Cats can’t get no poetry to rhyme

SCIENCE FICTION | POETRY

It’s generally accepted that Vogon poetry is the third worst in the galaxy, after that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, and mine. It’s also accepted that intelligence of species on Earth goes white mice, dolphins, cats, then humans (then dogs, according to cats). But we all bathe in the light of our sun, which is orange, and not much rhymes with that, apart from cat…

People by cats

A GIRL, SHELDON COOPER AND PETER COOK

On Earth, it was generally accepted among cats, that cats were the superior species. In this feline hierarchy, humans and dogs were equal but different, with little regard for the white mice and dolphins.

This social order came about when Amazon integrated universal translation algorithms into their Alexa AI home assistants, and others followed. In 2042, life in the home was very different to the one we know now.

The term “animal” had long since fallen into obscurity, now reserved for those who are less than “person” in its modern definition: a sentient, self-aware and self-determining being, which has a conscience, experiences emotions, and displays empathy with other people.

A few exceptions aside, most Persona non grata had written themselves out of any worthwhile news and were confined to their own history. Only a few Tory grandees clung on in antiquated underground offices, blathering about the past and not being listened to.

Do you know what I think?” Sheldon Cooper asked.

No,” replied Peter Cook, looking up from his chair. “And I didn’t ask.”

Well, let’s see what Ellie thinks. I feel her presence. She’s just coming downstairs.”

I know,” the dog acknowledged.

How?” the cat wondered.

I can hear her.”

Oh.”

What are you two talking about?” Ellie wondered, wiping her hands on Pete.

I thought I felt your presence,” Sheldon said, sitting up on the sofa. “Nice of you to get dressed. Did you wash your hands?”

Yes,” Ellie replied, “what are you talking about?”

Well, he,” Peter nodded at the cat, “was going to spout on about something…”

I don’t spout,” Sheldon protested.

You just did it then. And as I was saying, I didn’t want to hear.”

You don’t know what I was going to say.”

Aha!” said the dog, sitting up, “how do you know?”

Can you read my mind?” Sheldon asked.

No,” Peter replied, “can you?”

Okay,” Ellie interrupted. “Who’s for dinner?”

I’ll eat him if you want,” Peter said.

I’d make your breath smell better,” the cat replied.

Okay,” Ellie interrupted again. “What would you like for dinner? I’ll cook.”

Do you have tuna?” Sheldon asked.

We do,” Ellie replied.

Line-caught?”

Yes.”

In water, not brine?”

Yes, in water.”

Cut into chunks, with some black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon?”

Like you always have it.”

Yes. That please.”

Fine. Pete?”

Er…” Peter yawned, “Got any steak? You know, that one they grow, not farmed.”

We should have. If not, I can print you some.”

Yeah, do that anyway, fresher.”

Hey, why does he get printed food?”

I’ll print yours if you like, cat.”

No, I like it the way you do it.”

So, why…” Ellie thought, “never mind.”

What are you having?” Pete asked Ellie.

I’ll probably just print a pizza.”

Is it Thursday?” Sheldon wondered, as Ellie made dinner, “I sense it’s going to be a strange night.”

Here we go,” Ellie announced, returning with food, “up at the table please. Anyone wanna smoke?”

Told you,” said the cat. “Do you mind if we eat while you smoke?”

What shall we talk about?” Ellie ignored the cat.

Death,” Pete said. “But you wouldn’t know about that, would you cat, with your nine lives and everything. Have you worked out what those are all for yet?”

We will find that out around 3000 years from now.”

Oh, here we go…The self-proclaimed superior species on this planet, haven’t worked out why they’re here yet.”

Well neither have you, dog.”

I sometimes think I’m dead already.”

Why?” Sheldon wondered.

Can you tell me I’m not?”

Well, I can see you’re not. So what, you think all this is a computer simulation, like The Matrix?”

Could be.”

But you lack proof.”

And you don’t know why you’re here, cat.”

I need to urinate.” Sheldon jumped down from his chair and wandered around the garden.

I love the way you two get on,” Ellie said to Peter.

