All Tomorrows: “Cat Karina”

Welcome back to All Tomorrows, dear reader, where we weekly comb possible futures from science fiction’s glorious deviant age (circa mid-’60s to mid-’80s). This time, we’ve got the late Michael G. (for Greatrex, best sci-fi middle name ever) Coney’s 1982 novel Cat Karina, as strange a tomorrow as you’re likely to see.

At some unspecified (by our time scale, at least) point in the future, humanity’s starfaring civilization has collapsed, leaving True Humans and “Specialists” (human animal-hybrids originally engineered for colonization) in an uneasy peace. On top of it all, the entire damn planet’s converted en masse to an alien religion called the Kikihuahua Examples, forbidding metal working, fire and killing. In all this, a young “felina” named Karina gets tied in with an immortal race of sorceresses, the Dedos, trying to manipulate possible futures to release their alien god from a reality bomb prison laid by clones of Hitler.

Got that?

The result of all the above could have, should have been a complete and utter mess. Instead, Coney pulls off a future shock fairy tale (and parable) for the ages. More about why vegetarian bat aliens will doom us all, after the jump.

Karina asked, “What’s the Purpose you talked about?”
“You can’t know the details. If you did, you could destroy it. You are that important, Karina. But as for the overall Purpose, it is directed towards ending the imprisonment of the greatest person the earth has ever known: Starquin, the Almighty Five-in-One.”
“Oh, just another religion.” Karina was disappointed.
They swung to the ground. Karina took a deep breath and looked around. Everything looked fresh and new. For a moment something the woman had said touched her mind, and she wondered if she had stepped into a brand-new happentrack, leaving her old self dying on the sailway…
“I feel so good,” she said happily.
“How do you like your world, Karina?”
“I like it fine. I like the sun and the ocean, and the cars’ sails against the trees, and the mountains… And the felino camp,” her face glowed suddenly with anticipation “the Tortuga festival, and all the fun.”
“Have you ever thought if there was anything else? Haven’t you ever wondered what might be outside all that?

That conversation takes place after the handmaiden, one of the Dedo’s servants, has just saved Karina’s life. That favor, and conversation, will set off a whole chain of events that not only shake her seemingly idyllic, jungle-surrounded world, but determine might save humanity from stagnation and death.

The fact is, no one’s really happy with the current set up. The True Humans can’t make metal tools, the Specialists can’t really hunt and everyone thinks — not entirely wrongly, as it turns out — that the other groups are out to butcher them.

Karina’s father, El Tigre, still bearing an understandable grudge from the death of her mother, is plotting revolution, and the felinas will make the perfect shock troops (if you’ve ever owned a female cat you’ll know why). On the other side of things, a sailcar (think wind-driven railroads) captain is willing to commit heresy for a technological leap forward, and his dreamer son, Raoul, is about to become embroiled in the whole mess.

Despite the deceptively simple prose, Cat Karina is a multi-layered novel that doesn’t just describe an utterly alien society, but plops the reader squarely into its mindset, without ever sacrificing an adventurous pace. When I first discovered this novel, at 15, I read it all the way through in a single sitting. Coney periodically takes breaks from the main story to tell a little fable or legend from Karina’s world, fleshing out a vision of the future that’s like few before or since.

Further, the idea of “happentracks” or alternate universes, is so deeply ingrained in the structure that Coney will also stop at a certain point and write out a chapter on “what if character A had done this instead. Changes everything, here’s how.” He doesn’t do this with the big, obvious climactic decisions, but the small ones. There’s a lesson in that.

As the novel progresses, tensions escalate, then explode, and for all the wide-eyed sense of wonder in Coney’s world, there’s plenty of unstinting atrocity to go around when revolution time comes, though it’s also impossible to peg any true villains in the entire piece (a lesson there too?).

On a wider level, I’ve always seen Karina as a coming of age story, both for the main characters and their society. As the illusions fall away, it turns out the idyll’s not all that idyllic and the big showdown leaves more questions than it answers. Everyone’s wiser, by the end, but the future is still far from clear.

Cat Karina was intended as a prologue to the Song of Earth, a two volume epic composed of Coney’s next books, the Celestial Steam Locomotive and Gods of the Greataway. They’re both good, but take the fantastic elements in Coney’s world to such an extreme that it loses the focus that makes Cat Karina such a tight, engrossing work.

