Book Review: Dean Ing’s Cathouse
There’s a reason I have a ‘Baen Books‘ tag, and not one for any other publishers.
Over the years, I’ve read … a lot of stuff from Baen. Possibly too much. And whenever you see one of those garish, gold-tinted covers at the bookstore, it’s a crapshoot. Sometimes you’re in for a straighforward, rollicking sci-fi adventure, or sometimes you’re in for a batshit crazy ultra right-wing screed. (For the record, stay far, far away from anything Tom Kratman writes). Either way, for better or worse, Baen puts out the kind of stuff you just wouldn’t see from other publishers.
Stuff like Dean Ing’s Cathouse.
Both the title and the cover of the book are WTF-worthy, which is either a good sign or a bad sign. Still, I let my curiosity get the better of me, and I’ll let you make your own cat joke about that.
Cathouse is actually set in Larry Niven’s “Known Space” universe. Several of his stories and novels featured the Kzin, giant warlike cat-creatures, who had gone to war with Earth several times, and lost. Hence, they were creatively named the “Man-Kzin Wars.” Fans kept asking Niven to write some stories or novels about the conflict, but he didn’t think he had a talent for Military Sci-Fi (that, or he just didn’t want to write it). So, he got together with Baen and a bunch of sci-fi writers, and basically let everyone play in his sandbox, leading to several Man-Kzin War anthologies.
In turn, Cathouse is actually a collection of two novellas from the first two volumes of these anthologies. They both center around a dude named Locklear, who winds up captured by the Kzin and then marooned on a mysterious alien planet. Basically, where Honor Harrington is Horatio Hornblower IN SPAAAAACE, Cathouse is Robinson Crusoe … IN SPAAAACE (and also Friday is an alien cat-lady).
See, the gimmick of Weirdo Alien Planet is that the Outsiders, the same mysterious aliens that built the Ringworld Niven is known for, have set up several ‘habitats’ for several different planets. Locklear winds up in a prehistoric-era Kzin habitat, with the prehistoric earth-era one next door (more on that in a bit). While he’s poking around, he stumbles across a bunch of various alien wildlife in stasis chambers … including some prehistoric Kzin. So naturally, he wakes up a cat-lady to keep him company and help him survive.
When your book is literally called Cathouse, people are gonna look at it askance. At least, they should. And while Ing never goes into the kind of weirdo kinky digressions that, say, Lieber did, there’s still a few things that pop up here and there. For example, Locklear names the first cat-lady he unfreezes “Miss Kitty” (later shortened to “Kit”). On top of that, when Kit wants to wake up some of her friends, she says that Locklear has to pose as her “mate” so the other primitive cave-catpeople know how their tribal structure is set up. Or something. Locklear and Kit never have sex, at least, even though Kit occasionally mentions it as an option.
To be honest, exploring ideas of alien/human romance (bonus point when their races are at war) has potential for a lot of really interesting ideas. Buuuuuut, Ing doesn’t really commit to this, as he’s honestly more interested in writing a book about survival and adventures. In any case, some other Kzin come looking for Locklear, at which point he and Kit play guerrilla and kill all but one of them off. Locklear makes the last Kzin, dubbed Scarface, swear on his honor to be a good prisoner, at which point Kit and Scarface scamper off to do it with someone of their own species, while Locklear takes Scarface’s little shuttle and zips over to the ‘Earth’ enclosure on Weirdo Alien Zoo Planet.
That’s part one.
Part two follows pretty much the same story beats as part one. Locklear finds food, improvises gadgets, finds a cave full of prehistoric animals, etc. Where the book goes off the rails a bit, however, is when Locklear finds a bunch of neanderthals in stasis. So, again, naturally he unfreezes the sexiest one he can find. The first one’s just a girl (who Locklear dubs “Lolita,” in an eyebrow-quirk-worthy bit of naming), but the second one is a full grown neanderthal woman, who immediately has sex with Locklear upon the unfreezing. It’s a fade-to-black sort of thing, but still WTF-worthy.
At least some of the WTF is explained … by more WTF, as it turns out that Ruth (and most of her tribe) are telepathic, so she was able to pick up on Locklear’s loneliness, and … uh, yeah. Locklear starts setting himself up once again, building a cabin, gathering food, and so on, only now he has a couple of neanderthal women for company. And eventually, they wake up some other neanderthals … at which point Locklear gets kinda pissy that they’re a non-monogomous society and Ruth’s been bangin’ other telepathic cave dudes.
Thankfully, then some space pirates (well, space mutineers) show up, and start ruining things for everyone. They capture Locklear, and try to get the secret of the planet out of him by various means (including, of course, the sexy intelligence agent woman banging Locklear). But the gimmick is there is no secret to the planet (apart from it being an ancient space-zoo). Finally, the space pirates decide to maroon Locklear in the Kzin enclosure as ‘punishment.’ More adventuring ensues, at which point Locklear and Scarface team up to kill some bad guys and save the day. Woooo. Only this time around Kit just winds up a lot more damsel-ified, getting captured and necessitating rescue and such. Hm.
Cathouse is a surprisingly quick read (seeing as of how it’s just two novellas mashed together). And to be honest, it’s not nearly as batshit (catshit?) crazy as I had expected a book with that kind of cover and title to be. As a survival story IN SPAAAACE, it works well enough. The whole gender/sexuality/loneliness thing always takes a backseat to the adventure, so at least Ing doesn’t get too cooky with it. This said, I kind of wonder if they could’ve called it something else– “Marooned on Cat Planet” or something. Then again, if they didn’t name it Cathouse, it probably wouldn’t have caught my eye in the used bookstore to begin with. Go fig.