Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #32 of 107: “Pelt” by Carol Emshwiller
“Pelt” first appeared in the November 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. However, it was more recently recognized in the Library of America’s anthology, The Future is Female. LOA has a web page about Carol Emshwiller and a copy of the story to read online. Judith Merril included “Pelt” in her 1959 volume of the best SF stories of 1958, and again in her Best of the Best volume that collected her favorite stories from the first five years of her annual anthologies. However, “Pelt” only has a modest history of being reprinted.
“Pelt” is another variation of the first contact story, but with a nice twist. The story is told from the point of view of a dog, a companion to a human hunter on a new planet, Jaxa, hoping to make a killing in fur trading. I enjoyed watching how Emshwiller presented the dog’s point of view, but overall I didn’t really enjoy the story. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t sparkle. The insight of the story, its moral compass you might say, points to the evil we humans do. It felt modeled on mountain men from out west in the 1830s who were fur trappers and traders. Instead of killing a native American, the hunter kills a native Jaxan.
Like I said, seeing how a writer presents a dog’s POV was fun. I don’t think Emshwiller intended for her doggy protagonist to be uplifted or enhanced even though we’re shown a stream-of-conscience observation of events by the dog. The man is known to the dog as the master, and she is called many endearing names, including the Queen, and Aloora.
Emshwiller has the problem of revealing both the thoughts of the dog and alien to us.
The thing spoke to her then, and its voice was a deep lullaby sound of buzzing cellos. It gestured with a thick, fur-backed hand. It promised, offered, and asked; and she listened, knowing and not knowing. The words came slowly. This…is…world. — Here is the sky, the earth, the ice. The heavy arms moved. The hands pointed. We have watched you, little slave. What have you done that is free today? Take the liberty. Here is the earth for your four shoed feet, the sky of stars, the ice to drink. Do something free today. Do, do. Nice voice, she thought, nice thing. It gives and gives…something. Her ears pointed forward, then to the sides, one and then the other, and then forward again. She cocked her head, but the real meaning would not come clear. She poked at the air with her nose. Say that again, her whole body said. I almost have it. I feel it. Say it once more and maybe then the sense of it will come. But the creature turned and started away quickly, very quickly for such a big thing, and disappeared behind the trees and bushes. It seemed to shimmer itself away until the glitter was only the glitter of the ice and the black was only the thick, flat branches.
The alien even sounds like he could be Chief Joseph. Aloora knows the being is intelligent before the human, or at least that’s how it appears. But the human does see that the alien is holding something. Animals don’t usually hold objects in the wild.
The tiger thing held a small packet in one hand and was peering into it and pulling at the opening in it with a blunt finger. Suddenly there was a sweep of motion beside her and five fast, frantic shots sounded sharp in her ear. Two came after the honey-fat man had already fallen and lay like a huge decorated sack. The master ran forward and she came at his heels. They stopped, not too close, and she watched the master looking at the big, dead tiger head with the terrible eye. The master was breathing hard and seemed hot. His face was red and puffy looking, but his lips made a hard whitish line. He didn’t whistle or talk. After a time he took out his knife. He tested the blade, making a small, bloody thread of a mark on his left thumb. Then he walked closer and she stood and watched him and whispered a questioning whine. He stooped by the honey-fat man and it was that small, partly opened packet that he cut viciously through the center. Small round chunks fell out, bite-sized chunks of dried meat and a cheesy substance and some broken bits of clear, bluish ice. The master kicked at them. His face was not red anymore, but olive-pale. His thin mouth was open in a grin that was not a grin. He went about the skinning then. He did not keep the flat-faced, heavy head nor the blunt-fingered hands.
The master skins the alien but doesn’t take the head or hands, which has meaning in the ending. The hunter leaves the meat like buffalo hunters did in the old west. Why is Emshwiller telling us this story? Is she saying humans don’t change. That they will always exploit every frontier they conquer?
I have mentioned this before. But I believe some stories are good enough for a magazine publication. Then a few of them are worth republishing in an annual best-of-the-year collection, and then a fewer still are worthy of being remembered in a retrospective anthology. For me, “Pelt” is a 3-star story that I would have been happy to read in a magazine, but would have been disappointed to find in Merril’s annual anthology.
I think the story was well told, but I’m disappointed with its message and speculation. Even though the story is protesting awful aspects of humanity, it also assumes those aspects will be a part of us in the future. I believe much of the world has already turned against killing for fur, colonialism, and exploiting indigenous people. Sure, it still goes on, but we have changed a lot since 1958.
I’m not for censorship or cancel culture, but we need to think why we remember stories. It has often been said that science fiction isn’t about the future, but the present. And to a degree that’s true. But remembered science fiction is also a message from the past to the future, our present. And in that regard, I find “Pelt” a bit depressing, and even insulting. Emshwiller is suggesting that humans don’t change, that 19th century attitudes will exist in the future when interstellar space travel is possible. One of the reasons I dislike The Expanse series on television because it assumes we’ll carry 20th century attitudes towards war and diplomacy into the age of interplanetary travel.
Now I understand storytellers need conflict for their stories, but I’m disappointed when they use outdated conflicts, and I think this is the case in “Pelt.” I want to believe in the future we’ll no longer be killing for furs, or murdering indigenous beings, but who knows, maybe Emshwiller will be right. More than likely, Emshwiller modeled her conflict without thinking much about it, and I’m making too much out of it. In other words, it was just a little story she knocked out for F&SF, and I should just read it as such. But still, it was depressing. Imagine reading a story where humans enslave aliens, wouldn’t you find that offensive and depressing?
James Wallace Harris, 10/21/21