I really hate magic cats. To me, they're the death of the imagination in writing. I was sliding around a bookshop the other day and spotted some really trashy-looking military sf novel showing some guy in a uniform marching down a line of similarly attired figures with a - get this - cat balanced on one shoulder. It's an image which sums up the bizarre cosiness of a certain type of predominantly right-wing sf. The kind of thing you don’t want people to notice when you’re arguing in favour of literary values within the genre.
The reason I bring this up is a conversation I had with my editor at the 2003 Eastercon in Hinckley. We were talking about other books I'd like to do. Part of the conversation went something like this:
Editor: Now, Gary, we'd like you to write some science fiction for us.
Gary: Nods emphatically.
Editor: Now, you're not going to write any books about magic cats, are you?
Gary: Shakes head emphatically.
Ever since, despite what I said above, I've been trying to figure out a way to sneak magic cats into a story without being tawdry and without diverging into fantasy. In a way that wouldn't annoy, say, highly regarded genre editors. Here’s how I figured out I could do it.
In the movie True Romance - written by Quentin Tarantino - the hero frequently gains advice from a figure whose face always remains in shadow: it is clearly intended to be Elvis, in the hero's imagination. Garth Ennis, clearly gaining inspiration from this, has the hero of his DC comic Preacher similarly seeking advice from a carefully shadowy John Wayne in classic Searchers mode. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Pashazade books feature a fox-like character who converses with the hero, who may or may not be the product of technology implanted with the hero’s skull. It’s standard mentor stuff. Also a nice way of drawing out what’s otherwise an entirely internal and therefore not so involving dialogue and making it feel richer.
I’m still working out the plot details of The Fracture and Leviathan’s Fall at the same time as working on a couple of short stories. As far as The Fracture is concerned, what I’m looking at is introducing a mentor-type figure who appears to the hero, in the hero’s mind, as the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Why the Cheshire Cat? Because the communication begins when the hero is very young indeed, but not so young as to be unfamiliar with the book. When he gets older, the hero has to figure out who – or what – has been occasionally interrogating or even aiding him, in some remote fashion, throughout his developing years.
The Cheshire Cat is, of course, a magic cat. But in this case, it exists as a useful metaphor for Something to communicate with a young child. Meaning, of course, it’s not really a magic cat. But close enough, I think, for me to feel like I’ve risen to the challenge without descending into terminal cheesiness.
Put it this way: say, hypothetically speaking, someone wants to make a science fiction movie. Someone else makes a sneering 'unicorn and spaceships' remark about sf. Film-maker rises to challenge, inserting dream-unicorn into otherwise hard-boiled narrative, as well as using much more metaphorical unicorn in the form of an origami sculpture. The film is, of course, Bladerunner, and it's surprisingly easy to forget that, yes, it has unicorns in it.
Of course, this isn't how Ridley Scott went about creating that part of the narrative, but you see what I'm driving at.