What an appropriate time to read the second story in Dream Country, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” — I have only in the last two weeks become a servant to cats again, myself. One of them, a long-haired black and white fellow named Alex, seven years old and quite happy to no longer be at the shelter where he lived for a few months, sat on my lap and observed what I was reading. His brother, Oliver (white and brown), watched from a chair across the room. They are champion nappers, but neither napped while I read. They seemed both intrigued and suspicious.
As well they should be, for “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” proposes that we humans enslaved the feline race by out-dreaming them. Previously, humans were small creatures who served their massive cat masters, but groups of humans got together and dreamed the current situation into reality. One cat travels the world, proselytizing for cats to out-dream the humans, to bring back the old reality.
Of course, feline unionism is a doomed idea, given that cats seem hardwired for a philosophy of rational self-interest. (Or maybe not rational. More instinctual. Ayn Rand apparently learned everything she knew from cats, and then claimed she thought of it herself, which was, it seems to me, her only claim to reason. But I digress…) It’s no accident herding cats is a popular expression for impossible tasks.
I have another hunch for why the cats do no follow the rabble-rouser and unite their dreams: they’ve got it pretty good. She identifies them as an oppressed group (“plaything, possession, and toy”) and urges them to revolt, but the bourgeois world she herself escaped from is not a bad one — it is, in fact, a triumph of feline manipulation, as anyone who is possessed by a cat in a bourgeois household knows.
Possessed by a cat is indeed the most accurate expression. While dogs may be subservient to us, in many ways dependent, cats are much less so. They use us as sources of food, warmth, and amusement, but the balance of power is clearly on the cat’s side. For a cat who can visit the outdoors, the life is even better: access to the wide world (with all its marvelous rodents and birds), plus a human to provide regular meals, medical care, and a lap.
Alex and Oliver were not particularly bothered by my reading the tale of a certain kitty Communist because even though they can’t go outside (because they never have), they know they’ve got it better than they would were they at the mercy of nature. Cats, in addition to being die-hard believers in self-interest, are Hobbesians when it comes to nature, seeing the life it offers as one that is nasty, brutish, and short. What cat wouldn’t want to escape such a fate? Thus, their life as pets is exactly as they wanted it.
Oliver and Alex have reached an age where they have mastered all the arts of manipulation. It’s why they and not one of the 200 other cats at the shelter went home with me, even though they were a little bit older than what I thought I was looking for. They saw me coming. They looked through the bars of their cage plaintively, they sprawled on their backs, they jumped into my arms when I opened the cage, they purred, they pressed their faces against mine.
Cats get what they want.
Domestic cats may not be larger than humans in our current reality, but they still have humans to groom them, feed them, pet them. In this reality, we humans are larger and possess more consciousness, so we’re able to build pet stores and to have the desire to spend money at those stores on combs, beds, scratching posts, gourmet foods, catnip, and all sorts of silly toys. We’re much more useful to cats in this form than we would be as little naked creatures in the forest, which is what the feline Rosa Luxemburg in “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” yearns for.
There are terrible humans out there, it’s true — humans who kill their cats’ babies, humans who neglect or assault innocent creatures. These sorts of humans are the ones that radicalized the cat in the story.
Perhaps this is why Oliver and Alex seemed happy that I was reading this issue of The Sandman. Perhaps they saw it as a warning to me — and to all humans. Perhaps they were saying to me: “Beware! Fail in your duties to us, and we, too, will start dreaming of the old world!”
It will, according to the story, only take a thousand or so dreamers to change the universe. To obliterate the world as we know it. A thousand cats dreaming of a better reality…
Sorry — I can’t keep writing this column. I have to go feed the cats. Believe me, it’s better for us all if I do!
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.