice, though I wouldn’t want to go overboard about it, since it was a couple of niche children’s categories and it was a “free days” promotion.
Question: Well, it was a mix of free downloads, Kindle Unlimited borrows, and later sales. And it’s not easy to get people’s attention, even with “free”, as every blogger knows. To be precise about the categories, they were:
· Children’s Books/Mysteries and Detectives/Detectives
· Children’s Books/Mysteries and Detectives/Animals
Answer (Helena): Well, thanks for the ego boost.
Question: It’s all part of the job. By the way, you have featured a cat as a major character in your Witches’ Stones SF series. Cats (the felines) also play a minor role in the Kati of Terra series. We will talk about all that a little later, after discussing cat tropes in Science Fiction, and see where your “Green Cat” alien of Witches’ Stones and the felines of Kati of Terra fit in. But first, let’s talk about the cats that we have known and loved (or feared) in popular SF. That way, we can discuss the symbolic importance of cats to the SF genre by talking about particular cases.
To begin, let’s go to that semi-infinite well of SF lore known as Star Trek. Any thoughts?
Answer (Helena): I guess the first use of cats in Star Trek that comes to my mind, is in the final episode of the original series. In that one, Kirk and Spock have to stop the launch of an orbital nuclear weapons platform during the 1960s cold war, that endangers the future of the Earth. But the meet an agent, Gary Seven, who is on an identical mission. The key element here is that Gary Seven has a peculiar cat he calls Isis.
Question: Isis was the goddess of fertility in ancient Egypt, if I recall correctly. Cats were very important in ancient Egypt and Isis was a key figure in their mythology. So, that’s an obvious hint to the cat symbolism of in the episode.
Answer (Helena): Yes, it is never shown on screen, but it’s pretty clear that Isis the cat and a beautiful woman who also appears in the episode are one and the same. It also seems clear that she and Gary Seven are romantically involved.
Question: Yes, she is shown to be jealous of the other female character in the story, who was played by a young Terri Garr. That was an unforgettable performance, by the way.
Answer (Helena): Well, a young Terri Garr would have that effect on you. At any rate, the symbolism here seems to involve the intrinsic mystery of cats, as well as their (usually) feminine nature and sexual overtones. Part of the cats’ mysterious nature is portrayed by the character’s apparent ability to shape shift or appear out of nowhere. Cats have a way of suddenly showing up in the real world, too. And the fact that the cat shapes shifts into a beautiful woman conforms to the stereotype of the cat being associated with the feminine principle. It’s not often that you see tom cats in these fictionalizations.
Question: I can think of at least one case where the cat may be more representative of male sexuality. That’s the scene in the movie “Forbidden Planet” where the captain is coming on to the very fetching virginal daughter of the “mad scientist” whom the space craft crew discover on the planet. His attempted seduction is interrupted by the attack of a protective big cat, a panther or cougar I think. It seems that the cat’s function is to protect the innocent young woman’s sexual purity, to forestall the seduction, which seems like a male role. It’s a late 1950’s movie, so I suppose protecting a young woman’s purity was a major preoccupation of the era.
Answer (Helena): I think perhaps the big cat is meant to be a psychological manifestation in the real world, a reification of the libido or the super-ego perhaps, protecting the ego from the drives of the id. The movie seemed to have a lot of Freudian theory baked into it.
Question: So, is the cat symbolic of a male or female principle in this case? Does it represent a sort of father figure, protecting the woman? Or is it a female energy that the woman herself calls up, to maintain her “honour”?
Answer (Helena): It all depends whether you see this through a Freudian or Jungian lens. In Freudian terms, the jealous or protective male energy seems likely. In Jungian terms, you could go with either the shadow of the animus.
Question: Expand on that a bit.
Answer (Helena): The animus is supposed to be the male psychic counterpart of a woman - the inner man. The shadow is the “less good” part of the person, usually thought to be the same gender as the person in question. Either way, the scene in the movie seems to involve protecting the young woman from becoming a sexual being, sexually active. I suppose any creature could have been used in this role, but the cat’s association with sexuality makes it a natural.
Question: And, for the record, the captain kills the cat with his laser pistol, but also snaps out of the intended seduction. Make of that, what you will.
Answer (Helena): Sounds like a perfect 1950’s resolution to the problem.
