Reprinted from Worlds Without End.
Read it now: Astounding Science-Fiction February 1939
You might own “Living Fossil” already in one these anthologies:
- A Treasury of Science Fiction (1948) edited Groff Conklin
- The SFWA Grand Masters, Volume One (1999) edited by Frederik Pohl
Warning: This column contains spoilers.
Let’s imagine we’re a science fiction writer back in the late 1930s. We don’t make much money, so we probably live in a cheap tenement house. There’s no air conditioning, so the windows are open, and the street sounds are pouring in. We have no computer or smartphone, no internet or television. We carefully read the morning and afternoon newspapers, listen to the radio and subscribe to Astounding Science Fiction, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Popular Science, and Scientific American. We often walk to the library in the evening. This is our world of information in 1939.
We’re sitting at the typewriter, smoking a cigarette, planning a story we hope to sell to Astounding Science-Fiction. We want an idea that will wow them and get us the cover. We want to produce the thought variant story. We have a solid knowledge of science fiction published in the pulps back to 1926, and we know the classics like Verne and Wells. Plus, we like to think we’re scientific and visionary.
If you’ve read science fiction short stories from this era you know the variety of wild ideas pitched to science fiction editors. Coming up with something different was essential. Science fiction was mostly idea driven until after the New Wave of the 1960s. Science fiction writers were expected to be as original as research scientists testing a new hypothesis.
“Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp has not been reprinted very often, and I find that surprising. Anyone seeing the interior illustration above will exclaim, “Oh my god, that’s Planet of the Apes!” But it’s 1939, not 1963 when Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes first appeared in English. How did de Camp get that idea? Was it astoundingly original in 1939, or are there older versions of the same idea in pulps I haven’t read?
Anyone who has read The Time Machine (1995) by H. G. Wells already knows about possible evolutionary descendants of Homo Sapiens. That novella also gave us the meme that death will one day come to both to our species and the Earth. And if you’ve read the brilliant Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapledon then you’ve already entertained that 17 possible future species of humans could exist after us.
Is it so hard to imagine that L. Sprague de Camp asked himself, “What if humans became extinct, how long before another species would become intelligent?” This is one of my favorite science fiction themes: Who comes after us? Clifford Simak imagined intelligent dogs and robots in his lovely fix-up novel, City. Today we assume AI machines will replace us. But have you read the wonderful The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, or seen the television documentaries that were inspired by it? I wrote about them back in 2012. What if self-aware intelligence doesn’t rise up again?
Who comes after humans? “Living Fossil” speculates they could be capuchin monkeys from South America after 10 million years. The story opens with Nawputta, a zoologist and his guide Chujee riding their agoutis exploring northeast North America near Pittsburgh. Ten million years have made a lot of smaller species much larger in their world, and now the agoutis are as large as mules.
This is a pleasing idea, at least to me. I love to think if humans go extinct life on Earth will go on. De Camp even has his Jmu (the capuchin word equal to human) complain that humans used up all the metals and other resources. As Nawputta and Chujee cross the country looking for new specimens for their museum back home, they speculate about the dead civilization of man. After finding what remains of a large stone with a partial inscription on it, they start speculating:
Notice the part where they wish they could meet a live human? Well, that comes true, but not for a couple days. First, they meet another one of their kind by a campfire, Nguchoy tus Chaw, and he’s none too friendly. This part of the story reminds me of James Fenimore Cooper and his tales about the French and English using the Native Americas. Like Cooper’s stories, there’s all kind of dishonest shenanigans going on by ambitious colonists wanting to exploit the wilderness.
Nguchoy is a timber scout who is doing something shady. Our guys get suspicious of him. After he leaves they head further into the unknown country. Eventually, they find three dead humans, not fossils, with bullet holes in them. They figured Nguchoy shot them. For some reason, the zoologist decides he wants to find and kill a fresh human for a specimen. My friend Mike thought this ruined the story because earlier they had been wishing to find a human to talk to. I assumed they meant city dwelling humans, not humans who had to devolve back to living in caves. Here’s what happens:
This is where de Camp differs from Pierre Boulle. For the rest of the story, which is mainly an adventure narrative about Nawputta and Chujee fleeing for their lives in a territory of hostiles humans who weren’t afraid of their guns. Our sympathy is with the Capuchins. De Camp portrays humans like Native Americans in old westerns. They are fearless, ferocious, and treacherous. I don’t know if this is ironic or straight. I don’t know if de Camp was being satirical by having monkeys colonize the new world and then treat humans the same way Europeans treated the Native Americans. Or, if the story was to parallel how Cro Magnon killed off the Neanderthal. Or both. In either case, it’s accepted within this story for the monkeys to kill the humans.
In the Planet of the Apes, our perspective is on the side of the humans, and we want them to fight their way back to the top of the evolutionary heap. Boulle plays to our vanity so we want his humans to outwit the evolved apes. In “Living Fossil” de Camp doesn’t take sides but assumes a kind of naturalism where an intellectually advanced species will overcome a less advanced species.
But I have yet another theory. Maybe de Camp wanted to say humans aren’t the divinely chosen, the crown of God’s creation. Science, evolution, and the Enlightenment offer a view of reality where God isn’t needed or wanted. Readers who feel humans are special will object to this story. In fact, the faithful shouldn’t like this story at all, because it says humans aren’t the center of existence, won’t live forever, and are no different from the other animal species. In that sense, I think de Camp is sticking it to our collective egos.
That’s what I love about these old pulp magazine stories. An ordinary writer could have big ideas and get paid a 1/2 cent a word by the top science fiction magazine of the day. Science fiction allows anyone the chance to defy the common belief, the accepted orthodoxy, or even speculate beyond proven scientific knowledge.
Science fiction allowed every writer to become a Darwin, explaining reality in fiction by using their own observations, speculations, and extrapolations. Sure, most science fiction writers came up with craptastic ideas, but so what, some of them were brilliantly imaginative, and often inspired a sense of wonder, at least in adolescent geeky boys of the times.
How would you answer this question today: “Who comes after humans?” Has science fiction already explored all the obvious possibilities? Already, science fiction has suggested endless variations on Superman and mutations. We’ve imagined countless evolved animals and machines taking over. We’ve imagined aliens moving in and kicking us out. But I’m positive, if I keep reading these old pulp magazines, I will find stories that will surprise me.
[I’m surprised “Living Fossil” didn’t get the cover for February 1939.]
James Wallace Harris