Homo Saps
by Eric Frank Russell

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, December 1941

collected in —
Deep Space
Major Ingredients

November 2008

Camels on Earth and Mars

"Homo Saps" by Eric Frank Russell is a classically simple short story of science fiction. As with anything so short, I can't say much without giving away the plot. Camels on Mars, a trio of men conducting a camel caravan across Martian desert: a memorable glimpse through the sardonic prism of Russell's imagination:

Majestically the long caravan emerged from the thick belt of blue-green Martian doltha weed and paraded into the Saloma Desert. Forty-four camels stalked along with the swaying gait and high-faluting expressions of their kind. All were loaded. Beneath the burdens their deliberate, unhurried feet dug deeply into the long waves of fine, pinkish sand.

The forty-fifth animal, which was in the lead, was not a camel. It was daintier, more shapely, had a beige-colored coat and only one hump. A racing dromedary. But its expression was fully as supercilious as that worn by the others.

Not wanting to tread on Russell's expert telling of the Martian angle, I'll just provide a little background of camels on Earth, as observed by a notorious far-traveling observer. The first is his unengaged romantic view:

Coming through the Dardanelles, we saw camel trains on shore with the glasses, but we were never close to one till we got to Smyrna. ... To see a camel train laden with the spices of Arabia and the rare fabrics of Persia come marching through the narrow alleys of the bazaar ... and the crowds drifting to and fro in the fanciful costumes of the East, is a genuine revelation of the Orient. The picture lacks nothing. It casts you back at once into your forgotten boyhood, and again you dream over the wonders of the Arabian Nights ...
Mark Twain
The Innocents Abroad, Ch. 30  (1869)

Camel Market, Aden (small)

Camel helpfulness on the trail

All right, you say, but this is not quite a complete view of cameldom. Let's see what our traveler learns by the time the overland portion of his journey reaches the road to Nazareth:

A camel is as tall as any ordinary dwelling-house in Syria — which is to say a camel is from one to two, and sometimes nearly three feet taller than a good-sized man. In this part of the country his load is oftenest in the shape of colossal sacks — one on each side. He and his cargo take up as much room as a carriage. Think of meeting this style of obstruction in a narrow trail. The camel would not turn out for a king. He stalks serenely along, bringing his cushioned stilts forward with the long, regular swing of a pendulum, and whatever is in the way must get out of the way peaceably, or be wiped out forcibly by the bulky sacks.

It was a tiresome ride to us, and perfectly exhausting to the horses. We were compelled to jump over upwards of eighteen hundred donkeys, and only one person in the party was unseated less than sixty times by the camels. This seems like a powerful statement, but the poet has said, "Things are not what they seem."

I can not think of any thing, now, more certain to make one shudder, than to have a soft-footed camel sneak up behind him and touch him on the ear with its cold, flabby under-lip. A camel did this for one of the boys, who was drooping over his saddle in a brown study. He glanced up and saw the majestic apparition hovering above him, and made frantic efforts to get out of the way, but the camel reached out and bit him on the shoulder before he accomplished it. This was the only pleasant incident of the journey.

Mark Twain
The Innocents Abroad, Ch. 50  (1869)
The camel's-eye view, described

Well, that certainly will be useful as and when you find yourself traveling with a camel caravan on Mars. But let's compare with a comment from a famous bring-'em-back-alive scientific naturalist:

It is not certain whether there are any truly wild Camels left anywhere ...

In fact, the camels, though used by men for many centuries, and perhaps millennia, have maintained a singularly stubborn attitude to true domestication and, despite their wide range of build and coloration, have managed to preserve their apparently inborn loathing for all other living things and particularly men and for all forms of labor. Given the sudden and complete elimination of humans from the surface of the earth, camels would not pause for a moment in their measured tread and would doubtless continue to eat any dry scrub available on their own account instead of ours.

Ivan T. Sanderson
"Even-Toed Hoofed Mammals": Camelines
Living Mammals of the World  (1955)

I suspect that both Twain and Sanderson would find significant insight in Eric Frank Russell's little story, "Homo Saps". Of course we may not consider such insight any more cozy than what we already know.

In this same issue of Astounding as "Homo Saps" is a serial installment of Edward E. Smith's grand novel Second Stage Lensman, operating on the vast scale of the Lensman epic. Quite a contrast! And nicely illustrative of the breadth of editor John W. Campbell's vision of science fiction. Read them both.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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