Catalyst: A Novel of Alien Contact

Nina Kiriki Hoffman

2007 Philip K. Dick Award nominee

Running from a bully, a young man leaps into a strange cave—a place that will transform him forever. Sliding down the slippery slope, Kaslin enters a physical world ruled by an alien intelligence, one so interesting that he almost forgets to be scared.


Catalyst: A Novel of Alien Contact

by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

ISBN: 9781892391384

Published: 2006

Available Format(s): Trade Paperback

Running from a bully, a young man leaps into a strange cave—a place that will transform him forever. Sliding down the slippery slope, Kaslin enters a physical world ruled by an alien intelligence, one so interesting that he almost forgets to be scared. He explores this underground world with taste and touch and sight and smell, an intelligent boy on the edge of sexuality….

Kaslin must bridge two worlds: that of the enigmatic subterranean aliens and his own, which is mired in greed and politics. By taking great risks and making necessary compromises, he will become someone he never imagined.

Catalyst is a remarkable and unorthodox novel that will engage and satisfy intellectually curious science-fiction fans of all ages.

“New to the planet Chuudoku, Kaslin is running from Histly, whom he couldn’t keep his eyes off when he first saw her––he goes for the arrogant, athletic type, unfortunately––because her response to his interest has been to torment him with her augmentations (physical enhancements, such as fingertip injection needles, that you can have if you can pay). He ducks into a cave whose slippery floor sends him sliding underground. She follows, but before he finds her, he has learned words to harden, soften, and light the cave’s rock, and he has freed some three-eyed creatures from the cavern walls. The creatures strip him, depilate him (it’s a thrill), and turn his skin translucent white. They don’t go that far with Histly, instead imprisoning her in the cave-stuff, which it turns out is also edible in many delectable flavors, provided it’s Kaslin eating it, or, later on, passing it to Histly via liplock. First contact with aliens has been made, with implications that are barely hinted before the last page. Hoffman is both a successful YA novelist and an adult SF novelist who prefers teenage protagonists. Kaslin—and Histly, for that matter––are vibrant creations, their psychology utterly credible for smart adolescents. That the book ends with everything but Kaslin and Histly’s relationship up in the air may indicate merely that Hoffman knew when she’d achieved perfection.”
Booklist, starred review

“A book that’s rich and palpable, as well as being gonzo in the best sense. Once you ingest Hoffman’s mental soap flake of a book, you can never go home again.” (Grade: A )

“Fast moving, entertaining, and indecorous enough for a PG-17 rating…capable of stimulating the intellect as well as the senses.”

“This is definitely a page-turning book and apart from being great fiction should be on the list of any neo-writer to show how a story should be written. A fascinating read.”
SF Crowsnest

“Rollicking, funny, sweet, and constantly surprising.”
New   York Review of Science Fiction

“Nina K. Hoffman’s Catalyst is a marvel of inventiveness, beautifully realized in close sensory detail.”
—Kate Wilhelm

“Charming, inventive, and weird. Hoffman’s aliens and their environment are fascinating. And the humans? As always, the author saves a dash of compassion even for the person with the most disagreeable personality.”
—Bruce Holland Rogers

“Dreamlike and often horrific…. Any reader, young or not, will be rooting for that resolution.”
Eugene Weekly

“Nobody does down the rabbit (or spider) hole like Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Sometimes when you read, you get a peek into an entirely different mind. This is one of those reads. Everything is so strange in this book but also strangely true. Not what you expect, no matter what you expect.”
—Ray Vukcevich

“This weird novel of alien contact from Stoker-winner Hoffman (A Fistful of Sky) careens like a pinball among the bumpers of science fiction, young adult literature, and softcore porn.”
Publishers Weekly

Nina Kiriki Hoffman has been compared by Publishers Weekly to “vintage Ray Bradbury.” Her first novel, The Thread That Binds the Bones, won the Bram Stoker Award; her second novel, The Silent Strength of Stones, was a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards. She won a Nebula for her short story “Trophy Wives.” Her novels for young adults include A Stir of Bones, Spirits That Walk in Shadow, and Thresholds.

Praise for Nina Hoffman

“Nina Hoffman is one of my favorite writers, period.”
—Charles de Lint

Visit the Nina Kiriki Hoffman website.



Kaslin stumbled on the alien city by accident three months after he and his parents arrived on Chuudoku. He was running from Histly, a girl in his midteen edsection whose parents had had her augmented, and whose augmentations included self-defense mechanisms she used to hurt people who weren’t even attacking her. She’d assaulted him with three different fingertip poisons already. One of them put him to sleep. Another made him puke repeatedly, and left his stomach so sore he couldn’t sit up for a day. The third paralyzed him, so he was wide awake but unable to move away when she leaned down over him and pressed her lips on his. He had managed to moan, but he couldn’t stop her kissing him. She mashed his lips against his teeth, and he couldn’t move away.

Only half his class had been watching, but of course they told the rest, and people in other sections, too. Later they made moaning noises at him wherever he went.

The first time Kaslin saw Histly, across the quad the day he started school, he had liked her looks. She had shaggy pink hair, long on top and down the back of her head, short on the sides, and she had a wrestler’s build, muscular and taut. She was a head taller than he was. She stood with an easy arrogance, like every woman character he’d ever fantasized about in simgames, where he’d spent most of his time since his dad’s disgrace. Simgames had kept him tranced during his family’s stretch in the refugee camp on Hitherto before they shipped out, and all the time in steerage on the ship to Chuudoku.

