Primates have played an integral part in looking at the human condition over the years. Not to be left out of the debate, the worlds of science fiction have also had their fair share of participation in the examination. It’s difficult to deny that the interwoven character development between man and simian has provided some fun and occasionally eye opening moments in literature. An Ape about the House by Arthur C. Clarke throws a wrench in the debate by simply focusing on the human factor.
When I first came across this story, it was from the 1978 Puffin edition anthology of The Worlds of Arthur C. Clarke – Of Time and Stars. The first thing that came to mind was The Planet of the Apes. Though it has sown up in many other outlets over the years, An Ape about the House first appeared in the 1962 Clarke anthology Tales of Ten Worlds. French novelist Pierre Boulle’s book Planet of the Apes came out a year later, yet it was the 1968 film starring Charlton Heston that truly launched the long ranging franchise and the primary influence in our perception of the rise of the ape.
In An Ape about the House, the wife of an astronaut is the unnamed protagonist providing the first person account as she is left at home with their two children while her husband is off visiting other planets. To make life more tolerable and perhaps to keep up with the social status of a spaceman, she decides to order a house servant to perform nursery and other domestic duties. But this is not your ordinary hired help.
Dorcas is a biologically engineered servant. “The Super-Chimp (Registered Trade-mark) Pan Sapiens is an intelligent anthropoid, derived by selective breeding and genetic modification from basic chimpanzee stock –” Though considered not very bright, she can actually speak over fifty words and understand a couple hundred. And aside from the annoying habit of picking things up with her feet, Dorcas quickly fits in with the family and becomes a helpful aid around the house.
The drama comes not from the awkward addition of a simian servant, but from a disagreement between the wife and the wife of her husband’s boss, the Commodore of the Space Service. The exact cause of the tiff is purposely unclear, a clear insinuation of the emotional instability of the speaker. So when the Commodore’s wife Christine uses her social status to flaunt her inferior artwork, our protagonist who also happens to be well schooled in art decided to show her up with her own paintings. The twist would be her claim that the artwork was performed by entirely by Dorcas.
After training Dorcas in the basics of painting techniques, the wife soon spreads the word about the new talent in town. Christine’s embarrassment in being outclassed by an ape causes her to cancel her next art exhibition. But when Christine goes to see the creature in action, the reader learns that Dorcas is more talented than the wife had believed possible. It turns out that the ape is even a better painter than either of the two women. Oh, and she uses her feet.
The core of this story is not based on the crazy idea of a talking ape. Readers are not expected to be in awe of a creature showing human abilities and understanding. No, An Ape about the House is an examination of the social insecurities that make up the house. Sadly, what it means to be human often reflects our ineptitude to differentiate between human qualities and those of wild animals. And sometimes, that difference becomes blurred.
In my mind’s eye, it’s difficult to read Arthur C. Clarke’s An Ape about the House without constantly picturing images from those classic ape films. I realize that this short story is more about the relationship between humans while the ape factor is merely a prop, but I just can’t shake that feeling of dread – probably because of all those fantastic movies. Think about it! If Dorcas can master the arts with her feet, what can she do with her hands?