Paul J. McAuley’s “Karl and the Ogre”

Paul J. McAuley’s 1988 short story, “Karl and the Ogre” is a fascinating story about a fairy tale future brought about by our genetically building super smart children who overthrow the adult hegemony. The “superbrights” were even further different than the adults who engineered them. However, the children knew children’s stories and fairy tales, so they transformed the world as they believed it should be.

In this future, Karl and Shem are normal people who were children at the time of the changing. They were allowed to grow up, and they serve the interests of the “changelings” by hunting “ogres,” normal people who escaped the change and hid in the forest.

This story mirrors many Cold War narratives of command and control systems or intelligent systems overthrowing humanity. In this case, our offspring rise up and over throw the adult/parental system, because they can. What child wouldn’t want to have things their his or her way? And, with new found abilities inscribed by the parental system, the children enforce their world view. This goes back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and continues through films such The Forbin Project (1970) and The Terminator (1984).

It’s interesting to note that the hunters are all male in the story, though we’re told that hunting parties are either all male or all female. Additionally, Karl remarks that the ogre they track down is another female, implying that there were others and this is common. The ogre, who we learn has the name Liza Jane Howard, is a virgin, which is important, because we learn that the unicorn would have speared her with his hor had she not been a virgin. Even though we’re told that boys and girls (i.e., the generic ‘children’) contributed to this magical world, what we see is a world where men are privileged over women (e.g., the water girl changeling transforming into a moth, human to insect, does this represent a loss or a lessening?).

I read this story in The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. If you’d like to find out more about the author, you can find his official website here, and his blog here.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.