The Cats and Dogs of Science Fiction

I started writing this as a stunt column but as I progressed, I realized that I actually had stumbled on an interesting insight about the ways of literary dogs and cats. But then came an unexpected inspiration: if readers were so interested in stories about cats and dogs, maybe I should write one. And so I did. My novella, The King of the Dogs and the Queen of the Cats will be published in January of 2020.


We Are The Cat People


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 site.  You know, one of the many time sinks profiled in “Upworthy: I Thought This Website Was Crazy, but What Happened Next Changed Everything”.  So, in the spirit of wasting time, how about a few cat videos

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 which has had 28,468,935 views as I type this or Two Talking Cats with 66,827,350 views or Surprise Kitty 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 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 avideo game; and played the lead in a made-for-television movie called Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever.

 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 compilationsAre 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 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% of all American households own a dog as opposed to the 33% 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% female.   Almost 80% of dog owners consider their pets “part of the family” but just over 60% say the same about their cats.  On the other hand, 65% of cats sleep on a family member’s bed while 39% of dogs are granted that privilege.

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

Another interruption: The psychologists also noted that dog people were generally about 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.


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 has gone so far as to dub cats “the unofficial mascot of the Internet.”  Recalling the Texas survey on cat people, Leigh Alexander 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 which claim the internet as cat country.  Gizmodo opines at length about Why Cats Rule the Internet Instead of Dogs.   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.  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 science fiction?

I thought you’d never ask.


 I think there is an argument to be made (although I make it keeping one eye on the exit) that science fiction 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.  Or this one, from Among the canine faves mentioned are Krypto, Superman’s dog, K-9, Doctor Who’s doggy robot and Blood from 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, dogs who witness humanity’s decline, and the tragically intelligent Sirius 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

While there are certainly online lists of fictional felines that skimp on the literary, like Wired’s Fantastic Cats in Sci-fi & Fantasy, which leads with Spot from Star Trek, The Next Generation and 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 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 .  (Is it significant that neither B&N nor The Portalist offer similar lists for dogs?).  Among those print cats featured are Greebo from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the Chesire Cat, Church from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and Tad Williams’s Talechaser.  My personal favorites are C’Mell the underperson tweaked from a cat in Cordwainer Smith’s novella “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” and Pete from The Door Into Summer 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 “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.”  


I leave my closing argument to my friends and anthologist mentors Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann who in 1986 edited an anthology of cat stories called Magicats.   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.