Friday, August 16, 2013

Retro Review: All Cats are Gray by Andre Norton

I recently came across this gem of a short story in a collection of science fiction stories on an audiobook compilation and I thought it was worth pointing out. Originally appearing in the August-September 1953 issue of Fantastic Universe Science Fiction, this short story was written by a female author, features a female protagonist and a heroic cat.

Andre Alice Norton (born Alice Mary Norton) wrote under the pen names Andre Norton, Andrew North, and Allen Weston.  Born in 1912 and dying in 2005, she had a long and successful career as a writer.  This short story was my first exposure to her work. I suggest you visit Andre-Norton.Org for more on the author.

This is really the story of Steena, Bat, Cliff Moran and the Empress of Mars, a story which is already a legend of the spaceways. And it’s a damn good story too. I ought to know, having framed the first version of it myself.
For I was there, right in the Rigel Royal, when it all began on the night that Cliff Moran blew in, looking lower than an antman’s belly and twice as nasty. He’d had a spell of luck foul enough to twist a man into a slug-snake and we all knew that there was an attachment out for his ship. Cliff had fought his way up from the back courts of Venaport. Lose his ship and he’d slip back there—to rot. He was at the snarling stage that night when he picked out a table for himself and set out to drink away his troubles.
However, just as the first bottle arrived, so did a visitor. Steena came out of her corner, Bat curled around her shoulders stole-wise, his favorite mode of travel. She crossed over and dropped down without invitation at Cliff’s side. That shook him out of his sulks. Because Steena never chose company when she could be alone. If one of the man-stones on Ganymede had come stumping in, it wouldn’t have made more of us look out of the corners of our eyes.
She stretched out one long-fingered hand and set aside the bottle he had ordered and said only one thing, “It’s about time for the Empress of Mars to appear again.”
As a Star Wars fan it was easy for me to picture this bar as a cantina not so unlike ones we saw on screen or read in the Expanded Universe.  The desperation of down on their luck spacers reminded me of many of those on the fringes of the Star Wars galaxy particularly the smugglers and independent freighter captains we have read about.  The idea of the Empress of Mars, a ghost ship and a way to get rich quick also reminded me of a ship few ships from Star Wars including Another Chance an Alderaanian ship and the Teljkon Vagabond.  Both of these Star Wars ships appeared in Michael P. Kube-McDowell's The Black Fleet Crisis trilogy.

All Cats are Gray is a very short story, the character of Steena is pretty well defined, there isn't a great deal of time for other characters to be developed other than her cat Bat.  What the story lacks in length in makes up for in flavor, it is science fiction but to my ear the dialogue sounded much like an old noir crime story.

It also plays with the concept of disability and how limitations in one area can lead to strengths in another.  The emotional resolution of the story is a bit rushed and could have benefited from being stretched out more.
On the whole Steena is the self-rescuing sort of female leading character who isn't objectified because of her looks that many clamor for even today and her cat and it's peculiar drinking habits was a lot of fun to read about.

I enjoyed this short story a great deal and I hope you give it a shot, it will only take a few minutes of your time.

You can read the complete story for free on The Project Gutenberg website.

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