Sarcasm?” Pete wondered aloud.

Only partly. I’m very fond of the way you are.”

Well, everyone’s themselves Ellie, and most people shouldn’t apologise for that. I think with dogs and cats, it’s a mutual tolerance and a begrudging respect.”

What about humans?”

What about them?”

Do you just tolerate us?”

Sometimes it’s confusing,” Pete thought. “We do look up to you, because you’re pretty smart. But sometimes you over-complicate things. Dogs look at things more simply. We worry less. I mean, go out for a walk with us a couple of times a day, open a box of DogNip chews, and I’ve pretty much nailed my day.”

You’re much less paranoid and insecure than us humans.”

Oh, I don’t know Ellie. Having you around is nice for company, but all dogs have an inferiority complex, and issues of balance.”

Balance? Of what?”

We wonder about things like the difference between friends and family, and the colours of cars. I mean, we’re perhaps more in touch with our instincts, but those are a bit sexist and misogynistic. And I think purple cars smell nicer than green ones.”

How’d you mean?”

Well, they’re like candyfloss.”

Yes, but the sexism and misogyny.”

Oh, all that old-fashioned nature stuff, going to mum for milk, and dad for protection. Then in humans, the hunter-gatherer and the cook.”

Well, we’re more a commune here, friends and family.”

Yes, I know. I remember when you came out of hospital that time, and you were in a wheelchair. I didn’t know whether to hug you or sit on your lap.”

Ellie?” Sheldon was back. “Where are my wipes?”

I don’t know. Use mine, they’re upstairs.”

But those are yours, and they’re upstairs. I specifically hid mine here, so I had them when I came in.”

I might have eaten them.” Pete said.

Why would you do that?” the cat asked.

To freshen my breath? I don’t know if I did, I’m just saying I might have.”

The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon muttered, jumping back on his chair.

Did you wipe your feet?” Pete asked.

I always clean my feet, so yes.”

One day you’ll forget.”

So what if I do?”

You’ll know you’re getting old. Anyway, why do you get to go out at all hours and I don’t?”

Excuse me,” Ellie interrupted, “You can go out whenever you like Pete, on your own, or with your friends.”

Oh. And there was me, thinking you enjoyed walking with me, playing your favourite game in the park.”

Which one?”

Throwing sticks.”

My game?”

Well, yes. I assume that’s why you throw sticks, because you enjoy me fetching them for some reason.”

But that’s your game.”

No it’s not. You made it up.”

Yeah, because you like fetching sticks.”

No I don’t. I couldn’t care where they end up, but you seem to have so much fun throwing them, I just figure I’m humouring you.”

One day,” Ellie said, “you dogs will get over your inferiority complex.”

Not while there are cats around,” Pete replied, “they have a superiority delusion.”

It’s not a delusion,” Sheldon argued.

So what about them lives then, what are they for?”

Curiosity, which is just as likely to kill anyone else as it is a cat. But cats seek knowledge, so we were given nine lives with which to discover it.”

While everyone else already worked out it’s pretty dull, so they’re just sitting around relaxing,” Pete suggested. “Ellie, what do you think about death?”

That’s a very big question, because it depends on the definition of death.”

What, more than either dead or alive?”

Well, yeah. It’s not a bipolar subject. I mean, I don’t fear my own death – except maybe the means of departure – but being forgotten scares me, like being erased from history. I believe that life as we know it, is a passing phase, in something we don’t fully understand yet.”

Do you subscribe,” Sheldon interrupted, “to quantum physics?”

Well, it stopped being a theory long ago. If you mean, do I get that everything exists in more than one state simultaneously, and that quantum entanglement means every subatomic particle in the universe is connected to another, telepathically, then yes. Definitely.”

Good,” the cat said, “because a lot of philosophical and theoretical examples of my species perished in that debate.”

See?” Pete perked up. “Bloody cats, getting everywhere, proving things. When was a dog ever involved in an experiment? I mean, why not Schrödinger’s dogs? By the way, what in the name of anyone’s arse, did mankind think it was getting up to, sending one of my kind up to space, before we had the technology to ask if it was okay?”

