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We may have mated with them; we may have eaten them. There’s no way to know.

—Dale Clayton of the University of Utah on confirming that two species of early humans had had contact with each other, as quoted in the Washington Post

Go to the meatmarket of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal?

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Edibility is inversely related to humanity.

—Marshall Sahlins, “La Pensée Bourgeoise”

In this essay, I argue that literature has been profoundly misunderstood by scholars of bioethics.

Bioethicists in analyzing moral problems have often drawn upon literary texts as sources for “rich cases,” for they have long recognized that the traditional genre of the ethics case was limited in its portrayal of the complexity of the moral landscape of actual medical practice. This traditional utilization of literature in bioethics is critically examined by James Terry and Peter Williams in an essay published in Literature and Medicine: “Short stories and poems that are evocative, complex, and imaginatively challenging have been used to supplement or supplant the traditional case study as instruments for raising ethical issues. At best, these literary works more vividly present moral questions and [End Page 79] even raise some kinds of issues that case studies leave out.”1 The real purpose of Terry and Williams’s essay is to sound an alarm on this casual, unreflective use of literature: while literary works may at first appear to furnish desirable descriptions of moral problems, they caution, these texts and bioethics cases have distinct, and at times divergent, goals. In the description of these differing goals, one can discern a series of binary oppositions:

cases literary works
abstract concrete
analysis aesthetic pleasure
rationality sensitivity and empathy
clarity ambiguity
actions (external) feelings (internal)
abstract generalization emotional charge
rational irrational
practical impractical

In many points of their argument, Terry and Williams seem to view literary works—those entertaining, pretty objects—as distracting the bioethicists from the real, hard work of moral deliberation.

In what follows, I agree with Terry and Williams’s concerns about fiction but for quite different reasons, for I argue that literary works are not passive descriptions of complex situations but rather active arguments. Fiction does not simply reflect the world—or, as Terry and Williams suggest, reflect too much of the world—but, by engaging the reader in a particular presentation of the world, fiction argues for that particular view. As Ronald Sukenick remarks:

narrative as reflection of “reality” is still reflection in both senses. It is not merely that The Sun Also Rises advances an agenda as surely as does Pilgrim’s Progress, but that in doing so it raises issues, examines situations, meditates solutions, reflects on outcomes—that is to say, the story line is itself a form of reasoning. The question is only whether a story reflects thoughtfully, or robotically reflects the status quo with no illuminating angle of vision of its own.2

Fiction, because it is free of the truth restraints of non-fiction, can present an argument for a particular perspective on the world. Richard Walsh points out that “to ask what a fiction is about is to ask what it is doing: its argument is not what is written, but what is worked [End Page 80] through.”3 The argument worked through in novels and short stories resides in the self-conscious dialogic relationship between substance and form. This relationship becomes visible in two ways, the first by angling the presentation of differing values toward a particular resolution. In his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles, in one of his many metafictional moments, explains this process by comparing the work of fiction to a fixed fight in professional boxing. The writer positions “conflicting wants into the ring and then describes the fight, letting that want he himself favours win. And we judge writers of fiction both by the skill they show in fixing the fights (in other words persuading us that they were not fixed) and by the kind of character they fix in favour of: the good one, the tragic one, the evil one, the funny one, and so on.”4 This process of “fixing the fight” in turn permits the writer “to show one’s readers what one thinks of the world around one.”5 It is the power of fiction to argue for a way of seeing the world by constructing an imagined space where conflicting values are able to enter into struggle with one another and, most importantly, a space where one of those values is portrayed as winning. The second way is through what the Russian Formalists termed defamiliarization, the process by which the writer uses the grammar of narrative to allow the reader to re-see the world. For the Russian Formalists, a work of art forces the reader or audience out of the customary and routinized ways of seeing the world: “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”6 Through defamiliarization and other techniques, art seeks to make us aware of that which has become invisible, prompting a reckoning with the way things are and helping imagine the way things could be.

In order to illustrate my own non-fiction argument about fiction’s arguments I will consider the moral issues surrounding the species divide between humans and animals represented in speculative fiction that describes one species eating other species. Prior to this discussion, I will explain why food classification is a particularly useful way of examining the species divide, following the literary scholar Sherryl Vint’s insight that “The ethics of who eats whom are central to the human-animal boundary and its ideological work.”7 I will also look at how cannibalism achieved the status of categorical imperative in moral philosophy and in turn earned the scrutiny of cultural anthropologists analyzing how the west has distinguished itself from the Other. Noting [End Page 81] some works of anthropology that share the goal of defamiliarization with fiction, I will look more closely at three “cases” in speculative fiction in which the categories of “who eats whom” become blurred.

Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow imagines an encounter on another planet of two species that are initially seen as one, dramatizing and challenging the need that humans traditionally have had for deindividualizing animals designated for eating. Michel Faber’s Under the Skin posits an ongoing alien community on earth that essentially sees humans as akin to cattle. Finally, Adam Hines’s graphic novel Duncan the Wonder Dog presents an alternative earth in which all animals have the ability to speak and understand each other yet all non-human animals are treated in the same manner as they are in our own world. With these analyses I wish to make the case that the discipline of literature and medicine should move beyond its tendency to valorize realistic fiction and instead should equally embrace the power of speculative fiction to challenge fundamental assumptions in bioethics.


In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Alice reaches the end of the chess board and becomes transformed into a queen. She then finds herself at a banquet filled with “fifty guests, of all kinds; some were animals, some birds, and there were even a few flowers among them,” so Alice goes to the head of the table and sits down between the Red and White Queens. The Red Queen informs Alice that she has already missed both the soup and fish courses but a plate of mutton is soon placed in front of Alice. Having never carved a leg of mutton before, she grows nervous.

“You look a little shy; let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,” said the Red Queen. “Alice—Mutton; Mutton—Alice.” The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice; and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.

“May I give you a slice?” she said, taking up the knife and fork, and looking from one Queen to the other.

