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I've been getting into Wing Commander again lately and reading Niven's Known Universe, and Andre Norton is a life long favourite. All of these have something in common, they all have an intelligent, spacefaring race, or races, that are described as "catlike" or even specifically feline in nature. So I've started wondering who was the first to use this "space-cat" idea and in what work?

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    Norton had "cat folk" at least from the early 1960s. Any other answers ought to be before that. – Zeiss Ikon Dec 11 '18 at 12:33
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    Lucian's True History (from 2000 years ago) has a sentient race with cat-like characteristics. Does that count? – Valorum Dec 11 '18 at 13:00
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    @Valorum Are they spacefaring? Because I did specify space-cat. – Ash Dec 11 '18 at 13:01
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    They are indeed space-faring. That being said, sentient cats exist in pretty much every ancient religion and most myths that pre-date writing – Valorum Dec 11 '18 at 13:24
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    Are the cats in The Game of Rat and Dragon, by Cordwainer Smith, considered intelligent? They are spacefaring and telepathic, but are normal cats. 1955. – Martin Dec 11 '18 at 16:14
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This is shaky SF at best but H.P. Lovecraft in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath had sentient Earth cats traveling to the moon where they were menaced by evil cats from Saturn. It was written late in his career and not published until 1943.

In short, rhe story definitely included sentient alien cats in space but it isn't usually classified as science fiction.

  • you beat me by 12 seconds. – K Dog Dec 11 '18 at 18:26
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In my opinion it is The Cats of Ulthar by HP Lovecraft (c) 1920. Wikipedia summarizes as:

"The Cats of Ulthar" is a short story written by American fantasy author H. P. Lovecraft in June 1920. In the tale, an unnamed narrator relates the story of how a law forbidding the killing of cats came to be in a town called Ulthar. As the narrative goes, the city is home to an old couple who enjoy capturing and killing the townspeople's cats. When a caravan of wanderers passes through the city, the kitten of an orphan (Menes) traveling with the band disappears. Upon hearing of the couple's violent acts towards cats, Menes invokes a prayer before leaving town that causes the local felines to swarm the cat-killers' house and devour them. Upon witnessing the result, the local politicians pass a law forbidding the killing of cats.

The sentience here is inferred from the action: they can act collectively, communicate (through prayer and each other), seek revenge, and coordinate a plan: all this is abstract level thought.

This will be a theme in Lovecraftian horror. These cats of Ulthar reappear in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, in the alternative reality of the Dreamlands where they converse, war, and more. Here the cats display very human like qualities and are only different from human actors in their eldritch qualities of being feline and other. I don't know if the travel between earth and the Dreamlands is by definition space travel as the Dreamlands are more or less an alternative dimension.

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    The problem with this answer is if it qualifies, so does Aesop's fables. – Joshua Dec 11 '18 at 19:58
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    Um, Menes isn't a cat? – Yakk Dec 11 '18 at 21:15
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    @KDog Yes, but you claim the cats communicate through prayer. It is the boy who does (and whatever supernatural force the boy communicates to). – Yakk Dec 11 '18 at 21:43
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    If I prayed that someone was hit by lightning and he did, that doesn't mean that meteorological effect understood my prayer and was compelled by it. – Colombo Dec 11 '18 at 22:41
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    @Colombo "I can call spirits from the vasty deep." "Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?" – Rand al'Thor Dec 13 '18 at 11:39
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SHORT ANSWER:

Aliens who sort of but not exactly fit the requirements of being catlike, intelligent, and having space travelling civilizations appeared in 1952, 1947, 1943, 1939, & 1930.

LONG ANSWER:

IMHO the latest possible date for the first "catlike" or "feline" intelligent aliens in science fiction would be 1952, the year when The Mixed Men, also known as Mission to the Stars, by A. E. Van Vogt was published.

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?229641

In that novel a planet of a star in the Large Magellanic Cloud is inhabited by intelligent beings with centaur-like body shapes and catlike features. An alien classification system similar to that in the Hospital Station series by James White or the Lensman series by E.E. Smith is used and the aliens are classified as CC meaning catlike centaur.

The aliens in that planet aren't advanced enough to have interstellar travel, but since the Earth Empire apparently rules millions of planets back in the Milky Way Galaxy and aliens with the CC classification are apparently common, it is possible that many space travelling catlike aliens have been encountered in history.

The Mixed Men, also known as Mission to the Stars, (1952) contained several stories published earlier as well as new material written for the novel. Thus it is possible that the catlike centaur aliens go back to an story published earlier, possibly "The Storm" in the October 1943 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?467362

Another intelligent catlike being is the antihero or antagonist in the first science fiction story published by A.E. Van Vogt, "Black Destroyer", in the July, 1939 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction.

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?416043

Coeurl doesn't come from a space travelling civilization, but tries to steal space travel technology from humans and create a space travelling civilization of his species. "Black Destroyer" was revised and included in the novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950).

