- A Standalone Novel
- Published by New English Library
- First published in 1985
- An SF Comedy
- 374 pages
It starts in a restaurant, with the simple request to kill a man. But what follows is a whistle-stop tour through space, with uncertain allies, unsteady marriages, and a most unusual cat . . .
In hindsight, I should have known from the cover that I wouldn’t enjoy this book. Because while it may be called The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, there’s a subtitle there too: A Comedy of Manners. I have only read a handful of comedy novels, and I have to say that none of them have really won me over. The closest would be John Scalzi’s Redshirts, and even that lost me with its tedious codas. I think the sort of comedy I’m into just doesn’t translate well into prose. After all, so much of it is down to timing and delivery. I might laugh at the occasional line, but a full comedy novel? It’s rare indeed that I consider it a success.
Heinlein is quite rightly regarded as one of the most significant authors in the science fiction canon, but for me he’s been hit and miss. Starship Troopers was great, even if I couldn’t fully separate it in my mind from the loose film adaptation. Double Star was even better, while The Moon is a Harsh Mistress had a lot going for it too. Then there’s the absolute slog that is Stranger in a Strangle Land. To be fair, I read the extended version of the latter book. Together with The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Heinlein’s work is a great example of why even the best writers need an editor to rein in their impulses.
This book was written towards the end of Heinlein’s career, and I can only assume that he had reached the stage where he felt comfortable saying ‘no’ to his editor on a regular basis. This book is rambling, not in the sense that it’s slowly getting somewhere, but in the sense that it goes all over the place with no real direction in mind. There are a few good set-pieces along the way, including a nice trip to the Moon, but there are far more bizarre interludes, including an unpleasant period of the protagonist lusting after children. I’m not someone who always picks up on this sort of thing, but the overall treatment of female characters is pretty poor throughout. The best part of the book are epigraphs at the start of each chapter, and it’s frustratingly telling of the book’s low quality that they are far better than anything Heinlein writes here himself.
The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is a mildly interesting addition to a Heinlein collection, but if you want to read the man’s works, most places are a better start than this one.
More by Robert A. Heinlein
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Deeper Dive: Building a Universe After the Fact
One of the stranger elements of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is the fact that it features characters from multiple unrelated Heinlein novels. This appears to be some attempt to form a single literary universe, but it seems as though little effort has gone into the endeavour. It is not quite a direct sequel to any of those other works, nor does it truly add anything to the pre-existing narratives. It simply recycles characters and locations that Heinlein had already established for the sake of convenience, and perhaps an appeal to nostalgia for reader and writer alike.
One can’t help but be put in mind of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation universe, which combined Foundation, Robots, and Galactic Empire novels into a single whole. While more successful than Heinlein’s efforts, Asimov too struggled to reconcile the different future histories. This is most notable in the conflicting accounts of how Earth came to be irradiated in the Foundation canon.
Stitching together a universe from pre-existing material seldom leads to wholly satisfying results. Perhaps it is better for both authors and readers if standalones are left to be just that, and for universes to be mapped out ahead of time.
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