Economic doldrums got your neck so twisted with tension you can hardly look around? Sounds like reason enough to hide away for a while, capturing some of the traditional low-rent entertainment found in dime-store paperbacks and back-lot movies. It’s a simple enough response, although it took a brief summary by io9’s Charlie Jane Anders of a (annoyingly wretched) LA Times article to crack my skull with the thought. Reading has always served two purposes: entertainment and education. My life has been defined inescapably by an attachment to the former, tho guilt had spurred the exploration of various non-fiction works periodically. But it’s tough to concentrate on erudite criticism of the World Bank when your eyes have grown heavy with fatigue and possibly a boredom flowing from the wellspring of ignorance. Forget about flipping to the two hundred pages of footnotes unless you’re sitting with two bookmarks and have plenty of elbow room. I would like to continue my home-schooling but at times the already daunting procedure of attempting to understand complicated concepts or to keep important names and dates straight becomes as welcome an endeavour as three root canals. When fits of melancholy or anxiety strike the only books which find their way to the bedside are engrossing little missives you would never carry down the street openly.

Perhaps this is why I recently found myself flipping through Andre Norton’s 1961 novel “Catseye”. I can remember buying this sometime during the middleschool years before self-consciousness intervened and I realized girls were not going to be keen on boys who talked about science-fiction. However, passion for futurism was not the motivating factor for acquiring this title; my mother saw me roaming the church rummage sale aimlessly and encouraged me to spend my quarters on a couple old books she knew from her childhood. At the very least, I thought, they’re so old they must be worth something. Sadly my greed would not be satiated by shrewd investment and I had no recourse but to actually read the pacifiers I had been issued.

Norton has a reputation as a Young Adult genre writer and if the bulk of her output is similar in style and story to this I would say it’s a deserved observation. While she was very respected in the American science-fiction community she would never become a household name; she was a writer’s writer with a career spanning seven decades and over one-hundred and thirty novels. In addition to her own works or collaborations she edited anthologies, worked in libraries and opened a writer’s retreat. Through the years she housed cats, and it’s hardly any surprise that cats feature prominently in many of her stories.

This novel takes place on the planet Korwar which has remained neutral in a war waged between two interplanetary factions. The settlement Tikil, a seemingly utopian metropolis, boasts luxuries for the aristocrats, adorned in flowing garb akin to embarrassing pajamas your grandmother might make you one Christmas, who meander the automated walkways from shop-window to shop-window. On the outskirts lays The Dipple, a shantytown populated by those displaced by war, the refugees who no longer– by virtue of politics or destruction– have a home. The denizens of the warren fester in poverty where escape is only to be found through crime or short-term contract labor. Troy Horan, orphaned descendent of herd wrangling plainspeople, finds his barely remembered experiences of animal husbandry landing him a day’s work for the purveyor of expensive, imported pets. It’s opportunity to survive another day, but a twist of fate extends the job for a minimum of a week while also brewing suspicion of a deeper layer to the business where he finds himself suddenly employed. When he finds that his mind is receptive to the primal messages from a recent shipment of alien cats fate twists again, and the good fortune of gainful employment seems to become the heaviest burden. There will be some very difficult choices to young Troy and very little time to make them as events begin to spiral quickly out of control. Just trying to decide who can be trusted will prove impossible enough.

You’re stuck on cat telepathy. In some ways that’s the roughest part of the book, but the concept is so integral to the story you have to accept this if you’re going to bother reading it at all. It’s a little cute, as is the dated writing style and invented names for imagined things. The social customs come off as convincingly as a bad Star Trek episode and can leave you cringing. Still it’s a breezy read with enough going on to propel you from one page to the next. More importantly to me is the couple of philosophical points Norton works into the otherwise summer read. The caste system of Tikil, particularly the indentured servitude required to escape the ghetto, is discussed at some length. People from The Dipple are bitter and broken, ruined by the power games of the rich and now at their beck and call. They have to line up like cattle for work, fortunate if they can squeeze a day’s labor from the automated placement computer. If your roll of the dice pays off and you find an entry into the city proper itself you’re immediately issued a temporary tattoo on the back of the hand. The streets are patrolled by hard-nosed police whose sole reason for existence is to prevent The Dipple from roaming free among the gentry. Norton, later on in the story, also questions the relationship between man and beast. If these animals are truly sentient, if the communications Troy thinks he is receiving are real, how can they be kept caged as pets? Ultimately Troy will have to face the notion that he may not be superior to a collection of animals, that he may have found equals, and that he may have to protect them from his own kind who would do them harm. This exploration of what it means to be sentient fits well with the constant thread of freedom, something that Troy craves. Freedom not only from the grips of displacement, poverty and a second-class existence but freedom to return the the wild plains of his youth. But you know what they say, freedom isn’t free.

Nothing new in this day and age but it seems almost subversive to me that a woman struggling to make a career in a severely male dominated industry (after her first book her publisher convinced her to change her name from Alice Mary Norton to appeal to the young male demographic) while the United States began to struggle with its own identity and concept of justice could gently work these concepts into a simple, exciting little book. For that alone I think she deserves some respect.

My copy of “Catseye” was published 1961 by Ace Books, Inc.
Image of Andre Norton (and Cat) taken from an obituary posted on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. website but is unattributed.