AboutSF AUDIO podcast, episode 002: "The Carnivore" by Katherine MacLean
Kristen Lillvis graciously agreed to choose a story and read it for the second episode of the AboutSF podcast.
Kristen's commentary on the story "The Carnivore" by Katherine MacLean is listed below.
Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to read a story for the AboutSF podcast. Project Gutenberg is a great place to find public domain stories, if you would like to read something for the podcast. Here is a link to Project Gutenberg's Science Fiction section:
Story: "The Carnivore" by Katherine MacLean
Reader: Kristen Lillvis
When Ben approached me about creating an AboutSF podcast, I knew I wanted to read a story by a woman writer. I'm interested in the variety of voices that contribute to the genre of SF, and Katherine MacLean's classic but underappreciated text "The Carnivore" compels me and, hopefully, will compel others to think about who and what we associate with SF (in terms of writers, readers, subjects, and styles) and in what ways we can expand our views of the genre.
MacLean, writing under the name G. A. Morris, published "The Carnivore" in Galaxy Science Fiction in October of 1953. Set in the days following a world war that caused the ruin of Earth and death of most of the human race, the story tells of a woman who meets with the alien beings that watched as humanity destroyed itself. As this woman works to figure out her relationship with her alien rescuers, she begins to explore the nature of the human being. Why do we commit acts of savagery? How would we behave if a history of violence didn't precede us? How might we reimagine human society if given the chance to start over?
Because much of my work focuses on mothering in women's science fiction and speculative literature, I find that the narrator's most interesting attempts at answering the above questions connect to her ideas of mothering and maternal feelings. MacLean presents mothering as important to her narrator's sense of self from the outset of the story: the narrator notes that she likes the members of the alien delegation "in a motherly sort of way." She states, "You have to feel motherly toward them, I guess," since they look like "pleasant, overgrown bunnies and squirrels" filled with "fright and gentleness."
Relating to the aliens as a mother to her children gives the narrator a sense of control in what otherwise seems to be an uncontrollable situation. Although weakened by starvation, she believes herself to be stronger than the "timid beings" that surround her. She thinks that humans are more energetic and creative than the aliens, perhaps because of humans' savage, carnivorous nature. She imagines that her future children will inherit her "controlled savagery" and channel their creative energies toward the task of developing peaceful partnerships with beings from other worlds. Again, the narrator highlights her mothering, her ability to shape those around her (including the aliens of her present and the children of her imagined future) to help them develop in productive ways.
In her narrator, MacLean presents a nurturing mother, yet the narrator is much more than this. MacLean refuses readers the comfort of a simple definition of human nature or mothering. While we might be comfortable with the notion that human nature cannot be so easily characterized, today (as in 1953) we seem to have a much more difficult time recognizing the complexity of women who mother. What does it mean when we acknowledge that mothers, as humans, must be understood not only as nurturing but also as savage and energetic and creative, given the multiple definitions of humanity available in MacLean's story?
The final lines of "The Carnivore" ask us to confront the complicated nature of humanity and the complicated emotions of women who mother. As the narrator shifts in a single moment from feelings of reassurance and nurturance to feelings of hatred and violence toward the aliens, readers note that perhaps her savagery isn't quite as controlled as she likes to think—or maybe the timid aliens who surround her are more savage than she was initially willing to admit. MacLean's decision to position her narrator as a maternal figure suggests that the questions about humans and aliens we are left with at the close of the story must be directed not only back to our present-day society but also our own homes and families. This isn't to say we should all be afraid of our mothers, but maybe we should be more respectful of their complex humanity.