I don’t read very much science-fiction, but every so often I’ll pick up something by Asimov or an older book of short stories. Recently, I read a story titled "The Most Sentimental Man" from the Asimov-edited anthology, The Last Man On Earth. Predictably, the anthology’s theme is centered around being the last surviving human on the planet.
"The Sentimental Man" was written in 1957 by Evelyn E. Smith and originally appeared in the August edition of Fantastic Universe that same year. The story begins with the main character, a man named Johnson, seeing off the last ship of passengers from Earth headed to their new home. Earth has become uninhabitable, but Johnson has chosen to remain behind and live out his final days on the planet he grew up on.
What’s interesting about Johnson’s character is the way in which he seems to be considering the rights of the animals or "lesser" beings. During a discussion with a particularly annoying young officer on the ship, Johnson criticizes the concept of man’s right to conquer that which is less intelligent:
"Sounds charming," said Johnson. "I too have read the Colonial Office handouts… I wonder what the people who wrote them’ll do now that there’s no longer any necessity for attracting colonists–everybody’s already up in Alpha Centauri. Oh well, there’ll be other systems to conquer and colonize."
"The word conquer is hardly correct," the commander said stiffly, "since not one of the three planets had any indigenous life forms that was intelligent."
"Or life forms that you recognize as intelligent," Johnson suggested gently. Although why should there be such a premium placed on intelligence? he wondered. Was intelligence the sole criterion on which the right to life and to freedom should be based?
When I read that piece, I immediately thought of the reasoning we often use when justifying our use of animals for food, clothing, testing, or entertainment. We use this idea of them being "stupid" animals to make ourselves feel better for the conditions we put them in and the way we treat them so that we can make them useful. But, like Jonathon Balcombe pointed out in Pleasurable Kingdom, we tend to judge animals intelligence against a human standard, which is ridiculous. Of course a cow looks stupid when compared to a human–it’s not good at being a human. However, we’d make pretty crappy cows. And pigs. And chickens. But those respective animals do a mighty impressive job at doing what they’re made to do.
Of course, this short passage doesn’t necessarily mean that Smith was trying to allude to animals’ rights. Perhaps she was making some other social commentary about US foreign policy or maybe it was all just part of her vision of this fictional apocalyptic future. But later in the story, after the ship has left and Johnson is left to start the remainder of his life alone on Earth, he describes the cats he sees around the city:
The streets were empty, except for the cats sunning themselves on long-abandoned doorsteps or padding about on obscure errands of their own. Perhaps their numbers had not increased since humanity had left the city to them, but there certainly seemed to be more–striped and solid, black and gray and white and tawny–accepting their citizenship with equanimity. They paid no attention to Johnson–they had long since dissociated themselves from a humanity that had not concerned itself greatly over their welfare. On the other hand, neither he nor the surface car appeared to startle them; the old ones had seen such before, and to kittens the very fact of existence is the ultimate surprise.
Later, he starts pondering his food situation:
He had even provided himself with a heat-ray gun and a substantial supply of ammunition, although he couldn’t imagine himself ever killing an animal for food. It was squeamishness that stood in his way rather than any ethical considerations, although he did indeed believe that every creature had the right to live. Nonetheless, there was the possibility that a craving for fresh meat might change his mind for him. Besides, although hostile animals had long been gone from this part of the world–the only animals would be birds and squirrels and, further up the Hudson, rabbits and chipmunks and deer… perhaps an occasional bear in the mountains–who knew what harmless life form might become a threat now that its development would be left unchecked?
Sure, he’s not exactly vegan, but let’s cut the guy a break: it’s the future as of 1957 and he’s the last person on the planet. The fact he’s still thinking about other creatures’ right to live when his own survival is at hand shows that there is indeed some ethical consideration going on, despite what he thinks.
The story’s final line a page later refers back to this paragraph:
There was plenty of room for the bears too.
It struck me that Smith devoted this much time talking about the animals left on earth after everyone had left even though the story itself is only a few short pages. We may wonder whether earth and its non-human inhabitants would be better off without us; Smith seems to thing they would be.
I was unable to find very much information on Smith (aka Delphine C. Lyons), who died in 2000, and certainly nothing linking her explicitly to vegetarianism or animal rights, but I am curious to check out some of her other work to see if this theme repeated itself in any of her other short stories or books.