Your faithful columnist adopted a puppy last week. His name is Exley (named for Fred Exley) and he is the most adorable creature on this planet and possibly others. The exhausting process of adapting our household to this little alien has led me to ponder the ultimate strangeness of this quintessentially human practice: we are the only (known) species that brings another species into our lives for sheer pleasure of its company.
While dogs and cats and other service animals can perform tasks for us, that’s no longer the primary reason for this odd tradition. We just like being around our animals — sometimes (when it comes to cats) more than they like being around us. We enjoy their company so much, in fact, that we invest a great deal of emotion despite the fact that most pets will pre-decease their owners. Every loved pet is an almost guaranteed future heartbreak, a vision so dark most of us hesitate to let it surface. Imagine explaining this persistent, delusional optimism to a truly alien race; our reluctance to process the inevitable is a kind of science fiction in and of itself.
In fact, we’ve become so accustomed to these unusual relationships that pets in genre fiction tend not to be a way highlighting the otherworldliness of a plot or fantasy realm but rather an anchoring it to our real world. Pets bring a dose of the mundane to situations that otherwise be unrecognizable. They create stakes in plots that otherwise might be too far afield. And in the hands of exceptionally talented craftspeople, pet relationships in fiction help define what it means to be human.
For the purposes of this list, however, the more pressing question was, “What does it mean to be a pet?” We decided to eliminate alien species that were primarily service animals (no Tauntauns or dragons of Pern), or who are self-sufficient unto themselves (Ewoks). And even tho they are cute, Tribbles don’t have enough personality to be pets — they’re more like fuzzy plants. Porgs seem mostly undomesticated, if also friendly and persuasive. Dany’s dragons in Game of Thrones, on the other hand, are also undomesticated but definitely more than pets. Likewise the relationship between Han and Chewie transcends pet bounds (though anyone who’s really thought about it would have to admit that Han’s the dog in that duo). We also decided to not include digital or electronic friends, otherwise, rest assured you’d see BB8 here.
Herewith, a radically unranked collection of just some of the most adorable and important pets that fantasy and science fiction have gifted the world.Spot, Star Trek: The Next Generation
Spot belongs to TNG’s android character Data, providing a feline foil for Data’s attempts to create a predictable and logical environment. Most cat owners can identify with Worf’s assertion that it was actually the cat that was training Data.
Stitch, Lilo and Stitch
Also known as “Experiment 626,” Stitch was genetically engineered to destroy everything he touches. I am pretty sure my puppy is somehow related to Stitch. Salem, Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Technically, Salem is not a cat, but a 500-year-old witch sentenced to live as a cat as punishment for attempting to take over the world. Cat people might argue that becoming a house cat only furthered Salem’s ambitions rather than stymieing it.
These noble beasts get slightly better treatment in the books than in the show, but in both they wind up being less companion animals than living, breathing Arthurian swords, symbols of the Stark children’s nobility and destiny. Their scant presence on the HBO series is supposedly due to direwolves being rather CGI-intensive, but I’m hopeful we’ll get some closure with Ghost at least as the show wraps up. Gizmo, Gremlins
Gizmo is a Mogwai and not a Gremlin, of course. And he’s perhaps mostly posing as a pet — he can build his own tools and knows how to hunt and fight other Mogwais, which suggests he’d be perfectly fine existing on his own but just likes to be waited on by humans. (Not unlike cats.) Crookshanks, Harry Potter
Hermoine Granger’s cat Crookshanks is key to the plot of Prisoner of Azkaban, as Crookshanks is the only character that recognizes who the real bad guy is and who isn’t a bad guy at all. This is the least cat-like thing about him, whereas him not communicating his knowledge to anyone is the MOST cat-like thing about him. Pantalaimon, His Dark Materials
Pan is a pine marten, the daemon to Lyra Silvertongue. In Phillip Pullman’s series, a person’s daemon is an animal manifestation of their soul — if you think that makes them more than a pet, you’re probably not much of a pet person. Samantha, I Am Legend
Can’t write too much about this canine companion in Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic novel or its film adaptation because I will cry. Both versions of I Am Legend are bleak, both versions rely on dog to leaven the relentless darkness of the plot; in both versions, the darkness wins. Jonesy, Alien
Arguably the most important cat in science fiction, or at least the most important cat to Ellen Ripley. Jonesy’s role in the film was small if pivotal, but you can read his side of the story here — it includes his attempt to teach the “giant killer-kitten” that the real key to getting the “can-openers” to do your bidding is to “act cute,” rather than using “this proboscis-through-the-brain stuff,” which “I can tell you right now is not going to get you anywhere.”
Nighteyes, the Fitz and the Fool series
Nighteyes is a domesticated (-ish) wolf in this fantasy series, bound by “wit magic” to protagonist FitzChivalry Farseer. He is one of the more complicated animal companions of genre, largely because his personality unfolds over decades, through three books. In the context of the book, the unnaturally close bond between Nighteyes and Fitz means that Fitz becomes more wolf-like and Nighteyes becomes more human as their relationship progresses — whatever the in-book explanation, his eventual death leaves a huge hole in the series and had me crying for days.