“Who’s There” by Arthur C. Clarke
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in New Worlds Science Fiction, November 1958
Price I paid: $6.56
What an absolute hoot!
So I know that all my reviews contain spoilers, but this one in particular merits an actual spoiler warning, so I’m gonna toss that out there first, in case you want to read the story yourself. It’s a shortie, like three pages long, and it appears to have been reprinted a vast number of times, so I’ll start off by saying that I can highly recommend seeking it out yourself.
It’s also been reprinted under the titles “The Haunted Space Suit” and “The Haunted Spacesuit,” in case you find it under one of those.
I’ve read some Arthur C. Clarke before but only novels thus far. The Space Odyssey books are actually on my regular rotation and I re-read them every couple of years. It’s mostly a nostalgia thing by this point. I also read Childhood’s End for the first time a few years ago. I never finished Rendezvous with Rama but I reckon I ought to.
That leaves a lot of stuff for me to get around to novel-wise, but again, he’s also got short stories out the wazoo, and this is the first one I’ve read, at least the first one I can remember reading. Whatever the case may be, it was a good intro, because it was a heck of a story. Almost perfect, in fact.
It’s the kind of story that’s largely a snapshot, a highly detailed map of a single moment. There’s some buildup for context and an ending that’s basically a punchline, but this story is the prose equivalent of a haiku. Admittedly a very long haiku but this isn’t a perfect analogy.
Our hero is, well, we don’t know who our hero is. All we know is that he’s the supervisor of a space station under construction about 20,000 miles above the surface of the Earth, which essentially means he has a lot of paperwork to do. Our story seems to take place in the 1980s or so, because Arthur was nothing if not optimistic about when things would happen in space.
The guy, who in my mental movie is played by one of those really iconic 60s actors like William Marshall, is doing some of that paperwork on the observation deck of the space station when he gets a call. RADAR has picked up a metallic object near the station. It appears to be an old test satellite from the 60s, which isn’t all that remarkable but is still a potential hazard to the station or to something traveling to or from it, so somebody’s got to go out there and grab it so it can be disposed of. Our guy decides that he’ll be the one to go get it, partly because everybody else is doing much more important work than he is, but also because he just wants a break from bureaucracy stuff. I can understand that.
About here we get a brief mention of the space station’s cat, Tommy. He’s just a regular cat. Clarke makes a mention of how important pets are to the sanity of people living and working in space, and that cats are one of the very few that have been able to adapt to living in freefall. So that’s kind of neat.
As soon as the cat came up I figured it would probably be important somehow. Maybe I’ve just been reading too much with that kind of critical eye, but also I trust Clarke enough as a writer to not use some of his precious few words in such a short story to casually mention a cat that has no purpose in the story. My guess was that this was actually a story that inspired the movie Alien. If my guess had been true I would have gone to Wikipedia to confirm, but no, the guess was not even remotely true.
My second guess had more to do with Red Dwarf, and I was also wrong there, but slightly less wrong.
Guy puts on his space suit, which Clarke describes in some detail. It’s not a flexible suit like you might expect from somebody walking on the moon. It’s more of a personal spaceship, shaped like a tin can with flexible arm things, you know the ones, they look like accordions? And it’s got maneuvering thrusters of some variety.
One of the things that seems to be a theme with Arthur C. Clarke is the idea that people who work with equipment tend to get somewhat in tune with that equipment and are able to tell almost subconsciously when something is amiss. I know I certainly feel it when my computer is misbehaving just a little bit, like it’s more sluggish than normal or whatever. And I’m sure truck drivers get to be really in tune with their rigs and can just tell when something is off, or at least they would be if they weren’t so mistreated that the annual turnover rate in that industry is over 90%.
In many Clarke stories, being an astronaut is another one of those jobs. There are specialized pieces of astronaut equipment that they train with and use every day as part of that job, so they’re going to get in tune with those pieces of equipment. But also it’s so much more important because any malfunction can be fatal when in the cold embrace of the cosmic vacuum.
And so this is a story of a guy in his suit in space and he notices that something isn’t right. In this case, it’s a sound. The sounds inside this suit are very important to be aware of: the air circulating properly, the thrusters working, etc. Our guy is hearing a new sound, an unexpected sound, and that’s very unlikely to be a good thing.
So he starts to freak out.
Clarke manages to convey his freakout really adeptly. Time seems to stretch out for both us and Our Guy. For us it’s because of narrative necessity, Our Guy has got so many panicky thoughts racing through his head that it’s going to take longer to detail them. But that ties in quite nicely with the fact that adrenaline really does seem to make time slow down. And our guy has got a lot of adrenaline.
He works himself up from anxiety to absolute panic. The sounds keep happening, and they are most certainly coming from inside the suit. Something is inside the suit with him.
He begins to lose his grasp of rationality. He remembers the story of another astronaut, a guy named Bernie, who was killed when his suit malfunctioned. Our Guy thinks about that and wonders what happened to Bernie’s suit. What if this happened to be the same suit? He goes from wondering about it to being dead certain that it is very definitely the space suit that Bernie died in within the space of a paragraph.
He’s scared shitless but manages to hold it together just long enough to hail the space station that something is wrong…just as something warm and furry touches him on the back of the neck.
At this point he freaks out so badly that he manages to brain himself on the inside of his own suit, regardless of any safety harness. He’s out cold, and only awakens to find himself rescued, back on the station, and safe.
When I came to my senses an hour later, all our medical staff was gathered around my bed, but it was quite a while before the doctors bothered to look at me. They were much too busy playing with the three cute little kittens our badly misnamed Tommy had been rearing in the seclusion of my spacesuit’s number five storage locker.pg 129
Hahaha, I love it so much. What a fabulously cute ending. Like, I feel bad for the guy and all that he went through, but at the same time, kittens. Anything that ends with kittens has a good ending.
But also this is my main source of criticism for this story. I don’t think Arthur C. Clarke knew anything about cats.
So our astro-men thought that the cat was a boy cat. Okay. I’ve mis-sexed cats before in my life, although they were both in the other direction. Helen became Hank, and Smudge got to keep his name. This is because both cats were hanging around in my back yard, yowling, and I didn’t get a good look at their backsides before I gave them their names. I just made an assumption based on what sounded like In Heat Yowling.
But once you get close enough, it turns out that Cat Balls are pretty unmistakable.
Anyone living on a space station with a real cat would be able to sex that cat pretty quickly, I think! I guess if the cat had been fixed it might be a bit more difficult, but don’t they have a doctor on board? Don’t they check these things out before they send the animals up? Surely they’d want to have a space pet checked out, even if to make sure it’s healthy enough for spaceflight.
But the fact that it was an intact female also makes me think they would have left a male in the same condition. And good lord, can you imagine having to exist on a space station with a randy tom who keeps spraying? Blast me out the damn airlock at your earliest convenience, please.
And even after all that, nobody noticed when GirlTommy was in heat? Or when she was pregnant? What the crap, astronauts?!? A good bit of this story is about how astronauts are supposed to be super observant for anything that might kill them in space, but they couldn’t tell that the cat was putting on weight pretty quickly? And was all round? With big old milk buttons? And was drooling a lot? The cat had to have been pregnant when it was sent to the station, right? So once again, why didn’t they have a vet look at it first?
C’mon, Arthur, you invented communication satellites, you can’t think of basic cat care?
Hey, here’s another question: Where does your zero gravity space cat pee? Floating liquid droplets are pretty hazardous even when they’re not cat pee. And boy howdy, cat pee.
So yeah, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to deduct some points from this very cute and very well-written story by a master of the craft, because he did not do the cat research.
That’s just the way it’s gotta be sometimes.