Saturday, January 14, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Pelt - Carol Emshwiller

Ever since encountering a story by Carol Emshwiller in John Joseph Adams' anthology Wastelands I have felt I ought to read more of her short work. In the years since, I have somehow managed to read two of her novels but to avoid any collections. Quite an achievement when you consider most of Emshwiller's output is in the short form. She has had a remarkably long career. She was born in 1921 and her first stories started appearing in the 1950s, her publications continue until quite recently. Pelt is one of the older ones. It first appeared in 1958 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and has been reprinted several times. Most recently in The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016), edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

A faithful hunting dog is running ahead of his master in search of prey. The world is new to them, full of strange, exciting smells of creatures that would make excellent additions to his master's collection of trophies. Then he hears a voice that asks him: "Little slave, what have you done that is free today? Remember this world, Do something free today. Do, do."

The plot of this story is not overly complicated. At the end of it the message is loud and clear: hunting for trophies is wrong. What makes it interesting is how Emshwiller uses perspective to tell her tale. She is acutely aware of what each character knows and what it tells the reader. The story is written from the point of view of the dog. His view on matters is very limited. He can hear the locals but not really communicate with them. He also doesn't quite understand the question or why it is important.

The, one would assume, more intelligent master on the other hand, does not hear the locals and has to figure out what they mean and want solely from their actions. Together, the reader has a fuller understanding of what is going on. The master for instance, is left with fear bordering on panic which, when taken into account what we know from the dog's point of view, is understandable but not necessary.

The slave/master dynamic - or predator/prey dynamic, Emshwiller seems to consider them much the same thing - reminded me of her novel The Mount (2002). This novel has the human as slave instead of the master though. It is a subject she clearly has a lot to say on.

Science fiction from the 1950s is usually not my taste. Emshwiller approaches the genre from an angle that made her stand out though. Not in the sense that won her much recognition from the fans of hard science fiction or space opera that dominated the scene at that time, but from a wider audience that appreciated the more literary qualities of her work. She may well be one of science fiction's best kept secrets. An author more people ought to read. One of these days I will really get that collection I have been promising myself for almost a decade.

Story Details
Title: Pelt
Author: Carol Emshwiller
Language: English
Originally published: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November 1958
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I'm aware of.

No comments:

Post a Comment