A DIFFERENT FLESH
by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Harry Turtledove's A Different Flesh is a fix-up alternate history novel comprised of seven stories beginning with the European conquest of North America and ending in the twentieth century. What makes this novel an alternate history is the fact that the earliest Caucasian settlers discovered the United States populated, not by American Indians, but rather by creatures Turtledove calls "sims." The sims are a remnant population of the pre-Homo Pithecanthropi. Although not as intelligent as humans, the sims can accept slavery better than the Native Americans ever did.
"The Vilest Beast," set during the first few years of the Jamestown colony, describes the first time a sim abducted a human infant. Chasing down the culprits, Edward Wingfield plays over both sides of the arguments he has had with his wife concerning whether the sims are human or beasts. This debate over what makes a human runs throughout the remaining stories in the collection. The marriage of Edward and Anne Wingfield also sets the tone for many marriages Turtledove writes about, from Krispos of Videssos' marriage to Dara to Sam and Barbara's marriage in the Worldwar series.
Perhaps the strongest short story in the collection is the pastiche "And So To Bed," written as a series of entries in Samuel Pepys's Diary. Living in England, Pepys has acquired sim servants and must deal with the difficulties in training the creatures properly when their IQs are the equivalent of retarded huamns. As he watches the sims work around his house, Pepys begins to ponder their origins, foreshadowing our own world's Charles Darwin. Turtledove manages to capture the flavor of Pepys's writing quite well. Interestingly, only one of the diary's entries in the story has a corresponding entry in the real diary.
By the time "Around the Salt Lick" takes place, the humanizing of the sims has advanced a long way, in part thanks to Pepys's philosophy. Sims are serving as servants to humans, not merely as the adversary whose ability for salvation was questionable as they were in "The Vilest Beast." Subsequent stories continue to build on the changes in attitudes towards the sims and the freedoms accorded to them in earlier stories.
The collected stories of A Different Flesh are stronger than their individual appearance due in part to their proximity to each other. The reader can see how Turtledove's society grows based on earlier changes. Perhaps a greater strength of the collection are the short quotations from "The Story of the Federated Commonwealths," an imaginery testbooks which serves to provide background for the megachanges which occur between each of the stories. Furthermore, the reader is provided with the specific dates for each story in the collection.
Turtledove has left a lot of room (both in time and subject matter) in this series for additional stories. If he decided he has something to more to say, these stories would be welcome. However, his writing style has matured a great deal since A Different Flesh was written and any future tales would feel out of place, too polished, for the rest of the collection unless Turtledove made the effort to write down to the level he wrote at a decade or more ago.
|And So To Bed|
|Around the Salt Lick|
|The Iron Elephant|
|Though the Heavens Fall|
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