Sunday, 22 April 2012

Robert Heinlein's Tribute to Cats

Cat Poem by Linda Barnes

They will not go quietly,
the cats who've shared our lives.
In subtle ways they let us know
their spirit still survives.

Old habits still make us think
we hear a meow at the door.
Or step back when we drop
a tasty morsel on the floor.

Our feet still go around the place
the food dish used to be,
And, sometimes, coming home at night,
we miss them terribly.

And although time may bring new friends
and a new food dish to fill,
That one place in our hearts
belongs to them. . . and always will.

The best Science Fiction story I ever read with a cat in it was Heinlein's "Door into Summer". Indeed, it is possibly the best depiction of a cat that I've come across in any literature, never mind science fiction. This is the memorable way he introduced his cat, and this has the ring of experience to it; no one could have written this without a cat around the house. Here are the opening paragraphs. It's a brilliant opening to any book.

One winter shortly before the Six Weeks War my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut. I doubt if it is there any longer, as it was near the edge of the blast area of the Manhattan near miss, and those old frame buildings burn like tissue paper. Even if it is still standing it would not be a desirable rental because of the fall-out, but we liked it then, Pete and I. The lack of plumbing made the rent low and what had been the dining room had a good north light for my drafting board.

The drawback was that the place had eleven doors to the outside.

Twelve, if you counted Pete's door. I always tried to arrange a door of his own for Pete-in this case a board fitted into a window in an unused bedroom and in which I had cut a cat strainer just wide enough for Pete's whiskers. I have spent too much of my life opening doors for cats. I once calculated that, since the dawn of civilization, nine hundred and seventy-eight man-centuries have been used up that way. I could show you figures.

Pete usually used his own door except when he could bully me into opening a people door for him, which he preferred. But he would not use his door when there was snow on the ground.

While still a kitten, all fluff and buzzes, Pete had worked out a simple philosophy. I was in charge of quarters, rations, and weather; he was in charge of everything else. But he held me especially responsible for weather. Connecticut winters are good only for Christmas cards; regularly that winter Pete would check his own door, refuse to go out it because of that unpleasant white stuff beyond it (he was no fool), then badger me to open a people door.

He had a fixed conviction that at least one of them must lead into summer weather. Each time this meant that I had to go around with him to each of eleven doors, held it open while he satisfied himself that it was winter out that way, too, then go on to the next door, while his criticisms of my mismanagement grew more bitter with each disappointment.

Then he would stay indoors until hydraulic pressure utterly forced him outside. When he returned the ice in his pads would sound like little clogs on the wooden floor and he would glare at me and refuse to purr until he had chewed it all out... whereupon he would forgive me until the next time.

But he never gave up his search for the Door into Summer.

When Pete scratches someone, we are given this advice:

"Uh, yes... but you weren't cat-petting him; you were dogpetting him. You must never pat a eat, you stroke it. You must never make sudden movements in range of its claws. You must never touch it without giving it a chance to see that you are about to... and you must always watch to see that it likes it. If it doesn't want to be petted, it will put up with a little out of politeness-eats are very polite-but you can tell if it is merely enduring it and stop before its patience is exhausted."
Dan, the narrator, creates a robotic house help for sale to the public - he is an engineer. Heinlein - an engineer himself - was often big on engineering in his stories. As we know, robots around the house have lots of complicated movements; to react to objects is not as simple as it seems, which is why we don't have robotic house helps. But Heinlein makes it seem plausible, and this is a nice touch with Pete the Cat that sells the story:

In the meantime I smoothed a lot of bugs out of his control system. I even taught him to stroke Pete and scratch him under the chin in such a fashion that Pete liked it-and, believe me, that takes negative feedback as exact as anything used in atomics labs.
And there are some other wonderful descriptions of Pete through the book. Here are a few:

I looked down at his waffle-scarred head. Pete wouldn't sue anybody; if he didn't like the cut of another cat's whiskers, he simply invited him to come out and fight like a cat.

It was then that Pete started wailing. You don't hear a cat wail very often; you could go a lifetime and not hear it. They don't do it when fighting, no mailer how badly they are hurt; they never do it out of simple displeasure. A cat does it only in ultimate distress, when the situation is utterly unbearable but beyond its capacity and there is nothing left to do but keen. It puts one in mind of a banshee. Also it is hardly to be endured; it hits a nerve-racking frequency

Once I was on my feet I stayed behind bushes and moved around to the side of the house; I wanted to get away from that open door and the light pouring out of it. Then it was just a case of waiting until Pete quieted down. I would not touch him then, certainly not try to pick him up. I know cats. But every time he passed me, prowling for an entrance and sounding his deep challenge, I called out to him softly. "Pete. Come here, Pete. Easy, boy, it's all right." He knew I was there and twice he looked at me, but otherwise ignored me. With cats it is one thing at a time; he had urgent business right now and no time to head-bump with Papa. But I knew he would come to me when his emotions had eased off.

"Oh, the poor little fellow!" She scratched him under the chin, doing it properly, thank goodness, and Pete accepted it, thank goodness again, stretching his neck and closing his eyes and looking indecently pleased. He is capable of taking a very stiff line with strangers if he does not fancy their overtures.

Pete lay on the table between us, making a library lion of himself with his forepaws on the creased letter, and sang a low song like bees buzzing in deep clover, while he narrowed his eyes in contentment.

I was hampered by Pete, "following me ahead of me," that exasperating habit cats have of scalloping back and forth between the legs of persons trusted not to step on them or kick them.

I made notes while the notion was fresh and then got some sleep, with Pete's head tucked into my armpit. I wish I could cure him of that. It's flattering but a nuisance.

And here is how he describes thinking about cats getting older and dying:

I am not mad at anybody and I like now. Except that Pete is getting older, a little fatter, and not as inclined to choose a younger opponent; all too soon he must take the very Long Sleep. I hope with all my heart that his gallant little soul may find its Door into Summer, where catnip fields abound and tabbies are complacent, and robot opponents are programmed to fight fiercely -but always lose-and people have friendly laps and legs to strop against, but never a foot that kicks.
As a cat lover, I think Heinlein creates in Pete, a cat who is totally realistic. It fits the picture of cats as we know them, and were memorably described on a piece "On cats" by Canon Liddon.

CATS are like oysters, in that no one is neutral about them ; every one is, explicitly or implicitly, friendly or hostile to them. And they are like children in their power of discovering, by a rapid and sure instinct, who likes them and who does not. It is difficult to win their affection ; and it is easy to forfeit what it is hard to win. But when given, their love, although less demonstrative, is more delicate and beautiful than that of a dog.

Who that is on really intimate terms with a cat has not watched its dismay at the signs of packing-up and leaving home ! We ourselves have known a cat who would recognise his master's footstep after a three months' absence, and come out to meet him in the hall, with tail erect, and purring all over as if to the very verge of bursting. And another cat we know, who comes up very morning between six and seven o'clock to wake his master, sits on the bed, and very gently feels first one eyelid and then the other with his paw. even an eye opens, but not till then, the cat sets up a loud purr, like the prayer of a fire-worshipper to the rising sun.

See also:

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