October 2003

Frank Dondelinger

fiction

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein

Robert Heinlein is definitely one of the most famous writers of classic science fiction. His name is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Asimov and Bradbury. And yet, something about his books has always rubbed me the wrong way. Iíd read them, Iíd enjoy them, but at the same time Iíd be exasperated. And thanks to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, I finally found out why.

The trouble with Heinlein is that he cannot develop a plot. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is a perfect example of this. Here we have Richard Ames, an ex-soldier and freelance writer, who is asked by his new wife Gwendolyn (also known by half a dozen other names, but everybody in this book seems to suffer from that disease) to rescue a sentient computer on Luna.

So far, so good. This is a perfectly acceptable, if rather unimaginative, plot for a science fiction novel. A disciplined writer could probably turn it into an interesting story. Unfortunately, Heinlein is not disciplined, heís fickle. Instead of taking the trouble to weave new elements into the intricate tapestry of the plot, he just glues things on when it suits him, then forgets about them for another two hundred pages. The book starts with an assassination, but only on the last two pages, when we have almost completely ceased to care detail, do we get an explanation for it. Meanwhile, there has been political intrigue, sex, a failing space craft, a Mad Max style raider attack, sex, time manipulation and yet more sex.

Whatís missing is a common thread (apart from the sex, I mean). When Heinlein finally tries to provide one in the last third of the book, it falls horribly short because he crams all the relevant details into a few pages. The rest of this part of the book is filled with, yes, you guessed it, more sex.

Heinlein is not a bad writer, or else he would hardly have got the kind of reputation he has. He knows how to make action scenes work, and his dialogue can be hilariously funny, albeit not very realistic. Unfortunately, Heinlein tends to make things too easy for his hero. There isnít a single woman in the book who is unattractive, and very few who are unavailable. Gwendolyn is the perfect wife, capable of everything from playing a bodyguard to piloting a space craft. And if it werenít for his amputated leg, Richard would be a flawless hero as well, always competent and wise-cracking. As a matter of fact, and I think Iím not giving too much away here, he gets his leg back.

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is not a complete failure, at least if you compare it to some mainsream science fiction out there. Itís certainly readable, and if youíre a die-hard Heinlein fan, you wonít mind its many shortcomings. If youíre new to Heinlein, however, forget this piece of fluff, and read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress instead. Itís not about S&M, but youíll find it a much better novel.

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein
Berkley Pub Group
ISBN: 0441094996
388 Pages