The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein was one of the Trinity of Sci-Fi Masters that rose to prominence during the Golden Age of science fiction. The Science Fiction Writers of America named him the very first Grand Master in 1974, he had an asteroid named after him in 1990, and in 1994 a major Martian crater was named after him as well.

Heinlein is considered one of the greatest and most influential science fiction writers ever. So it is surprising that The Cat Who Walks Through Walls has received so much negativity. Was this because there were preconceived expectations from an author that strictly followed most genre conventions – his attempt to branch off into something different viewed as weak and disappointing?

I have never read any of his works, and decided based on numerous curious synopses and disenfranchised reviews, that perhaps it would be an intriguing introduction to Heinlein’s work. Perhaps I could enter this novel with no preconceived notions of what to expect from his writing style.

At first the book was strange, and awkward, and seemed plotless drivel filled with bad dialogue and unbelievable scenarios, and flat underdeveloped characters. I struggled to understand exactly what the plot was – the characters seemed to just go from one situation to the next.

The Cat also makes assumptions that I have read previous entries in the series, and as such the character development takes place before this entry, and many confusing references start to make sense to me as the book progresses.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the book that it’s genius hit me. The nonsensical story, the bad dialogue, the coincidences and near-misses are all explained (or at least make sense) towards the end of the book. This wasn’t poorly written; it was a deliberate exercise.

I shall write a list of my evidence below:

  • The Cat is in reference to Schrödinger’s cat – a paradoxical thought experiment that deals with multiple states of being.
  • The Scourge of The Spaceways! is a sci-fi serial of major importance to the characters.
  • This book is metafiction – Heinlein winks at us – the readers – multiple times, addressing us directly and breaking the fourth wall.
  • The World as Myth. ’nuff said.

When you read this book, think back on it retrospectively – and you will see their significance. This book is both a parody of science fiction serials and of metafiction in general. It’s also, I feel, fan-service to his own fan-base, and as such is satirical of his own books.

The World as Myth is a theory that strings many of Heinlein’s books together and includes characters and locations from other works; if a book or story or script has been written, then it creates a universe where these things are real and tangible; likewise, our universe is both real and hypothetical as an author somewhere writes fiction that creates and defines our reality.

This premise is what drives the style of the book – I believe Heinlein wrote this book as a parody of itself. The unbelievable dialogue or sequences or plot points… he’s stating the fact to the readers, that none of this is real because it is only fiction, but paradoxically that’s what makes it real. It’s confusing, but retrospectively the book treads along this paradox and it isn’t obvious to the reader that this is happening until the latter half of the book.

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However, I was let down by a consistent theme in the book: sex. There is so much of it. It’s everywhere. Monogamy, polygamy, group-sex, incest, homosexuality – the pages are practically stuck together from it. Again, one could argue that it can be explained away by The World As Myth theory, but if you research the author, it perhaps takes on a more personal attribute.

Heinlein and his wife tried unsuccessfully to have children. They were just not able to create life. It is not unreasonable that, in this, sex would have become a subconscious preoccupation. Women have all the sexual power in this book, they take who and what they want, when and where they want it – the future is dictated by free-love for all. It’s almost as though Heinlein was creating a fantasy world where all sexual responsibility would be taken off him, and all the shame of being unable to gift his wife with a child would disappear.

It would also help explain his preoccupation with pseudo-pedophilia. At no time is there any pedophilic activity – but there is a tendency to try to titillate the reader in numerous scenes involving a thirteen year-old girl, including some nudity and attempted sex (again, by the girl, not the main character.) But if someone had never had a child, had never understood the child-parent dynamic first hand, and had built up the idea of a child onto a pedestal, it would be logical that this deification could spill over into a physical desire and not be constrained to just an emotional and psychological desire.

But psycho-analysis aside – without prior knowledge of the author or of the series, and no knowledge of The World As Myth or any of the characters – it was an uncomfortable book to read. And yet, it still held me. I was morbidly fascinated. Like a car crash on the highway, I couldn’t look away, I was too curious about what I might see if I stayed.

The book, for all it flaws, isn’t terrible. It has some really decent ideas, it deals with paradoxes in an interesting way, and the characters being to grow on you – though you do wish they would shut-up sometimes.

There were times when I felt the author was, perhaps, being lazy or perhaps uncaring in his writing, and other times where I would dismiss those ideas because of the excitement of the scenes I was caught up in. It was often fast-paced and hard to put down, and despite the confusion, I generally cared about where the story might or might not be headed.

Overall, it was actually a decent book. It took a lot of discussion and deep thinking to figure out – but that’s what I get for choosing a controversial book at the near-end of a series to introduce myself to. I’m convinced that if I had read his previous entries in the series, that I would have had an even richer experience from this book. I will definitely keep an eye out for more from Heinlein.

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