Wednesday, 21 August 2013

To Serve Man by Damon Knight

First published in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950.

This kind of twist-in-the-tail story is really becoming a feature of this volume. There were a few in the previous anthologies in this series – Out of the Sub-Universe in volume one, and Almost Human and The 4 SidedTriangle in volume two - but most of the stories are generally adventure stories or satirical traveller’s tale.

The twist in the tale typically takes the form of bad luck of the kind you reap when your sowing choices are poor. In this way the genius scientist is destroyed by his own work, the foolish lover loses their heart’s desire and the choice you made is never what it seems.

These stories are a sort of joke. They trick us like a joke does. But like a joke, after you’ve seen the trick you need something else to keep this type of story interesting.

To Serve Humans does suffer a bit from this problem. Just reading the title, I knew exactly what the punchline would be. In fairness, it’s possible that I’ve read this story before, but I know that the idea has been an episode of The Twilight Zone (highly recommended!) and a Tharg’s Future Shock, and has since become a familiar gag in cheesy sci fi media of all sorts.

The punchline is very crusty, but the real sci fi in this story is around how we get there. The story concerns two translators working at the United Nations, Peter and Gregori. When the pig-like Kanamit arrive in their spaceships offering all sorts of generous gifts Gregori suspects their motives. The Kanamit speak perfect English but Gregori believes that understanding their own language will help him understand what they really want.
I’m studying their language, and you know that language reflects the basic assumptions of the people who use it. I’ve got a fair command of the spoken lingo already. It’s not hard, really, and there are hints in it. Some of the idioms are quite similar to English.
That last sentence is especially important. That’s the foreshadowing of the whole punchline, of course, that the Kanamit use an idiomatic expression in a way that’s more than ‘quite similar to English’ but is in fact exactly the same.

This is the problem with this story. The premise quoted here – about the deterministic nature of language – is potentially interesting. It’s been used by other writers to interesting affect, not least Jack Vance.

Here, though, it just leads us to this catastrophic pun.

Themes: Puns, soft alien invasion, paranoia.


  1. Sapir-Whorf is considered more than a little shaky these days, but there is some mileage in looking at idioms, as well as corpus analysis - i.e. what people talk about the most is more telling than the mechanism they use to talk about it.
    (For example, I've been doing some vocab-building with two online courses, one Indonesian, the other Portuguese. The Portuguese one has wine as one of the first things you learn. I can guarantee that is waaaay off in the distance for the Indo course.)

    I also have a pet theory that the examples used in dictionary definitions can be highly illuminating, but I haven't done the work to back it up.

    On sting in the tail stories, the SF one that I really remember has a boy called Red "for the obvious reason" and then at the end (spoiler alert) OMG he is an alien with red tentacles.

  2. The thing is in this story that despite waving Sapir-Whorf in our faces, the whole thing turns on a really obvious pun.

    Something I keep thinking when I read these anthologies is 'that would never be published today!' Does anyone publish these corny gag stories anymore? I remember these sorts of stories from the anthologies I used to read ('Push Of A Finger by Alfred Bester is one I remember) but I haven't read anything like it for ages. Maybe that space is filled by TV now.

    I find your dictionary hypothesis intriguing. I speak as someone who reads too much into the case studies they use for online HR training at work. 'George and Catherine disagree about how much of the training budget should be allocated to the update the payroll software.' Sexual tension!

  3. I was thinking the other day that one could write a business English course book or similar corporate text in the style of Pale Fire, with the story revealed in the sample dialogues.

    Then I started to think about what terrifically hard work that would be.

    The only place I can think where you still get gag stories is Bella and similar ladymags, of those that still do short stories. Though I'm no expert on the field, they seem to be relentlessly about the sting in the tale. Usually in the 'it was her long-lost ex-husband all along!' mode, but when they're more jokey you get something like To Serve Man.
    Only with, you know, white wine spritzers and holidays in Tuscany.

  4. Tom's talking linguistics, so I'm planning on lowering the tone by posting the video of the Simpsons' "Hungry Are The Damned", but I can't find it online anywhere! I did find this tribute to Lloyd Bochner, though:

  5. Ha ha, excellent. I think I've seen that Simpsons episode, too.

    I also often ponder these types of formal cross-breeding. We've got a bunch of stock images of people we use for work. It's fun to give them back stories but they never make it into the final collateral, alas!


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