Authors: Harry Turtledove
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A Different Flesh
“Where do you get your ideas?”
I've never known a science fiction writer who hasn't been asked that question a good many times. I'm no exception. And, as is true of most of my colleagues, the answers I give often leave questioners unsatisfied. I've had ideas doing the dishes, taking a shower, driving the freeway. I don't know why they show up at times like those. They just seem to.
Sometimes ideas come because two things that by rights ought to be wildly separate somehow merge in a writer's mind. I had just finished watching the 1984 Winter Olympics when I happened to look at a Voyager picture of Saturn's moon Mimas, the one with the enormous crater that has a huge central peak. I wondered what ski-jumping down that enormous mountain, under that tiny gravity, would be like. A story followed shortly.
And sometimes ideas come because you look for them. Like most science-fiction writers, I read a lot. In late 1984, I was going through Stephen Jay Gould's excellent monthly column in
. That month, he was showing how all surviving races of human beings are really very much alike, and idly wondering how we would treat our primitive ancestor
if he were alive today.
What I think of as my story-detector light went on. How
we treat our poor, not-quite-so-bright relations if we met them today? I soon dismissed the very primitive
. As far as anyone knows, he lived only in Africa. But
, modern man's immediate ancestor, was widespread in the Old World. What if, I thought, bands of
had crossed the Siberian land bridges to America, and what if no modern humans made the same trip later? That what-if was the origin of the book you hold in your hands.
The world where sims (the European settlers' name for
) rather than Indians inhabit the New World is different from ours in several ways. For one thing, the grand fauna of the Pleistoceneâmammoths, saber-tooth tigers, ground sloths, glyptodons, what have youâmight well have survived to the present day. Sims would be less efficient hunters than Indians, and would not have helped hurry the great beasts into extinction.
Human history starts looking different too. North America would have been easier for Europeans to settle than it was in our history, where the Indians were strong enough to slow if not to stop the expansion. Central and South America, on the other hand, would have been more difficult: Spanish colonial society was based on the ruins of the American Indian empires. And Spain, without the loot it plundered from the Indians, probably would not have dominated sixteenth-century Europe to the extent it did in our history.
Also, the presence of simsâintelligent beings, but different from and less than usâcould not have failed to have a powerful effect on European thought. Where did they come from? What was their relationship to humans? Having these questions posed so forcefully might well have led thinkers toward the idea of evolution long before Darwin. Sims might also make us look rather more carefully at the differences between various groups of ourselves.
To return to Gould's question: how would we treat sims? I fear that the short answer is,
not very well
. They are enough like us to be very useful, different enough from us to be exploited with minimal guilt, and too weak to resist effectively for themselves. The urge to treat them better would have to come from the ranks of humanity, and to compete against the many reasonsâsome of them arguably validâfor continuing exploitation.
“The proper study of mankind is man.” True enough. Sims can, I hope, help us look at ourselves by reflecting our view at an angle different from any we can get in this world. Come to think of it, that's one of the things science fiction in general can do. That's why it's fun.
Simia quam similis, turpissima bestia, nobis!
[The ape, vilest beast, how like us!]
âEnnius, quoted in Cicero,
De Natura Deorum
Europeans found the New World a very different land from the one they had left. No people came down to the seashore to greet their ships. Before the arrival of European settlers, there were no people in North or South America. The most nearly human creatures present in the Americas were sims.
In the Old World, sims have been extinct for hundreds of thousands of years. Fossils of creatures very much like present-day sims have been found in East Africa, on the island of Java, and in caves not far from Pekin, China. Sims must have crossed a land bridge from Asia to North America during an early glacial period of the Ice Age, when the sea level was much lower than it is now.
At the time when humans discovered the New World, small hunting and gathering bands of sims lived throughout North and South America. Their lives were more primitive than those of any human beings, for they knew how to make only the most basic stone and wood tools, and were not even able to make fire for themselves (although they could use and maintain it if they found it). Paradoxically, this very primitiveness makes them interesting to anthropologists, who see in them an illustration of how humanity's ancient ancestors must have lived.
