Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #86 of 107: “Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy
“Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy is one of the great classics of science fiction. I’ve read it before, and it was a delight to read it again. Of course, I’m partial to science fiction stories about intelligent chimpanzees, and I’m not referring to The Planet of the Apes (but I enjoy those kinds of stories too).
One of the first intelligent chimp stories I can remember reading is “Jerry Was a Man” by Robert A. Heinlein. Then came “Rachel in Love.” Next was the novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. There is another novel, but I shouldn’t mention the title because it might spoil the story. And there are other stories which I’ve forgotten at the moment. Nor I’m not talking about stories like Brin’s Uplift novels. I’m only talking about stories that are set in the present with an intelligent chimp, one that you can identify with. One that makes you think we’ve been evil to chimpanzees.
And if you want to know just how evil, watch the documentary Project Nim from 2011. Trigger warning: Project Nim is going to rip out your heart, stomped the crap out of it, and if you’re a good person, make you thankful it did. If it doesn’t make you cry in empathy and outrage you might want to see a psychiatrist.
“Rachel in Love” should also make you cry. I did. It should also make you hate what we’re doing to chimpanzees. It made me hate it again. I was thankful to read in the VanderMeer introduction there has been a law passed against using chimpanzees in research. “Rachel in Love” should also make you happy, because of its wonderful storytelling skills. The structure and narrative of this tale are perfect. Sure, it takes some kinky turns sexually, but then, so do our hormones.
Rachel is a chimpanzee who has been imprinted with personality scans of Dr. Aaron Jacob’s deceased daughter Rachel. She has two sets of memories. Her own chimpanzee childhood, and Rachel’s. Dr. Jacob named the chimp after his daughter.
By Murphy inventing the personality overlay for this story, it provides a kind of Rosetta Stone that lets humans see into the world of the chimpanzee. Rachel is neither human nor chimp, but a bridge between the two. Nim Chimpsky, a real chimpanzee raised in a human family is a tragic animal figure that we can only imagine how he thinks. We want to believe he is as intelligent as Rachel when we look into his eyes but we never know for sure. Jerry, Heinlein’s chimp has been uplifted enough for the law to consider giving him legal status. And Bruno Littlemore is really a fantasy creature created for satire, but one we side with.
I’m old enough to remember a time when people considered animals completely lacking in consciousness. Humans were God’s chosen, and the animals were just for our use. Even nature lovers like Teddy Roosevelt would shoot them all day long and never consider what the animals might perceive. Now, I think we realize that consciousness is a spectrum, and awareness, even self-awareness is not unique to us. Back in 1987 Pat Murphy knew this and wrote “Rachel in Love.” I wonder when everyone will know it.
[I’m sorry I’m behind in reviewing these stories. I had to skip #83-85. I hope to get back to them someday.]
James Wallace Harris, 2/7/22