Joan D. Vinge: Catspaw

Review of the novel Catspaw by Joan D. Vinge.

Catspaw is the sequel to Psion, following Vinge’s telepathic hero Cat on a new adventure. Cat became quite wealthy after his adventures in Psion, and used his wealth to see the galaxy and join a travelling school for the rich. While at the planet Monument, he’s kidnapped by the taMing family, who want to hire him as a telepath to protect one of their own, Lady Elnear, who’s been the subject of two assassination attempts. Since his money is running out, and the head of security, Braedee, says he can provide drugs to activate Cat’s dormant telepathy, he agrees. He travels to Earth and is inserted into high-class taMing culture, which makes neither him nor Elnear comfortable.

As the drugs slowly shake loose Cat’s telepathy, he realizes that he’s been placed in a very difficult position, not least because telepaths are hated and/or feared by most of humanity. Elnear is running for the Federation Council, the only body in humanspace with the power to act against the powerful shipping clans. The taMings themselves head Centauri Transport, one of the most powerful clans. Cat is mistrusted by most of the taMing family as soon as he arrives, despite his cover story as Elnear’s aide and surgery to alter his cat’s eyes and thus his abilities. He also learns that the taMing family has another psion in it besides Jule, but he doesn’t know who it is. And that’s just for starters.

Catspaw is a much better novel than Psion was: Rich and textured, with complex and believable characters. Cat is immediately much more interesting and sympathetic just because he became more mature and introspective in the time between the two novels. It’s an unfortunate commentary on Psion that what happened to Cat off-stage after it was more satisfying than what happened to him in it.

The book is filled with nifty characters, even the ones who don’t get a lot of screen time: Braedee starts off as a cyber-enhanced security chief but he ends up being notably reasonable and distinctive without being infallable, and he and Cat have an uneasy relationship. Daric taMing and his wife Argentyne are two of the major players, being somewhat at the fringe of the taMing family socially as well as owners of an avant-garde nightclub, which gives them feet in more than one world and thus natural allies for Cat, although ones he has a somewhat messy relationship with. Other taMing characters – Lord Charon and his wife Lazuli, and their children Jiro and Talitha – help add texture (and some drama) to the story. Really the most disappointing figure is Lady Elnear, who comes across as sort of a messiah figure and doesn’t really have a lot of depth to her. Protecting her is Cat’s main and original goal, and she opens doors for him among the classes he’s frequently with the taMings, but she doesn’t have a lot of character of her own. She’s mainly a foil and tool for Cat’s story.

Catspaw also has a nifty and complicated plot around which it’s built, and Cat’s relationship with the taMing family is woven into that plot. Lady Elnear’s life is indeed in danger, but the threat isn’t the simple one which Braedee originally explains it as. Cat is also put into a position to both improve the lot of telepaths in humanspace, and improve the lot of people bonded to Contract Labor, thanks to meeting the right people through Elnear. But of course his opportunity to do all this is threatened by the book’s main villain, who is far more adept at working in high society than Cat is, which forces Cat to make some difficult decisions and take a tremendous risk to defeat his foe.

Vinge doles out enough new-and-interesting ideas content over the course of the novel to make it feel more science fictional than just a society drama. The reader really feels Cat’s internal tension of being just sophisticated (and clueful) enough to survive in high society, while having the understanding of the underclass to have some resources that others in the taMing household don’t. He also learns something about his telepathy which lets him make some headway that no one else could have, setting up the book’s resolution. There are lots of details about the technological capabilities of Earth in Cat’s universe, too, of varying interest. By the standards of today’s science fiction it doesn’t feel quite as high-tech as it probably did when it was published, but seeing Vinge pull all the pieces together in a single novel is impressive.

The Cat novels sometimes seem to revel in the brutality Cat is subjected too, but Catspaw has the best balance of Cat being an active agent versus being a target of other peoples’ hatred, as well as a satisfying conclusion in which it feels like Cat really accomplishes something to make it all worthwhile. It’s certainly the best of the three books in the series (so far), and arguably worth reading even without first reading Psion.