Generation Ship Short Story Review: Judith Merril’s “Wish Upon A Star” (1958)

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!

Previously: Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations” (variant title: “Target Generation” (1953).

Next up: John Brunner’s “Lungfish” in Science-Fantasy, December 1957, ed. John Carnell (PDF link).

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)

4.25/5 (Good)

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.

56 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: Judith Merril’s “Wish Upon A Star” (1958)

  1. I’m having second thoughts about a comment I wrote about this on MPorcius’ review.

    Why do the men only dream of reinstating the patriarchy? Why aren’t there rebels among the men regarding this? Is it because they are products of a pre-68 imaginary? Merril’s imaginary future earth is still dominated by what she and other women faced in the 1950s.

    The matriarchy of the ship is only a temporary exigency–brought on by the rigours of space. And what of the rigours of planetside? Can they only be a return to dubious tradition?

    Here, surely “hope” is more than the inversion of the conventional hierarchy. While the men dream of a reinstated patriarchy, maybe the young boys and girls will dream another world, beyond the ship’s matriarchy and the left behind patriarchy. Beyond the constraints of all the received wisdom of Earth and ship.

    As an idea, this story is fascinating, and deeply critical like the best sf.

    • I haven’t yet read his review — I will, soon!

      Merril’s story brings up a whole range of questions for its short length. What about pre-1963 as an important date range — i.e. pre-Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. As you know, Friedan argues that gender is constructed and women aren’t fulfilled by what society expects them to do. Merril story seems to occupy the same territory. Them men, despite their general adherence to what is expected, are not entirely fulfilled and dream of better times.

      Merril suggests also, perhaps its just a rumor, that the crew has been indoctrinated to maintain the new power balance. Perhaps Merril is suggesting, via her male character, that 50s women do not feel like there is the possibility of revolt and change? The expected societal roles are as firmly entrenched and pernicious as if a form of indoctrination.

      Related to the post-arrival society: I didn’t mention this in the review, but I found it disturbing that the men do not imagine an equal society on the new planet, but, as you mentioned, a return to the patriarchy. Even in the highly controllable experimental space of a generation ship, the effects of pre-voyage gender roles will rebut its head.

      Am I reading the story incorrectly but proposing that Merril’s tale is characterized by a streak of fatalism? The suggestion that equality, or breaking free of oppressive societal expectations, might be but an empty wish? If so, it clashes with her earlier stories…. Or, by exploring two extremes via one character she suggests a middle road — equality between the sexes, is the only logical answer?

      • I suppose like you I wonder why Merril has stepped back from the more obvious radicalism on show in, say, Daughters of Earth. Perhaps here she is more interested in the role reversal allegory, the better to draw attention to the irrationality of sexist convention? Or maybe, as you suggest, Merril has been overcome by a certain fatalism. What was it like to be stuck in status quo of the US in 1958? Though we know the next ten years held a world and more of changes, it must have been grim looking forward as a progressive radical at that time.

        • What about this — do you think Merril is also critiquing 50s women who do not support women’s liberation or how their proscribed gender roles are a form of oppression? She suggests that only a form of indoctrination would keep the men from arguing for their rights on the ship.

          • I’m not sure about that. The adult men in the story appear to be not only resentful of their position, but planning to change it come planetfall. Unlike the “naturalised” gender oppression of women, they hold onto the idea and experienced reality of another order from before the voyage. In many ways the matriarchy of the ship is explained as a rational response to the exigencies of the trip, whereas the actual patriarchy of Earth is hard to justify rationally–except in terms that accept such a supposed “natural” order. Perhaps Merril is presenting a just so story about the origins of patriarchy, i.e. that this now irrational and unjustifiable order may have emerged from a passing need for survival?

            • antyphayes, have you read the earlier story “Survival Ship” that tells about the start of the mission? The men are unhappy right from the start, but it also says the women were superior. You can read it here;


              “Wish Upon A Star” is the superior story though. Merril invents the Twenty and Four for “Survival Ship” and I get the feeling it was for a trick ending. Then years later she thought about it more seriously.

            • James, thanks for the heads up on the earlier story. Checking my copy of “Homecalling and other stories” (NESFA Press) I realise that I’ve read ‘Survival Ship’, but many years before ‘Wish Upon A Star’. I don’t remember a great deal of the former–nothing in fact–and so didn’t realise that it was an earlier part to the story.

