Catalyst and Catacombs – book review by Fred Patten.
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Catalyst; A Tale of the Barque Cats, by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
NYC, Ballantine Books, January 2010, hardcover $26.00 (256 [+ 5] pages), Kindle $7.99.
Catacombs; A Tale of the Barque Cats, by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
NYC, Ballantine Books, December 2010, hardcover $26.00 (236 [+ 3] pages), Kindle $9.99.
McCaffrey and Scarborough, two well-known cat-lovers, focus upon cats of the interstellar future in this two-volume series. “Hood Station, where they had just docked, was a backwater facility providing the interface between the agro-based planet Sherwood and the rest of the universe.” (Catalyst, p. 3) The opening lead characters are Janina Mauer, a human Cat Person, and her charge, Chessie, the Barque Cat of the interstellar freighter Molly Daise. They have just arrived at Hood Station. Janina’s exact age is not given, but clues make her a rather naïve young woman. Barque Cats “are highly prized, as [they] are not only superbly bred but have all grown into the best ships’ cats in the universe.” They “save lives […] patrol the tight areas of our spaceships, keeping rodents from eating the coating on cables, smelling hazardous gases and even escaping oxygen”. (p. 4) They are extremely valuable, leading to Chessie being bred as often as is safe.
It is obvious in the first chapter that, although Catalyst is packaged and priced as an adult book, this is really an adventure for teenagers. Janina has a chaste crush on Dr. Jared Vlast, Sherwood’s handsome young veterinarian, which he reciprocates. As important as the humans seem, it is Chessie who is the focus of the opening of the story. The writing is “cozy”: “Chessie was surprised her human friends couldn’t hear each other’s chests pounding. Or maybe they could and just wouldn’t admit it. Humans were so strange about mating matters.” (p. 10)
And although Barque Cats are already highly intelligent cats, clues tell the reader that something in their diet on the frontier planet Sherwood is making both them and other Earth animals mutate or evolve into real sentience.
“As Jared then moved on to a quick, competent feel of her [Chessie’s] fecund belly, he asked Jenina what was concerning her.
‘Well, she’s been regurgitating a lot, and it’s strange looking.’ Janina showed him the vial that contained the latest of her spit-up. Humans collected the strangest things! Janina turned it in the light. ‘You see it’s got these sparkly bits that I can’t account for at all.’” (p. 12)
At first, this is in the background. Carl “Ponty” Poindexter, a charismatic ne’er-do-well, steals Chessie from Jared’s animal clinic on Hood Station while he and Janina are planetside, for a present for Carl’s innocent son Jubal. Chessie is taken to a farm on Sherwood, where it turns out that she and the other animals talk “animal language” among each other. (As usual in “cozies” like this, all the cats, dogs, horses, and other animals can have long, intelligent conversations with each other, but they can’t understand or figure out how to communicate with humans.)
During the next several chapters, Chessie has her kittens, and the novel’s viewpoint shifts to one of them, Chester, who narrates. His early memories are a sugar-coated lesson on being a kitten:
“‘Now, this paw will be your tool to clean those parts of you that you are unable to reach by direct licking. Pass it over your face, thusly,’ she [Chessie] said, and demonstrated. She swiped it down over her ears and nose, licked it again and passed it over her long elegant whiskers, both the uppers and the lowers on the same side as her paw. Then she switched paws. I hoped my whiskers would be so magnificent when I was big.” (p. 68)
Chessie and Chester are finally restored to Janina, despite the protests of young Jubal, who has bonded with Chester. Chessie, Chester, and Janina return to the Molly Daise and deep space. But Chester has mutated or evolved, and he and Jubal back on Sherwood now share a telepathic link. Jubal stows away on a space shuttle from Sherwood to go after Chester.
That takes up about the first ninety pages of Catalyst. The rest of both it and Catacombs is mainly the adventures of the boy-cat (narrated in the first person) and the boy-human, separately and together, along with those of Janina, Dr. Vlast, the scoundrelly Ponty, and other supporting characters around them. And those adventures, which can’t be summarized without giving away spoilers, range from the humorous to the ominously life-threatening. Catalyst ends with all the Barque Cats seemingly disappearing from space — what has happened to them is related in Catacombs, which might be called The Further Adventures of Chester and Jubal on the Planet of the Cats.
New cats in the last half of Catalyst include Doc, who bonds with Ponty; and Pshaw-Ra, an elderly supercilious cat who implies unconvincingly at first that he is from Ancient Egypt, as in this conversation with Chester:
“‘Have you not guessed? I have a great mission.’
‘Do tell. And what would that be?’
‘Nothing less than universal domination, of course. It’s always been the primary mission of our species. I’m surprised you tame cats have allowed yourselves to forget that.’” (p. 177)
But Pshaw-Ra turns out to have some pretty convincing evidence. There are lots of new cat characters in Catacombs, including both heroes and villains (or heroines and villainesses).
Catalyst and Catacombs are definitely light entertainment for adolescents, for s-f fans who allow themselves to be bossed around by their pet cats, and/or cat fanciers who are into wish-fulfillment about feline superiority. One possible criticism is the necessary plot device that makes the spaceships of the far future seem so unsanitary: “Chessie caught several rodents and one of the shiny bug things in the first week she was back aboard the ship.” (p. 93) But overall, these are fun reads.