Robots and Cats

If you write, you find yourself circling the same subjects over and over again. Many of my stories center on the complex issues of motherhood, and the relationship between mothers and daughters (Spectrum of Acceptance and “Mothers Know Buttons”). I also tend to write about feeling out of place and not understanding the social rules (Spectrum of Acceptance and “The Kio Empress”). It doesn’t take therapy (though I’ve paid a lot of money to therapists in my lifetime) to see where these repeating ideas come from. I have a complicated relationship with my mother (a brilliant and beautiful person whose own relationship with motherhood is complicated). Like many women in the United States, the pressures of being a “good mom” and the cost of being a “good mom” are at war in my life, doubly so because I have a 2E child (he has a disability and he’s smarter than average). And, my entire family, myself included, is an entire spectrum of socially awkward. My social anxiety is only enhanced by policing the behavior of my husband and son.

The latest stories, though, are mostly about growing old and having your child grow up and leave. That 2E kid I mentioned? He’s 17. Next year he will be a Senior in high school. We have started the prep work to transition him to university (fingers crossed) and an independent life (toes crossed, too). I can see all my anxiety about the next few years staining the pages I’m writing. The stories are filled with cishet couples whose children have moved out. They are dripping with robots trying to find their use when their primary user is gone. I’m guessing there are real reasons none of these stories feel done and ready to share even with my most enthusiastic and supportive alpha readers. I don’t have answers for the robots because I don’t have answers for myself yet.

Socks, the robotic cat, from Lightyear

In the stories I write, AIs and robots that emulate all kinds of things, dogs, people, actual mothers (and there is a Freudian slip–not classifying mothers as people), and appliances. But, weirdly never cats. No, when I write about cats they are cats. Maybe they have been altered to speak, but essentially, they are still the cats that have been semi-domesticated for over ten thousand years.
I’m not alone in this. Science fiction is packed with robotic dogs. It’s also packed with psychic cats and talking cats, and normal cats, but very rarely robotic cats. The Buzz Lightyear movie has a robotic cat and it stands out as the exception. I did a quick survey of children’s books about robot cats and turned up one and a large number of books about cats fighting robots. It’s not that we don’t like robotic cats. There are tons of robot toy cats for sale on Amazon. Perhaps it’s not by accident that all those robot cats are toys, that there is no useful robotic cat on the market. Don’t get me wrong, cats have been very useful in human societies. They kill small rodents and discourage the presence of larger rodents, like rats. And yet, we have robotic “dogs” being leased out to the New York City police but no robotic cats to take on the more pressing problem of city rats.

NYPD police officer with a robotic dog

Some studies show our brains store dog names with children’s names (which is why parents sometimes accidentally call their child by the dog’s name) and we don’t store cat names in the same location. So, I’m not alone in loving my cats but also holding them separate. There is something about cats, their independence and their dependency, that makes them special. I don’t think of them as being here to be of service to me but rather something for me to beg attention from. Humans and cats live as a covenant. They know we are larger and scarier, but they also know we offer food, protection, a warm place to sleep, and pleasing pets. The real trick of that relationship, though, is how we humans crave the intermittent reinforcement of their affection. We are their Pavlovian dogs, fingers twitching to sink into their soft warm fur.

My cat, Loki, interrupting an online convention (Sarah Pinkser and L.S. Johnson at Flight of Foundry)