Despite their lack of weapons more formidable than chipped stones and sticks with fire-hardened points, sims often proved dangerous to colonists in the early days of European settlement of the New World. As they learned to cope with attacks from bands of sims, the settlers also had to learn new farming techniques needed for soils and climates different from those of their native lands. Hunger was their constant companion in the early years of the colonies.
Another reason for this was the necessity of bringing all seed grain across the Atlantic until surpluses could be built up. The Americas offered no native equivalent of wheat, rye, or barley for settlers to use. Sims, of course, knew nothing of agriculture.
Nevertheless, the Spaniards and Portuguese succeeded in establishing colonies in Central and South America during the sixteenth century. The first English settlement in what is now the Federated Commonwealths was at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.â¦
The Story of the Federated Commonwealths
, by Ernest
Simpson. Reproduced by permission.
After thirty mild English summers, July in Virginia smote Edward Wingfield like a blast from hell. Sweat poured off him as he tramped through the forest a few miles from Jamestown in search of game. It clung, greasily, in the humid heat.
He held his crossbow cocked and ready. He also carried a loaded pistol in each boot, but the crossbow was silent and accurate at longer range, and it wasted no precious powder. The guns were only for emergencies.
Wingfield studied the dappled shadows. A little past noon, he guessed. Before long he would have to turn round and head home for the colony. He had had a fairly good day: two rabbits, several small birds, and a fat gray squirrel hung from his belt.
He looked forward to fall and the harvest. If all went well this year, the colony would finally have enough wheat for bread and porridge and ale. How he wishedâhow all the Europeans wishedâthat this godforsaken new world offered wheat or barley or even oats of its own. But it did not, so all seed grain had to cross the Atlantic. Jamestown had lived mostly on game and roots for three years now. Lean and leathery, Wingfield had forgotten what a hot, fresh loaf tasted like. He remembered only that it was wonderful.
Something stirred in the undergrowth ahead. He froze. The motion came again. He spied a fine plump rabbit, its beady black eyes alert, its ears cocked for danger.
Moving slowly and steadily, hardly breathing, he raised the crossbow to his shoulder, aimed down the bolt. Once the rabbit looked toward him. He stopped moving again until it turned its head away.
He pressed the trigger. The bolt darted and slammed into a treetrunk a finger's breadth above the rabbit's ear. The beast bounded away.
“Hellfire!” Wingfield dashed after it, yanking out one of his pistols.
He almost tripped over the outflung branch of a grapevine. The vine's main stock was as big around as his calf. Virginia grapes, and the rough wine the colonists made from them, were among the few things that helped keep Jamestown bearable.
The panic-stricken rabbit, instead of diving into the bushes for cover and losing itself there, burst past a screen of brush into a clearing. “Your last mistake, beast!” Wingfield cried in triumph. He crashed through the brush himself, swinging up the gun as he did so.
By then the rabbit was almost to the other side of the clearing. He saw it thrashing in the grass there. Wingfield paused, puzzled: had a ferret torn out its throat as it scampered along, oblivious to everything but its pursuer? Then his grip tightened on the trigger, for a sim emerged from a thicket and ran toward the rabbit.
It had not seen him. It bent down by the writhing beast, smashed in the rabbit's head with a rock. Undoubtedly it had used another to bring the animal down; sims were deadly accurate throwing sharpened stones.
Wingfield stepped into the clearing. The colony was too hungry to let any food go.
The sim heard him. It rose, clutching the bloody rock in a large, knobby-knuckled hand. It was about as tall as the Englishman, and naked but for its own abundant hair. Its long, chinless jaw opened to let out a hoot of dismay.
Wingfield gestured with the pistol. Sims had no foreheads to speak of above their bone-ridged brows, but they had learned the colonists' weapons slew at a distance greater than they could cast their rocks. Usually, these days, they retreated instead of proving the lesson over again.