I’d like to say that Coney’s works are well known and that his visions of far, far futures and alien mindsets took their place in sci-fi’s pantheon. Sadly, however, much of his work still remains out of print and unappreciated (though Karina and the Song of Earth books are finally back in print). Coney, a Birmingham native, moved around the world, before ending up taking a job with the Canadian Forest Service. He died in 2005 at the age of 73.

If you can find them, his earlier works like Brontomek!, The Jaws that Bite, the Claws that Catch, Friends Come in Boxes and RAX are also vastly underrated classics. Cat Karina would mark the zenith of Coney’s writing: he would write other works that were good, but never quite great. It remains a beautifully strange story about the fragility in every moment in our lives.

Question: In many ways, the future society described in Cat Karina is dominated by ideas — veganism, pacifism, primitivism — considered a possible revolutionary antidote in our time. But in this world it’s become a religious fundamentalism: people believe these because they’re told to and Karina’s society is stuck in stagnation. Sometimes, can thinking outside the box just put cultures in another box? What are some current examples?

8 Responses to “All Tomorrows: “Cat Karina””

  1. Ruairi Says:

    Wow. Thanks for this. Is it still in print or should I head straight to Amazon?

    I think there’s definitely something to your idea of moving from one mode of confinement to another. The flaw in the logic might be the assumption that ‘Correct Procedure’ is how to make a society work. An ideal set of habits is sought instead of… I dunno. Cultivating a problem-solving approach? Pragmatism over dogmatism, so to speak. Can’t think of an example off the top of my head.

  2. Myrcell Says:

    The idea that veganism or primitivism is an antidote to the current way we live only holds true when people understand why. To become a vegan because someone tells you it will make the world a better place is the same as eating meat because someone tells you it will make the world a better place. One set of ideas is fundamentally the same as any other if the individual doesnt pay attention to the reasoning behind it.

    This book sounds amazingly layered. Time to take a trip to Strand.

  3. Mer Says:

    Thanks for this, David. When I was a kid, my biophysicist dad had this brilliant work colleague who would pass off scores of sci-fi paperbacks to me after he’d read them. This was one of em. I remember that the “what if” passages of this book haunted me and got me thinking in a more cohesive way about alternate/parallel worlds, and more practically, about how life is not a rigid, narrow, linear path, so much as cyclical, or tree-like. It was a big deal for a 10 year old! :)

    Ruairi: Cat Karina is definitely back in print. But I only stumble across Coney’s other stuff in mom n’ pop used book stores.

  4. What's in a name anyways? Says:

    Tough question. If I’m going to pick on a culture why not my own? In Canada we have an extensive recycling program – Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle – considered a possible revolutionary antidote in our time. Although “less developed” countries account for five times the population of “developed” countries. I think environmentalism is practically religion these days. George Bernard Shaw said the next World War would be based on the environment. I agree and I guess that put’s me in another box.

  5. k paul blume Says:

    omg — this sounds brilliant!
    (and back I go into frantic ‘must-read-this-must-read-this-now’ mode, checking the system card catalog though I seriously doubt it’s even on World Cat, anymore)
    Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust strikes again.
    …damn you, David Forbes, damn you!

  6. Lauren Says:

    the “the Almighty Five-in-One” sounds directly inspired by Dr Bronner’s Magic Soaps. Perhaps Coney experienced enlightenment in the shower, via organic hemp oil castile suds? It is seriously that intoxicating.

  7. Jerem Morrow Says:

    JeBus man, just start adding more to the pile o’ books I need to read.

  8. jakc Says:

    A marvelous and underrated book. I too found the rest of the song of Earth a little disappointing in comparison to Cat, but that doesn’t reduce the achievement here. Coney in some ways is a sort of precursor of steam punk in this and Neptune’s Cauldron, two of his better books, a very odd steam punk – Cat Karena lacks the fire to make steam – but both well worth reading. His stories about the Peninsula, mainly in F&SF from the 70’s, are also quite good.

    Thanks for the shout-out to a great book that shouldn’t be quite so obscure. Hopefully every one else (since I’m commenting five years later) has had a chance to pick up the book