Eye of Cat, by Roger Zelazny

pub 1982
Review by Tim

Canyon de Chelly National Monument (pronounced de shay), is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Ancient sand dunes compacted to form a cross-bedded, fiery red sandstone thousands of feet in thickness. Two small streams, Tsaile Creek and Chinle Wash, and numerous smaller washes, carved a sheer-walled network of canyons, which from the air resembles the delicate, extended branches of a bonsai, spreading eastward from the town of Chinle, Arizona. Roughly halfway up the main canyon stands a massive stone spire called Spider Rock, rendered slender and delicate in aspect by the 1,000 foot canyon walls to either side. The canyon bottom is relatively flat and verdant, supporting the agriculture and husbandry of the Navajo Indians today, as it did the vanished Anasazi centuries before.

This is the setting of one of Zelazny's most ambitious novels, Eye of Cat, which relates the story of Billy Blackhorse Singer. Singer is a tracker, who's occupation and obsession has been traveling among the stars, capturing live specimens of alien fauna for the San Diego Zoo. He has lived long, both because of advances in medical technology, and the time-dilation effects resulting from travel at relativistic speeds. And he is a man locked in conflict.

Singer's conflicts exist on three levels. First, he is asked to prevent the assassination of the Stragean ambassador on earth. This is a relatively minor plot element, which sets the stage for what is to follow.

His second conflict is a feeling of guilt toward a creature he once captured, which he suspects may possess sapience. This creature is a shape shifting predator, whose base form has caused Singer to think of it as "Cat." Cat is indeed intelligent, a telepath, and has learned during its captivity to understand the thoughts of humans. When Singer learns of this, he asks for Cat's assistance in preventing the assassination. Cat agrees, demanding as payment Singer's life, in a new hunt.

Singer's third conflict exists on a deeper level, and rules everything else in the story. Singer is Navajo, the scion of an adaptable race. The Navajo ideal, put simply, requires the individual to adapt to the environment, rather than forcing the environment to adapt to the individual...but not to lose one's own identity as a Navajo in the process. Most Navajos raised on the reservation are fluent in their own language. Where most Indians will adopt English words for those items for which their own languages lack terms, the Navajos will often create new words and phrases in their own tongue. For example, most of the parts of the internal combustion engine can be described with Navajo words.

Singer, as has been noted, has lived a very long life...long enough that his people have changed and adapted to an era of interstellar travel and space exploration. Despite his own vocation, Singer is in many ways far more traditional than his contemporaries. He has no living family left, in a society that places a premium on familial relationships (the worst observation one Navajo can make of another is "he acts as though he has no family"). He feels disconnected from his people, out of harmony, out of balance. And he must deal with these problems as he wrestles with his other conflicts.

Eye of Cat draws on the Navajo culture's folklore and traditions, as well as those of others. It attempts to understand and simulate the psychology of that culture and, in my opinion, succeeds admirably. Zelazny uses a variety of techniques in this novel: traditional narrative, news flashes reminiscent of Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, stream-of-consciousness, poetry and haiku, and retellings of Navajo myth and legend. It is an ambitious and brilliant undertaking that will reward frequent reading.

This picture was taken from the canyon rim above Antelope House, where Singer descended into Canyon del Muerto. As you can see, climbing into the canyon is no joke. For more information about Canyon de Chelly, click on the photograph.