The Problem I Had With "Plain Kate"

This morning, I finished reading 'Plain Kate' by Erin Bow, a book that Amanda assigned me for our Lovebirds Challenge, and it has been gnawing me since. I'm very glad I read it, because something about it is bothering me.

Understand, first, it was not a book. It was a pretty good one in fact. There was a few moments that lifted me out of the flow of the story in awkward ways, but not very many, and I'm oversensitive to that, and tend to demand that books be written especially for me, in some ways, especially modern ones. And aside from that, it was a well written book, tightly fairy-taled, in a way that is neither cloying or anachronistic (the two ways I usually find that fairy tales find their downfalls).

But, there was something about it that bothered me. (mild spoiler, I'll avoid the big ones). There is this cat, the main character's cat, who at one point gains the powers of speech, and becomes sort of mentally part human, because it's Kate's greatest wish - that she have a travelling companion. A friend, more succinctly.

Now, first of all, I found it a bit irritating that not 10 pages past this point, where she had been a lone and friendless the whole book, she suddenly falls in with some people with whom she starts to develop friendships. But that's neither here nor there, and only bothered me because it seems like it should have been dramatically ironic and wasn't.

What bothered me was this: her love and friendship with the cat is one of the emotional engines of the book. And yet, the cat isn't real. He is only the way he is, because she wished him to be so. He does not awaken and learn to like her, or grow from the feelings a cat would have to a master to the feelings a friend would develop for a friend, to the point of self-sacrifice. He is simply made, immediately, the Perfect Friend. This is realistic - it's what she wished for, after all, not just a talking cat, but a perfect friend, to stay with her when things become difficult.

The problem with making someone a perfect friend is the same problem, though, that love potions have: they aren't real. Or if they are real, then love and friendship are, after all, meaningless. I was talking to Amanda this morning, and made an analogy: I'm a computer programmer. So, what if I learned how to program emotions into a robot? And what if I programmed a robot, whose main directive was to love me, to be loyal to me, to care about me? I don't mean, to be a slave, just to be - a perfect friend. If I programmed this robot to be that way, would it REALLY be love? What would the feelign I felt back be? In a sense, Kate's cat isn't it's own being at all - it's just a piece of Kate. Her wish, embedded into another living thing through no will of that other thing's.

But then, what difference does that make, really? At some level, after all, all love is a complex of neurons and memories, right? An instinct. We love, because we have evolved into lovers, because love has proven to be the best way to survive. I'm not a snob about this idea, I don't think that's demeaning to the human spirit, or anyhting, that it makes us less. But, it does beg the question - if I put you to sleep, and then constructed love in your brain, when you awoke, would that love be less real than a love that developed on it's own? In a sense, it's almost like cloning - most of us have a gut level reaction of unnaturalness, when we consider the idea of producing a child without the natural process of human inter-fertilization, apart from any of the moral qualms surrounding how the technology might be used we don't like the idea of the technology, of itself. But why? If an identical child is produced one way versus another, is ther eREALLY a difference? Or isn't there? Mental Illness is another example - if someone is mentally ill, than some of their emotions are not the byproducts of the normal activity of their mind, but rather they are symptoms of an external disease. If someone is furious only because they need medicine, are they any less furious? Does their fury 'matter less'?

I can have this whole argument, but you'll notice, I'm not convinced by it, and I simply don't know why. The idea of that cat being a produced instead of a natural friend truly bothers me. To produce consciousness, that DOESN'T bother me - I do not, for instnace, have the same gut level fear of the idea of artificial intelligence. But emotion does, and I can't quite pinpoint why. It draws into something bigger, something that has to do with the purpose of life itself - in the end, after all, the material effects of life are irrelevant, right? Things don't matter, at the end, its only, as so many people have said, the experiences we've had, the memories we've shared, the love we've given and recieved. What if we only feel that this love was given? Does that make a difference? If there were no way of knowing, if it could be given equitably, if we could make it so every human on earth could receive the gift of memories and emotions, and if we could irrefutbaly show that this, in the end, would let every person mentally have lived the life they wish they could have lived, would that be wrong? And if it IS wrong, why? Is it simply because its unnatural? Is it because we would be foolish with it, and create lives that don't have any regret in them? Is it because it would be selfish, removing the reality of anything done for someone else? It's something else, something, because even if it were possible to remove all these things, it would be wrong. I do not want to be loved, I want to... have lived a love. And the idea of simple accepting the validity of the other option really bothered me.


Amanda said...

Finally got to finish reading this post!

My thoughts on the cat were different than yours. I felt like he was the perfect friend not because he "became" that friend by the wish, but because he already embodied much of what Kate wanted. She asked for a companion - she did NOT ask for her cat to become that companion. (Assuming I remember this correctly, it's been almost a year since I read it.) She's surprised that the companion is the cat, but I think he was the easiest thing to change - he was already her friend in the way humans and cats can bond, and he just was given the ability to behave more humanly.

He demonstrates many characteristics that say, in the beginning, that he is NOT just a perfect clone of her idea of friend. He has behaviorisms that are all-cat, and becomes more human-like as the book progresses. I feel like their bond progresses as well through the narrative. Perhaps the difference is just in how you view why he was chosen as the companion - if he was formed, or if he was just chosen, you know?

in any case, I did love the cat after a time, though in the beginning I didn't. I felt like he grew and became more himself all throughout the book.

Jason Gignac said...

I can see what you are saying - I think it still leaves me cold, though - The assumption the book makes is, essentially, that his human characteristics are all positive. There would be some good things about the cat becoming human, but that sort of a change would come with a price too - I would have liked to see that cost more, I guesS?