Question: OK, getting back to Star Trek, I want to mention the Catspaw episode, which I always think of as a Halloween episode. In that one, an alien from another galaxy presents herself as a cat, and also transforms her male partner into a giant cat, that threatens the landing party. How’s that for confusing sexual symbolism?
Answer (Helena): Yes, very confusing. But, if I recall correctly, this alien wants to destroy, to take over the galaxy. So, in addition to the sexual symbolism of the cat, we have the trope that an evil impulse lurks in the mind of the cat. That harkens to the notion of that cat as the familiar of evil forces or as evil itself.
Question: And the cat wants to rule the universe. What cat owner hasn’t felt that way, from time to time.
Answer (Helena): Here’s a final example of cats and SF from Star Trek. This example is much more benign than the others. Data and his cat, Spot.
Question: Of course. I would say that Spot was a kind of teacher for Data.
Answer (Helena): Spot was also a kind of antithesis of Data. Data was logic, Spot was emotion. Data was mechanical, Spot was the very essence of organic creature-hood, a cat. Data was an analyst and a planner, Spot was instinctive and reactive. Data recognized that, and in a sense, learned a lot about being human from Spot. Which is to say, Spot helped him learn more about the creaturely side of our nature.
Question: Ok, so much for Star Trek. How about another SF series that very prominently featured a cat, or at least a sort of cat-human hybrid?
Answer (Helena): That would be the cat-human in Red Dwarf, who descended a pet house cat.
Question: In fact a whole species of intelligent (but not very intelligent) cats evolved from Lister’s cat Frankenstein. That was a lot of fun, but perhaps not very profound.
Answer (Helena): Maybe not, but it did play upon some of our other stereotypes about cats.
Question: Preening, arrogant and narcissistic. That’s what you mean, right?
Answer (Helena): And I will just add the contradictory qualities shared by Red Dwarf’s “The Cat” and our companion animal “the cat”:
· Stupid, yet somehow sly and smart.
· Brave, yet often cowardly.
· Confident, but also very shy.
· Sociable, but also very independent and introverted.
Cats are a contradiction, which is probably a big part of their attraction for humans.
Question: Let’s quickly go through a few others. There’s the final episode of the “Ace” Doctor Who, which featured a sort of Cheetah people. They hunted down humans and sometimes transformed them into one of the cheetah species.
Answer (Helena): Yes, the cat as hunter. That’s fundamental to its nature. As humans, we are impressed by that, but also fear it. After all, we have been hunted by big cats through the ages, and still are occasionally. It makes sense that SF would play upon that fear, upping the ante by making the hunter cats intelligent as well.
Question: How about Harry Potter?
Answer (Helena): Crookshank had a sort of protector role. It kept an eye out for Voldemort, protecting Harry.
Question: That makes sense. Cats do protect us, from mice if nothing else. Though I doubt Voldemort would be happy being compared to a mouse.
Answer (Helena): And for those who want to continue the exploration of the subject of Cats in SF, they might want to look into the books of Andre Norton or CJ Cherry, who featured cat aliens in several novels.
Question: Let’s not forget to talk about your own use of cats in Science Fiction. In the Witches’ Stones series, you feature an alien creature known as “the Green Cat”. What role does it play?
Answer (Helena): Well, my Green Cat is intelligent and helpful to the heroine, Sarah MacKenzie. It is highly psychic and helps Sarah develop her own psychic powers, which are needed in a cold war against a galactic dictatorship that wants to take over a democratic Earth and it’s alliance. It doesn’t require the amartos or Witches’ Stones to help it amplify its ESP abilities, the way that humans like Sarah do. So, in this case the Green Cat plays the helpful friend, mentor and protector role. In fact, it is not just Sarah’s friend, but the friend of humanity in general.
Question: The way cat’s can be, on their good days. And what about the Kati of Terra series. A cat species plays a critical but minor role, does it not?
Answer (Helena): Yes, the felines are the creatures that actually abduct Kati for Earth in the first book of the series. They are in the employ of the evil slaver Gorsh, though, hardly masterminds. Just criminals for hire.
Question: Well, that’s the way cats can be on their bad days. And for our blog audience, here is a somewhat “Cats in Science Fiction” themed cartoon, from that storehouse of internet humour, xkcd.com.