My freshman English teacher loved short stories. I read them before then; I hunted copies of F&SF on waiting room tables and at libraries. I read OMNI and I dreamed of having a story in a real magazine, one that anyone might read with my actual name on it.
But this teacher was the one who gave them the breathing life they deserved. He read them out loud to us, with his thunderous, momentum-gathering voice. I can still hear him every time I think about “Animal Farm,” shaking the acoustic tiles in the room. “Surely you do not want JONES to come back.” He read us “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Necklace” and I’ve rarely if ever been so electrified in a classroom.
I remember the exact day that he read us “They’re Made Out of Meat” by Terry Bisson. It was the one and only science fiction story in that freshman lit textbook, and since it’s a dialogue, he chose another reader from the class who he thought could match him in vigor. The kid held up their end. I’m glad he didn’t choose me.
I couldn’t have read it out loud. I’d have run aground, my tongue dry on the edge of a vast and crashing sea. Hearing that reading of that story put me firmly out of my own body. I hovered somewhere above it, looking down at the textbook page from above. The illustration showed the earth through a bubble-glass window in a spaceship, and I was the alien looking down. I was everywhere and nowhere. I was in orbit and when I came back to my planet I would find it irrevocably changed.
If you haven’t read this story, go now and read it. It’s less than a thousand words, and it’s all over the internet for free. It’s been adapted a thousand times as a radio play; go look at YouTube if you don’t want to read. You won’t be sorry.
Good, now I can’t spoil it for you.
The conceit is that aliens are monitoring earth and deciding whether or not to make contact. Their sticking point, their disgust and (forgive me) alienation is born of the fact that we’re made out of meat. This makes our lives short and kind of gross. They cannot believe that we have consciousness, that we make art. Their disgust for this pulls them away, unwilling to make contact or even report our existence. They’d be humiliated to bring meat to the country club, you see.
My disassociation was layered and intense in the moment. I knew I was meat. I knew I had been used like meat, disrespected like meat, and consumed like meat all my life. It made me think of a thousand things at once. Of being catcalled when I was nine and being criticized on my gender presentation all the time. Of the smell of blood and the year before, when I had seen a kid get punched and fall down hard on his chin, biting through and severing the tip of his tongue. It lay there on the pavement, explicitly meat now. I thought of the dead bodies I had seen; that very year I had left for school in the morning and seen a man who’d been stabbed to death with a garden stake, cold and covered with dew from the marine layer. I knew viscerally that meat lives a short life full of inconvenient liquids and easy infections, and that we still make music. Still make art. Still have consciousness.
It was a supernova in the meat of my brain. I knew then that I wanted to write science fiction, because this story showed me what science fiction could do. I knew that I was going to write about being meat while being meat. It grounded my work in the body and still does. I wanted to write like a steak that looked up at the stars.
When I met Terry Bisson in San Francisco twenty years later, I tried to explain this to him. I did what fans do; I tripped over the gristle of my own emotions and the common lunchmeat texture of moments like this to a person like him. I reminded him of this moment when he interviewed me for my short story collection, “Big Girl.” He was very gracious, but he did not remember me at all.
Meat remembers. And ultimately, meat forgets.