In this Author Spotlight, we asked author David Barr Kirtley to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Cats in Victory.”
The theme of curiosity comes up in two ways in “Cats in Victory”: as the gravest sin, and as the path to learning. How are those related in your mind?
In this post-apocalyptic future, obviously most knowledge has been lost, but it seemed possible to me that the idea of “curiosity killed the cat” might be something that catmen would fixate on and would pass down through the generations, so that it takes on greatly magnified significance. (The idea that their cat god has nine lives is a similar sort of thing.) Of course, most religions seem to discourage their adherents from asking too many questions—see Adam and Eve, Prometheus and Pandora, etc.—so the two ideas dovetailed really nicely. The catmen religion actually seems pretty logical to me. Sometimes things just work out like that when you’re writing. Obviously I’m most sympathetic to the view that you should keep asking questions and acquiring knowledge, but on the other hand, if our technology ends up completely destroying us—nuclear war, catastrophic climate change, something along those lines—then I guess curiosity really will turn out to be our gravest sin.
Your characters are confronted with evidence that directly counters their understanding of their history, their faith, and who they are. They all respond in different ways. Do you relate to that experience, and to the response of any or all of your characters?
Well, the version of history I was taught in school as a child was wildly inaccurate: Columbus proved that the world was round, the pilgrims and Indians were best friends, and America is the best at everything and is always on the right side of everything, and so on. It was very unsettling to piece together a more realistic view (and it left me extremely cynical about education). So I certainly empathize with Lynx at the level of finding out that your whole understanding of history is wrong. My parents are both scientists and I was raised with a very scientific outlook, so fortunately I never had any kind of religious indoctrination that I needed to struggle with, but it’s a subject that fascinates me and I’ve talked to or listened to interviews with hundreds of people about how they walked away from their church. For most people it’s an extremely gradual, painful process, but for some, like Lynx, it’s pretty quick—they read one book on evolution and that’s it. My take on it is that about 10% of the population is hard-wired for skeptical thinking and about 10% is hard-wired for magical thinking, and everyone else just kind of takes their cues from their social group and could go either way.
The genetically-enhanced soldier is a fairly common theme in science fiction. It’s more unusual to see it applied to different species, as in “Cats in Victory.” Is there backstory in the “Cats” universe that led to dogs and cats being modified, rather than humans?
I imagine the catmen and dogmen as having been created by mixing human and animal DNA—mostly human, actually—so they actually are modified humans, in that sense. It’s not an uncommon idea in science fiction, I don’t think. I mean, The Island of Doctor Moreau, etc.
What about human beings, do you think that’s where we’re headed? What do you think it would take to get past the ethical issues and stigma of ‘playing God’?
I don’t honestly think the issue of “playing God” is going to be much of a factor in the long run. It may stymie research in the US for a while, as it has with stem cells, but that just means Europe and Asia (for example) will leave us in the dust. I don’t really think it’s possible to halt technological progress, since all it takes is one non-conforming lab somewhere in the world to break any ban. All technological progress has been widely denounced in its day as the work of the devil—everything from vaccines to the telephone. No doubt our distant ancestors who tamed fire and invented the wheel were felt to be “playing God.” Of course, I feel that all gods and spirits are inventions of the human imagination, so a hesitance about trespassing on “their” turf strikes me as completely nonsensical. There are of course serious ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering, but those need to be discussed in an intellectually serious way, and the phrase “playing God” contributes nothing to the conversation. In any event, I have no doubt that someday—should we survive that long—we’ll be changing our genes as casually as we change our clothes, that our descendants will look like all manner of wild, alien creatures to us, and that no one will even remember that a debate over tampering with human DNA ever took place.
So, are you a dog person or a cat person?
Definitely a cat person. I grew up with a cat named Maxwell (after the physicist James Clerk Maxwell), and I currently have two cats, Hobbes and Kzin. I’ve never owned a dog. Actually, the original incarnation of “Cats in Victory” was a series of picture books I did starting around age 5, in which the cats were the heroes and the dogs were the villains, and the cats simply slaughtered the dogs and always emerged victorious (hence the title). Looking back on these books now, I’m pretty horrified by the messages they contain, and this short story was in part an attempt to expiate my guilt over all those dead dogs. It’s also pretty apparent, looking at my very early work, how much my worldview was shaped by violent Saturday morning cartoons. (If you’re conversant with Saturday morning cartoons from the ’80s, you may spot a few references to them scattered throughout the text.) So with this story, I wanted to create something with that same sense of color and adventure, which I still really enjoy, but with a more thoughtful message. And I do hope the story is something that parents will want to share with their kids.
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