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Bewildering Stories

Robert A. Heinlein, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

reviewed by Clyde Andrews

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Publisher: Ace
Price: $17.95 AU
Length: 388 pages
ISBN: 044104996

What can one say about Robert Heinlein that hasn’t already been said before? Not a lot, so I just won’t be adding any more fuel to that fire. Instead I will only be talking about The Cat Who Walks Through Walls from my point of view as the reader, and whether or not I liked it.

So, did I like it?

In regard to this particular Heinlein novel that is a multi-layered answer for me. Let me explain...

The novel is divided into three parts: Part 1: “Indifferent Honest,” Part 2: “Deadly Weapon,” and part 3: “The Light at the End of the Tunnel.” It all begins with a stranger wanting to deliver a message to Colin Campbell / Richard Ames (a character who has lost a foot and requires a cane to walk) during a dinner date with Gwen. While at the table (and Gwen spending a penny) this man is shot right in front of Mr. Ames under more than mysterious circumstances to say the least: nobody seems to notice or care but Richard. And so begins the ride as far as this novel is concerned.

Gwen returns, and then in the confusion that follows, including getting back to Richard’s bachelor pad at a space station called ‘Golden Rule’ (in orbit around the Moon), marries Richard right there and then. And I thought the shooting was weird!

Things get more and more involved as the first part of the book progresses. From being accused of the murder, to being evicted from not only Richard’s apartment but also Gwen’s. And then, of all things befriending the very man that was sent to arrest them for this crime. A bum in disguise named Bill.

Bill follows them off Golden Rule to the Moon, where the first part basically ends with lots of loose ends and lots more questions raised. Events seem to just happen to them (making the reader guess as to whether or not this all means anything) We will see...

The first thing that struck me at this point was the mystery involving not only the murdered man but Gwen and, to a lesser extent, even Bill. In fact the only character that seems to be who he is supposed to be is Richard Ames himself.

And some of Richard’s character traits grate on me a little. His attitude towards women seems — and there are no other words for it here — ‘male chauvinistic pig’. Some lines he utters or even thinks had me wincing at a couple of points. Some examples are: “Get over here, wench.” “Woman, what would you know?” “I’ll spank you for that.” In fact he’s very arrogant, pompous, and to put it mildly “self-important,” and at times I just didn’t like him as a character. If it wasn’t for Gwen and all the other mysteries going on in the first part I would have put the book down, never to open its cover again. I just didn’t care what happened to Richard Ames at this stage. Thankfully, as the book progresses, Richard’s attitude is toned down, although still present at times.

Which brings me to part two. This is where things get a little better (and thankfully, too). The action from the last part culminates here with the arrival of Gwen and Richard at the Moon. Heinlein refers to the Moon as Luna, and those that live on the Moon as Lunatics.

Here Heinlein creates a fantastic world. Heinlein’s Luna has its own culture, socio-political structure, and history. In fact a lot of the history Heinlein creates in this part of the novel is taken from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Or is that the other way round? Heinlein did have his universe mapped out before he wrote a lot of his works.

Anyway, their arrival on the Moon brings about its own problems for the newlyweds, the least of which is Gwen’s admitting she’s not Gwen but a woman that has been ‘rejuvenated’ many, many times, and is actually Hazel (someone who was there at the first Lunar revolution in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). Richard finds Hazel’s history hard to believe at first. Things are explained, and more and more events crop up; including the first newlywed tiff between the main characters. This spat is responsible for Gwen’s telling the ‘truth’ to her husband in the first place. By this stage, Bill has gone his own way. See, I told you a lot happens.

The point of part two is to get Richard involved in the Time Corps, and to put him to work on his first mission: rescuing the ‘self-aware’ computer Mike. The Time Corps need Mike to help their cause. They see Richard as the one to help Mike. Before he can agree to — or even believe — anything there is an attempted assassination of Richard, which is foiled by a Time Corps ‘jump car’ named Gay Deceiver. Yes, the car’s computer is self-aware.

Now, before you say, well, why don’t they just build a computer similar to Mike? The Time Corps have self-aware computers, surely they could do it. In a word, no. You see in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Mike has been upgraded and added to many, many times with no restriction (something that can’t be repeated apparently). So he’s not only self aware, but he’s also unique. Something quite powerful indeed, so the story goes.