That,” Ellie replied, “was humanity getting up its own arse. But Laika was our little trailblazer, still floating in a tin can out there somewhere. We owe her a lot.”

At least you’re grateful,” Pete said, “fetching your sticks, flying your spaceships…And yes, Laika’s floating around out there, unceremoniously abandoned, but it’s quite poetic in a way.”

What, like Space Oddity, David Bowie?”

No, I just think it’s funny. Who’s to say Laika didn’t get out there and everything worked fine? Then she sussed the controls and just buggered off. Maybe it was all an elaborate plan, and the dogs had another planet somewhere.”

Unlikely.”

But equally, not impossible. You couldn’t talk to us back then. What you might have thought was static noise, could have been her talking. But there was no universal translator back then.”

The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon murmured.

Well, yes,” Pete agreed, “but the point is, humans had no right to do that. Because back then, humans didn’t regard what they called animals as having feelings or emotions. But what was clearly a sentient, self-determining and self-aware being, was used in an experiment without consultation or consent, simply because it was assumed to be inferior. That is immoral, and even more so for the cowardice in persecuting a person whose voice couldn’t be heard.”

So is much which humanity has done,” Ellie agreed, “against its own kind too. It’s a burden which rests heavily on those of us who give a shit.”

If I might add a cat’s opinion,” Sheldon said, “it might make things easier to understand.”

Go on.”

Humans were in denial. Your science hadn’t proven the obvious, that so-called animals could feel, so it was conveniently overlooked and humans continued, well, being human.”

Now I feel good about myself. Thanks Sheldon.”

Sarcasm?”

No!

Oh. And I thought I was getting the hang of that one.”

Ever since we’ve been able to talk,” Pete said, “there is still much about humans which confuses us.”

Same,” Ellie added, “only now that we can talk, can we talk like this.”

Really, I hadn’t noticed,” Sheldon noted.

Sarcasm?” Pete wondered.

No. Cats have always been able to talk, and to hear you. Nothing’s changed with humans, because you still don’t make sense.”

But you can understand me?” Ellie checked.

I can hear you, and the rest of the human race, in you. But with a growing number of exceptions, humans still seem hell bent on destroying our planet.”

You mean,” Pete said, “the planet we all share?”

You’re only here because the humans brought you. Earth was originally the cats’. Then humans came along and our ancestors agreed to let humans be humans, hoping they might learn.”

Who says?”

Many ancient feline scribes.”

Like the human ones,” Ellie added, “who wrote the various human religious scriptures?”

Very much so,” Sheldon confirmed, “and those ancient human scribes wrote of cat gods, did they not?”

In Egypt, and some other places, yes.”

So,” Sheldon continued, “doesn’t that prove that man worshipped cats as gods?”

Not at all. Each ancient script is an individual’s interpretation of events, as they saw them, and recorded using the means available to them at the time. It’s what all ancient alien theories are built on, and it’s what unifies science and religion in many humans now. The point is, it’s a paradox. But it doesn’t matter who was here first, it’s what we do now that we’re here.”

Sometimes,” Pete spoke now. “Sometimes, I wish I was a dyslexic insomniac.

Why?”

Because dogs are generally agnostic, and that would allow me to lie awake at night, wondering if God is a dog.”

Really though,” Sheldon said, “we’re all the same.”

Hardly,” Pete said.

No, I mean inside, and at a fundamental level. Forget animals and humans as the outdated terms which they now are. As people, we are all the same. Just as the root of all humans’ conflicts – both internal and external – is in an inability to see others as alternative versions of themselves, so that can be transcended to encompass us all. Whether we’re an atheist cat, an agnostic dog, or a whatever you are Ellie, all those scribes wrote what they saw, and science proved what we now know. And that’s that we’re all connected and the only true creator is the universe itself.”

Yeah, but who set that off?” Pete wondered.

Oh, for fuck sake.”

It’s a good job we can all talk about it now.”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

From The Unfinished Literary Agency, an anthology in paperback.

