The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The premise of You Shall Know Them is an unlikely situation in which a man is willing to sacrifice his life for the clarification of a point of law. The point at issue is the legal definition of a human being. The question, “What is man?” has been posed or answered many times by poets, scripturalists, anthropologists, and lexicographers, among others, but never by legislators. None of the answers has ever been declared fully satisfactory, much less definitive. Vercors’ story reminds the reader that the identification of what exactly defines a person has been neither legally codified nor put to legal test.

The unnamed first-person narrator (presumably Vercors himself) becomes, after the first chapter, an omniscient third-person narrator. The narrative itself includes a love story, a scientific expedition, a murder trial, and a lengthy but entertaining dialogue on evolutionary theory. All of these derive from the fanciful premise, and all are enlisted in the quasi-humorous cause of a problem in philosophy.

In the novel, Douglas M. Templemore, a thirty-five-year-old journalist, commits a murder of which he can be found guilty only if it can be proved legally that his victim was a human being. Templemore had been part of a paleontological expedition in New Guinea, where the “missing link” conjoining apes and humans was found— not in fossil remains but embodied in a large tribe of living creatures who combine many physiological...

(The entire section is 582 words.)