The Cat Who Walks Through Walls
The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: A Comedy of Manners is a novel in three parts, divided from one another by sudden escapes and violent changes of scene. The first part, “Indifferent Honest,” opens with Dr. Richard Ames—formerly known as Colonel Colin Campbell—attempting to eat his dinner in a space habitat near the Moon, while an unknown man tries desperately to persuade him that unless he, Ames, kills one Tolliver by Sunday, “we’ll all be dead.” Before the man can explain, he is murdered, his body whisked away. Ames, with his partner-then-wife Gwen Novak, finds himself on the run, harassed out of his apartment, charged with murder, and clearly the target for a plot he does not understand in the least.
This section ends with Ames and Novak escaping from the Golden Rule habitat in a rented spaceboat—one rented, unfortunately, from the appropriately named company Budget Jets and so badly maintained that it crashes almost fatally on the Moon. Pursuit continues even there, with one ambush or confusion after another, first in Hong Kong Luna, then in Luna City. Finally Ames and Novak are all but overpowered in an attack, and Ames—who has been handicapped from the start by an artificial leg—is wounded in his good leg. At this point, Novak appeals through a strange communicator for a “T-shift,” and the pair are whisked away to a strange hospital, to a planet thousands of years in the future, to Iowa on Earth in Ames’s own past, and to other locations. Their adventures after the time-shift in fact occupy most of the novel’s third section, “The Light at the End of the Tunnel.”
At the end of this long book, though, many things remain unexplained. What was the problem with Tolliver? Why was the dinner guest murdered? Why was Novak so rude as to leave Ames waiting outside the restaurant right at the start? What, in short, has motivated the entire sequence of events? Answers to these questions are so conspicuously absent, or so flimsy, that for all of its rush of incident one has to discard The Cat Who Walks Through Walls as a science-fiction thriller, detective story, or novel of plot. Could it be instead—as science-fiction novels are so often alleged to be—a novel of ideas?
This theory is at least plausible, but one has to say immediately that the trouble with Robert A. Heinlein’s ideas is that he keeps changing them, and not by minor modification so much as by total reversal. Take, for example, the character Bill. He appears in book 1 as a low-grade unemployable on the habitat who has been recruited—surely by someone rather careless—to murder Ames with a “rumble gun.” Ames, who through most of the novel is almost insufferably omnicompetent, has no difficulty in disarming him but is then persuaded by his wife to adopt Bill simply in view of Bill’s evident inability to look after himself. Bill then takes on the role of devoted retainer, obeying orders precisely and never at any point, even in the spaceboat crash on Luna, letting go of the bonsai tree entrusted to his charge. The moral so far seems to be that even in the cruel conditions of life in space, elementary humanity has to survive.
This opinion is totally reversed, however, in one scene halfway through book 2, “Deadly Weapon.” Here the Ames pair, with Bill, are entering Luna City, and they pause to buy their “air chits”—for even air is not free. Bill says that he thinks the government should supply air. Ames starts to explain why it should not, but then he discovers that Bill has acquired some money. It seems that (as a Luna-born citizen) Ames has scruples about paying for another man’s air while that other man has any resources, and he orders Bill to return the money to Gwen. She then asks Ames not to make an issue of it; he refuses; and the idyllic husband and wife pair promptly split up, over a matter of apparent triviality. They reconcile very soon afterward, but, in an odd way, Bill is then converted to quasi-diabolic status, losing the role of faithful retainer and becoming instead a stereotype of ingratitude, even to Gwen. It is he who guides the attackers who wound Ames and prompt the T-shift at the end of the section.
In all of this, one finds, Bill has retained no consistency at all as a character. He has instead been first the vehicle for a homily on instinctive kindliness—adopting Bill, says Ames, is exactly like feeding a stray kitten, and like feeding a stray kitten, it is cruel to start and then stop. Yet once that homily has been delivered, Heinlein recognizes the need to distinguish individual kindliness from state welfare, and in the service of this need, Bill can be altered, remotivated, or simply dropped without explanation or credibility. As a final inconsistency, one might add that near the very end, Ames does adopt an actual stray kitten, though this does not show Bill’s faults of character. Heinlein, however, does not use it to round off any point and indeed seems unaware of any potential contrast or connection.
Beneath these changes of direction, though, one may well discover an underlying strength of conviction,...
(The entire section is 2097 words.)