To Serve Man

Today’s morning name, the crucial expression from a famous Twilight Zone episode, crucially ambiguous.

“To Serve Man” is episode 89 (#24 Season 3) of the anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959 TV series). It originally aired on March 2, 1962 on CBS. Based on Damon Knight’s short story of the same title, the episode was written by Rod Serling and directed by Richard L. Bare. It remains one of the best known episodes from the series, particularly for its final twist. (Wikipedia link)

In the episode, the alien Kanamits arrive, causing great consternation. Then, from the key part of the Wikipedia retelling of the plot, the reveal:

After answering questions, the Kanamit departs without comment and leaves a book in the Kanamit language, which leads to Michael Chambers, a US government cryptographer, being pressed into service.

Initially wary of an alien race who came “quite uninvited”, international leaders begin to be persuaded of the Kanamits’ benevolence when their advanced technology puts an end to hunger, energy shortages, and the arms race. Trust in the Kanamits seems to be justified when Patty, a member of the cryptography staff led by Chambers, decodes the title of the Kanamit book: To Serve Man. The Kanamits submit to interrogation and polygraph, at the request of the UN delegates. When declaring their benevolent intentions, the polygraph indicates that the Kanamit is speaking the truth.

Soon, humans are volunteering for trips to the Kanamits’ home planet, which they describe as a paradise. Kanamits now have embassies in every major city on Earth. With the U.S. Armed Forces having been disbanded and world peace having been achieved, the code-breaking staff has no real work to do, but Patty is still trying to work out the meaning of the text of To Serve Man.

The day arrives for Chambers’s excursion to the Kanamits’ planet. Just as he mounts the spaceship’s boarding stairs, Patty runs toward him in great agitation. While being held back by a Kanamit guard, Patty cries: “Mr. Chambers, don’t get on that ship! The rest of the book To Serve Man, it’s… it’s a cookbook!”

So the Kanamits have been more or less literally cultivating human beings, as a source of high-quality food, as humans in agricultural societies have traditionally done with cows, pigs, sheep, fowl, and other creatures, nurturing them to maximize their food value and then slaughtering them. The creatures are mere property, to be used as their owners wish.

No doubt this particular morning name came to my consciousness though the George Floyd / Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which evoke the monstrous history of chattel slavery in the US (and in other lands colonized by Europeans, but the American version is the one that touches me personally). In chattel slavery, human beings are legally mere property, to be used as their owners wish (primarily, for their labor, like horses).

In principle, chattel slavery was abolished in the US in the middle of the 19th century, but the system was re-created, over and over, in other forms over the years, and the attitudes surrounding chattel slaves seem almost impervious: apparently, a great many white Americans still unconsciously view black people, but especially black teenage and adult males, as intrinsically threatening, as dangerous animals that belong in their compounds, not let loose in the wider world. That is grievously dismaying.

Footnote 1. Credits to the three main actors in “To Serve Man”:

Lloyd Bochner as Michael Chambers; Richard Kiel as the Kanamits (all of whom appear alike); Susan Cummings as Patty

Footnote 2. The ambiguity in the verb serve. From NOAD:

verb serve: [with object] 1 [a] perform duties or services for (another person or an organization): Malcolm has served the church very faithfully. … 2 [a] present (food or drink) to someone: they serve wine instead of beer | serve white wines chilled. [b] present (someone) with food or drink: [with two objects]:  Peter served them generous portions of soup | I’ll serve you with coffee and cake. …

(The second set of senses would seem to be pretty clearly a specialization of the first, though, according to OED2, both are attested from early forms of English, and both seem to be predated by senses having to do with acting as a servant.)




4 Responses to “To Serve Man”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Given whose blog this is, I was kind of expecting that the sexual sense of serve would get introduced somewhere along the line. Just goes to show that one should not make assumptions.

  2. thnidu Says:

    And it seems extremely unlikely that this ambiguous English word would correspond so neatly to an identically ambiguous word in a non-human, let alone unrelated, language. Not my observation, but I saw it years ago and can’t credit it.

  3. The Best Twilight Zone Memorabilia on Etsy | Geeky Domain Says:

    […] yes, the intergalactic gourmet species, the Kanamit, from the ultimate fan-favorite episode “To Serve Man.” This episode represents The Twilight Zone in its peak form: A script based on a sci-fi […]

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