Based on the last line of Damon Knight's To Serve Man, be sure you understand the Kanamits' plan for humans. Did you notice any foreshadowing of this outcome? What is ironic about that fate, the Kanamits' gifts, or their appearance? What real anxieties does this piece of science fiction address?
Some interesting science fiction was inspired by the Cold War and its corollaries like the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Damon Knight’s short story “To Serve Humans” is one of the more peculiar examples. Written in 1950, when fears of Soviet aggression were at one of their periodic peaks (the USSR had detonated its first atomic bomb the year before and the Soviet-supported regime in North Korea had recently invaded South Korea, plunging the United States into a bloody three year war), Knight’s story of an alien invasion that, from all appearances, seems benign in nature, was a reaction to fanciful notions of international peace as exemplified in the newly-established United Nations. Whether one subscribes to such an assessment or not, the environment in which “To Serve Humans” was conceived certainly allows for such an interpretation. The tensions permeating society during that period were palpable, and those seeking relief from the perceived insanity of the nuclear stand-off that was taking shape could be forgiven for concluding that only supernatural or divine intervention would suffice. The publication the alien race, the Kanamit, had produced, apparently ‘for internal consumption only,’ represented the benign intentions of these new masters of the universe, at least as far as the title was concerned: How to Serve Man. The optimistic if hopelessly naïve perceptions of the story’s narrator are evident in the following passages, in which Knight’s protagonist describes his utopian vision in light of the title of this book and the measures the Kanamit had taken to date to spare mankind its own worst impulses:
“We got the title worked out in a few weeks. It was How to Serve Man , evidently a handbook they were giving out to new Kanamit members of the embassy staff. They had new ones in, all the time now, a shipload about once a month; they were opening all kinds of research laboratories, clinics and so on. If there was anybody on Earth besides Grigori who still distrusted those people, he must have been somewhere in the middle of Tibet.”
“It was astonishing to see the changes that had been wrought in less than a year. There were no more standing armies, no more shortages, no unemployment. When you picked up a newspaper you didn't see H-BOMB or SATELLITE leaping out at you; the news was always good. It was a hard thing to get used to. The Kanamit were working on human biochemistry, and it was known around the embassy that they were nearly ready to announce methods of making our race taller and stronger and healthier—practically a race of supermen—and they had a potential cure for heart disease and cancer.”
That the book, once the opening paragraph is translated, is revealed to be a cookbook for the proper preparation of human beings for Kanamit consumption is the ultimate ironic resolution, on par with Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”
Whether any individual reader of Knight’s story was able to foresee the story’s conclusion is entirely dependent upon each reader. With the benefit of hindsight and being familiar with the relationship of some science fiction stories to the Cold War, the double meaning of the title is considerably more apparent. Reading it in 1950, such perceptiveness would have been less likely. Readers then might have been too close to the events of the time to recognize the parallels. Physical descriptions of the Kanamit would account for some level of skepticism on the part of readers, with the tendency to stereotype and degrade one’s adversaries seemingly a part of human nature, at least on the mass level. Clearly, Knight intended his aliens to appear as unattractive as possible:
“The Kanamit were short and very hairy—thick bristly brown-gray hair all over their abominably plump bodies. Their noses were snoutlike and their eyes small, and they had thick hands of three fingers each. They wore green leather harness and green shorts, but I think the shorts were a concession to our notions of public decency.”
The human tendency to judge harshly on the basis of appearance – there is a reason publishers devote so much attention to the design of dust-jackets – lends the Kanamit an air of foreboding, but only the most cynical would reject their offers of a veritable utopia. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps these books should have been judged on the basis of their cover.
Once again, in the context of the geopolitical environment in which “To Serve Man” was published, Knight’s story is easily and logically viewed as a warning against strangers bearing gifts.