Generation Ship Short Story Review: Chad Oliver’s “Stardust” (1952)

This is the seventh post in my newly resurrected series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. I have returned to the author and anthropologist Chad Oliver (1928-1993) whose “The Wind Blows Free” (1957) inspired me to start the series. All of the stories I’ll review in the series are available online and linked.

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. I also have compiled an extensive index of generation ship SF if you wish to track down my earlier reviews on the topic and any that you might want to read on your own.

Previously: A. E. van Vogt’s “Centaurus II”in the June 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. You can read it online here.

Next Up: Otto Binder’s “Son of the Stars” in the February 1940 issue of  Famous Fantastic Mysteries, ed. Mary Gnaedinger. You can read the story online here.

As the last post was way back in January 2020, here’s a reminder of what I’ve covered so far:

I’ve also reviewed five additional generation ship works (two novels and one short story) since I started the series that I didn’t include:

Chad Oliver’s “Stardust” first appeared in the July 1952 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. 3.5/5 (Good). You can read it online here.

In the 1974 paper “Two Horizons of Man” for the American Anthropological Association, Chad Oliver identified the “larger theoretical and social contexts” in which his two professions (SF and anthropology) were subsumed: “The problems of cultural contact and culture conflict, the discussions of cultural relativism, the idea of cultural evolution, the whole emphasis on looking at things from different perspectives, the questions about what it meant to be human–all of these were as characteristics if science fiction as they were of anthropology” (note). “Stardust” (1952) exemplifies this intersection of concerns. The new generation of explorers encounter the first generation, trapped for hundreds of years on sabotaged generation ship on their way to colonize Capella.

The premise: Spaceflight has entered a period of decadence. The opening of “the greatest frontier of them all” has come to pass (128). The most recent generation of explorers, like the officers of the Wilson Langford, are aging and no longer explore new worlds but shuttle wealthy tourist from world to world. A bit of the past thrill returns when they discover on a routine voyage the seemingly derelict hulk of the Viking, humanity’s first colonizing generation ship, unreported for over two hundred years. While its “sealed hydroponic tanks” and “air supply” continue to work, its gravity systems have long since turned off (136). What society exists in the darkness descended from the original two hundred crew? Does anyone remember the old knowledge? Is anyone alive at all? If there are survivors in the immense derelict craft Stan Owens, Wilson Langford‘s resident anthropologist, has a brilliant plan to orient the “four or five generations” living their entire lives in darkness without gravity (137)

On board the Viking, the young Collins tries to keep the flame of knowledge alive. His elderly father, and Captain of the ship, represents the possibility of survival. But the forces of the revolution, whose followers abandon themselves to the primitivist darkness and prowl the gangways picking off their enemies with knives, threaten to end it all. After a skirmish, Collins acquires a captive named Owens… and the plan is in motion.

This is not Oliver’s best SF story. This is not even his best generation ship story! For that, check out “The Wind Blows Free” (1957). There’s filler. Women are nowhere to be seen. It’s overly talky and filled with outrageous improbabilities (completely automated systems that will work without fail for generations, etc.). But, despite the story’s flaws (and there are many), I revel in tales where a simple technological gadget doesn’t solve every problem. Instead, one must approach a future crisis (even as outrageous as stumbling upon a ship in the vastness of space) as Oliver argues in “Two Horizons of Man” by charting the paths of cultural evolution, identifying (and understanding) differences in perspective, and uncover the human drives that animate our intellect and and future voyages across the heavens. And, in Oliver’s vision, the anthropologist who can ascertain these societal movements and qualities will surely save the day.

Note: Quoted in Samuel Gerald Collins’ “Scientifically Valid and Artistically True: Chad Oliver, Anthropology, and Anthropological SF.” Science Fiction Studies 31, no. 2 (2004), 243.

For book reviews consult the INDEX

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For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

30 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: Chad Oliver’s “Stardust” (1952)

  1. Permaybehaps forgiveness can come from the fact that it was written in 1951? If not his first sale, an early, early one…with good bones, to boot. (Tech doesn’t solve problems, in my observation, like…ever)

    • Absolutely. This was only his 9th published SF short story (over two years). His first novel, Mists of Dawn (a juvenile), would come out in 1952 as well. I suspect he found the perspective on the ship far more compelling — especially the society that would develop which is more an afterthought in this story and more focused on the discoverers of the ship — and thus he wrote “The Wind Blows Free” in 1957. Which is the far better story…

  2. I thought “Stardust” was better than average, your rating, I’d consider it good or very good. In fact, I’d give it **** because it’s good enough for multiple readings. Chad Oliver’s setup of alternating settings was quite ambitious and I followed the two stories with active interest wondering how he’d bring them together. Where the story is weak is how Stan Owens integrated himself into the Viking and changed place with the prisoner. We have to assume he’d have to be stealthy, but that would take time. The Wilson Langford wasn’t going to spend a lot of time on this project.