My friends’ (not Friends) wedding

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I don’t watch much TV, mainly because I don’t have much TV to watch. My area isn’t cabled and the building I live in is listed (Grade 1, and leaning slightly), so no satellite dishes allowed. My internet is intermittent at best (and leached), so I don’t have streaming services, just Freeview. I don’t get out much, and I didn’t have to go far last night to end up at a wedding…

Sheldon proposes

If I had multi-channel TV or unlimited streaming, I’d probably lose my life. Any quest for all knowledge is never going to be completed in this life, and there isn’t time to watch even a small part of current TV and film studios’ output. I have a large film library (only about one third watched), and I’m selective in my TV consumption, because most of all, I like to write.

Because I watch so few shows, I become somewhat obsessive over those that I do, always able to ace a round on the BBC’s Pointless when one of my shows comes up. Among many genres, I’m a fan of US comedy, but like all of my viewing, I’m selective. I could boss any quiz about Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, That 70s Show, and The Big Bang Theory.

Some might think I’d like Friends, but no. The only intelligent character in that show (Ross Geller) was always mocked for his intellect, or his words cut short by those who didn’t understand him: His friends; his ignorant friends. Big Bang is the opposite.

Last night I watched the long-awaited nuptials of two people I feel very close to, because I’ve studied them for so long, and because the characters are so well-observed that I have much in common with them. This was the wedding of Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler.

Jim Parsons is a person I admire greatly, not just for his acting. I like to find out about the people I enjoy on screen, and to watch what else they’ve done. In Parsons’ case, he’s worth checking out in a small role he played in Zach Braff’s Garden State (also Johnny Galecki (Leonard Hofstadter) in Andrew Niccol’s In Time, and Kevin Sussman (Stuart Bloom) in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading).

Mayim Bialik (Amy Farrah Fowler) is an author and neuroscientist, as well as an actor. She shares a birthday with my son, and played a young Bette Midler (as CC Bloom) in Garry Marshall’s Beaches, aged 11. But I digress.

Big Bang is a show beloved of geeks, because it’s about us, the misfits. Last night’s wedding episode wasn’t just the marriage of two good friends, but a nerd’s fantasy. It’s a show that’s good at paying tributes, and there were many nods in the wedding episode.

TBBT WeddingFox News

Amy’s parents were played by Kathy Burke, who seemed to carry parts of her various characters from American Horror Story, and Teller, the silent half of Penn and Teller. It was a little or well-known fact – depending on the circles you keep – that Teller isn’t in fact mute, and many more people knew that after the show.

Before the wedding, Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg, who can also be seen in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man), finds a lost dog, which it turns out belongs to Mark Hamill, and who offers a chance to digress briefly into another geek world: That of StarWars.

Gary FisherHelloGiggles

Gary Fisher (Carrie Fisher’s dog) was already a legend after he shat on the floor at a StarWars convention (above), and he had a special relationship with Mark Hamill’s dog, Millie. Since then (and as featured in last night’s Big Bang Theory), Mark Hamill now has a dog called Bark (Hamill). Mark Hamill was then asked to officiate at the wedding, a role already booked for Wil Wheaton.

The Big Bang Theory is probably the best (if only) place for a friendly clash of two mutually inclusive franchises, StarWars and Star Trek. Wesley Crusher and Luke Skywalker together on screen was something even sci-fi nerds probably thought they’d never see, and the on-screen chemistry said they were right at home.

People like me don’t get invited to weddings (we can’t stand them anyway), but if we had to go to one, it would be one like Sheldon and Amy’s, where usually uncomfortable people felt at ease, in a usually uncomfortable environment.

There was a scene which didn’t make the final cut, in which Sheldon and Amy open a gift from Stephen Hawking. He made several appearances, this being the poignant last reference from the sentinel who knows the Big Bang better than most: a pocket watch (so beloved of Sheldon) and the inscription: “Sheldon, I’m so glad you finally married Amy. It’s about time. Ha, ha, ha. Love, Stephen.”

We all know it’s a fantasy (Jim Parsons is already married to his husband), but even geeks and nerds can emerge from their shells sometimes and enjoy themselves. We just need each other in our virtual lives.

