On the Net

We are the Cat People

by James Patrick Kelly


Over the years, I have tried to point at websites where issues important to readers of science fiction are being thoughtfully discussed. For example, last time we looked at how the Streaming Age is transforming the entertainment/industrial complex. Before that we considered the risks of announcing ourselves to any aliens who might be lurking in the cosmos. Weighty stuff. But there comes a time when we need to lay down the burden of the momentous and embrace the ephemeral internet. Maybe we opt for a quick dive into Twitter or Facebook, only to be swept away for hours on the tides of social media. Or else we fall prey to a clickbait https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clickbait site. You know, one of the many time sinks profiled in “Upworthy: I Thought This Website Was Crazy, but What Happened Next Changed Everything” www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/11/upworthy-i-thought-this-website-was-crazy-but-what-happened-next-changed-everything/281472. So, in the spirit of wasting time, how about a few cat videos www.youtube.com/watch?v=hY7m5jjJ9mM?

What is it that attracts us to cats playing the piano, cats leaping in bathtubs by mistake, cats freaking out in front of mirrors, cats tangling with Christmas trees or cats torturing gullible dogs? Not to mention cats interacting with lamps, keyboards, and paper bags, or cats climbing vines, curtains, screens, trees, and ladders—and falling off same? The internet teems with clips of feline misadventure, and these videos regularly go viral. Perhaps you remember the stars from such internet megahits as Cat Bath Freak Out www.youtube.com/watch?v=hY7m5jjJ9mMyoutube.com/watch?v=PM5BCjNswd0, which has had 28,468,935 views as I type this, or Two Talking Cats www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3U0udLH974 with 66,827,350 views or Surprise Kitty www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bmhjf0rKe8, with a whopping 78,370,778 views? In a few cases, megastar cats have brought fame—or at least fortune—to their owners.

Consider the career of Grumpy Cat https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grumpy_Cat, who first scowled into our lives in 2012. Since then Grumpy Cat’s human, Tab­atha Bundesen, has parlayed her pet’s fifteen minutes of fame into appearances on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox. Grumpy Cat has endorsed Honey Nut Cheerios and Friskies cat food; had her own line of merch trademarked under the name “Grumpy Cat Limited”; published several books, a comic, and a video game; and played the lead in a made-for-television movie called Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever www.rottentomatoes.com/m/grumpy_cats_worst_christmas_ever_2014.

What has your cat done for you lately?

Wait, is that a dog owner at the back of the room with her hand up? You. Yes, you. Go ahead with your question. Aren’t there lots of dog videos too? Sure. Here’s just one of many compilations www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkdrVotSLLA. Are they as popular as cat videos? Good question. Your internet columnist has looked in vain for reliable statistics on this all-important matter.



So let’s make some guestimates. According to The Truth about Cats and Dogs�—by the Numbers www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201305/the-truth-about-cats-and-dogs-the-numbers, there are more cats than dogs in the United States: 88 million to 78 million. So maybe more cats mean more cat videos? Not so fast. 39 percent of all American households own a dog, as opposed to the 33 percent who live with cats. This is because more than half of cat owners have more than one. (My wife and I currently live with the sisters Thelma and Louise, the latest in a long line of multiple cats in our family.)

We interrupt this column for some interesting but irrelevant statistics about cats, dogs, and their owners. Those of the dog persuasion own roughly an equal amount of males and females, while pet cats are estimated to be between 65 and 80 percent female. Almost 80 percent of dog owners consider their pets “part of the family,” but just over 60 percent say the same about their cats. On the other hand, 65 percent of cats sleep on a family member’s bed, while 39 percent of dogs are granted that privilege.

A University of Texas survey from 2010 www.news.utexas.edu/2010/01/13/personality_dogs_cats reported on differences in personality between owners of dogs and cats. Of the 4600 respondents, 42 percent called themselves “dog people,” 12 percent said they were “cat people,” 28 percent said both, and 15 percent neither. A dog majority there!

Another interruption: The psychologists also noted that dog people were generally more extroverted, agreeable, and conscientious than cat people. Cat people were reported to be more neurotic, but more open that dog people. For the record, I identify as a well-adjusted cat person.

Here’s another totally unscientific measure of the relative popularity of dogs and cats. Typing “dog” into Google yields 1,940,000,000 results on this wintry day in March. “Cat” gets 2,250,000,000. Typing them into Bing yields an even more statistically significant win for cats: 71,800,000 to 58,500,000 for dogs.

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Leaving aside the relative popularity of cat videos versus dog videos, it is clear that cat videos occupy a huge space in the popular imagination. Given their record of launching memes, ThoughtCatalogue www.thoughtcatalog.com/leigh-alexander/2011/01/why-the-internet-chose-cats has gone so far as to dub cats “the unofficial mascot of the Internet.” Recalling the Texas survey on cat people, Leigh Alexander www.leighalexander.net argues that if an alien were to assess the culture of the internet, then it would be more likely to describe it in terms of cat people (neurotic and open) than dog people (agreeable and conscientious).

