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.