Sunday, October 9, 2011
The Ugly Little Boy by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverburg
This story is about a Neanderthal boy who gets time warped into the 21st century as a museum attraction. The story alternates from Neanderthal times to the 21st century. In the Neanderthal times, the tribe is shown to be at on the brink of war with homo sapiens. (They are called Other Ones by Neanderthals.) The Neanderthals are shown as having a Goddess-centered culture, and the tribesmen have names like Red Cloud and She Who Knows. The book is really about Nature vs. Nurture. The boy, Timmy, (whose name is Skyfire Face, because of a scar on his forehead .) is brought into the 21st century and is the subject of an ongoing human rights battle. However, Timmy is not technically human, as a Neanderthal.
But the human rights lawyers and media circus are the least of Timmy’s worries.
Because he was brought into the world via time displacement, he is never allowed to leave his self-contained environment. He learns to speak eventually; “a very pronounced Neanderthal accent.” And even makes friends. However, the only one he can really be sure is his friend is his nurse, Miss Fellows. The others could be just there to help the time displacement museum gain press, or scientists and historians there to poke and prod him. I was reminded of Franz Kafka’s A Report To An Academy (Ein Bericht Fuer Eine Akademie) where a monkey learns to behave like a human, but can never gain acceptance in the modern world, which leads to loneliness. The book succeeds in making the world we think we know strange and lonely through Timmy‘s eyes and dreams.
On the other side of loneliness, we have the Neanderthal story, which takes place in between chapters, so that in essence, the reader is experiencing time displacement. We are introduced to concepts of Neanderthal religion and tribal organization. The Neanderthals worship a Goddess who made the Earth for them. They believe their language and their way is the only way, and the Goddess made the homo sapiens as punishment for abandoning old rituals, passing on leadership of the tribe. Red Cloud is described as an old man, having seen 40 winters; he refuses to pass leadership because they are at war with the Other Ones. That part of the story has to deal with whether old rituals or independent thought will guide the tribe, I think. And it never really does give you an answer…although I suppose the ending, which is open-ended, sort of does.
The story of Miss Fellows has to do with her desire to treat Timmy as her son, even though he is not human. In a way, she raises him in the 21st century. She is there to teach him language, to comfort him, and to feed him. By all accounts, to “civilize him”. In the end, she realizes that Timmy must return to his time to make room for more museum attractions. But, she can’t bear the thought of Timmy being torn to shreds by the Neandethals. He is a civilized 6-year-old, and now could neither survive the wild, nor the 21st century. Finally as Timmy is about to be replaced, she steps into the time displacement device with him, and is mistaken for the Goddess returning Skyfire Face by the Neanderthals and “Other Ones” who lay down their weapons in peace. How long will it last? The book never answers; Miss Fellows changed history. It’s said that this story was began by Isaac Asimov in the 1950s, co-authored into a book with Robert Silverburg in the 1990s, and finished by Silverburg in 1994. While the book has an “Asimovian” tone, so to speak; the ending seems to be (like the book.) a result of time displacement; of an altered time, existing not in Asimov’s time, nor existing without it, and belonging to both in isolation. 4 stars, were it not for the tacked on ending, which like Timmy, vanished too soon; left many questions.