Short Story Reviews: Carol Emshwiller’s “Baby” (1958), “Idol’s Eye” (1958), and “Pelt” (1958)

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 III, 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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29 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Carol Emshwiller’s “Baby” (1958), “Idol’s Eye” (1958), and “Pelt” (1958)

  1. “They give him a bad with the head and hands of the one he killed.” looks like it needs a correction of some kind.

    Interesting reviews.

  2. “Pelt” is definitely the first Emshwiller story to make a major impact — for good reason, as you note. (Though “Hunting Machine” definitely was noticed and made the Bleiler/Dikty Best Of”.) I haven’t read the other two stories. I will have to give “Pelt” a reread, and find a copy of “Baby” at least.

    Finding a new, better, market wasn’t the only reason Emshwiller stopped selling to Lowndes — his magazines were pretty much done for, anyway. Plus for reasons I don’t know Emshwiller pretty much took the first half of the ’60s off. (Perhaps young children? — I know Peter, also a writer, was born in 1959, don’t know when Susan was born.)

    • Hello Rich,

      Unlike many of her earlier stories, “Baby” at least was anthologized! It was re-printed in The Monster Makers, ed. Peter Haining by Gollancz in 1974. Her first exposure to a UK audience? I’d have to look through her earlier stories to double-check.

      “Pelt” joins an illustrious pedigree (no pun intended) of stories told from a dog’s perspective. Kafka’s gorgeously disturbing “Investigations of a Dog” (1922) comes to mind. I know I’ve read others…

      “Pelt” is a worthwhile inclusion in the recent Lisa Yaszek-edited volume The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin (2018) anthology.

      Yeah, I suspect he was paying authors less and less due to how hard the magazine industry was hit in 1957. I remember reading about Silverberg’s attempt to remain financially stable (well, I should say, wealthy) in those lean years by writing tons of softcore pornography.

      • Well, in SF, the most famous stories written from the POV of a dog are in Clifford Simak’s CITY.

        Lots of writers in that period made a decent living by writing pseudonymous software porn … Lawrence Block was another. Donald Westlake, too. In Silverberg’s case, he was prolific enough (and a good enough investor) to get rich … most of the rest, I imagine, at best earned a decent middle class income that (in the cases of at least Westlake and Block) tided them over well enough until their serious work became successful. (And then they — or at least Westlake, not sure about Block — got rich!)

        • If I remember correctly, I adored City when I read it in my late teens. While I remembered dogs, I did not remember that sections were from their POV.

          Isn’t Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius (1944) from a dog’s POV as well?

          • I recently bought “Sirius”, but it was so bad, that I didn’t read much of it and had to return it to the shop. It was a shame, as the other two novels of his I’ve read, “Last and First Men” and “Star Maker”, are great, but especially “Star Maker”.

            I didn’t “Pelt” much either, except that it was better in prose and structure, and was so much shorter. I think I found the viewpoint to be muddled, but you probably have a different understanding of it than I have.

            • How was the viewpoint muddled? The dog can observe what’s happening but cannot understand what it sees and smells. The dog can observe emotional changes in the owner (as my dogs always could) but doesn’t understand the reasons behind them.

  3. I’m pretty sure Rich Horton’s right, the kids needed raising so her output fell to zero…but “Pelt” is unquestionably the best thing she did in the early career, and possibly just The Best, Period. What a way to say “I’ll be back.”

    Lovely discoveries, Doctor B.

    • Yeah, that definitely makes sense. As both of you implied, she published a bare handful of stories in the 60s before picking up full steam in the 70s.

      If you liked “Pelt” check out “Baby”! At the very least, you’ll laugh as the nurse robot chases the adult in stature but utterly uneducated in anything other than baby talk man/child.

  4. I have to admit that I don’t think I really get “Pelt”, but I probably don’t appreciate the themes. I’m reminded of Philip K. Dick’s “Roog”, which is also from a dog’s viewpoint, which wasn’t bad for his first published short story, but the theme of a private world or reality, was quite plain.

  5. “Hunting Machine” and “Pelt” were the first two Emshwiller stories I read, and their similarities in theme didn’t dissuade me. I was hooked and would stay hooked.

    Columbia Publication, Lowndes’s workplace for 15- years, was never a good-paying market, and the constriction of the magazine distribution market in the late ’50s, after the dismembering of American News, didn’t affect it too much in that way…Columbia slogged along till 1960, and Lowndes moved on to Health Knowledge, Inc and hi eventual string of fiction magazines starting and ending with the MAGAZINE OF HORROR not long after.

  6. Emshwiller and Edward Hoch were the major Lowndes “discoveries” in 1950s career…at HK, he was first to publish in modest pro circumstances Stephen King and F. Paul Wilson, among some less famous others.

      • Hoch wrote some sf and some notable borderline horror, but was primarily a hugely prolific crime-fiction writer. Lowndes edited CF and western magazines, and the last sports-fiction pulp to be published…and writers such as Emshwiller, Judith Merril and Robert Siverberg wrote for these, as well.

        • Yup, as you mentioned some of Emshwiller’s earlier work appeared in Lowndes’ non-SF publications — “Murray is for Murder” (1957) and ” The Victim” (1955) for example. Not covering those in my series as they aren’t SF but it’s interesting seeing the range they had.

  7. Say that again, her whole body said. I almost have it. I *feel it. Say it once more and maybe then the sense of it will come.*
    Yes, indeed, Dr. B. The story is a masterpiece. Perception needs language for communication, but only after a point…where that point comes, and why, is endlessly debatable.
    He did not keep the flat-faced, heavy head nor the blunt fingered hands.
    Exactly what a dog would notice! And the way Emshwiller phrases it…keeping, not taking…delicate and surgical openings into tragedy.
    But what a difference 63 years makes…Imagine a fur-hunting expedition to the stars in today’s fiction! My mother was the only grown-up woman I knew who didn’t wear fur, said it made her queasy. Now it’s hard to imagine the prevalence of the stuff back then. Still, the dated subject aside, this is such a wonderful and layered story about communication. I really wish the LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS people would make it into a film.

    • I thought you’d enjoy “Pelt” and “Baby”!

      As I mentioned in our discussion before, that precise moment where communication fails fascinates Emshwiller. And both stories explore that in such intriguing ways.

      I’ll also repeat our previous discussion as I still can’t post on your site: “What do you think the main character in “baby” is actually looking for? What cannot he vocalize or clearly define? Or is it the timeless “meaning of life” type question? I found the most disturbing element of the story Baby’s inability to refrain from aggressive interactions with Honey.”

      For anyone else perusing the comments, here’s his review of “Baby”:

      As for the dated nature of “fur.” yeah, I think the story could have also worked for hunting exotic meat (something Americans are still obsessed with).

      • Yeah, that game-hunting thing…well, not something I approve of, TBH. “Pelt” was a sterling example of the effectiveness of someone’s vision finding its sharpest focus. Beautiful, beautiful…and thank you ever so kindly for introducing me to Emshwiller’s many pleasures.

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