Thursday, August 9, 2007

Review: The Cat Who Walked Through Walls

I want to start this off with a bit of clarification, I love Heinlein. There's not a story of his that I've read yet that I haven't intrinsically enjoyed. This particular novel, while not an exception, is probably as close to not enjoying that I have came across while reading Heinlein.


Well, read on.

Anyways, if the title isn't clue enough, the review this week is for Heinlein's novel The Cat Who Walked Through Walls. It was published back in 1985 (three short years prior to his death in 1988 from emphysema and heart failure), and was one of the last novels which he wrote. The back page has this as the blurb:

Robert A. Heinlein has written some of the bestselling science fiction novels of all time, including the beloved classic Stranger in a Strange Land. Now, in The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, he creates his most compelling character ever: Dr. Richard Ames, ex-military man, sometime writer, and unfortunate victim of mistaken identity. When a stranger attempting to deliver a cryptic message is shot dead at his dinner table, Ames is thrown headfirst into danger, intrigue, and other dimensions where Lazarus Long still thrives, where Jubal Harshaw lives surrounded by beautiful women, and where a daring plot to rescue the sentient computer called Mike can change the direction of all human history.
I'm of two-minds about this blurb. Truth be told, I'm not 100% certain that without the name Heinlein right there at the front, that it would have been a strong enough blurb to get me to pick up this book, and as I have often waxed eloquent in this place, that's the entire point of the blurb. Any blurb that does not live up to that ideal, well, it's just a waste of ink. The main problem with this blurb is that, unless you're incredibly familiar with Heinlein's work, you're going to need Google or Wikipedia in order to understand the last sentence. After all, who remembers just where Lazarus Long comes from?

Did you follow the link? I had to. I recognized Hrashaw from the book he was from, but I hadn't read any of the Lazarus Long novels (hey, Heinlein wrote 32 novels, and not all of them are still in print, I can be forgiven for not having read them all).

So, in the end, I have to say that that blurb failed in its effort to get me to buy the book. Rather the strength of author's name was what made me purchase it. Just bad form.

Now, on to the plot. Well. Uhm... You know, for the first half (or maybe two-thirds) of the novel, I would have sworn that this was a traditional action adventure story, something similar to his awesome story Friday. Well, after I reached a certain point, I realized that it wasn't going to be that. After all, when the story should have been ramping up towards the final conflict, they spent time talking and having sex. Don't get me wrong, the conversations they had were great, and thought provoking, but they did nothing for the plot.

And then the finale... well, this book has been out for twenty-two years, so I'm going to do something I don't often do, and put things that could be viewed as spoilers in this review. Basically, see that blacked-out portion, if you've not read this book, it will ruin the ending for you.
The finale battle, the end, well, we didn't see it happen. It was a recollection, within the recollection (the story was set first-person, so basically he was telling the story of these events to someone) and not something that we actually got to see in the context of the actual narrative. Though, since he was sitting there dying, I guess the failure of the narrative structure could be due to the narrator losing his train of thought. Of course, that said, it could just as easily be Heinlein himself, rambling on, and then realizing he only had two thousand words left to get the ending out.
Now, that you've been fully spoiled, and I've ruined the ending for this book, on with the review.

The characters are well, odd. The main character, and narrator, is Dr. Richard Ames. As listed above, he's an ex-military man and writer, oddly, exactly like Heinlein himself. While, I don't think that I would consider him Heinlein's most compelling character, he is a strong protagonist, and decent narrator. In some circles, it's assumed that he's an alter-ego for Heinlein himself, and I can see where that thought comes from, of course that doesn't detract at all from the character. The love interest is Gwen Novak. She's his date, when the messenger listed in the blurb is shot dead at his dinner table. They then quickly marry, and... well, I'm not sure what the well would go for there. Anyways, Gwen is a character from an earlier Heinlein novel as well, one entitled The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Gwen often works as a catalyst for Ames, driving him forward, in terms of plot, and in terms of the goals of the organization for which she works.

Of the rest of the characters in the book, the only one that really stood out in my mind would be Pixel. The cat for which the novel is named, and yes, she walks through walls. When Ames asked how, the response was, she just doesn't know that she couldn't do so. Her greatest feat, is that she just appears where the narrator is. Why? Well, that's never adequately explained. It just is. It's a paradox, an example of Schrödinger's cat.

Settings were beautiful. Heinlein isn't as verbose as say Ben Bova when dealing with descriptions, but he manages to describe things perfectly for the needs of the story. It's in first person, so you're not expecting the details as you would receive from an omniscient narrator. Basically, the settings are the Moon, an habitat orbiting the moon, an alien planet and a farm in one of the grains states. There's nothing really wonderful, or amazing about the descriptions but at the same time, they're not horrid.

Finally, the theme. As I stated earlier, this started out life as a generic action-adventure-mystery story. Yet as it neared the third act, it dissolved into something else. Of course, like all later novels, there's a strong right-wing bent to things, with Heinlein taking special care to mock those who believe they are entitled to things, and those who in general act and react with bad manners. And like all his novels, there is a very strong libertarian and anti-authoritarian bent to things. With the main character taking the time to deny requests from the organization Novak works for, because he felt they were working against his personal values. Additionally, he brings in the concept of the World as Myth. And despite what Wikipedia says, I despise the thought of calling the simpler term World as Myth, Pantheistic solipsism. Pantheistic solipsism is more convoluted and does not quite bring over the same concept as World as Myth.

Regardless, World as Myth is a concept which Heinlein himself proposed, and worked through in this, and his other future history novels. Of course, with the amount of time I spent day dreaming up worlds and universes and other odds an ends while a child, I'd hate to ponder the number of universes I spawned according to this concept.

Overall, I was not overly impressed with this particular novel. It was well crafted, but that lag in the plot, and what I can only view as the sudden abandonment of the plot by the narrator, irks. As I said at the beginning, this novel is the closest I have ever come to not liking a Heinlein novel. It managed to stay firmly on this side of that line, but it was still closer than I had expected when I picked up the novel. Closer than I had ever expected out of a Heinlein novel.

In the end, I have to give it a 2.8 out of 4.

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