The Ugly Little Boy
© 1991 Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg. Based on the 1958 short story by Asimov.
How would you like to babysit a Neanderthal? Granted, Edith Fellowes didn’t realize that was the job description. She knew she’d be responsible for caring for a small boy from the past — a wild child, a true savage who could not discern the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork — but never did she imagine working with a true Neanderthal. (Besides her boss, anyway.) A company called Stasis, Ltd. has developed the technology to pull small articles from the far past and hold them in a stasis bubble for study, and a young Neanderthal has become the unwitting subject of their experimentation. There are of course ethical issues at hand, but so long as the newspapers continue to describe him as an ape-boy, who will raise qualms about his capture? No one but Miss Fellowes. As the boy’s nurse, his constant companion, his teacher, the closest thing he has to a mother, she sees him not as an experiment but a boy. He is her Timmie, her ward, a complete person whom she loves despite his jarring looks and growling attempts at English. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, Fellowes loves Timmie more than she loves her job — and when they try to end the experiment and send him back after years of isolation, she takes matters into her own hands.
Asimov often referred to “The Ugly Little Boy” as one of his very favorite short stories, though it was never one I particularly cared for. Robert Silverberg’s expansion adds much of interest here, as he did with “Nightfall” and “The Positronic Man“. The characters are fleshed out greatly, and humanized in the case of Fellowes’ boss Hoskins. Silverberg includes another sub-story, one that follows Timmie’s increasingly-stressed tribe as their numbers dwindle and they find themselves surrounded by ‘Others’…..us. This provides an interesting contrast to Asimov’s development of little Timmie; while the original story relied solely on archaeological evidence, Silverburg offers speculation into Neanderthal culture. Timmie’s tribe doen’t create representational art not because they can’t grasp creating representational images, but because they don’t want to anger the spirits. (Silverberg doesn’t delve much into his Neanderthal tribe’s religion: it seems vaguely animistic with a central Goddess, presumably an earth mother.) The two stories ultimately intersect at the end, with a conclusion that invites speculation*. Silverberg also adds another angle to the story proper, in the form of a political agitator who harries Stasis, Ltd. to make sure they are providing a healthy environment for the child. The agitator, Mannheim, is the sort who sues companies into bankruptcy, so his increasing interest in ‘helping’ the incredibly well-nurtured but lonely Timmie adds urgency to Stasis, Ltd’s desire to end the experiment.
While the Neanderthal chapters took some getting used to — the characters have names like ‘Dark Wind’, ‘Milky Fountain’, ‘She Who Knows’ — their conflicts with the ‘others’ have interest. It is intriguing to reflect that once upon a time there were two distinct kinds of humans, very different from one another physically, but close enough to compete for the same resources and perhaps for even the same dinner dates. Modern research dates the original 1950s facts of Asimov’s story, but Silverberg cushions the blow. I found the story much more appealing in novel form, but perhaps I merely enjoyed it more these days because I am more sentimental now: I find Fellowes’ passion for Timmie more engaging than the technological aspect. To date I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Silverberg-Asimov expansions of Asimov’s originals, and The Ugly Little Boy is no exception. It made a story I found fair into one which was truly enjoyable.
* Spoiler: Fellowes decides to puncture the stasis bubble and allows herself to be thrown back into time with Timmie. In the novel, they appear in a blaze of light between the increasingly confused and stressed camps of Cro Magnons and Neanderthals, who are immediately awed by her. Is she worshipped as a god? Do she and Timmie go into business as translators? Do they all get eaten by short-faced bears? We’ll never know…
(Okay, no being eaten by short-faced bears. They were a North American thing, and the Neanderthals never got around to doing the pilgrim thing and discovering the new world. They just wandered into the mists of history in Iberia…)