“Certainly not,” the Red Queen said, very decidedly: “it isn’t etiquette to cut any one you’ve been introduced to.”8 [End Page 82]

The queen’s observation is approvingly cited in the cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’s Culture and Practical Reason. Part of Sahlins’s argument is that Marxist and utilitarian explanations of cultural patterns are often inadequate when it comes to such social questions as why we eat certain animals and not others, which can be explained only in reference to a broader and contingent cultural logic. In his examination of who and what humans deem edible, Sahlins draws upon the work of anthropologist Edmund Leach, who argues that the cultural logic of edibility is embedded in structural concepts based upon the animal’s particular relationship to the human social world. Leach observes that the human notion of what is “the edible part of the environment” falls into one of three groups:

  1. 1. Edible substances that are recognized as food and consumed as part of the normal diet.

  2. 2. Edible substances that are recognized as possible food, but that are prohibited or else allowed to be eaten only under special (ritual) conditions. These are substances which are consciously tabooed.

  3. 3. Edible substances that by culture and language are not recognized as food at all. These substances are unconsciously tabooed.9

Leach notes that anthropologists have traditionally been very keen on examining the second category (e.g., Jewish prohibitions against pork), but he contends that the third category, the unconsciously tabooed, is also rich with cultural significance. In Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, social psychologist Melanie Joy asks us to imagine a situation in which we are attending a dinner party and are served a stew so delicious that we ask the host for the recipe and the host obliges: “You begin with five pounds of golden retriever meat, well marinated, and then.”10 Joy believes that after hearing that the meat was dog, most Americans would have difficulty continuing to eat the stew. Leach would agree with Joy’s belief and note that this reaction would be found among his own tribe, the English. He reports that in various parts of the world dogs are viewed as clearly within the first category but the English’s refusal to eat dog lies in the third group: to even consider dogs “food” would entail a radical revision of the traditional English worldview, that is, it is “unconsciously tabooed.” Cultural structuralists would argue that this demonstrates the relativity of our food practices, but they would be quick to point out that relativity should not be equated with the arbitrary or the random. Relative of course means relative to something and, in this case, which [End Page 83] animals are viewed as edible is relative to how a society classifies life forms.11 In his discussion of English edibility categories Leach makes an explicit connection between the English refusal to eat dog and their refusal to eat humans, both objectively sources of nutrition:

of course, dogs are perfectively edible, and in some parts of the world they are bred for eating. For that matter human beings are edible, though to an Englishman the very thought is disgusting. I think most Englishmen would find the idea of eating dog equally disgusting and in a similar way. There are contexts in colloquial English in which man and dog may be thought of as beings of the same kind. Man and dog are “companions”; the dog is “the friend of man.” On the other hand man and food are antithetical categories. Man is not food, so dog cannot be food either.12

In his analysis of American edibility categories, Sahlins expresses interest in a protest against a market in Westbrook, Connecticut that began serving horse meat. In a news report of the protest, Richard Gallagher, its organizer, states, “I think the slaughter of horses for human consumption in this country is disgraceful. We are not at a stage yet in the United States where we are forced to kill horses for meat. Horses are to be loved and ridden. In other words, horses are shown affection, where cattle that are raised for beef . . . they’ve never had someone pet them or brush them, or anything like that.”13 As this reasoning demonstrates, Gallagher assumes that it is the horse’s social interaction with the human world that makes it inedible, not its biological or ontological status, for one could easily imagine an alternative society in which horses have the same form of interactions with humans as cattle do.

The distinction between horse and cattle, companion and food, is even finer in South Korea. The psychologist Hal Herzog in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat reports that in that country dogs are both household companions and food. I have phrased that last sentence wrong for it should read instead that, according to Herzog, some dog breeds are classified as family and other breeds are classified as food: “In markets in which both pet dogs and nureongi [a breed of dog raised for food] are sold, the pets are physically separated from the meat dogs and housed in different colored cages.”14 As Sahlins observes, the logic applied here “appears to be differentiated by [the dog’s] participation as subject or object in the company of men [sic].”15 He proposes a structural rationale, drawing on notions of familiarity and [End Page 84] closeness to help answer why Americans eat cows and pigs and yet do not eat dogs or horses. “Dogs and horses participate in American society in the capacity of subjects. They have proper personal names, and indeed we are in the habit of conversing with them as we do not talk to pigs and cattle.”16

The degree of our comfort with eating these animals is structurally related to the degree to which we have, to use the Red Queen’s categories, been introduced to them. Thus, on a continuum of being more subjects than objects of our social world, the order would be dogs > horses > pigs > cows. And so we return to the logic of the Red Queen: one just does not cut into and eat entities to whom one has been introduced. Or as Herzog puts it: “Dogs in American households are not animals—they are family members. And because family members are people, eating a dog is tantamount to cannibalism.”17 But what’s so wrong with cannibalism?

That eating one’s own species is wrong is so obvious that, along with incest and bestiality, it has become the standard example of “the extreme” in debates about cultural and ethical relativism. For instance, in Toward a More Natural Science, bioethicist Leon Kass expresses distress over the moral health of late twentieth-century society by noting that its reducing of the human to a mere body seems shocking even when compared (as he implies the two are similar) to “the nearly universal prohibition of cannibalism.”18 Kass’s use of the word “nearly” is telling, for it implies that there are those who are comfortable with cannibalism. Within cultural anthropology, the contemporary western evaluation of cannibalism has become entangled with that possibility: has there ever existed a community that used humans as a nutritional choice? The anthropologist William Arens argues—contra claims like Kass’s—that there is no evidence that any human culture has ever accepted cannibalism as a normal cultural practice. Arens argues that the sources for accounts of cannibalism are not reliable and the physical archeological examples also do not provide convincing concrete evidence to support such a claim. He stresses that at one time or another, every people has been accused of cannibalism. This accusation is part of characterizing other groups as radically outside the accuser’s culture; because they practice this “non-human” behavior, they are animals.

