Sunday, 15 September 2013

Michael Coney - Cat Karina (1982)

Prophecies bug the crap outta me. 

Prophecy is religious rhetoric. It attempts to create a situation where people can only react in limited ways. Thus the prophecy of Judgement Day: it's coming soon and only the worthy will be able to enter Heavenso you damn-well better be worthy. 

In a book with prophecy, even if the character struggles to avoid their destiny, they are only going to bring it about all the sooner. There is no lesson or growth because there was no other way that the story could have happened. Thus Oedipus will return to Thebes having killed his father and will take his mother, the queen, to wife. So also does Shere Khan, the Tiger, hate humans and seek out Mowgli because he fears he will one-day die at human hands. And, all for a prophecy, Garion treks across the world to fight men he has never met because of an age-old battle that he should have no reason to care about. 

Prophecy avoids the need for human motivations: at its best it is pointless, at its worst it is lazy.

This being said, chaos theory is an area of prophecy that doesn’t have so much of a ‘nails on a chalkboard’ effect. Scientific prediction, in this day and age, is infinitely less painful to believe. Obviously I don't expect this argument to hold up in a strict debate, chaos theory is a hypothetical concept that can only be effectively calculated in retrospectlike prophecy.

Right then. 

Cat Karina is a story told in the shadow of an intergalactic and immensely knowledgeable entity called Starquin. We don't meet him, but his presence is the reason for the story. This entity has found himself trapped in Earth's galactic sector and in order for Starquin to escape the tiny universe, one person must make three important choices that will set one of her descendants on a path to aid Starquin's release.

The sci-fi novel is set within a posthuman society in Earth's post-apocalyptia. Humanity on Earth is still attempting to resurrect itself from the detritus of a series of catastrophic mistakes that have brought technology down to a primitive level. The various humanoid races that inhabit Earth are kept in check by a religion that preaches cooperation with nature rather than the domination of it. Meat-eating is frowned upon, fire is avoided (even for cooking), and the ‘working of metal’ is seen as evil. 

The book opens at a period of transition in this peaceful society. Despite the taboo, humans are once more beginning to work metal and use fire and the day is coming when people will once more begin to deliberately kill each other.

The story begins with the protagonist, Karina, lying trapped on a wooden train track, soon to die when the train hits. She is met by an emissary of Starquin, who saves her life in exchange for her oath to obey Starquin's orders.

Karina is descended from a race of humans who were genetically spliced with leopard genes. The ‘felinos’, as they are called, are a volatile, attractive and extremely vicious race loosely based on the cultures of Latin America. True Humans are still the dominant race on Earth, but there are a lot of other humanoids of the 'specialist' races, including crocodile folk, monkey folk and bear folk.

The story’s prophetic premise perhaps works because Karina is exactly the type of person you don’t get in prophecy books. She doesn’t agonise about her promise to Starquin or worry about her future, sometimes she doesn’t even believe that Starquin exists. She is a slave to instinct and acts without thinking about the consequences. Most of the time she forgets about her promise completely. This way the prophecy is only incidental to her life, not the reason for it. 

One thing that truly struck me about Cat Karina is Coney's use of a religion that completely forbids the social and technological advancements that humanity has always moved towards. The humans and their client races are meat eaters denied meat, they are territorial creatures forbidden from war and they are technologically dependent yet they cannot use materials other than wood and stone. Despite the hundreds of years that these humans have spent, desperately clinging to the ideal of a cooperative and nonviolent society, they have not been able to relinquish their violent and competitive instincts. The book illustrates, in evocative and vivid words, that despite our advancements and concern with technology, philosophy and religion, humans are still as animalistic as we always were.

Karina is a compelling character born into an unforgiving world and surrounded by a society about to erupt into violence. The book is funny, fast-moving and perceptive, the characters are convincing and well-rounded and the cover art by Kelly Freas is beauuuutiful!

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