The Trouble With Flat Tribbles

report & analysis by David Eversole

Disclaimer: We are in no way suggesting that the writers of any given teleplay plagiarized another’s work. We are simply pointing out similarities that often occur in the broad fields of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

All too often, on Star Trek bulletins boards across the net, I encounter a statement that proliferates faster than any cute furball ever thought possible. It usually goes something like, "Yeah, I heard that David Gerrold ripped the tribbles off from some old sci-fi book."

Hopped-up Gene Roddenberry on a crutch! Let’s not even start on the neologism "sci-fi." It is ingrained, and like the ridiculous acronym "TOS," it seems to be here to stay.

But at least learn the title of the book, perhaps the author’s name (even if you pronounce it incorrectly), and to buttress your second-hand claims, perhaps, maybe, why don't you actually read it, or at least the chapters that deal with flat cats? After all, it's not very long, nor is it a challenging book to read.

The Rolling Stones, written by the late Robert A. Heinlein (pronounced: Hine-line), was published in 1952. It is one of the most fondly remembered of his "juveniles," perhaps today because of the connection to tribbles, and perhaps because it was one of those books that found its way into nearly every school library in America.

The story centers on Castor and Pollux Stone, fifteen-year-old twins, their parents Roger Stone and Doctor Edith Stone, their older sister Meade, four-year-old brother Lowell ("Buster") and their irrepressible grandmother, 85-year-old Hazel Meade Strong.

In 2148, the Stones have grown bored with life in Luna City, and buy a used spaceship (which they dub The Rolling Stone) from Dealer Dan, The Spaceship Man, and set out on a tour of the solar system. Their travels and adventures take them to Phobos, to Mars, to the Asteroid Belt, then finally, as the story closes, out past Saturn, Uranus, Pluto and finally "outward bound to the ends of the Universe."

We first encounter the Martian Flat Cats in Chapter 13, entitled, "Caveat Vendor," when the twins buy one as a gift for Lowell (after a good-natured round of bartering with a Mars shop owner). Flat Cats are described as dark-red, pie-sized furry creatures with three-eyes. They are extremely affectionate and will eat anything. Oval in shape, they curl into balls when threatened or when the temperature drops to near-freezing. The twins dub their new pet "Fuzzy Britches."

Chapter 14, "Flat Cats Factorial" mainly concerns the Stones leaving Mars and making for the Asteroid Belt where the ever-enterprising Castor and Pollux hope to sell exotic foods to the shopkeepers there. Asteroid mining is a profitable business, but trade ships are few and far between, and they envision a tidy profit.

Thirty-seven days out Fuzzy Britches has a litter of eight two-inch wide kittens.

Sixty-four days later, the kittens have kittens.

Sixty-four days after that the kittens’ kittens have kittens.

Five hundred and thirteen flat cats, which, thanks to the ventilation system, are everywhere onboard The Rolling Stone.

Something has to be done, Roger Stone declares. By the time they arrive at Hallelujah Node, the sector of the Asteroid Belt they are aiming for, they will be out of food, their own and the exotic foods the twins hope to sell.

Edith Stone theorizes that since the flat cats hibernated during the cold seasons on Mars, or when the food supply was low, the solution is simple -- herd the flat cats into the hold and lower the temperature until they hibernate.

After unsuccessful attempts to round up the flat cats, the Stones get into spacesuits and lower the temperature shipwide. The inactive flat cats are then easily rounded up and placed in the hold, though the Stones do find an occasional stray for days afterward.

The Stones arrive and the next couple chapters concern their integration into "Rock City" and the culture of the Asteroids.

The flat cats make their final appearance in Chapter 17, "Flat Cats Financial." Castor and Pollux sell the flat cats (a free pinup is included with every sale!) to the lonely miners who "gold rushed" here to dig the asteroids for ore. They sell the entire stock in one day (best to get rid of them all at once lest a miner’s flat cat have kittens).

When a destitute miner brings his young daughter to see the flat cats, Castor and Pollux, heretofore scheming young men whose only goal was to make money, and then more money, realize that he cannot afford to buy one. To soothe his pride, they announce that the young girl is the five-hundredth customer of the day, and is entitled to one free flat cat.

And thus ends the saga of the flat cats. Perversely, I must speculate that some number of days later the little girl’s flat cat had kittens, then the kittens had kittens, and probably the old miner and his wife and daughter were eaten out of house and home and starved horribly to death!

In his 1973 book, The Trouble With Tribbles, a behind-the-scenes examination of the making of his episode from first pitch to filming and beyond, Gerrold recalls that he was asked to autograph a copy of his script for Heinlein. When he asked why, he was informed of the similarities between his tribbles and the flat cats.

Gerrold states:

"I admit – yes, the gimmick of my story was the same as the gimmick of Heinlein’s, but the plot--and the plot is the important part of the story--was totally different. There were unavoidable echoes of Heinlein in one or two scenes-- echoes that were not there in the initial premise, but that developed as the story was bludgeoned into shape. For instance: the scene where Cyrano barters with the Trader over the first tribble.

"In all honesty, I must admit that if I was [influenced by Heinlein’s flat cats], it was a subconscious influence."

Gerrold reports that after Heinlein read the script he sent a note stating, "... I felt the analogy to my flat cats was mild enough to be of no importance--and we both owe something to Ellis Parker Butler. . . and possibly to Noah."

Butler was the author of "Pigs Is Pigs," a story of proliferating guinea pigs.

Since 1977, the Ballantine edition of The Rolling Stones has been graced by this Darrell K. Sweet cover art.

Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988): Considered the "Dean of American Science Fiction," Heinlein began publishing in 1939 after he had been medically discharged (tuberculosis) from the United States Navy. Author of such legendary short stories as: "The Roads Must Roll," "By His Bootstraps," "The Green Hills of Earth" and "All You Zombies." Wrote a series of "juvenile" novels from 1948 to 1959, which included the classics Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, Starman Jones, Citizen of The Galaxy and Starship Troopers. Perhaps best-known for his 1961 novel Stranger In A Strange Land, which introduced the term "grok," an all-encompassing term for admire, like, dig, as in "I grok Spock." More on Heinlein can be found here.

David Gerrold (1944- ): Pseudonym of Jerrold David Friedman. Gerrold sold "The Trouble With Tribbles" to Star Trek at age twenty-three, performed an uncredited rewrite on "I, Mudd" and contributed a story--"Castles In The Air""--which became the episode "The Cloudminders." He worked briefly on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He began publishing prose fiction in 1969, and is well-known for his novels, particularly the "Chtorr" and "Star Wolf" series. His Hugo and Nebula award-winning story "The Martian Child" was the basis of a 2007 movie. Gerrold is currently working with the New Voyages fan film series. Gerrold maintains his own website here.


main.gif (11611 bytes)

Free counters provided by Andale.
banner.gif (2815 bytes)

Click here to return to the Articles Page.
Click here to return to the Main Index Page.