Thursday, December 10, 2009

Superior Species

The question of whether vampires would have the “right” to treat us as mere prey or livestock, which I touched on last week, is something I’ve thought about a lot, since the issue impinges on my fiction as well as forming a major theme in much of the fiction I read. I’ve never thought of, “I’m physically and mentally superior to you, not to mention immortal” as a valid excuse for “using” another sapient being. Dr. Weyland in Suzy McKee Charnas’ THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY regards Homo sapiens as livestock, while Miriam in THE HUNGER thinks of some human beings as pets, but in either case the prey or pet has no rights. Again, would we approve of extraterrestrials who treated us that way? The aliens in the TV series “V” and the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode “To Serve Man” eat human beings, and the audience is clearly expected to consider them villains for doing so.

Amusing twist on this point in Heinlein’s PODKAYNE OF MARS, by the way: The narrator mentions to an interplanetary tourist that Venusians have sometimes been known to eat Terrans. The other person exclaims in horror at the idea of Venusian “cannibals.” Podkayne says they aren’t cannibals—they don’t eat each other, just us.

That a superior species should feel free to use us the way we use most animals would imply that “superiority” within the human species would justify treating, for instance, people with below-average intelligence like animals. Cultures that have taken this attitude, such as Nazi Germany, are generally classified as evil. Controversial bioethicist Peter Singer, as a champion of “animal rights,” maintains that species should be irrelevant; intellectual and emotional capacity should determine the treatment to which an individual is entitled. Accordingly, he thinks a healthy chimpanzee should have more rights than a human fetus or a severely disabled human child. I don’t agree, but I have to admire the consistency of his convictions. At the same time, though I don’t think chimps should have “human rights,” I’m repelled by the idea of eating them (as some cultures do)—same with such complex creatures as elephants or dolphins.

Someone at the Darkover vampire panel suggested that if I were starving, I wouldn’t hesitate to eat a dolphin. That comment, naturally, brought up the topic of shipwrecked sailors and stranded pioneers devouring their human companions. Although such acts might be excused in cases of desperation, we don’t actually approve of them. Nor does our culture approve of slavery nowadays, another practice that used to be defended on the grounds of "superior" and "inferior" groups.

People who believe angels exist hold that they’re far above us in the chain of being. Yet they aren’t supposed to mistreat us. Angels who do that are called demons. C. S. Lewis in THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS postulates that demons feed on life energy (especially negative emotions such as pain and fear), ours and that of lesser devils.

My vampires don’t have to kill when they feed on human prey (or donors). Those who do are condemned for drawing attention to their kind, and vampires who kill with sloppy conspicuousness, if caught by the elders, are punished. Still, most vampires do think of us as merely very intelligent, useful animals. The vampire heroes of my novels, of course, are the exceptions among their race. They’re capable of recognizing some human beings—or at least one, the beloved—as potential equals.

That kind of relationship brings up another ethical problem: If your vampire lover (or werewolf, demon, ET alien, etc.) treats you as an equal but still thinks of everybody else as lower animals, are you morally justified in overlooking this fact and embracing your status as the exception? Suzy McKee Charnas touches on this issue in the provocative essay “The Beast’s Embrace” in the “Byways” area of her website:
Suzy McKee Charnas

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. "If your vampire lover (or werewolf, demon, ET alien, etc.) treats you as an equal but still thinks of everybody else as lower animals, are you morally justified in overlooking this fact and embracing your status as the exception?"

    No, because if he still thinks of other humans as inferiors then I am unconvinced he truly thinks of his lover as an equal.

    It's like telling President Obama he's nice...for a black guy. It would be an insult to him, and to all African Americans.

  2. I think that's a very valid point, Kimber!