Arens’s empirical claims have not gone unquestioned.19 In Cannibal Talk, anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere points out that cannibalism has in fact occurred in a number of societies, although not as a nutritional choice but rather “for the most part as kind of sacrament associated with human sacrifice.”20 Still, Obeyesekere subscribes fully [End Page 85] to what he feels is Arens’s most important insight, that the western obsession with fantasies of “cannibalism must be seen as a European projection of the Other,” which results in what he terms “savagism.”21

In the philosopher Catalin Avramescu’s “intellectual history” of cannibalism, he observes: “Ancient, medieval, and early modern sources tell us of savage nations of anthropophagi, who are described as collections of strange beings, hybrids between animal and man. This step is explainable: only a race of monsters could lead an existence so alien to the rules of human life, and only for such a people could the rule of nature be inverted.”22 In the various early encounters between Europeans and Africans, Brian Fagan notes that Africans “were frequently described as ‘brutish,’ ‘bestial,’ or ‘beastly.’ Pages and pages of early travelers’ tales abound with stories of cannibalism, warfare, horrible diets, and dreadful tortures.”23 Cannibalism indicates that humans have become monsters or animals, for it entails viewing the human body as simply another form of meat and, in doing so, denies humans their radical species break from animals.24 Once we recognize that the history of cannibalism is in fact a history of humanity’s fear of their animal nature, one understands why Avramescu sees that to study the history of cannibalism is actually to study deviance: “My cannibal is in the first place a scholarly creature, a personage who animates theoretical texts, and only to a lesser extent, if at all, is he subject for the anthropology of the abberant.”25 Cannibalism as an idea, for Avramescu, is far more important to the western world then its actual practice. Avramescu cites as evidence the many times cannibalism is explicitly discussed in the western philosophical tradition, especially in discussions of natural law.

Cannibalism’s longstanding representation of extreme otherness plays a critical role in a posthumously published essay by the cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict. In “The Uses of Cannibalism,” she writes, “We have done scant justice to the reasonableness of cannibalism. There are in fact so many and such excellent motives possible to it that mankind has never been able to fit all of them into one universal scheme, and has accordingly contrived various diverse and contradictory systems the better to display its virtues.”26 In this essay, Benedict gives examples in which cannibalism is the most civilized thing to do: “It is necessary first to place beyond doubt the high moral sentiments with which the custom has been allied.”27 In his reading of this essay in relation to a discussion of Benedict as a stylist, Clifford Geertz identifies this flipping of the strange and the normal as a key rhetorical move of her work in general: “the culturally at hand is made [End Page 86] odd and arbitrary, the culturally distant, logical and straightforward. . . . The Not-us (or Not-U.S.) unnerves the Us.”28 It has been observed by Geertz and James Boon that a key intertext for Benedict’s essay is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” for Benedict’s essay is an argument for cannibalism as a reasonable alternative to war, which in its absurdity provides a criticism against the reasonableness of war.29 Swift’s argument performs the same ironic twist: the English treat the Irish like livestock, so why not take the next natural and logical step and simply eat them? Cannibalism remains in both cases an act so extreme that the writers anticipate it will make readers realize that our actions, by being shown to lead to cannibalism, are morally inappropriate. This link between Swift and Benedict reveals how both artists and cultural anthropologists have shared an interest in defamiliarization as a form of social critique.

Defamiliarization in cultural anthropology, according to anthropologists George Marcus and Michael Fischer, has been one of the discipline’s key strategies for providing cultural criticism: “Disruption of common sense, doing the unexpected, placing familiar subjects in unfamiliar, or even shocking, contexts are the aims of this strategy to make the reader conscious of difference.”30 According to Marcus and Fischer, defamiliarization is accomplished in anthropology through the application of two techniques: epistemological critique or cross-cultural juxtaposition. Epistemological critique results from the anthropologists going to the “periphery of the Euro-centric world where conditions are supposed to be most alien and profoundly revising the way we normally think about things in order to come to grips with what in European terms are exotica.”31 Cross-cultural juxtaposition is a more explicit form of cultural critique, for it matches an ethnography of the Other to an ethnography of the anthropologist’s home base; here Marcus and Fischer cite the classic example of Margaret Mead contrasting the experience of adolescence in the United States with that of Samoans.32 Marcus and Fischer acknowledge the parallel between art’s aim to defamiliarize and cultural anthropology’s, but they insinuate that anthropology’s form of defamiliarization is superior, for art’s defamiliarization rarely becomes “a springboard for a sustained inquiry.”33 In the examples below I argue that this is a limited view of the capacity of art.

As mentioned above, unlike the genre of the academic argument, the argument in fiction resides in “the formal articulation of its substance, the substance articulated in its form.”34 Take for example the way China Miéville opens his fantasy novel Perdido Street Station [End Page 87] with an account of interspecies sexuality that is both erotic and disturbing. One of the reasons for this dual reaction is that the author plays with narrative focalization. Focalization within narrative theory concerns the vision from which represented events are viewed or “the perspective in terms of which the narrated situations and events are presented.”35 In the opening of Miéville’s novel, two species—human and “khepri”—wake up in bed together. To describe the two animals Miéville uses a shifting focalization, prompting the reader to see the lovers as they are seen by each other. The khepri view of her human lover is: “Humans have khepri bodies, legs, hands; and the heads of shaven gibbons”;36 for humans the khepri would be described as having human bodies, legs, hands, and the heads of insects. It is this play with physical form that permits the novel to create a tension between the familiar and the radical Other. “She [the khepri woman] undulated her headlegs at him and signed, My monster. I am a pervert, thought Isaac [the human man], and so is she.”37

Narratologist Mieke Bal contends that to understand focalization we must attend to the relationship between focalizer and the object being focalized.38 In this scene of Miéville’s, the khepri woman is initially the focalizer and the human man the focalized object, but then the relationship is reversed. With each new focalization, the features that appear alien shift; readers see with the khepri how the alien is like “us” but also must be understood as monstrous. This ability to identify with the bottom half of the other but not the upper half is a more striking, and literal, version of what rhetorician Kenneth Burke has called “consubstantiality.”

