A Different Flesh by Harry Turtledove

I like hominids.  When I was in college, I took a physical anthropology course to fulfill some of my natural science credit, and really enjoyed it.  I even remember most of what I learned, which is a feat in and of itself.  So I looked forward to reading A Different Flesh, which puts forth the question — what if American Indians never settled the Americas, and instead Homo erectus (here called sims) was present when Columbus sailed?

To tell the truth, I had no idea where Turtledove was going to go with this.  Having only read his Worldwar series, I was guessing that there would be a lot of warfare.  I was fairly wrong.  Turtledove, rather than following one particular person, spends each chapter in a section of time and explores human-sim interactions.  This felt to me to be a fantastic way of exploring the idea, and one that most authors don’t employ; movement along time to uncover the differences and similarities between his imaginary world and ours helps expose the gulf between the two.

In the beginning, there is violence, and the sims give as good as they get.  Soon, however, it’s clear that the sims are not capable of adaptation, and thus start losing ground — quite literally.  Their land is slowly taken from them, and they become more marginalized.  They are also “domesticated” and used for menial labor.  Sims’ existence also provides a backdrop for the earlier formation of the theory of evolution, which sparks earlier scientific achievements of other types.

Against this backdrop, Turtledove shows us a world in which the Americas outlaw slavery for humans at a far earlier date than our own country decided to — against creatures such as the sims, humans of any type are obviously much the same and are worthy of the full rights deemed appropriate for one’s fellow man.

While declaring all people of equal worth, there is also the prominent struggle of putting sims in the proper context.  Are they human, or merely animals?  What rights do they have?  Turtledove brings this topic up again and again, sometimes in disturbing ways.  Sims are used for medical experiments, much as animals are.  The arguments about using them in such a way are similar to those used to justify the use of other animals for medical research.  How strange it feels to use creatures who have the ability to understand language (plus create spontaneous sentences of their own), create tools, live in camps, cook their food, and plan ahead for our own benefit and not necessarily theirs.

I enjoyed this book greatly.  I have often wondered about what life would be like with another hominid still alive and kicking on Earth.  Turtledove did a remarkable job of providing a possible answer.  His prose is clear, and his conclusions follow in logical fashion.  It is a thought-provoking book, raising questions about how we treat one another and our fellow species on this planet.

Rating: 5/5

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Filed under 5/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction

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