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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

Often the best science fiction and fantasy results from exploration of a simple question, such as “How do you define what is human?” From the first pages of A Different Flesh , Turtledove makes the status of sims the major concern: Are they animal or human? In the first expository...

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Often the best science fiction and fantasy results from exploration of a simple question, such as “How do you define what is human?” From the first pages of A Different Flesh, Turtledove makes the status of sims the major concern: Are they animal or human? In the first expository episode, a settler and his wife conclude their argument by noting that the last time the issue was raised, their present positions were reversed. She had thought sims human, and he had thought them beasts. They acknowledge that the issue is not easily resolved.

In the middle of the novel, Turtledove explores the Aristotelian notion that there are those who are slaves by nature. Because sims are incapable of producing civilized behavior on their own, humans do them a favor by allowing them to serve their betters, learning more refined behavior through instruction and association. One episode concerns a sim who is a snob. He has learned much from his human associates, and he declines an opportunity to join a band of wild sims, conveying through sign language that they are boring and uncivilized. He would rather be a slave to humans than be free and wild.

The debate continues throughout the book. Early in the novel, readers will tend to identify more with the humans’ views of sims as an inferior and at times inexplicable life-form. As the novel progresses and more is revealed about sims and their ability to do many things that might be considered “human,” readers are drawn into the complexity of the issue. It is apparent that sims have a level of intelligence and that they have preferences; therefore, they may be entitled to more choice in their lives than they have been given.

In the final vignette, Turtledove raises the issue of animal rights regarding medical experimentation. In the late 1980’s, sims are being used in research aimed at finding a cure for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic. By this time, legal precedents have been set stating that sims are not people and may be used in lieu of people in medical experiments. Various groups protest such usage, regarding the infliction of pain and suffering on living, feeling beings as immoral, no matter how beneficial to humans the eventual result may be. One such group effects a rescue of Matt, an AIDS research subject. Assured by his rescuers that he is free, he nevertheless finds freedom much more restrictive than the laboratory, where creature comforts and companionship were provided. As is often the case in real life, the novel reaches no satisfactory conclusion; the author is content to have presented a sensitive yet thorough exploration of a complex problem.

Turtledove has a Ph.D. in Byzantine history and has been writing fantasy and science fiction since 1979. His Videssos cycle, consisting of The Misplaced Legion, An Emperor for the Legion, The Legion of Videssos, and Swords of the Legion (all published in 1987), has a Byzantine setting. A Different Flesh is a work by an accomplished storyteller of enormous intelligence and curiosity.

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