The Game of Rat and Dragon
by Cordwainer Smith

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Galaxy, October 1955

collected in —
You Will Never Be the Same
Under Old Earth and other explorations
The Best of Cordwainer Smith
The Rediscovery of Man

September 2008


"The Game of Rat and Dragon" by Cordwainer Smith is one of the best-loved science-fiction stories about cats. It's also a neat story about the psychology of warriors, as well as an evocative glimpse of what interstellar personal combat might be like.

Not simply cats in a story, but science fictional cats? With interstellar personal combat? Isn't that a stretch to put in one short story? Not for Cordwainer Smith.

So let's look at what's here. These cats are fighting Partners of humans, in two-person telepathic teams, defending starships against vast but tenuous creatures of the dark interstellar spaces. Pinlighting is the weapon used against the ultraswift ethereal Dragons (as humans visualize them) or immense Rats (as cats visualize them). Pin-sets keep the human-cat teams in mental contact with each other and with the space around them. When a Rat (or Dragon) attacks their ship, one of the human pinlighters sends his cat Partner to destroy the alien entity, relying now on the fierce swiftness of feline reactions to deploy their weapons as close to now as possible.

In a few pages, Smith characterizes several humans and several Partner-cats, shows the life-or-death thrill and trauma of their work and the inevitable letdown after.

I read "The Game of Rat and Dragon", and another early story in the Instrumentality of Mankind series, "The Burning of the Brain", near the very beginning of my SF reading when I was quite young. Both stories impressed me powerfully, stayed with me, and after re-readings over the years still impress me.

Like the free-fall Flat Cats in Robert A. Heinlein's The Rolling Stones, surely these Partner-cats are at some deep level a creative ancestor to my own aircats. Fritz Leiber's "Space-Time for Springers" is another beloved science-fiction cat story, but I think not, for my writing, an ancestral one.

"The Game of Rat and Dragon" probably also forms one of the deep roots of my early conviction that the extra-Solar or interstellar spatial environment and, later, additionally for me, the mental-perceptual environment, may be quite different from the Solar spatial and perceptual environment. We should expect surprises.

A fine and memorable story.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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