A Different Flesh by Harry Turtledove
A 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.