"There were no bears on #772, no camels, no horses, sheep or dogs. No cats or pigs. Few rodents. ...Perhaps a germ from outer space had wiped the mammals out, or a bad freeze; Hitch didn't know and hardly cared... His job was to find out how it was that livestock was such an important enterprise, dominating the economies of this world. Barns were everywhere, and milk a staple industry -- yet there were no cows or goats or similar domesticants."
A short story written by Piers Anthony, first published in Harlan Ellison's 1972 anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions. It follows Hitch, an interdimensional agent from "Earth Prime" with a seemingly mundane task: He's been charged with finding out what technologically-retarded Earth #772 does to achieve its surprising level of agricultural output before Earth Prime makes an official "first contact"
Warning: Complete spoilers follow.
The main character, Hitch, is essentially a farm inspector - only he moves between various Earths along the probability line instead of various towns along the highway. He's sent to Earth #772, a world that suffered a great global catastrophe only a few decades earlier, in which nearly all mammals went extinct. to investigate what precisely the source is of their milk and other livestock. He teleports to a forest outside a rural farm and quickly gets himself hired as a workhand. Instantly he finds himself confused by the owner's references to "the cows", thinking that he might have been sent on this mission for no more reason than simple bueraucratic error. It doesn't take long, though, for him to start working in the barn and find out what the source of all the milk is: human women.
These aren't normal women, though. Their breasts have swollen to the size of watermelons, possibly as a result of hormone injections. They can't speak, and they behave in the most mindless way imaginable. They don't act like human beings, but rather like stupid animals. They appear to be perfectly content sitting in their stalls, eating biscuits, sleeping in straw, and being milked regularly.
Hitch goes through a variety of emotional states rather quickly. At first he's utterly horrified at the obvious human rights abuses made against these women (and, as he later discovers, some men as well). As he goes about his job, feeding and milking the various "cows", he begins to get used to thinking of them as animals. After all, he reasons, they may be human in biology, but they show no sign of human intelligence, whatever reason for that there may be. He has difficulty accepting this, however, and the dilemma is only exacerbated when he comes across Iota.
Iota is a young woman, perhaps sixteen years old - but she looks astonishingly like Hitch's boss, and even has the same name. The girl is in heat when he comes across her, and Hitch's own sexual frustration is at a peak. He decides to have sex with her, and nearly does so - but after seeing the mindless lust Iota's eyes, Hitch recoils in horror, realizing that fucking a human in such a bestial state would be no different than fucking any other animal. In anger, he takes her to the "bullpen", where similarly animal-like human men are kept to breed with the "cows". When he comes back, one of the other women is giving birth, and the farmer angrily accosts him, demanding to know why she was left to do it in her stall, "in violation of the law and policies of compassionate procedure". As Hitch listens to the farmer, he realizes that despite the seeming brutality of the whole endeavor, the man genuinely has affection and concern for his "animals". After the childbirth is complete, the baby is taken to the farmer's wife (who is as mentally normal as her husband), who explains and demonstrates quite well why the animals act the way they do: their tongues are cut on birth so they cannot speak, and they are left isolated in dark rooms for their first three years of life, and get as little protein as possible for their first six years - rendering them as dumb as any rodent.
Hitch returns to Earth Prime, and finds himself confused. He watched the cows there, and it comes into his head that the way his world treats its livestock is no different than how Earth #772 treats theirs. He wonders if Earth Prime has the right to pass judgement on that world - for when he writes his report, they will surely make war on #772 to stop the injustices there. And he worries that there might be worlds yet unfound, more powerful than his Earth, which might consider their treatment of "lesser" animals as unacceptable as they consider #772's abuses. And he thinks...
What sort of a report could he afford to make?
Like many stories in the Dangerous Visions books, "In The Barn" was rejected by many publications on grounds of content before being picked up by Ellison. However, I very much get the feeling that the story owed its previous rejections not so much to the story's message or the scenario depicted, but due to the gross anatomical detail that Anthony goes into. I could be wrong -- in the introduction to the story, it's indicated that the author added 4000 words at Ellison's behest, and it may have been exactly those parts which were specially elongated for the purposes of the book. I have no way of knowing.