For Burke, an argument is effective to the degree that it facilitates an identification between the speaker and the audience: “In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once distinct substance and consubstantial with another.”39 Because others are able to identify with us, we are able to persuade them. But persuasion through identification for Burke is not only this direct association between a particular speaker and a particular audience. In a discussion of Burke, Foss et al. provide an example of identification useful for understanding the element of defamiliarization in Miéville’s work: “Men and women . . . are consubstantial in that they share the substance of humanness.”40 Miéville’s description of interspecies coupling is so disorienting because readers can understand the attraction of one for the other, that is, their humanness as a man and woman, but can [End Page 88] simultaneously feel disturbed by the alien’s bodily otherness. It is this ability to create liminal discomfort that gives speculative fiction a particular rhetorical power.

Realistic fiction can create moments in which identification is confused, but speculative fiction can challenge identification on a literal level, taking aim at one’s ontology as well as one’s morality, and furthermore showing how ontological understandings can influence moral ones. A good example can be found in a line of Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness: “The King was pregnant.”41 The reader comes to understand this alien race is not one in which woman are thought of as men, but more radically one in which all the people are neither gender save for times of reproduction, when they could be either. This ontological shift—challenging the very gender divisions so central to human society—shows us also how all of our notions of masculinity and femininity can be upended. A similar move was attempted by Margaret Mead in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, but Le Guin’s is the more radical: her project uses ontological defamiliarization to lead the reader to rethink entirely the degree to which biology shapes cultural notions and vice versa.

Speculative fiction is also a particularly rich area to examine the issue of the species divide and its relation to cannibalism, for this issue appears in numerous classic texts including H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog (1969), and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). As Mary Midgley phrases the fundamental question: “Is cannibalism just the same thing as meat-eating, or is there a significant difference?”42 One possible answer is that there is no significant moral difference, and because there is no difference, so one must conclude that eating meat is just as wrong as eating humans. This is legal scholar Gary Francione’s stance, which he illustrates with the hypothetical case of a man, Simon, stranded after a plane crash:

When a rabbit happens by, Simon is confronted with the choice of killing the rabbit or starving. Just as we would be inclined to excuse Simon if, under these extreme circumstances, he killed and ate a human—which has in fact happened more than once—his killing the rabbit would also be excusable. If, however, Simon were eventually rescued, he would have no moral justification for continue to eat rabbits any more than he would have a justification for continuing to eat humans.43 [End Page 89]

Francione’s argument relies on being persuaded that the difference between the human and the rabbit is a distinction that does not affect either one’s moral status. And, as he himself observes, one must first accept a prior anti-speciesism argument (his evaluation that killing rabbits for food when one has access to non-animal food represents harm equivalent to killing and eating humans). What I argue is that speculative fiction persuades the reader one way or the other through the narrative telling rather than through some prior analytical argument structure. In some instances, as I believe is especially true of the issue of speciesism, such fiction can alter the reader’s perspective, using techniques like defamiliarization to change one’s perception of the world. In what follows, I examine three speculative fiction texts that confront speciesism by exploring what constitutes cannibalism, and demonstrate how fiction has the potential to convert the perception of eating the rabbit from one of eating meat to one of cannibalism.


Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel The Sparrow uses identification to critique our notion of the species divide, especially with relation to use-value. She describes a Jesuit-funded journey to the planet Rakhat from which radio broadcasts of complex song cycles have been detected on earth. When the humans first arrive on the planet they are interested in whether they can survive on the various life forms on the planet. They are primarily concerned that eating the native food sources could potentially result in their poisoning, so they have one of the members try what they describe as “a small amount of roasted little green guy because the animals were abundant and easy to catch.”44 He has no negative side effects after he “sucked the rest of the meat from the little pair of legs” and the group continues to experiment eating both animals and vegetables so that they can transition from subsisting on food they brought to food “comprising native elements.”45 Eventually the group comes to discover a gentle alien race who live in communities.

Anne Edwards studied the anatomy. The two species were not grotesque to one another. They shared a general body plan: bipedal, with forelimbs specialized for grasping and manipulation. Their faces also held a similarity in general, and the differences were not shocking or hideous to Anne; she found them beautiful, as she found many [End Page 90] other species beautiful, here and at home. Large mobile ears, erect and carried high on the sides of the head. Gorgeous eyes, large and densely lashed, calm as camels’. The nose was convex, broad at the tip, curving smoothly off to meet the muzzle, which projected rather more noticeably than was ever the case among humans. The mouth, lipless and broad.

There were many differences, of course. On the gross level, the most striking was that the humans were tailless, an anomaly on their home planet as well; the vast majority of vertebrates on Earth had tails, and Anne had never understood why apes and guinea pigs had lost them. And another human oddity stood out, here as at home: relative hairlessness. The villagers were covered with smooth dense coats of hair, lying flat to muscular bodies. They were as sleek as Siamese cats; buff-colored with lovely dark brown markings around the eyes, like Cleopatra’s kohl, and a darker shading that ran down the spine.