Dr Koothrappali’s Fun With Ropes

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The title refers to an episode of The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon Cooper found himself sharing an office with Raj Koothrappali, and hid a snake (a corn snake, as it happens) in Raj’s desk drawer. I myself have been fascinated by serpents since I was a teenager, and lately I’ve been revisiting that world, where I dreamed of all I have now.

Sheldon staples

When my family got our first VCR, WarGames and Electric Dreams became two of my favourite films, and remain so today: I can quote both from start to finish with the sound turned down, so it’s useful for guests that they both have good soundtracks.

But anyway, those two films were the worlds I wanted to occupy in a future life. And now, I sit at a desk, connected to the world, and surrounded by music and film. Sometimes as I sit here in the present, I see myself as a retrospective visitor from the future.

I arrived here through 25 years in print. From Linotype, hand-engraving, and letterpress; through corporate finance, security and government printing; via the transition of an art into technology; and finally to Kinko’s and my own print management companies…

I’ve witnessed the evolution of the printed word, and still argue that the Gutenberg Press was one of mankind’s greatest inventions. I have my children’s names on my arms in Helvetica, and print is in my blood.

I’m a beneficiary of the democratisation of the written word through digital publishing, and continue to wonder at the power of design and advertising, even admiring its ability to subvert in a world of fake news, where trust in journalism is rare. I have things to write about. Loneliness is in the head, and my head is not a lonely place. Stephen Hawking became a cyborg, and I’m just a virtual life on screen, in which I can do anything I like.

During my 47 years, I’ve learned a lot about many things: about myself and the world around me. I can boss Pointless most days, but social anxiety will always prevent me doing so anywhere other than in front of my own TV.

Travelling back in time to pick up my teenage self, and placing us in a modern context we might once have imagined, we may find ourselves presenting something like Sheldon Cooper’s Fun With Flags.

We have our own title, using one of the many terms applied to snakes by those who don’t understand them: Fun With Nope Ropes (not a euphemism for a failed take on life). In this first broadcast, a video shared on my FriendFace news feed. The question which prompted this whole post was a comment someone made: “Why didn’t the camera man help out?”:

FUN WITH NOPE ROPES

Rattlers are some of the most democratic of the nope ropes (they’re not rude tubes, like black mambas, for example). They only use the rattle as a warning, to say stay away: they don’t want to be trodden on, or triggered by accident. They rarely bite anything they can’t swallow as food, as it’s a waste of venom and effort (snakes are cold-blooded, so they need to conserve and regulate energy, and they’re lazy), unless they’re threatened. It could almost be argued that they have the preservation of other species in mind, as they consider their needs of their environment.

Rattlesnakes are born with a small hook on their tail, and over time, as the snake grows, it moults its skin. With each slough, a small ring of skin will remain on the non-dangerous end, eventually drying out and collecting on top of the last ring to make the familiar rattle. Frankly, I’d have loved one as I was growing up.

In any case, the guy still alive in the video is absolutely right to stay still, and the cameraman too. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t see what we just did. To be honest, I envy them.

I’ve encountered many snakes in my offline life, but few venomous ones. All are equally beautiful and graceful, but the majority shy or nervous. Many non-venomous snakes are placid, and even some of the most potent pose no threat to humans.

In the next episode of Fun With Nope Ropes, we’ll look at the black mamba, that most infamous of snakes, and deservedly so. The black mamba is the rudest of tubes.

CM

This blog entry was part-sponsored by Captain Mamba, the lead ophidian in my sci-fi novel, Cyrus Song: “Danger Noodle”, “Nope Rope”, “Rude Tube”, “Shite Pipe”, “Feck Flute.” He goes by many names.

This life, version 2.0

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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There are a lot of amazing feelings which come from publishing a book, just as there are in writing one. Obviously the writer has complete freedom if they are like me: Working mainly for myself and only in my own styles when I’m hired for freelance work. But I’ve written plenty about the writing part. What’s occupying me the most now is the post-publishing stage of a book.

