Leave it to the exploits of the social media to put smiles on our faces as cats being cats finally breaks the internet. But before you give too much credit to the wonders of current technological advancements and the frivolous use of multi-media to post feline mayhem, just go back in time and you will see that the cat shenanigans were influential then as well.
Who’s There? by Arthur C. Clarke is a very short story first appearing in the November 1958 issue #77 of New Worlds Science Fiction magazine (Nova Publications, Ltd). Though the piece was published numerous times over the years in other magazines and anthologies (sometimes under the variant title The Haunted Spacesuit), the edition reviewed in this post comes from the 1978 Puffin Publishing anthology “The Worlds of Arthur C. Clarke – Of Time and Stars.”
It is a quick read at just under 1800 words. You might want to take a brief moment to check it out to prevent any spoiler surprises that may be found in the review. It is available in various locations across the interweb.
Who’s There? begins with a team of astronauts working on a satellite relay system aboard a Space Station in orbit twenty thousand miles above the Earth. As the other team members meticulously work on the construction of the station in the vacuum of space, the Station Supervisor is informed of a mysterious object floating a couple miles away. Even at this distance, the object can become a hindrance to the stations navigation and must be retrieved.
As the only qualified member available, the supervisor dons his cylindrical “spaceship” suit and begins his retrieval mission. On the way, he begins hearing strange noises in the suit. Separated from the station, every sight and sound is amplified in the creative prose of the story. Clarke takes the reader through a gambit of fear and concern with skilled finesse as the narrator tries to understand what is going on. At this point, the reader might wonder why Clarke didn’t use “Who’s In Here” for a title, but that would have given away the surprise ending.
Written during the pinnacle of the space race, a year after the Russian’s successful launch of the Sputnik artificial satellite, the story builds on public perception. Heightened by the fears of the unknown, stories within the mysterious confines of space made for colorful entertainment and speculation, and Clarke used this tension to his advantage.
The object was assumed to be a test satellite from the “U.S. Air Force, early nineteen-sixties, judging by the design.” The narrator describes this as a twenty-year-old stray satellite, so the story’s setting is somewhere in the early to mid-nineteen-eighties. With this timestamp, a lot of the predictions by author Clarke are indicative of his insightfulness and early knowledge of space travel.
Though a little misleading, the title implies that the story is filled with tension surrounding the mystery behind the unknown object floating in the distance and putting our hero and his team in jeopardy. With growing international tensions, it’s easy to see how reader would have related to the narrator. But when the story take a twisting turn from mystery to horror, we are blindly driven to a new level of tension familiar to fans of the classic horror movies of the time period.
Okay, now for the proverbial spoiler. As stated earlier, cute and cuddly little cats are a primary trending element across social media these days. And as it turns out, a litter of kittens is the primary cause of the bizarre happenings within the spacesuit that frightened our hero to the point of unconsciousness. Ironic? Maybe. A let down to those fans who were looking for the boogie-monster? Perhaps. But as a classic element of surprise and amusement that is sure to put a smile on the face of the reader, it looks like Arthur C. Clarke was once again an accurate purveyor of things to come in Who’s There.” The true irony lies in the fact that readers never get to learn what the mysterious object floating in the distance was. All because of cats being cats.