            • I have “Survival Ship” on my list of possibilities for the read-through. When I briefly skimmed it, it was hard to tell if it was a generation ship vs. a long voyage. I haven’t read it yet.

            • I reread ‘Survival Ship’ today. It sure seems like the first part of this story. It details the launch and immediate aftermath of the gen ship “Survival”. The original crew of 20 women and 4 men. James is right to note that the men are disgruntled from the outset. But there are also details about how this set-up is planned and hidden from the public at large on Earth:
              “The crew had been picked for ability to conform to the unusual circumstances; they were all without strong family ties or prejudices. Habit would establish the new castes soon enough, but the beginning was crucial. Survival was more than a matter of plant-animal balance and automatic gravity.”
              “Ability to conform to the unusual circumstances” is a great turn of phrase. Redolent of bureaucratic obfuscation and ridden with inuendo to boot! Perhaps even a descriptor for the rapidly maturing boomers of the 1950s and 60s!?
              Merril briefly notes at the end of the story how a type of “dating” game will be played in order to work the kinks out of the process of establishing the breeding families (one male to c. 5 female). In the “discussion”–more implicit than explicit–there is nothing more indicated than heterosexual and reproductive sex. There is some dubious justification: ‘Survival of the race’ being ‘the first duty of every ethical man and woman’. But Merril’s point seems to be broader, that the sexual division of labour and the family organised around monogamous heterosexual activity and child rearing is more malleable than one might imagine.

        • Ah, I didn’t realize you were the same person! (I would have followed you on twitter ages ago if I had known)

          What do you think of my discussion with Antyphayes above? I suggest that Merril’s story is deliberately peripheral…

          • I suppose I should change my avi here. I only started this account when I got a gig that required WP membership. And good, thanks for linking the review here! Should I reciprocate now that this review is up?

            Oh, I think Merril’s tale is far from hopeless…I think she likes to play both ends against the middle a lot. Her extremes were always, I think anyway, meant to be caricatures. She never seems to take the bombastic sort in any way seriously. Her nature seemed to shy away from anger, and that’s usually all one can hear when The Extremes start fulminating.

            • I attempted to leave a comment on your site — it stated that “Blogger wasn’t working” — I followed with my google account, etc.

              WordPress requires a membership? Or rather, for you to come up with a name to comment?

              I’ll try again. But, I said something along these lines: I didn’t mention it in my review, but I believe Merril is trying to write a story that would cause a light bulb to go off in a young male reader’s head. And part of her strategy is to present the material in a slice-of-life way. And yes, it’s not super flashy — but it exudes an appealing form of realism.

  2. It’s all down to the troll issue that I had…I switched comments to “members only” because there was a little clique of nasties who decided I am Satan with balls and so were unable to stop themselves from snarking at everything I posted. I think I scrubbed the comments but, frankly, I won’t be inviting them ever again.

    I’m sure the issue’s relevance hasn’t gone away, and Merril’s means of light-bulbing the largely male audience that was perceived to exist at the time was (I hope) effective…just that, for me, the result lacked oomph

    • I think the “oomph” (which isn’t very “oomphy”) is that Sheik is only motivated to dream. I find that so bittersweet…. and, for Merril, supports her argument against the view that 1950s women can lead fulfilling lives by following societal expectations. I feel like the pre-Betty Friedan point I made above is a relevant one.

      Ah, WordPress has a feature that you can set it so every comment has to be approved. Which is incredibly helpful for trolls. I have it set where if I accept a comment from someone future comments they make don’t get flagged unless they have links.

      • I don’t think Merril’s low-oomph tale was bad; it was part of the zeitgeist that Friedan crystallized with The Feminine Mystique. Merril’s gender-swap technique was not new but has always been effective because it’s always a jolt to see one’s unquestioned assumptions presented in this way.
        WordPress ate my first attempt at making a site here, long long ago, and I flounced over to Blogger. It has the virtue of simplicity. It also has the downside of simplicity, inflexibility.

        • Well put!

          Excited about the next story in the docket? John Brunner’s “Lungfish” (1957). In my late teens and early twenties when I started reading SF (around a decade ago) it was an absolute favorite of mine. I even reviewed it briefly on the site:

          I’m hoping it holds up to a reread and more serious analysis!

