Preliminary note: This is the third post in a series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. All of the stories I’ll review are available online. You are welcome to read and discuss along with me as I explore humanity’s visions of generational voyage. And thanks go out to all who have joined already!
Next up: John Brunner’s “Lungfish” in Science-Fantasy, December 1957, ed. John Carnell (PDF link).
Previously: Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations” (variant title: “Target Generation” (1953).
I’ve compiled a helpful list on the theme.
(Ed Emshwiller’s cover for the December 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Robert P. Mills)
In Judith Merril’s “Daughters of Earth” (1952), she refashions the classic pulp SF tale of male exploration of the galaxy by tracing, in biblical fashion, one family of female explorers. In “Wish Upon A Star” (1958), Merril reworks another trope—the male hero on a generation ship who discovers the true nature of his world by fighting against the repressive forces that keep stability and order.
On Merril’s generation ship the gender roles are reversed. Men care for children and perform other domestic acts while women are promoted up the chain of command. By focusing on a young boy attempting to understand the world around him, Merril subverts the reader’s expectations of the male hero. His everyday struggles—his desire to learn the details of the voyage and have access to the same education as his female counterparts—mirror those of women in 50s society.
A radical story but a quiet one—a slice-of-life rumination where the action stays in the distance, in the board rooms and classrooms of the female crew, the places where men cannot go.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
Sheik, a thirteen year-old child of the second generation of crewmen, spends his days caring for plants in Suvival‘s hydroponics bay and looking after the younger children. The plants, and their shadows, thriving under their grow lights are his passion (89). He yearns to learn what the women on the ship are allowed to know: “They’d make [Naomi] read all the books he wanted, whether she cared or not, and put her to learn in the lab” (88). Women on the Survival are destined for command. Men care for the children and perform lower-level maintenance.
The Survival, designed for up to four generations of colonists, left Earth to find a habitable planet for “the spillover of the home world’s crowded billions” (94). The original crew of twenty-four included five women for each man for “obvious biological race-survival reasons” (94). The women prevent the men from learning the status of the voyage.
Chaffing against the constraints imposed on him, Sheik’s father Bob remembers society pre-departure, which he would describes as a Golden Age, where men “ruled their homes” (94). In paranoid fashion Bob speculates with his male friends that the women “wouldn’t want to land” (96) in order to keep their positions of power intact. Sheik doesn’t know precisely what to make of these paranoid declarations, “fairy-tale stuff” (94), as he is a product Survival’s new society. But the relentless desire for knowledge and the ability to make choices and facilitate change course through him. He is left to wish for change. But can society change?
Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)
In order to identify Merril’s reworking of the generation ship trope it is worth comparing her depiction of women to that of Chad Oliver and Clifford D. Simak. In Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” (1957) women are entirely secondary to the narrative. It is unclear if any women have escaped the vessel. In Simak’s “Spacebred Generations” (1953), Jon refuses to tell his wife May his important role in bringing about the end of the voyage. Only at the end does she learn of Jon’s mission and she attempts to help him. Her interpretation of their new freedom boils down to the question: “Can we have children now?” (21).
I would suggest that Merril’s story allows her to explore the experiences and thoughts of women relegated to the periphery. At no point does the perspective shift from that of her young narrator. We see only what he is allowed to see. His thoughts are his own, but what he is allowed to say is constrained. Sheik is not the center of action. He has limited knowledge due to his gender and age. He observes the world around him. The adult men dream and even plot the revolution that might happen when, and if, a suitable planet is found. Sheik on the other hand is a product of the second generation. He struggles with his proscribed role in society but must soldier on in the only way he knows.
Merril presents a slice-of-life tale rather than an action-packed fucral sequence in the history of the voyage. For all we know the end of the voyage is neigh but that knowledge cannot be disseminated to the men. And it’s in this tentative gray area of the periphery, in the shadows of plants, that Sheik inhabits and dreams.
Note: Please join my read-through of vintage SF generation ship short stories. You can find this one here.
MPorcius reviewed the story here.
Expendable Mudge reviewed the story here.
(Derek Carter’s cover for the 1st edition of Survival Ship and Other Stories (1974), Judith Merril)
(Gray Morrow’s cover for the 1st edition of The Best of Judith Merril (1976), Judith Merril)
(Jon Lomberg’s cover for the 1st edition of Daughters of Earth and Other Stories (1985), Judith Merril)
For additional book reviews consult the INDEX.