“They are so beautiful,” Anne breathed and wondered, distressed, if such uniformly handsome people would find humans repulsive—flat-faced and ugly, with ridiculous patches of white and red and brown and black hair, tall and medium and short, bearded and barefaced and sexually dimorphic to boot. We are outlandish, she thought, in the truest sense of the word . . . .46

The human visitors come to discover that these are a gentle alien race who seem to have a life akin to that of Eden: little conflict, strong communal ties, everyone vegetarian. Unlike the Jesuit in James Blish’s science fiction novel A Case of Conscience, who finds an alien community that lacks sin and concludes that it must be the creation of Satan, Russell’s Jesuit experiences spiritual joy at discovering the lack of sin. There is, however, no singing in this group, and the humans begin to suspect that they may be in the boondocks away from the species’ more sophisticated brethren. As the tale progresses the human group makes the startling discovery that there are two sentient species on Rakhat: Runa and Jana’ata. The Runa, while highly intelligent and social, are a source of food for the Jana’ata, who raise the Runa in the same way we raise cattle. One character in Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow, refers to a Runa as “a cow with an opinion.”47

The power of Russell’s story resides in that, whereby the reader comes to identify with the Runa as the humans in the narrative do, from the introduction of the Jana’ata (who physically closely resemble the Runa), the species is felt to be engaging in cannibalism. Here the [End Page 91] more intelligent species has bred the Runa for food, physical pleasure, and labor. Russell, who was trained as an anthropologist and has written about cannibalism, has created a novel of estrangement around the way we classify life, inviting us to identify first with the Runa before forcing us to reclassify them as products for use. I do not wish to suggest that the issue of the species divide is the central theme of Russell’s work, for she is clearly invested in larger questions of faith and theodicy. In tackling those larger questions, though, she indirectly critiques the species divide as well.

The narrative rhetoric of The Sparrow’s defamiliarization is accomplished through a manipulation of the sjuzet, the narrative discourse that controls how entities and events are presented.48 Since the account is told to the current expedition in flashbacks from the perspective of the last surviving Jesuit, Sandoz, who has lost his faith, Russell is able to manipulate the presentation of information, so the reader first identifies with the Runa (as the landing party does) and then later shares their extraordinary shock in realizing their status as a product from the perspective of the Jana’ata, who they come to see as more highly developed intellectually and culturally, that is, as more akin to the humans.

With each new event, the interrogation of the surviving Jesuit provides an interpretive gloss that both explains and in many instances further confuses the categories that had been set at the beginning of the narrative. For example, Sandoz explains that the Jana’ata use the Runa for sexual intercourse without the fear of pregnancy:

“Sex with Runa partners carries no risk of pregnancy or even of disease, as far as I know. For this reason, Runa concubines are commonly used as sexual partners by individuals whose families are complete or who are not permitted to breed.”

Felipe, shocked, asked, “Do the Runa consent to this?”

It was Mephistopheles who laughed. “Consent is not an issue. The concubines are bred to it.” He looked at each of them in turn as they took in the implications and then hit them again. “The Runa are not unintelligent and some are marvelously talented, but they are essentially domesticated animals. The Jana’ata breed them, as we breed dogs.”49

Russell’s narrative continually shifts back and forth from the present to the past and then back; in these shifts, the tragedy of the expedition’s fate becomes clearer. It is related to the humans’ inability [End Page 92] to see the Runa as animals and thus as worthy of protection in the same manner that aliens, coming to earth and living among cows and identifying with them, would then defend the cows from slaughter from humans. The reader identifies with the humans and the humans identify with the Runa. When the humans farm the land (a skill the Runa lack) and give the additional food to the Runa, these animals begin to breed; this breeding, which the Jana’ata have to this point carefully controlled, means the Jana’ata need to reduce the herd. This they do, and many of the humans are killed as they try and protect the children of the Runa. The reader’s continual movement from identification to estrangement makes the actions of the Jana’ata both understandable and disturbing. If one simply agrees with the Jana’ata worldview, one also has to accept that one can have a domesticated pet that one on occasion eats.

Our human need to keep radical psychological distance between ourselves and some animals permits us to do the same as the Jana’ata do, but the Jana’ata show us that this distance is really just an illusion, a fairy tale. We are either the Jana’ata or the Runa, or rather we can choose to be either one or the other. In Why We Love Dogs, Joy argues that humans require a series of psychological barriers such as deindividualization in order to construct perceptions that permit us to view certain animals as being objects for use, which she terms “carnism.” She explains that deindividualization entails viewing individuals solely through their membership in a group, so we lose the ability to see individual beings but rather merely a class. This process, she argues, is essential in order for us to be able to eat animals.50 It is through defamiliarization that The Sparrow constructs a similar argument; we, the Runa, become individualized and then deindividualized in a manner that draws a categorical distinction between the sentient beings we identify with and love and the ones we objectify and eat. In The Others, Paul Shepard echoes this sentiment when he argues, “A large part of the logic of animal rights involves the similarity of animals and humans—how they feel pain, communicate, think, respond emotionally, and so on. But when it comes to killing and eating animals . . . we suddenly become very different from them, superior in morality, intellectually estranged, nature’s stewards, custodial keepers and architects.”51 [End Page 93]


While The Sparrow examines the species divide through the manner in which humans misread the species divisions on an alien planet, Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin intentionally causes the reader to initially misread the novel’s genre category and then uses this misreading to force the reader to rethink the cultural categories of non-humans as objects for consumption. The paratexts of the novel suggest that Under the Skin should be categorized as crime fiction; the cover flap summary of the book, for example, presents the following information:

Isserley cruises the roads of the Scottish Highlands sizing up male hitchhikers. She is looking for beefy specimens with big muscles. She, herself, is tiny—like a kid peering up over the steering wheel—and wears the thickest corrective lenses anyone has ever seen. Scarred and awkward, yet strangely erotic and threatening, she is a remarkable and unforgettable character.

Her hitchhikers are a mixed bunch—trailer trash and traveling postgraduates, thugs and philosophers. As she drives them deeper and deeper into the mysterious splendors of the Scottish wilds, they open up to her revealing a complex and varied picture of life on earth—but Isserley is listening for other clues. Clues about who might miss them if they should disappear. If she decides they’re worth the risk, she takes them farther than they ever dreamed of going. But takes them where?

What we see on the surface in this terrifying and yet moving novel is deceiving. Michel Faber takes us on a heart-thumping ride through dangerous territory—our own moral instincts and the outer boundaries of compassion. Under the Skin is a grotesque and comical allegory, a surreal representation of contemporary society run amok—it announces the arrival of an exciting talent.

