I’ve hit gold! Robotic nurses with adult “children.” A blind girl possessed by second sight. And a dog who cannot understand freedom. Here’s the fourth post in my series exploring Carol Emshwiller’s science fiction and fantasy–published between 1955-1979 in genre magazines–in chronological order. And if you missed earlier installments, check out Part I, II, and III.
In this installment, I have the first that I can confidently declare a 1950s masterpiece–“Pelt” (1958). If you want to participate in my explorations, links to the stories can be found below.
As always, feel free to join the conversation!
Her next three stories are covered in Part V.
“Baby” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (February 1958), ed. Anthony Boucher. 4/5 (Good). You can read it online here.
Raised by a robotic nurse, Baby, “six feet tall, lean, [with] the look of a hungry hunting animal,” encounters a slowly decaying world unable to provide his needs (115). Baby’s simulacra parent, and to a lesser degree Rob the repair robot, parrot the language, actions, and intentions of humans. He detects an emptiness to the space behind their words and increasing inability to explain the mechanical breakdowns that are never fixed. Saying “please” no longer works (116) but rather makes him angry. Nurse, with her “soft mother-arms” and “specially built place at her breast,” continues to follow her programming and treat Baby as if he were a child (118).
As Baby journeys further and further from his home, snippets of context flit into the narrative. A mysterious illness (120) seeded by a “barbarous enemy” wiped out all but a handful of children cared for by automated homes and robots (122). Other humans like Baby continue to live in the suburban sprawl but cannot escape their programmed nurses.
Emshwiller’s focus on Baby’s limited conceptual and practical vocabulary to convey the absence he feels and the reality of the changed world elevates this one above her earlier work. “Pelt” (1958) (below) uses a similar technique to even greater effect. Two additional elements create a profoundly unnerving reading experience. Baby does not feel the need to question his life under the tutelage of Nurse, despite his adulthood, until the city cannot “keep him sleek and health” and his “hip bones jutted forward from a concave stomach” (115). Hunger motivates him to question the adolescent rituals of care he’s subjected to. And when Baby discovers a woman in her automated home, he feels the need to physically lash out as if violence will provide him answers.
“Baby” is a disturbing fable that refuses to provide easy answers. There’s no revelation moment. Baby does not possess the knowledge to discover the nature of his world. There are no Platonic forms waiting to be made manifest by the untrained mind. And if there were, Baby wouldn’t be able to put them into words. Instead, he’s possessed by his primal needs and desires because he has been taught little else.
“Idol’s Eye” in Future Science Fiction (February 1958), ed. Robert A. W. Lowndes. 2.5/5 (Bad). You can read it online here.
“Idol’s Eye” was the second-to-last short story Carol Emshwiller wrote for a Robert A. W. Lowndes-helmed publication and it feels a bit like a cast-off or something she couldn’t get published in her new home at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Her last for Lowndes, “Puritan Planet” (1960) would appear in the January 1960 issue of Science Fiction Stories. This is my least favorite of her short stories so far as it’s less polished and intense.
Like “The Coming” (1957), “Idol’s Eye” explores the societal expectations young women experience and the pain a family desperate for communal status quo inflicts on them. Philippa, according the unvocalized views of her family “disappointing, ugly, half-blind” (119), wears her hair like a veil across her eyes and tries to avoid the only boy that will pay attention to her. Her mom regularly scolds her: “you’re always rude to him, and he’s the only one you’ll ever have a chance with. He needs a wife and he’s not particular” (117). Coaxed by her parents to put forth more effort to reciprocate his affection, Philippa soon has to fight off his increasingly physical advances.
The story veers into science fictional territory as Philippa uses her second form of “sight” despite her disability. Soon a larger plan unfolds centered on Hump Back Hill (119). While a clichéd (and problematic) trope of a disabled person having a secret ability, I found “Idol’s Eye” a valid attempt to be empowering. Both here and in “The Coming” (1957), young women refuse to give in to societal expectations and rebel in their own ways.
“Pelt” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (November 1958), ed. Anthony Boucher. 5/5 (Masterpiece). You can read it online here. Eleven stories into my Carol Emshwiller read-through, I’ve found the first I’d classify as a masterpiece! Click that link and give it a read. I’d love to know your thoughts.
A female hunting dog tracks exotic fur-bearing animals with a hunter on the ice planet Jaxa, “a world with the sound of breaking goblets” (102). Told from the perspective of the dog, who has limited conceptual knowledge and practical vocabulary to communicate or understand what she sees, “Pelt” explores a moment of moral nightmare. The dog senses, while they track down animals across the snows, that they are being watched by a sentient entity. She “had a feeling this was something to tell the master, but what was the signal [?]” (103). The alien calls out to the dog–“we have watched you, little slave. What have you done that is free today?”–but she cannot understand or respond (104) The hunter accidentally shoots the sentient “silver and black, tigerstriped” observer before he sees the alien-made object it carries–a food pouch.
The dog observes a emotional transformation in her owner wrecked by the guilt of shooting a sentient creature: “He didn’t whistle or talk” (107). The hunter skins the entity leaving the head and arms and desperate to flee the crime, returns to his spaceship. At the spaceship a crowd of aliens gather. The hunter tries to return the pelt. The aliens refuse. They give him a bag with the head and hands of the one he killed.
“Pelt” is all about the inability to communicate. The dog can only interact with its unique honed faculties and knowledge–smells, the feel of the ground, the emotional signs of her master. As we are viewing all from the dog’s perspective, an icy distance intrudes. Oblique action and implication must be divined through a non-human eye. We hunt for clues and sounds. Do the aliens want the hunter to live with the full knowledge of his crime? But why does the hunter place the head among his trophies? Is it a way to forget? Or a way to remember? The dog, of course, does not understand freedom and follows the hunter to another world.
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