Why do they want this computer Mike? Well, that leads me into part three. Richard wakes up in a hospital (the hospital computer is also self-aware) on a planet called Tertius, far, far away from Earth and on a different time line to the one he’s used to. There he is repaired after the attempted murder of himself and his wife, and he also has extra treatment, including the addition of a brand-new foot.

Now this is where things got a little complicated for me. Not because of the way the story was written, but because it was basically like watching one of those end of season shows from a favourite TV series. By this I mean that this section was absolutely chockablock full of previous Heinlein characters from the majority of his past novels. Just to mention a few, there was: Lazarus Long, Jubal Hershaw, Gay Deceiver, and Mannie (Mike’s only human friend). It was a who’s who of Heinlein — like reading the ‘best of’ bits ie; a ‘clip show’ in prose form, only with original content.

There were that many characters (many related) in this part, that — at times — keeping up with who was talking was a bit of a chore. I did get lost a few times, having to reread parts. Not a good thing from a reader’s point of view. Richard Ames turns out to be a descendant of Lazarus Long.

There was also the multiverse theory and the whole explanation of the Time Corps. Which Richards Ames is ‘requested’ to join. And to top it all off — as if that wasn’t enough — there was also the rather bizarre notion that the worlds created by writers are made true somehow. The better the writer the better the ‘multiverse’ created. It did get a bit far out towards the end, I must say.

The main (and I use that term loosely) ‘villain’ of the book was someone and/or something called the Overlord, a creation of Gwen / Hazel when she used to write scripts for a TV series. One of the characters on Tertius was the Overlord’s enemy, one John Stirling. Walking and talking as if he were flesh and blood. Simply bizarre!

So how does this all tie in with the dead man at the dinner table in the beginning, the accusation of murder, the hasty retreat of Golden Rule, and the attempted murder before the Time Corps rescue? I’m glad you asked. And to tell would spoil the ending of a very ambitious book, I might add.

Suffice it to say, before Richard agrees to join the Time Corps and start this ever so important mission he then asks them to investigate these seemingly unconnected circumstances.

Which brings me back to why they want Mike...

We learn that they want him so that he can predict the outcome of any change in a time line (the creation of another thread or multiverse) As there are other factions that can control time travel ships just like the Gay Deceiver. This knowledge is power, I would imagine. The Time Corps want to know the exact outcome of anything they may do to a point in history. Quite an achievement, and something which they believe only Mike can pull off.

So why are they searching for him in the first place? Surely, you’d think, they could just ‘jump’ to his location and remove him. And again, this is where Heinlein relies on readers having already read previous works of his. You’d have to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to understand what happened to Mike. I won’t tell. It’s not my goal here to spoil on content.

But for me it’s another niggle with what was not quite right with this book. Not because sequels annoy me, but because this particular book could be a sequel to at least four other Heinlein works. Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Number of the Beast, and anything with Lazarus Long in it being the ones to read just to grapple some of the content and characters of this book. I was, at times, blinded by all the baggage needed to pull this story off.

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is most definitely an events-driven book. And as such, if your cup of tea is character-driven works I’d probably avoid this one. In fact, I’d probably avoid Heinlein if you’re that fussy. But I’m not. I love some of Heinlein’s works. Starman Jones is one of my all time favourites. I read it once a year at least.

But what about The Cat Who Walks Through Walls?

I most certainly wouldn’t read it as a one-off, and I most certainly wouldn’t read it for any modern-day social commentary. We all know where Heinlein stood on the political / social / cultural fence. And at times, when reading his works, I found it hard not to become involved in that. His attitude towards women grated me the most. Which is a shame, for Gwen was by far the most interesting character throughout. I felt he didn’t give her the credit she deserved. Not in the beginning anyway.

So, to answer the question: I liked it. It’s Heinlein after all. Did Heinlein pull it off? Well, I think so. The plot is a little thin to be honest, but it’s fast paced, action packed, and full to the brim with events, circumstances, places, and Heinlein lore. Quite a ride.

Oh, and the title refers to a cat named Pixel that can quite literally walk through walls and be wherever Richard is. A reference to Schrödinger’s Cat for those interested.

Copyright © 2006 by Clyde Andrews

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