The Trouble with Flatcats


The Rolling Stones (1952) by Robert A. Heinlein

Robert Heinlein is a giant in the sci-fi world, coming close to Asimov in sheer notoriety. With over 32 novels, 59 short stories, and 16 anthologies, the man was prolific, to say the least.

One of his lesser-known works centers on a family of interplanetary bicycle salesmen. After buying some used bikes on the moon, the Stone twins, Castor and Pollux, stop on Mars to sell their new inventory.

Before leaving the red planet, the twins find a fluffy Martian critter called a "flatcat," a round, disc-shaped animal which looks like a runaway toupee and acts like a cuddly lapdog. Fawning over this strange, loveable furball, the twins take it aboard and decide to give it to their brother Buster as a gift.

The entire Stone family falls in love with the flatcat, snuggling it, petting it, feeding it, and generally bonding with the new family pet.

However, housing this cute little creature has unexpected drawbacks. It constantly wants food and attention, gradually growing until it splits reproducing into eight new creatures, and the cycle of growth and reproduction continue, overwhelming the ship by crowding the available space and exhausting resources.

If you weren't particularly knowledgeable of Heinlein's body of work, but have even a casual interest with Star Trek, this story probably sounds a tad familiar. In Season 2 of Gene Roddenberry's original series, the Starship Enterprise picks up a furry, ball-shaped creature called a "tribble", which, like flatcats, start to reproduce rapidly, to the initial delight and eventual horror of everyone on board.

15 years after Heinlein's Rolling Stones, "The Trouble with Tribbles" debuted in 1967 with an almost suspiciously similar plot and creature design. However, the writers of this episode were reportedly caught off guard when it was brought to their attention the similarity of this script to Heinlein's book.

Producer Gene L. Coon dropped a "Tribbles" script, which had already been through numerous rewrites, on writer David Gerrold's desk and told him to autograph it for Heinlein. When Gerrold expressed his confusion, Coon informed him that he had gotten in contact with Heinlein when fact checker Kellam de Forest noticed the striking similarities between the book and script.

Gerrold reportedly knew nothing about Heinlein's book and got the idea for the creature design from a fuzzy keychain his college girlfriend Holly Sherman had. For this reason, Gerrold also named a planet encountered in this episode, "Sherman's Planet".

Nervous about getting sued, Coon asked Heinlein how the matter should be handled. Though Coon suggested the possibility of buying the rights to the novel, Heinlein was exhausted from having recently fought a different copyright infringement. So, Heinlein decided to play it cool, and simply asked for a script signed by the author. 

After seeing the tribble take off in the pop culture and science fiction worlds, as well as becoming a major part of Star Trek lore, Heinlien would later express a touch of regret at letting it go so easily, saying in his biography: 

If that matter had simply been dropped after that one episode was filmed, I would have chalked it up wryly to experience. But [the Star Trek team] did not drop it; ‘tribbles’ (i.e. my ‘flat cats’) have been exploited endlessly… Well that’s one that did ‘larn me.’ Today if J. Christ phoned me on some matter of business, I would simply tell him: ‘See my agent.
— Robert Heinlein

Above: Robert Heinlein finds a closet of unlicensed Star Trek merch.

At a brief 253 pages, Heinlein's novel is a quick read, and a fun piece of literature from one of modern sci-fi's greatest writers, even if it's not in the pantheon of his more established popular works. If you're into quirky sci-fi that's also well-written, I suggest you give it look. Just try your best not to plagiarize it, accidentally or otherwise.

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