Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: Dead or Alive?

The Cat who Walks Through Walls seems like nothing so much as two entirely separate books that have been welded onto each other, which happen to share a pair of main characters’ names and personalities, but are otherwise massively different in tone and temperament. The list of differences is astounding.

Both books chronicle the adventures of one Richard Campbell, retired Colonel in a futuristic military, and his lovely wife Hazel/Gwen, but that’s about where the similarities end. Book I begins like a murder mystery: a stranger attempting to deliver a message to Campbell is instead shot dead at his table, killer unknown. The pair are hounded out of their home in a space habitat and onto the Moon (year 2177), persecuted by some unknown but powerful force that gets them evicted and periodically sends goons to kill them off. This book establishes rules, cultures and characters; an entire culture on the Moon is given life so that the heroes may move about through it. The setting is a hard sci-fi one, where delta-vee is important and spaceships travel amongst the various human habitations in the Solar System. Economics and money are prominent themes in the development of the world and the way that the characters move through it.

Then at some point near the middle of Cat, Hazel/Gwen reveals that she is several hundred years old and the plot takes a wild right turn into where-the-hell-are-we. Book II begins by yanking all the characters we’ve met so far onto a previously unmentioned planet several thousand light-years away, introducing such things as instantaneous travel, rejuvenation technology, human cloning, and most importantly, time travel. The back cover quotes do well to compare Heinlein’s world to Douglas Adams’, although not nearly as zany. It’s closest to the environment Adams creates in So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish and Mostly Harmless, where the past is constantly changing and time is mutable. The history and culture built up in Book I is largely forgotten, as are most of the characters. An entirely new cast of characters is introduced, the mystery from the first book is forgotten and everyone gears up to prepare for a wholly different mission. The Time Corps is introduced, as are its enemies. Richard is a hard-nosed, former military man who is at his best when pursued, and the chase in Book I lets him show it off. In Book II, he’s constantly being confronted with startling new ideas, and is reduced to the role of spectator.

It’s a freaking weird thing. And there’s so much that goes unexplained, or possibly was explained in passing but I was too busy gawking. We never learn who the man was that died at Richard’s table, what he wanted or who killed him. Nor do we learn who blows up Time Headquarters or why, or whether Big Important Project #2 actually succeeds. The entirety of the second book is spent getting Richard to fight in this war, but we never learn why exactly he is so essential to this scheme (as opposed to any random schmuck from the Time Corps), and the actual plan and execution is shoved into the last three pages. Adding to the confusion, Richard refuses to accept on faith most of the things he is told (it’s about a hundred pages from the time his wife tells him she’s 400 to the time where he accepts it), continually questions everything he’s told by everybody, and casts doubt on whether the events in the book that other characters tell the reader is happening are actually happening as we’re told. He questions places, dates, names, ages and everything else under the sun.

Towards the end of the book, we’re told that the universe is actually run by fiction writers, and that the events of the universe are in large part driven by what these writers do or do not do. Writers, it’s said, create the characters that they describe, somewhere in the multiverse. The second-level implication that Heinlein, the writer, abruptly changed what he wanted mid-book and invented all these characters, is there for the taking. It’s not hard to suppose that Richard is even getting curious abut the events of the book, and whether there is some writer guiding his every action. Richard, after all, is a writer himself, and there are certain similarities between his tendencies as he describes them in the book, and the world that Heinlein creates. For instance, Richard mentions at one point that he’s never really had villains in his books; concordantly, there is never a clearly defined antagonist in Cat. Or rather, there are several, but it’s never made clear which one of them is responsible for the book’s events.

I don’t know. It’s a startling idea, veering more into science fantasy than science fiction, and there’s a lot to like about this book. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s looking for lively discussion and a lot of startling writerly stuff. It just feels like Heinlein put it down halfway through, walked off the job for a year or three, and then decided what he really wanted out of the story and came back to write an entirely different story. The Book II 'verse does make sense in the larger context of Heinlein novels--many of the characters introduced therein recur from other books, and the larger concept of the World-As-Myth is the underlying concept that holds several of his books together--but for someone who hasn't read all of them, it's rather a startling turn from one mode of telling a science-fiction story to a completely different one.

Like something that has nothing to do with cute stuffed foxes.

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