She looked like his ideal woman, but he never imagined she’d notice him. He was just another skinny, sun-starved immigrant kid; boatloads of them arrived on Chuudoku every day, though most of those were part of the penal populations destined for drug trials, and didn’t end up in the public schools. Kaslin figured he could study Histly enough to get her into his dreams without her even seeing him, but he was wrong. The first time he stared at her for more than a minute, she turned and stared back. They were both in class, waiting for the chemistry sim to start on their interactive desk terminals. Kaslin didn’t drop his eyes: Histly’s were such a strange crystalline green he couldn’t look away. “Don’t face her, don’t face her, drop your gaze,” muttered the lanky boy in the next seat, but Kaslin hadn’t been able to focus on anything but Histly.

Kaslin saw Histly and thought, yum. Histly saw Kaslin and thought, prey. After that first day, Kaslin saw Histly and thought, run.

Whenever she saw him, Histly chased him. He ran, she chased; if she caught him, she did something awful. Her leg muscles were augmented, too, so she could catch him in a flatout race. He had to be cunning to get away.

He ran a different direction every time. This time, he wove through a spike tree grove. He was smaller and thinner than Histly. Maybe he could squeeze between trees where she couldn’t fit. Could she break through the spikes? He’d seen a report about spike trees—part of his basic introductory training for living on Chuudoku—which said the spikes had a Mohs hardness of eight. Were Histly’s augmentations stronger than that?

He’d never been in this particular spike tree grove before. He heard Histly following, her big augmented feet crushing the brittle, white, diamond-leafed underbrush.

Even though they were both running, Histly had plenty of breath to yell, “Oh, Kas, you are going to flitch a clister when I catch you. You are going to plutch. Just you wait and see what I’ve got for you now. I have five more fingertips to try on you, and my thumbs can do things, too. Just you wait.”

He didn’t want to wait. He eeled between trees and slipped on a smooth, dark, glassy piece of ground. Before he could stop himself, he screamed. Wump! Contact with the ground forced the air out of his lungs, and he couldn’t get it back.

Histly’s big feet crunched closer, and she laughed her evil laugh. Could her other poisons be worse than the ones she’d used on him already? He needed to hack into the med center database and find out exactly what to be afraid of. Maybe he was better off not knowing.

He managed to gulp air again, only it oomphed out of him in wheezes, and he knew those would give him away, too. He pushed painfully to his knees, his head throbbing where he’d hit it on a spike tree trunk on his way down. His vision was blurry. He saw a dark gap in the ground, half-hidden by spike leaves not too far away, and crawled in that direction. The ground didn’t hurt him now that he was in such intimate touch with it. He crawled over a carpet of shed spikes. Once the trees let go of the spikes, they turned soft; Kaslin had had a couple of fights with his friend and partment neighbor Maya using soft spikes, back when she was still speaking to him, before the moaning and kiss noises started whenever he walked through a room.

Histly was the reason he was so alone. She was about to poison him yet again, but once he recovered, if he ever did, he should take the fight to her. He could think up a lot of scary things to do to her, even without augmentation.

He was approaching the dark thing. It was kind of a cave. Maybe there would be some Chuudoku animal in it that he’d never heard of. Maybe something that ate people. No, there was nothing here that ate people, though some of the animals with sharp teeth might nibble until they realized they couldn’t digest humans. A lot of them had poisons or narcotics in their spit. They could irritate and immobilize you, but most of them couldn’t kill you. Those were small animals, no bigger than midsize dogs; you could kick them away before they really bit if you had good shoes.

Maybe the cavedweller was something that farted on people, and it would leave a stink on him.

Anything was better than Histly.

He crawled into the cave. The floor was dirt to start with, but changed to a soft surface, pale, waxy, and layered. It smelled like wall polish and burnt sugar. He had trouble getting traction on it. What if it was the secretions of something monstrous? Some kind of solid spider web?

Still had to be better than Histly.

He kept going, skating on hands and knees over the sugary, slithery surface. Flakes of it came loose, powdered his dark green cargo pants, caught in the folds of his yellow shirt. Even loose, the stuff was more slippery than slow.

The cave dipped, and he slid down into total darkness, a slide that felt like it went on for half an hour. He kept gaining speed, and wondered what he’d hit when he came to the bottom, if he ever did. Air rushed past his face. It felt like the cave was swallowing him.

The angle of his slide changed until he was scooting across a flat floor. Though there was very little drag in the slippery surface, he felt himself slowing. He slid into a deep drift of something soft and powdery. It stopped him, but didn’t rise up to choke him. It smelled like oil and oranges.

After he brushed powder off his face and chest, caught his breath, and gave his heart time to slow down, he struggled to his feet. He lost his footing and slid farther. He couldn’t see anything, but he liked the feel of walking across this strange, slippery surface. It was a little like snow, without the cold and the cutting edges of ice. Falling didn’t hurt. He wished he knew how to skate. He got up again and tried to glide forward, arms outstretched. Where were the walls?

Again he fell, this time on his stomach. He slid through a clump of powder and plunged down another slope in the darkness, his clothes waxy with the substance he was sliding across, his breathing unimpaired. His mouth tasted like butter and garlic.

Finally the slope flattened. He slid to a stop.