Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #27 of 107: “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith
At first, I was disappointed to see “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was the next story in The Big Book of Science Fiction. I was hoping for a story new to me, instead of another reread. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” seemed too fresh in my mind and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it. But I have this thing about rereading stories. I’ve disciplined myself to always reread a work when encountering it again in another anthology. Experience has taught me it’s well worth the time and effort, and that was the case this time too.
Each time I forget why I love this story, but whenever I start rereading all the details I admired comes back to me. Cordwainer Smith has created a delicious tale for people who love cats and space travel, and I’m his perfect target audience.
I have to wonder why Smith wrote this story? It came out in the October 1955 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, just before the dawn of the Space Age. The story speculates we’ll eventually discover dangers in interstellar space that we can’t fathom consciously. Unknown threats that will drive us mad. Eventually in Smith’s fictional universe, we’ll discover that people with telepathic powers partnered with cats with telepathic powers can overcome those dangers. Humans perceive those unknowable attackers as dragons, and cats see them as rats.
In the 1950s there were countless stories about telepathy, ESP, psionics, and other psychic superpowers. There were a fair number of stories about humans having psychic bonds with cats, with other Earthly animals, as well as all kinds of alien space creatures. Did people in the 1950s really believe the space was going to be full of psychological barriers, that humans were going to develop psi-powers in the future, and we’d communicate with animals and aliens with our minds? Or were those the futures we wanted?
As a kid I thought science fiction was speculation about possibilities just around the corner, maybe within my lifetime, but now as an old person, I wonder if I ever really believed that? I think I did. Or at least, I think I hoped. Was I just a gullible kid who wanted to believe in science fictional theories. Had I put my own hopes for the future into the hands of writers who were only making shit up to tell a neat story? Or is there an inbetween position, where writers were making stuff up, but they also kind of believed their own bullshit?
Paul Linebarger, the real person behind the byline “Cordwainer Smith” was quite a serious and well-educated dude, even writing a textbook Psychological Warfare. Since “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was written in the middle of Cold War, when psychological warfare and brainwashing were topical topics, it’s easy to see the inspiration of the story. But why blend that heavy subject with sentimental fluff about cats? Imagine The Manchurian Candidate with several cute cat scenes.
Do stories need to make sense? Do stories about serious topics need to be serious and logical? “The Game of Rat and Dragon” has been reprinted extensively, including four of the giant doorstop SF retrospective anthologies of this century. Why is that?
Why do science fiction readers keep reading this story? Is it just our love of cats? Do we still hope people will become psychic? Or fear space might have psychological barriers? Or is it merely a story, well told, that entertains us for a few minutes?
The obvious answer is yes, it’s just a little story. But time and time again, I have to wonder why science fiction resonates with us. Science fiction has become immensely popular. As a society we have a vast appetite for fiction and an unquenchable thirst for novelty. Are we bored with reality and need all the books, movies, television shows, and video games we can consume which features interesting fictional realities? Why am I spending so much of my remaining life reading science fiction?
And what about the ending? Isn’t it questioning another normalcy? Doesn’t Underhill love the cat, Lady May, just a little too much? A nurse shows interest in him, and then feels rebuffed because Underhill can only ask about a cat. Should we wonder about Underhill rejecting human company for feline? Or does that line up with our own preference for pet companions? Or is it symbolic for our preference for fiction over life?
James Wallace Harris, 10/10/21