Under the Skin has the same cool existential tone one finds in the crime fiction of Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith, supporting the paratexts’ classification of it. Yet its genre is revealed to be science fiction when we learn that Isserley is not human but actually part of a group of aliens, capturing male humans to castrate them and fatten them up to be sent home as meat.

Isserley herself is in exile from her home planet, having undergone extreme plastic surgery to make her appear to be an attractive female human to lure the male hitchhikers. Her encounters with her [End Page 94] prey are also particularly disturbing in that she first engages them in personal interviews to see if they have any family members or friends who will mark their absence. She is essentially culling from the herd our own alienated isolated members as a lion would kill the weakest of a herd of gazelle. Isserley is the narrative’s focal character and because of this we come to identify with her isolation. Yet at the same time we come to see ourselves, that is, the humans, as being simply “vodsels,” the name these aliens have for humans, that is, animals for eating. At one point during her journey Isserley encounters a sheep: “Iserley approached stealthily, balancing gingerly on the fingers of her feet. She barely breathed, for fear of startling her fellow-traveller. It was so hard to believe the creature couldn’t speak. It looked so much as if it should be able to. Despite its bizarre features, there was something deceptively human about it, which tempted her, not for the first time, to reach across the species divide and communicate.”52 When Isserley reflects back on her decision to take on this task, she thinks both about her choice between this and the alternative, being sent to live in the “New Estates,” which would end in a short unpleasant life underground. She recalls her original decision on learning that she would be sent to this planet: “to stay healthy and beautiful against the odds. Refusing point-blank to be changed physically would be her revenge on the powers that be, her recoiling kick of defiance. But would she have had a hope, really? No doubt everybody vowed at first that they wouldn’t allow themselves to be transformed into a beast, with hunched back, scarred flesh, crumbling teeth, missing fingers, cropped hair” (67, emphasis in original). Faber cleverly switches the language within the narrative so that human beings are not referred to as “human beings” but instead as vodsels and the words “human beings” refers to Isserley’s species.

When the group on earth has a visitor, the son of the food company’s owner, Isserley becomes concerned about how he will perceive her: “Amlis Vess, never having seen her before, would recoil. He’d be expecting to see a human being, and he would see a hideous animal instead. It was that moment of . . . of the sickening opposite of recognition that she just couldn’t cope with” (79). When several of these beasts are released by Amlis as an act of animal activism, Isserley helps recover them to the farm:

The vodsel had lumbered to a standstill, and now stood cowering in the torchlight, naked and sluggish. Clouds of bright steam swirled around its head as it struggled for breath. Removed from [End Page 95] the warmth of its pen, it was pathetically unfit for the environment, bleeding from a hundred scratches, pinky-blue with cold. It had the typical look of a monthling, its shaved nub of a head nestled like a bud atop the disproportionately massive body. Its empty scrotal sac dangled like a pale oak leaf under a dark acorn of a penis. A thin stream of blueish-black diarrhoea clattered onto the ground between its legs. Its fist swept the air jerkily. Its mouth opened wide to show its cored molars and the docked stub of its tongue.


Later Amlis discovers that the vodsels have language: “‘No-one told me that they had a language,” marveled Amlis, too impressed, it seemed, to be angry. ‘My father always describes them as vegetables on legs.’ ‘It depends on what you classify as language, I guess,’ said Isserley dismissively” (183).

When Isserley shows a sheep to Amlis he asks if they have ever used this animal for meat. Isserley is shocked by the suggestion: “Isserley blinked repeatedly, fumbling for something to say. How could he even think of such a thing? Was it a ruthlessness that linked father and son? ‘They’re . . . they’re on all fours, Amlis, can’t you see that? They’ve got fur—tails—facial features not that different from ours . . .’” (252–53). The issue of identification through physical similarity makes Amlis and Isserley see the sheep as consubstantial, which makes Isserley see Amlis’s question as akin to suggesting cannibalism. The irony, of course, is that Isserley now appears more like a vodsel and thus, by her own logic, she should see the eating of vodsel as barbaric and the eating of sheep as normative.

This physical identification with the Other has parallels to the phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas’s argument for the importance of face as “first philosophy.” For Levinas the face of the Other and our responsibility to the Other precede any discussion of philosophical ontology. By responding to the face of the Other, we come to know ourselves, that is, contra Heidegger’s grounding his philosophy in Dasein, Being, Levinas wishes instead to see Being as only known in the encounter with, and recognition of, the face of an Other’s being. “Prior to any particular expression and beneath all particular expressions, which cover over and protect with an immediately adopted face or countenance, there is the nakedness and destitution of the expression as such, that is to say extreme exposure, defenselessness, vulnerability itself.”53

H. Peter Steeves, a philosopher, has observed the speciesism in Levinas’s ethics. In “Lost Dog, or, Levinas Faces the Animal,” Steeves [End Page 96] analyzes a narrative Levinas recalls of a stray dog, Bobby, that visits the concentration camp in which Levinas was confined by the Nazis. Levinas recalls that when the dog happily greeted the concentration camp prisoners it seemed an act of “respect,” a moment of re-cognizing that they were still essentially human beings. But Steeves notes that in his discussion of Bobby, Levinas seems to not have similar respect for the animal: “Bobby, we learn [from Levinas], has neither ethics nor logos. He is animal and therefore subhuman. He is (truly) what the Nazis were trying to make (falsely) their prisoners: ‘a gang of apes,’ ‘no longer part of the world,’ ‘chatters of monkey talk’—‘signifiers without a signified.’ These are parallels around which Levinas dances carefully: the human and the animal, the Nazi and the prisoner, a meal of meat and the Holocaust.”54 For Steeves, Levinas at first seems almost to see the dog as a moral being but then withdraws this argument, lapsing into speciesism because he cannot confront the alternative. “[T]o deny the animal face is to fear the demand it will make,” Steeves explains.55

Is granting “face” possible when encountering an animal for which there is no human face? Of course in Faber’s novel, the face the two “human beings” are discussing is a sheep and the animal they cannot identify with is the vodsel. The focalization of the novel makes us see the human, not the sheep, as an Other. It forces us to see ourselves as we view animals that we eat for meat, revealing to us our radical need to refuse identification with the Other because it does not have a face to which we feel responsibility.