"In the Barn" is supposed to shock its readers - indeed, that's more or less the purpose of Dangerous Visions in the first place - but I have to confess that it didn't have such an effect on me - nor did it surprise me at all. Of course, anybody who is an indiscriminate connoisseur of word porn is likely to have come across scenarios similar to that in Anthony's story, and Ellison's introduction also hints at the big shock; furthermore, if you hadn't already puzzled out what the secret of #772 was going to be by the time you finished the intro, the illustrator's depiction of a barn with human breasts sticking out of it right about the story's title would be a rather large clue.
The story also suffers from at least one major plothole: the entire point of Hitch's mission is to discover where Earth #772's milk comes from. We are given the feeling that there is something dark and sinister and vile about it - and there is, from our perspective. But it's obvious from the way the story unfolds that the people of #772 see nothing unseemly about the situation, and no reason to hide it. Hitch notes early on that a sign in front of the farm depicted a nude woman. He didn't realize it at the time, of course, but this was indicating that it was a dairy farm. Neither the farmer, his wife, or the various other farmhands are suspicious or wary of Hitch, as one would expect if they were doing something they considered wrong. We are given to understand that there is an entire body of law surrounding the treatment of human bulls and cows. Nothing about any of this is hidden, it's all out in the open. Point being: An agent from Earth Prime could just as easily have gone to a library or read the label on a milk carton and found out where the milk comes from that way.
I also find it difficult to believe that such a radical change in social order could occur so quickly. The reader is given the impression that no more than fifty years have passed since the great catastrophe which killed off most of the world's mammals. Statements by the farmer make it clear that before this, they used actual bovines for milk. I find it unlikely that in such a short time such a radical change could be accepted.
Anthony is very careful to make certain we do not attribute the treatment of these humans to any specific prejudice: It isn't racism; The "cows" and "bulls" are all Caucasian (and though Anthony doesn't actually say that the farmers are as well, it's implied), and presumably they aren't chosen as "livestock" based on hair or eye color. It isn't sexism, both males and females are subjected to this cruelty, and if there are fewer males, it's because the farmers kill most of them because they only need a few bulls. There is in fact no specific quality given to explain why one woman was fated to be a cow, and the other is a normal, thinking human being. The meaning is very plain: Anthony means to imply that there is no distinction between these animalized humans and the animals we in the real world use for food. If this is not clear to the reader upon finishing the story, the afterword contained in Again, Dangerous Visions says as much.
The problem with this point of view, as I see it, is that there is an intrinsic difference between a human being and a cow or a chicken. A human is a highly intelligent, rational being; cows and chickens are not. Of course one can lock up a human baby and keep it malnourished and keep it from learning language, and that will severely degrade its intelligence - but the fact that you have to do all that is the point. You don't have to do anything to a cow or a chicken for it to be dumb - it's born that way. (The fact that some humans are born with limited mental faculties doesn't obscure the point - whether the manipulation is man's or nature's, it's still a forced deviation from the human norm.) All this is not to say that the treatment of farm animals is not cruel, I merely take issue with Anthony's attempt to treat the two situations as morally equivalent. (Furthermore, unless I misunderstand Anthony, he takes the tack that any use of animals by humans is inhumane, and thus even truly "free range" animal farms would be considered objectional under his view.)
To sum it up: "In the Barn" is a decent story with an interesting message, but the plot is lacking and the main idea somewhat dubious in its implications.
Let the veggie downvoting begin!
StrawberryFrog says So why didn't thery just reintroduce cows from cross-time instead of making war?
That's a good question. The only answer I can give (other than that it's another plothole) is that it would be an incredibly massive undertaking: We are given to understand that this human farming is going on all over Earth #772, and due to the catastrophe which essentially destroyed the industrial civilization, there are many, many more farms than on Earth Prime (which I presume is our world). Furthermore, once could take the notion that the 772ers would be too set in their ways to go back to bovines, although if it were a choice between switching animals and having war they might do it. One does also wonder what they'd do with all the human "cows" and "bulls" after the switchover was complete - they've been rendered completely unable to participate in society.