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?84014

(added 07-22-19. And user 14111's answer mentions a "cat-like" intelligent alien in Van Vogt's story "The Cataaaaa" or "The Cataaaa" in Fantasy Book Volume 1, Number 1, 1947. However, those catlike aliens use their mental energy to travel in interstellar space. Since they don't use starships, they might not count.)

So in the works of one science fiction writer, A.E. Van Vogt, his earliest catlike intelligent alien beings would date to either 1952, 1947, 1943, or 1939. However, they do not totally match the original question since their cultures do not have interstellar spaceships at the times of the stories.

(added 07-21-2019. In a comment DannyMcG mentioned the Buck Rogers Comic strip story "The Tiger Men of Mars" (1930) in which Tiger Men from Mars landed on Earth in their spaceship.)

Therefore, the first aliens in science fiction that fully satisfy the conditions of being cat-like and space traveling might have been in 1952, 1947, 1943, 1939, 1930, or in some other year, depending on how closely the aliens suggested here fulfill the requirements.

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    The physical form of the eponymous black destroyer, or 'Coeurl' was the inspiration for the displacer beast of D&D. :) – Lexible Dec 11 '18 at 22:28
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1947: "The Cataaaaa" (aka "The Cataaaa"), a short story by A. E. van Vogt, first published in Fantasy Book, Vol. 1 No. 1, 1947, which is available at the Internet Archive; the reprint in Marvel Science Stories, November 1950 is also available at the Internet Archive.

The first-person narrator is a biology professor. The alien space cat is allowing itself to be exhibited as a circus freak:

We had already seen the fat woman and the human skeleton, but Silkey took us back and told us his life history with them. How he had found them, and helped them to their present fame. He was a little verbose, so on occasion I had to hurry him along. But finally we came to a small tent within the tent, over the closed canvas entrance of which was painted simply, "THE CAT". I had noticed it before, and the chatter of the barker who stood in front of it had already aroused my curiosity:

"The cat . . . come in and see the cat. Folks, this is no ordinary event, but the thrill of a lifetime. Never before has such an animal as this been seen in a circus. A biological phenomenon that has amazed scientists all over the country . . . Folks, this is special. Tickets are twenty-five cents, but if you're not satisfied you can get your money back. That's right. That's what I said. You can get your money back merely by stepping up and asking for it . . ."

[. . . .]

The animal that sat in an armchair on the dais was about five feet long and quite slender. It had a cat's head and vestiges of fur. It looked like an exaggerated version of the walkey-talkey animals in comic books.

At that point resemblance to normalcy ended.

It was alien. It was not a cat at all. I recognized that instantly. The structure was all wrong. It took me a moment to identify the radical variations.

The head! High foreheaded it was, and not low and receding. The face was smooth and almost hairless. It had character and strength, and intelligence. The body was well balanced on long, straight legs. The arms were smooth, ending in short but unmistakable fingers, surmounted by thin, sharp claws.

But it was the eyes that were really different. They looked normal enough, slightly slanted, properly lidded, about the same size as the eyes of human beings. But they danced. They shifted twice, even three times as swiftly as human eyes. Their balanced movement at such a high speed indicated vision that could read photographically reduced print across a room. What sharp, what incredibly sharp images that brain must see.

The narrator has a private meeting with the cat, who tells him what it's doing on Earth:

The creature nodded. It said after a moment, "I won't tell you what energy my brain develops. It would probably frighten you, but it isn't all intelligence. I am a student on a tour of the galaxy, what might be called a post-graduate tour. Now, we have certain rules—" It stopped. "You opened your mouth. Did you wish to say something?"

I felt dumb, overwhelmed. Then, weakly, "You said galaxy."

"That is correct."

B-but wouldn't that take years?" My brain was reaching out, striving to grasp, to understand.

"My tour will last about a thousand of your years," said the cat.

[. . . .]

"You came in a spaceship?"

The cat looked at me thoughtfully. "No," it replied slowly. "I use the energy in my brain."

"Eh! You came through space in your own body?"

"In a sense. One of these years human beings will make the initial discoveries about the rhythmic use of energy. It will be a dazzling moment for science."

"We have," I said, "made certain discoveries about our nervous systems and rhythm."

"The end of that road," was the answer, "is control of the powers of nature. I will say no more about that."

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    There was a 1930 Buck Rogers comic strip story called "The Tiger Men of Mars" ...they came to Earth in their own rocket ship and kidnapped Wilma Deering, of course Buck went after them in hot pursuit – DannyMcG Jul 21 at 9:42
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    @DannyMcG Do you want to make that an answer? – Spencer Jul 22 at 18:44
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There was a 1930 Buck Rogers comic strip story called "The Tiger Men of Mars" ...they came to Earth in their own 'sphere ship' and kidnapped Wilma Deerings sister; of course Buck went after them in hot pursuit

Surprisingly little seems available about this online, just lists of all the comic strip episodes.

What I do have is a link to where a blogger of such things discusses the Tiger Men episodes and gives his opinions on them

http://arche-arc.blogspot.com/2017/05/mythcomics-tiger-men-of-mars-buck.html?m=1

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