As seen above, one of the falsehoods that the owner’s son has been told is that vodsels lack any language. When he questions Isserley, she responds: “it depends on what you classify as language I guess” (183). Implied in this exchange is that if vodsels had language then one would have to question whether it was appropriate to eat them. A similar argument has been made by the English philosopher R. G. Frey; he argues against the notion that non-human animals have “rights,” for non-human animals do not possess language.56 Frey contends that if non-human animals do not possess language then they cannot possess the features necessary to entail our responsibility to them in terms of rights. While he acknowledges that many animals communicate with each other and some animals may have awareness, this is different from crediting them with the ability to hold interests, [End Page 97] beliefs, and desires, which he takes to be necessary to grant a living being rights in the way that we do for humans. At times Frey’s argument relies upon a Chomskyian view of language as requiring the ability for linguistic competence, which is different from the “primitive systems of communication” of the other animals and is hardwired into the human animal. Frey’s argument seems to be a sophisticated philosophical game in which one has to play with his pieces (Chomsky-centered linguistics) and toward particular goals (beliefs are necessary for rights); further implied is that not only is there a radical division based on language between humans and non-human animals but that the hardwiring of the human is superior to that of other animals. In his science fiction species war novel, Mort(e), Robert Repino provides a counterargument from the point of view of the Queen of a colony of ants who have developed into highly educated beings:

After years of study, the Queen found human language to be a primitive self-defeating form of communication, light-years behind the instantaneous clarity and subtle nuance of her chemicals. Human speech could mean everything and nothing at once. How could a species procreate, build, innovate, and survive with such an appallingly inadequate system, she wondered. . . . Whereas knowledge was stored with the Queen, ensuring almost complete infallibility from the moment a pair of antennae came into contact, humans would have to bicker over translations, authorship, historical context, symbolism, and meaning. They had to rely on the faulty memory of storytellers, the biased interpretations of scribes, and the whims of inefficient bureaucrats in order to pass down their collected knowledge. In a way, she was disappointed.57

But putting aside which form of communication is superior, what if Frey were to encounter an animal that had language in the manner he thinks necessary? Would this naturally lead to a world that supported a notion of rights extending beyond the species barrier? Duncan the Wonder Dog is a graphic novel by Adam Hines that imagines this scenario, showing what could be called an alternative universe in which non-human animals as well as humans have the capacity of speech and can understand each other.

The representation of language in Hines’s work is particularly important. The rhetoric of comics functions through a relationship between text and image. The various relationships between these two has been classified by cartoonist Scott McCloud in his Understanding [End Page 98] Comics: word specific, picture specific, duo-specific, additive, parallel, montage, and interdependent.58 Word specific is that category of combinations in which the pictures act as illustrations of a description but, for McCloud, do not “significantly add to a largely complete text.”59 In the category of picture specific, the words “do little more than add a soundtrack to a visually told sequence” similar to the sound effect or speech captions that might appear in a silent movie.60 In duo-specific comics panels, the words and the pictures relate the same information. In additive panels, either of the two elaborates on the other. In parallel combinations, the words and the picture communicate different information. In montage, the words are portrayed in the picture as a part of that picture. In interdependent combinations, which McCloud notes are the most common, the pictures and words work together to create a message that neither by itself could communicate. McCloud notes that in this configuration one of the parts might be more essential than the other.

Hines’s novel has the feeling of a scrapbook. The pictures include a complex presentation of simulacra of clippings from newspapers, textbooks, diaries, as well as the traditional images of comic panels. These scraps and clippings at times overlap the more traditional comic representation, creating an effect of language layered upon images. The most common interaction between texts and pictures is the category of the “interdependent,” with each necessary in order to convey narrative meaning. The novel seems intentionally confusing to read. It lacks a single sustained narrative, and its layering of words upon pictures and pictures upon words make its world difficult to interpret. I suggest that Hines’s intention is to have the novel as muddled and confusing as the moral issues surrounding the various boundaries we have constructed between humans and animal Others.

Early in the book Hines presents what seems to be random panel drawings of parts of New York City mixed with ticket stubs and fragments of newspapers concerning a boxing match.61 The scenic drawings include humans who are often dwarfed by the physical landscape of city constructions. Hines does provides a number of word balloons with these scenes, but they are word balloons that contain only images or icons. In one panel featuring the bay of New York City and the Statue of Liberty, two people near the statue are “saying” images of the American flag to each other in word balloons; on the far right side of the panel, one tiny figure has a word balloon with a picture of a whale (6). In the ocean there are two boats, with word balloons hovering above them, but the ships are too small to see any humans [End Page 99] (6). (One is of a picture of a small sailboat; the other is a word balloon of stars.) As these scenes continue, we zoom in to images of groups of humans who have word balloons of language rather than symbols. There are also a number of images of animals standing but with no images or language coming from them.

These seemingly voiceless animals are revealed to us, however, as possessing the same language abilities as humans. Hines presents a scene of a monkey sitting in a cage reading a book. A tiger in a cage nearby starts the conversation with a word balloon that reads: “What are you reading?” and the two continue an exchange about the book, which is about the mathematician Pythagoras (16). The tiger asks who Pythagoras was and the monkey replies, “Oh, I think he was human—from the way they talk about him” (17). As the story unfolds we see that this imagined world differs from our own only in that the animals are able to talk to each other and to humans, not in how they are thought of or treated. The power of this rhetoric is that at times the vital importance of the interdependence of the various modes of representation. If we eliminated the word balloons of the animals (and even those of the humans) the narrative of this book in its initial chapters would be difficult to see as anything but a silent presentation of everyday life within our own world. With the addition of the word balloons for the animals, Hines defamiliarizes our world in such a way as to make the ordinary, everyday relationship between humans and animals seem utterly barbaric.

