“What I Didn’t See” by Karen Joy Fowler: A Digital Domains Review

Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Datlow. Cover design by Stephen H. Segal.

“What I Didn’t See” is a short story by Karen Joy Fowler that was published on SCIFICTION on July 10, 2002.

Onto the review!

The Story: An Expedition They’ll Never Forget

The protagonist narrates her memories of an expedition to Africa, where she would be one of the first white women to ever behold the wild gorillas in their natural environment.  However, what plagues the trip–and proves to be its own downfall–is not the threat of the wild, but the frailties of the human heart.  It ends with the startling disappearance of the other woman on the trip–Beverly–and the wanton slaughter of the gorillas by the men leading the expedition, who prove not to be quite so strong or noble as they believed themselves to be.

The Cast: They’re Not So Civilized After All

The team of researchers and other enthusiasts traveling to Africa consists of the narrator and her husband Eddie, the team leader Archer, a young man named Wilmet, Merion, and his current girlfriend Beverly.  It’s obvious from the get-go that the men are meant to be handling everything on the assignment, while keeping the women in the background on account of their ‘delicate sensibilities,’ even to the ridiculous degree that believing women having their menstrual cycles will somehow put them at greater risk of being attacked by gorillas.

Offsetting the men’s comfortable roles is Beverly, who is described as being:

a modern girl in 1928 and [who] could chew gun, smoke, and wipe the lipstick off her mouth and onto yours all at the same time (Fowler 165-166).

She gets into arguments with Merion and insists on being more rambunctious than Archer would allow, then disappears from the camp entirely.  Her very presence is a catalyst, torturing the men around her and raising the spirits and the courage of the narrator.

The Theme: How The Other Sex Lived

Karen Joy Fowler has admitted in one interview that her inspiration for this story came about after reading about a similar African safari where women were prominently featured:

I was researching my chimp book when I read an essay by Donna Harroway in Primate Dreams, in which she talks about a safari in the early 1920s where a collector for the New York Museum of Natural History was bagging specimens for their dioramas and needed gorillas. Early reports of gorillas had suggested that they were ferocious and therefore there was a lot of prestige in hunting them and bringing them down. In order to counter that, on this safari he took women with him. His plan was, if women could kill gorillas, no man would bother any more.

It’s also been said that her story is a deconstruction of pulp magazine stories, where brave men enter the wilderness and prevail against all kind of savage beasts–stories in which women and the natives would be peripheral.  In this case, she plays up the chauvinism of the men without loudly denouncing it, letting all their human errors and other flaws reveal themselves naturally instead of whitewashing them as the pulp stories did.

There’s also the brief image we get from the narrator’s perspective of a male gorilla moving away from her, while its female companions dutifully follow after.  This is later remarked upon as what happened to Beverly: that she abandoned the confines of civilization and pursued her freedom in the wild with the gorillas, while the narrator only followed after the men of her group.

Final Verdict: Weaving Together What Really Happened

“What I Didn’t See” is an excellent tale that quietly tears a hole in the old tales of adventure, revealing the human flaws and quiet agony experienced by not only the men, but the women who accompanied them.  It’s sensitive without being sentimental, it delivers its message without hitting you over the head, and while it may have drawn some criticism at the time for not fitting the formula of most science fiction stories, it’s still a great story of scientists and the turmoil in their personal lives.

Bibliography: Fowler, Karen Joy.  “What I Didn’t See.”  Digital Domains: A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  Edited by Ellen Datlow.  Prime Books, 2010.

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