          • In my late teens and early twenties when I started reading SF (around a decade ago)
            In general, I’m all for reading Brunner. I still have a tree book of Times Without Number

            but, as Open Road Media has republished his stuff in ebook form, I’ve been re-acquiring the ones I missed having: Shockwave Rider, The Sheep Look Up, Stand on Zanzibar, The Squares of the City among others. I’ve never read (or can’t remember reading, which amounts to the same thing) this tale so I’m eager to experience it.

            • I look forward to your review!

              I’ve read all of Brunner’s classics but before I had my site. Hence the lack of Brunner reviews. He’s a site favorite. And Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is what got me into the New Wave and ranks in my top 5 SF novels.

    • Gideon, I was also equally impressed with “Wish Upon A Star.” First off, I believe Merril did a significant amount of world-building the other two stories didn’t, so her generation ship life has more texture. Her story had more information density. One example I use to explain what I mean by that is “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber. Merril isn’t up to Leiber’s density of detail, but she’s beyond Oliver and Simak.

      I also like the whole gender switch too. It wasn’t about if women could run a starship, it was about resentment over gender roles.

      However, once again the story involves a conspiracy. What’s with generation ship stories and hidden/forgotten knowledge?

      • By having a very reduced scale to her story she is able to integrate small details–the children learning about plant disease, scenes where Sheik helps a 2 year old understand a basic concept, the implied new family units, the roles of individuals on the ship, etc.—that flesh out the story in small ways that fit in the narrative.

        Are you referring to the fact that the women haven’t explain the status of the trip? Well, that’s a key part of the control exerted by those in power — in addition, I suspect the Cold War era help create an environment of paranoia that crops up in many of these stories about hidden knowledge. If you’re referring to the second conspiracy—the men believe the women might not relinquish power–you seem to be taking the conspiracy literally, it could be a manifestation of the fears men have when their positions are challenged.

  3. Joachim, I reviewed the Brunner story in tomorrow’s blog. I did my best to avoid irretrievable spoilers but so you’re aware, it’s the second story in the entry. In case you’d like to avoid it until your own read!

  4. Pingback: “Wish Upon A Star” by Judith Merril – Classics of Science Fiction

  5. Joachim,
    First, a quick glance at the magazine cover of the magazine had me thinking of June Lockhart in her role as Maureen Robinson in the original Lost in Space series… And then I began reading the story. Multinational cast reminded of Star Trek., an episode about a matriarchy…no, more like a gynarchy. I tried hard to emphasize with Sheik, but couldn’t for whatever reasons. Ultimately the well written vignette left me dissatisfied because I was hoping for a definitive end instead of the last scene dimming as the curtain closed, so to speak.
    I note that neither this story, or the previous two, appeared in any of the best of anthologies for the late fifties.
    I read the next story, Lungfish, as part of the collection Entry to Elsewhen back in ’73. Since I have no recollection of it whatsoever I look forward to rereading it.

    • Thanks again for joining the read-through.

      As I mentioned in multiple comments above, I found the story far more fascinating as a parable of 50s society — a moment in history where women had limited work opportunities and little chance at a career. She is suggesting, via gender reversal, in the story that the vague wish for liberation is not enough….

      I also read, and loved, Lungfish in Entry to Elsewhen — back in 2008 or so. There’s a short review of the collection on my site.

  6. I’ll just say – I’ve been quiet for a while, reading the posts (though trying to pull my eyes away to avoid TOO much plot spoiling) – that I’m looking forward to finally reading more of the stories/books you’ve been reviewing lately! I don’t know if I have any of the “generation ship” stories in particular, though I know I’ve got some Merrill in those densely packed SFF shelves… always fun to dig into your own pile of books, and to be surprised by what you find.

  7. Sadly I thought this was the worst of the 3 stories Ive read so far. I think its messily written with names of characters bouncing around all over the place so its hard to identify any characters. I think this is hindered by the pre-story blurb. I didnt really understand the non-ending and All I got was a hint that the men on the ship would either overpower the women once they land and therefore they would never land because women would lose their power. Perhaps this story has a more lasting impact than Im not feeling at the moment

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