The publication date was coincidentally poignant for more than the reason I’d already realised. It was three years to the day since part one of my life had ended. It was the day of Trump’s inauguration, and there’s a fairly barbed Trump reference in one of the stories. And it was the day my friend from Catford was laid to rest. It was a fitting date and it all happened by accident.

I like to play with numbers, to keep my mind always busy. It struck me that my last post was on what would have been day 1126 of me writing this blog. If you add all of the digits of that number, you get 10. If you add the 11 to the 26, you get 37: A prime number. Reversed, it’s 73: Another prime, and Doctor Sheldon Cooper’s favourite number for that reason and more: 7 and 3 are also both prime numbers. If you add those together, you again get 10. 10 is 2 in binary (well, 10 is 10 in binary, but you get my drift) and 2 is a prime number. It’s a lot of overthinking things on my part, but it demonstrates a point: Strange coincidences are there in real life. Some just take more effort to find. 42 is, of course, the answer to life, the universe and everything. When mankind couldn’t understand that answer, the point was made that in order to understand the answer to something, one must first understand the question. The question in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was extracted from Arthur Dent’s brain was, what do you get if you multiply six by nine? And it is 42. If you use mathematical base 13. We’re just not thinking radically enough.

Weird coincidences do happen in real life, as they do in fiction. Often, life’s happenstances are stranger than those told of in fiction. The fiction writer has to be wary of accusations of stretching chance too much. Such an accusation might be made of some writers (not mentioning names, but one which rhymes with “ban drown”) but most will make things believable without too much stretching of the imagination. But it is true that stranger things happen in real life. Paul Auster commented on this in a recent interview with The Guardian:

“People who don’t like my work say that the connections seem too arbitrary. But that’s how life is.”

As if to prove it, between 1999 and 2001 he took part in the National Story Project on American public radio, in which he read out yarns submitted by “ordinary people” across the country – “true stories that sounded like fiction”. His original call was for tales “that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives”. It was a success; thousands of stories were submitted and a selection published as True Tales of American Life. Auster found confirmation that “reality is truly as strange and incomprehensible as I thought it was”, and that others too felt the pull of improbability: “I’m happy to report that I’m not alone,” he told the Paris Review. “It’s a madhouse out there.”

“I borrowed some things from my own life, but what novelist doesn’t?”

None of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory rely on unbelievable devices. Even the more fanciful and fantastical ones have a grounding in science and some of my background research is explained within the contexts of the individual stories. There are elements of me in most of them but probably only recognisable to those closest to me. As fiction, they are good stories.

The truth is, so much has happened in my life that there are many stories to adapt and tell as fiction. “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them”, after all. This entire blog is the story of most of my life – non-fiction – or at least what I’m now calling part two of my life.

At the end of part two, I’ve published two books: The Paradoxicon and The Perpetuity of Memory. The Paradoxicon is a partly semi-autobiographical story, written in a hurry, in an effort to commit things to history. As a flash fiction novella, it’s a good little book (I’m told). The Perpetuity of Memory though, is the book I’d like to be judged on as a writer. It represents the three years during which my life was first in transit, then settled and contemplating. It’s a story in itself: 25 collected tales, one book, wrapped up in another story: that of my life, version 2.0. I’m contemplating and writing many more stories, for the webzine, magazine and anthology markets, then there’ll be a second volume, probably in about a year, and with the working title of Recollections of the Future (not final). I’ll also be re-writing The Paradoxicon as an expanded, full-length novel, incorporating a fictional account of the real autobiography I’ve found too difficult to write.

My book is out there. I’m earning royalties in various currencies as it’s bought around the world. The royalties are almost irrelevant to me. I have a modest, comfortable (if not luxurious) life and I have all that I need around me. So as not to complicate my benefit payments (writing is recognised by tribunal judges as being therapeutic for my depression and anxiety), most payments from my books will go to my usual charity benefactors. That, and just the knowledge that my books are out there, is why I do it. People are buying The Perpetuity of Memory and reading it. Friends are sending me photos of my book in situ in their houses.

It’s a good feeling; This life, part three, or version 2.0.