There are lots of sites that claim the internet as cat country. Gizmodo opines at length about Why Cats Rule the Internet Instead of Dogs www.gizmodo.com/why-cats-rule-the-internet-instead-of-dogs-1728316152. It claims that because cats don’t give a damn about whether we’re watching them or not, cat viewing has a voyeuristic component. “We’ve all heard of the ‘male gaze,’ but in this case? It’s the human gaze, and it’s a phenomenon that could be more closely linked with cat videos than dog videos because of cats not acknowledging the viewer at all.” Listverse lists 10 Psychological Reasons Internet Cats Are So Popular https://listverse.com/2015/08/09/10-psychological-reasons-internet-cats-are-so-popular. Most telling to this cat person are Reason #10: Cats Never Evolved to Work With Humans, #8: Our Cats Think We’re Cats, and #1: Cats Are Often Our Main Connection To Nature. We’ve created the modern dog to suit our own purposes. They take our orders. Cats resist our intervention and are thus wilder and stranger.

Wait, is that an Asimov’s reader at the back of the room with her hand up? You. Yes, you. Go ahead with your question. What do cat videos have to do with SF?

I thought you’d never ask.

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I think there is an argument to be made (although I make it keeping one eye on the exit) that SF and fantasy, like the internet, lean more cat-ward than dog-ward. This is not to say that there aren’t shelves and shelves of wonderful dog stories in our genre. Check out this roster of dogstars on The 12 Best Dogs In Sci-Fi History www.geek.com/culture/the-best-dogs-in-sci-fi-history-1690766. Or this one, from www.Tor.com www.tor.com/2013/03/11/the-10-best-dogs-in-science-fiction. Among the canine faves mentioned are Krypto www.dc.wikia.com/wiki/Krypto, Superman’s dog, K-9 www.tardis.wikia.com/wiki/K9, Doctor Who’s doggy robot, and Blood from A Boy and His Dog https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Boy_and_His_Dog, by Harlan Ellison. Alas, these and most other lists were too media-centric for my tastes, and it took considerable searching before I discovered lists that mentioned my own nominees for the most significant science fiction literary dogs: the uplifted narrators in Clifford Simak’s City www.yellowedandcreased.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/city-clifford-simak, dogs who witness humanity’s decline, and the tragically intelligent Sirius www.speculiction.blogspot.com/2015/03/review-of-siriius-by-olaf-stapledon.html, by Olaf Stapledon. A dog named Sirius (in homage?) also plays a pivotal role in John Kessel’s 2017 novel The Moon And The Other www.locusmag.com/2017/05/gary-k-wolfe-reviews-john-kessel.

While there are certainly online lists of fictional felines that skimp on the literary, like Wired’s Fantastic Cats in Sci-fi & Fantasy www.wired.com/2011/04/fantastic-cats-in-sci-fi-fantasy, which leads with Spot www.memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Spot?title=Spot from Star Trek, The Next Generation and Jonesy www.alienanthology.wikia.com/wiki/Jonesy from Alien, I had a much easier time finding lists of cats who appear only in books. For example, check out The Twenty-Five Best Cats in Sci-Fi and Fantasy www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/sci-fi-fantasy/the-best-cats-in-sci-fi-fantasy, as selected by Barnes and Noble, which has much less crossover than I expected with The Portalist’s 15 Cat Books in Sci-Fi and Fantasy for You to Read Right Meow www.theportalist.com/cat-books-for-you-to-read-right-meow. (Is it significant that neither B&N nor The Portalist offer similar lists for dogs?) Among those print cats featured are Greebo www.discworld.wikia.com/wiki/Greebo from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the Chesire Cat www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/analysis/character-descriptions/cheshire-cat/, Church www.villains.wikia.com/wiki/Church_(Stephen_King) from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and Tad Williams’s Tailchaser https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tailchaser%27s_Song. My personal favorites are C’Mell https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ballad_of_Lost_C%27Mell, the underperson tweaked from a cat in Cordwainer Smith’s novella “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell,” and Pete from The Door Into Summer www.tor.com/2010/02/10/incredibly-readable-robert-heinleins-lemgthe-door-into-summerlemg, by Robert A. Heinlein.

Since I have already admitted to being a cat person, some may say that my down and dirty survey does not show that there are more memorable cats than dogs in the fantastic genres. Feel free to call me out on this. But if you accept my premise, then why should this be so? I believe it is because we take these alien creatures into our lives on their terms, not ours. They are mysterious to us in ways that no other animals are, because we believe that we understand them, but are so often wrong. Consider, for example, purring, a cat’s most common vocalization. Does it mean kitty is happy? Sometimes, but according to WebMD https://pets.webmd.com/cats/features/why-cats-purr#1, “Although contentment does appear to produce purring, cats also purr when frightened or threatened. One way to think about this is to equate purring with smiling. . . . People will smile when they’re nervous, when they want something, and when they’re happy, so perhaps the purr can also be an appeasing gesture.”

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I leave my closing argument to my friends and anthologist mentors Gardner Dozois https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gardner_Dozois and Jack Dann www.jackdann.com, who in 1986 edited an anthology of cat stories called Magicats www.amazon.com/Magicats-I-GardnerDozoisebook/dp/B00O98EHVM/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1520541167&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=magicats+II. This is from their introduction: “It’s probably a reflection of humanity’s multifaceted, sophisticated and passionately contradictory relationship with cats that so much more fiction has been written about them than about any other kind of domestic animal (one is almost tempted to say: than about any other animal).”

We (or at least some of us) are the cat people.

Copyright © 2018 James Patrick Kelly