Take for example a scene in which a cow is lying down at the back of a truck in a rain storm. There are two men pictured yelling at the cow to get up. At first their speech is coming from outside the panel: “Don’t—don’t you want to go with your friends? It’s not that far of a walk,” then there is a panel of the two men with one saying, “I know those stupid rumors have been spreading, and they’re not true. Why would we raise you for all this time and then just kill you? It doesn’t make any sense!” (67, emphasis in original). A few pages later we come back to this story, but now the men are inside a house, explaining to a woman that they tied a rope around the cow’s neck to drag it out of the truck, and it fell and broke its leg. One of the men is shown looking out the window, and the next panel shows an image of the cow lying on the wet ground with the two feet of a dog nearby. After the man tells the dog to get away, the dog retorts: “Why? He’s dead,” and the man replies, “No, he’s not. That’s still good meat” (69). In a series of panels one of the men is sitting near the cow and tries to convince the cow again that the rumors are not true. The cow [End Page 100] now speaks for the first time: “I saw . . . up on the mound (breath) . . . I saw the building (breath) . . . before they moved it . . . and in the dirt (breath) . . . I saw them in the dirt (breath) . . . going in (breath) . . . But I didn’t see any (breath) . . . going out (breath) . . .” The man then states: “If you think a broken leg is bad, pal, just keep talking. . . . just keep talking and we’ll see” (73, emphasis in original).

A central narrative in the book concerns a group of animal rights activists who have bombed buildings in protest. The animal rights activists are non-human animals and so the notion termed animal liberation by the philosopher Peter Singer takes a substantially different meaning in Hines’s novel. Hines also emphasizes that once there is a form of universal communication, the ability of any animal to eat another animal becomes difficult to justify. In an interview, Hines responds to a query about “the difference between the animals in this world and ours,” by stating that “Animals’s [sic] train of thoughts are completely unknowable, and just that I made them knowable and relatable I think does the reality a disservice. But in trying to show how ‘we’re all in this together[,]’ I hope it justifies the cheat.”62 In Duncan the Wonder Dog, Hines takes Frey’s critique against animals and asks whether the true reason for the difference that humans perceive between species is driven not by communication or ability, but rather by one basic human need: to think ourselves superior to other animals.


The discussion above of how speculative fiction can force us to rethink the species divide demonstrates how fiction in general conveys arguments through the rhetoric of its form. My choice of speculative fiction in particular has been deliberate, for I argue that its fantastical elements can be a rich source not only for bioethics but also for the discipline of literature and medicine itself. The tendency within literature and medicine to focus on realist fiction has unnecessarily limited its source material; conversely, that material rarely provides unique arguments for bioethics. This tendency within both bioethics and literature and medicine to analyze primarily realist fiction indicates a presumption that fiction is most useful when it strives toward a philosophy of mimesis, when its form does not get in the way of its content. This is a perspective on literature that the scholars of literature and medicine have rarely attempted to correct. Even a special theme issue on science fiction in Literature and Medicine was titled “Science Fiction [End Page 101] and the Future of Medicine.” In her introduction to that issue Anne Hudson Jones observes that “writers of science fiction have helped prepare us for the extraordinary advances in medicine and biomedical technology.”63 Once again realism seems to be the primary justification that literature must make to those interested in morality and medicine. Such a view suggests that fiction really has nothing to say, that it simply sits there, awaiting others’ assertions about it. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons that Terry and Williams can critique literature as a source for moral deliberation by pointing out that “literature tends to elaborate” rather than “pare down and simplify” the representation of actual moral problems in medical practice.64 This statement makes sense only if we assume that literature exists to provide virtual ethnographic cases for a bioethicist to analyze. If even realist fiction seems too elaborate for Terry and Williams, there really is no place for speculative fiction. But in many ways it is the extreme anti-realist examples that stand to help bioethics most.

I stated at the beginning of this essay that Terry and Williams are correct to be suspicious of fiction. If we actually take fiction seriously, we will realize that it is not presenting the world but representing it and, in doing so, is arguing for a particular presentation of that world.

Tod Chambers

Tod Chambers is Associate Professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. His areas of research include the rhetoric of bioethics and cross-cultural issues in clinical medicine. He is the author of the book The Fiction of Bioethics (Routledge, 1999) and is co-editor with Carl Elliott of Prozac as a Way of Life (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). He is presently working on a second monograph on the rhetoric of bioethics.


5. Ibid.

11. See for example Mary Douglas’s famous analysis of the coherent cultural logic underlying kosher food laws (Purity and Danger, 55).

16. Ibid.

19. See Osborne, “Does Man Eat Man?”

21. Obeyesekere, 2, 9. [End Page 102]

27. Ibid., 45.

29. Boon, Other Tribes, Other Scribes.

31. Ibid., 137–38.

32. Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa.

35. Prince, Dictionary of Narratology, 31. For a discussion of focalization, see Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method.

37. Ibid.

45. Ibid., 195.

46. Ibid., 225.

48. Sjuzet is a term from Russian formalism that indicates the order of events as presented to the reader. This is in contrast to the fabula, which is the order of events if they were presented in their chronological order. Contrast the fabula of “The queen died and then two weeks later the king died” with a particular sjuzet of “The king died. Two weeks earlier the queen had died.”

52. Faber, Under the Skin, 66. Further references are to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.

55. Ibid., 25.

56. Frey, Interests and Rights.

59. Ibid.

60. Ibid.

61. Hines, 7. Further references are to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.

62. Hudson, “Talking with Adam Hines.”


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