A Different Flesh: Thoughtful stories about humanity

A Different Flesh by Harry Turtledove fantasy book reviewsA Different Flesh by Harry Turtledove

A Different Flesh by Harry TurtledoveA Different Flesh (1988), by Harry Turtledove, is a thoughtful collection of linked stories set in an alternate America which was inhabited by a hairy upright-walking sub-human species (homo erectus) when European settlers arrived. The settlers call them “sims.” The earliest story is set in 1610 and the last one in 1988 and, as the stories progress through time, we see the sims become more and more advanced, but it is clear that they will never reach the level of cognition that homo sapiens has achieved.

The relationship between sims and humans also progresses. In the first story, new European settlers are trying to wipe out the sims, who they view as animals. They do not succeed. By the final story, there is a much different relationship between the two species.

For the most part, I enjoyed these stories. Some of them go on too long, but they’re well written and thought-provoking. Is homo erectus animal or human? Do they have souls? Can the creation account in scripture be reconciled with the theory of evolution? How should humans treat a species that is more intelligent than other primates but not as intelligent as homo sapiens? Is it possible that the sims could, with human help, develop a higher level of cognition? Does it even matter if homo erectus is not as intelligent as homo sapiens? Is it okay to do medical testing on them? Use them for slave labor? Mate with them? What responsibility do humans have in this relationship? Where are the ethical lines? What are the requirements for being human? Is being “civilized” the same thing as being “human”?

Some of the stories also address other challenging themes such as the nature of freedom, the requirements for suitable companionship, and the importance of dignity and self-esteem. I like to think while I read and A Different Flesh supplied that opportunity.

Tantor Audio’s new audiobook edition (10.5 hours) is a pleasure to listen to. I enjoyed Paul Woodson’s performance. Turtledove’s characters are diverse and Woodson was entirely convincing in his portrayal of each of them.

Published in 1988. Audio version published in January 2019. What if mankind’s “missing link”, the apelike Homo erectus, had survived to dominate a North American continent where woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers still prowled while the more advanced Homo sapiens built their civilizations elsewhere? Now imagine that the Europeans arriving in the New World had chanced on these primitive creatures and seized the opportunity to establish a hierarchy in which the sapiens were masters and the “sims” were their slaves. This is the premise that drives the incomparable Harry Turtledove’s A Different Flesh. The acclaimed Hugo Award winner creates an alternate America that spans 300 years of invented history. From the Jamestown colonists’ desperate hunt for a human infant kidnapped by a local sim tribe, to a late 18th-century contest between a newfangled steam-engine train and the popular hairy-elephant-pulled model, to the sim-rights activists’ daring 1988 rescue of an unfortunate biped named Matt who’s being used for animal experimentation, Turtledove turns our world inside out in a remarkable science-fiction masterwork that explores what it truly means to be human.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. Marion /

    Interesting premise!

  2. Sounds very thought-provoking!

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