Themes and Characters
"All Cats Are Gray" is narrated in the first person. The narrator is only distantly acquainted with Steena—"Steena of the Spaceways" he calls her—having seen her only in "stellar-port dive[s] frequented by free spacers." It appears that the narrator is an author who has written a work titled "Stellar-Vedo spreads". S/he affects a tough-guy image and implies that s/he has written second-rate thrillers. The narrative style is honest, making distinctions between the events witnessed directly by the narrator and the ones that have been reconstructed from accounts told by free spacers.
According to the narrator, Steena "was as colorless as a lunar planet—even the hair netted down to her skull had a sort of grayish cast, and I never saw her but once draped in anything but a shapeless and baggy gray space all." This description is a foreshadowing intended to make Steena an interesting eccentric. Throughout "All Cats Are Gray," similar hints of future events are cleverly blended into seemingly innocent descriptions.
Steena is typical of Norton's other heroines: self-reliant, tough, and smart. Even so, she has interesting distinguishing traits. For instance, she rarely talks, preferring to listen while sitting in a grayish background. Yet she is not just a part of the background of the lives of other free spacers, making remarkable, seemingly off-the-wall assertions of fortunes to be made, "and the lucky few who heard her rare spoken words— these will never forget Steena." She is listened to because of "her queer store of knowledge and her photographic memory."
Steena refuses all rewards or gifts from those whose fortunes she helps make, apparently preferring to live her lonely life in the background of the action around her. It is Bub Nelson, who made his fortune based on a tip from Steena, who finally finds a gift she will accept: a "big gray tomcat" that she names Bat. Her acceptance of the cat is a clue as to why she prefers to be an observer and offers a hint about her personality. Bat is quite a character in his own right. According to the narrator, he would drape himself "over the shoulders of the thin gray woman, would make himself at home on any table Steena placed him on," and "He developed a liking for Vernal juice, drank it neat and quick, right out of the glass." Bat is also an important participant in the solving of the mystery of the Empress of Mars.
The other important character in "All Cats Are Gray" is Cliff Moran, a down-on-his-luck captain about to lose his spaceship to receivership. He is just the sort of person Steena would help, and is desperate enough to charge off to the Empress of Mars when Steena says that its orbit has brought it nearby. Moran is smart, picking up quickly on Steena's behavior in the control room of the Empress of Mars as she confronts the being who has murdered those who have ventured into the ship. He is also undisturbed by Steena's disability—"Steena had found someone who knew of her gray world and did not find it too hard to share with her—someone besides Bat. It turned out to be a real love match"—making him the sort of sensitive, although tough, hero typical of much of Norton's fiction.
The theme of "All Cats Are Gray" is tricky and it is tied to Steena's disability. In science fiction, especially science fiction for young adults, main characters are often poor and powerless people who overcome dangers by using a special ability that sets them apart from most people. These protagonists are wish-fulfillment figures, people who act out an audience's desire for the power to take charge of life and overcome society's real-life power over them. "All Cats Are Gray" adds a twist to this wish fulfillment figure by giving her a disability rather than some extraordinary power. Hinted at from the very beginning of the story, it is revealed later that Steena is color-blind, seeing life only in shades of gray. Her gray clothing, her preference for gray areas of taverns, all reflect her inability to appreciate colors and her comfort in environments where she can see contrasting shades of gray.
"What sped before them was invisible to her, but Bat was never baffled by it," says the narrator as Steena follows Bat and something else to the control room where Cliff Moran is trying to bring the Empress of Mars back to life. The cat can see something that human beings cannot normally see, something that is out of the range of normal color vision. Steena, too, can sometimes see the mysterious being that inhabits the derelict spaceship because she can contrast it against the shades of gray she normally sees. Thus, what had been a disability becomes a critical weapon against the malevolent creature that had murdered many people before she came on board. This clever twist on an old stereotype adds depth both to Steena and to the narrative, which has been, in retrospect, an account of Steena's efforts to cope— sometimes unsuccessfully—with her color blindness.