Book Review: The Seedling Stars, James Blish (1957)

Overall score 3.75/5 (Good)

James Blish’s The Seedling Stars is a collection of three novelettes (Seeding Program, The Thing in the Attic, Surface Tension) and a short story (Watershed).  Each is loosely connected by internal chronology and subject matter: pantropy (the modifications of humans for live on other planets instead of terraforming).  The quality of the stories––published between 1952-55––is somewhat uneven although they remain Blish’s most famous.

(4/5) Seeding Program

This story examines the beginnings of the the practice of Pantropy.  Sweeney, an Adapted Man, is placed by the Terran Port Authority in a colony of Adapted Men and their chief scientist on the moon Ganymede.  His task, bring the fugitives back to Earth so he can become human.  Sweeney eventually discovers that during his sheltered life under a dome on the Moon he was indoctrinated with lies about the Adapted Men.  He eventually realizes that he’ll never become human and decides to remain with his new family.  He assists in the launching of the new seed ships from Ganymede which head off across the galaxy to find suitable planets for pantropy.

I really enjoyed this story.  I was expecting slick 1950s space ships and was pleasantly surprised when Blish describes a much more feasible spaceship of modules placed in a metal framework.  The scientist and his Adapted Men is very similar to the plot of Star Trek’s The Wrath of Khan and the follow up episodes in Star Trek: Enterprise.  I suspect Blish might have been an early inspiration…

(2/5) The Thing in the Attic

The Thing in the Attic is by far the weakest selection of the collection.  A group of renegade furry Adapted Men on a heavily forest planet are cast down into Hell (the ground level of the forest filled with dinosaurs) for believing that the Gods (the original human planet seeders) don’t exist but are instead symbolic.  These renegades figure out how to defeat the dinosaurs (a system of genocide — destroying their eggs).  Some die.  The two survivors come across their “Gods” who have returned to the planet to check on the progress of the furry monkey-like Adapted Men.

Blish has fun with describing the world but ends up advocating the massive destruction of species (the dinosaurs).  He apparently feels it’s justified since the Adapted Men are figuring out how to survive in their new environments and thus act more like animals — well maybe more like Kudzu, unfortunately introduced to the US causing the massive destruction of native species.

(5/5) Surface Tension

This story, although continuing the worrisome theme described in The Thing in the Attic, deserves to be read for it’s extraordinarily inventive.  A seeding ship crashes on a water world with a single island (with some fresh water ponds and rivulets).  The survivors carry out their original project of seeding the world but with the knowledge that they will never return to their own homes.

The “humans” they develop are almost microscopic and are placed in the fresh water ponds.  PETRI DISH BATTLES ENSUE.  The microscopic Adapted Humans (with lungs, etc) fight the vicious rotifers, enlist the aid of Parameciums, and with the help of inscribe metal tablets left by their primogenitors eventually develop a two inch “space craft” that crawls along the bottom of the pond out of the water onto land.

This is a wonderfully well realized little novelette.  The various microscopic organisms are lovingly described by Blish.  A kaleidoscopic adventure worthwhile for its sheer inventiveness…

(4/5) Watershed

Although a very short short story (which should have been expanded), Watershed examines the bigotry held by the “original form” humans (now a minority) for the other various unusual looking Adapted Men.  A spaceship crewed with “original form” humans is sent to Earth –– which has become a desert wasteland –– with seal-like Adapted Men to reintroduce man to the planet.  The “original form” humans are faced with the unusual position of watching the home world of the human race being reseeded by Adapted Men.

Considering this story was written in the 50s, the discussion of racism is very admirable.  However, Blish should have expanded it substantially.  The impact of the reseeding of Earth is too dramatic for this cursory treatment.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: The Seedling Stars, James Blish (1957)

  1. It’s funny to see that you’re still reading some Blish stuff. Remember when we read “A Case of Conscience” within a few months of each other? Not bad, that one. What do you think of the “Cities in Flight” novels?

    Funny you should mention a plot parallel with a Trek movie. What originally put me off Blish was that he’d written a few ST novels.

  2. Yes, he wrote the first 12 Star Trek novelizations…. which I haven’t read. And, I think the best sci-fi comes from the 50s, 60s, and 70s… hehe… The Cities in Flight novels are all sitting on my shelf waiting to be read…. I think I’m going to read some more Barrington Bayley or Brunner first though — or Heinlein’s Double Star (1956).

  3. It’s a really interesting concept, Pantropy, and interesting how Blish uses a collection of short stories to create a larger literary chronology. (A good marketing strategy, so these stories could be placed in SF mags previous to the book publishing, I’m sure.)

    You could be right about his influencing the Star Trek franchise; There’s certainly a strong Blish/ST connection, as I’m sure you know, since he wrote the Star Trek novelizations (1-12) and “Spock Must Die!”

  4. Yes, I know about his ST novelizations…

    Definitely, Blish is first one of the proponents of “fix-up” novels cobbled together from previously published short stories — The Seedling Stars was even marketed as a novel, which is preposterous…

  5. Read this a few months and thought it was decent. The stories are uneven. Surface Tension is no surprise the standout of the four stories. The forth is pretty short and hard to judge. It is just a epilogue. The first two are okay but there is nothing about them really sticks out. And the ending of the second pushed coincidence a bit too much.

  6. “Watershed” is brilliant, I think. Yes, it’s very short, but it makes its point beautifully.

    “Surface Tension” is very good — it’s interesting to compare the multiple sources. (The original story “Sunken Universe” as by Arthur Merlin (does that scream “pseudonym” or what?) in SUPER SCIENCE STORIES in the early ’40s, before Blish knew how to write), then the Galaxy version of “Surface Tension”, then the novel version, with a rewritten “Sunken Universe” merged with “Surface Tension”.)

    • Hello Rich, ah, you’re stepping back to the more-than-a-decade ago reviews that I only vaguely remember! I do still have positive memory fragments about both “Watershed” and “Surface Tension.” I did not know about the “Sunken Universe” predecessor and I could imagine that it would be fun and somewhat productive to trace Blish’s evolution by comparing the two.

      • Yes, I had occasion to look up “Watershed” and one thing that showed up in my Google search was your review, so I went ahead and read it! (I noticed how old it was.) “Watershed” is a long-time favorite of mine, actually.

        I use my own old reviews to refresh my memory of stories I read a long time ago!

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