    I like how Oliver developed the two societies on the Viking, playing off of Heinlein’s “Universe” but with some criticism, making it a neat addition to our collection of generation ship stories.

    Oliver had enough ideas in this story for a novel, but he kept them under control. If he could have shown us Owens activities I think this would have been a superior story, that is, if he could have made it logical and dramatic. Somehow Owen got to the captain and let him know what was happening. But how? Owens quickly learned the exact state of the conflict and figured the exact solution almost within minutes. How is that possible? And then got himself replaced with the prisoner. All that is hard to believe. These weak aspects do downgrade the story, but I still think the overall setup is better than average.

    • Glad you liked it! Thanks for joining in.

      EDIT: I’ve upped my rating to a 3.5/5 (Good) for the setup and some of the ideas. I still think there are substantial narrative flaws and greatly preferred “The Winds Blow Free” (1957).

      “But I still think the overall setup is better than average” — absolutely. I enjoyed the dual narratives immensely. However, all I found Oliver very adept at strategically not describing those difficult moments in the narrative that you lay out that weakened the narrative thrust. We’re dragged along with insufficient information. How did the crew even discover the nature of society within the ship if most everything was in the dark and they apparently didn’t have technology to tell if people were alive or not?

      I agree that it could be expanded to a novel length and would have given clarity and believability to the logic of the premise.

      As for the bifurcation, yes, he’s playing of Heinlein in Orphans or maybe Aldiss in Non-Stop [the forwards and the primitive non-Forwards] but he gives us sooooo little to go on other than snippets of their ideology that it’s hard to tell what he means to say…

  3. I haven’t read this one!

    Do you plan to get to Poul Anderson’s “The Troublemakers”? I recall that as interesting if not great. Or J. T. MacIntosh’s 200 YEARS TO CHRISTMAS (which I believe has a shorter version) — which has interesting central ideas, somewhat botched by MacIntosh’s clumsiness of execution.

    And is this series restricted to your usual pre-1980s remit? There have been some good recent stories, such as Ursula Le Guin’s “Paradises Lost” (2002), and Michael Bishop’s “Twenty Lights to the Land of Snow” (2012).

    • Hello Rich,

      I’m a huge fan of Ursula Le Guin’s “Paradises Lost” (2002) when I read it back before I started my site.

      As for Poul Anderson’s “The Troublemakers,” ah yes. You mentioned that in a comment as an addition to my list but I never got around to adding it! We shall see. I don’t really have a schedule for any of this. I sort of impulsively go in whatever direction beckons.

      I’ve read Michael Bishop’s “Cri de Coeur” (his other earlier generation ship story) but never reviewed it. Bishop has long been a favorite of mine.

      As for my date limit, that really is my limit in interest in history in general. Hence the limit. That said, I do occasionally dabble beyond it and even occasionally for the site. But as before, it’s not in the works at the moment.

      I’ve known about the McIntosh but haven’t read it or own a copy at the moment. It’s on my radar.

  4. This sounds greats, despite your caveats. I’m glad you’ve kicked this off again. The gen ship is possible my favourite of all SF sub genres—the world writ small!
    I’m travelling at the mo and out of internet range at times. I’ll have a read and get back soonish with something vaguely coherent.

    • Not sure which story to read next in this series. This is a sub-theme where it would be completely doable to read all the short fiction in the years I’m interested in available in translation.

      According to my incomplete index, the theme was mostly abandoned in short fiction form in the 70s — Fred Saberhagen’s “Birthdays” in Galaxy (March, 1976) is a notable exception. Maybe I should give that one a go.

    • Or maybe (and this is more likely) Frank M. Robinson’s “The Oceans Are Wide” in Science Stories, (April 1954). He’s best known for his 1991 generation ship novel The Dark Beyond the Stars — perhaps later in life he remembered his 50s tale fondly!

  5. I’ve read the 1954 Robinson, but would happily revisit (mostly because i have a very sketchy memory of it). And i’m planning on starting his later novel in the next week or so. The Saberhagen sounds intriguing tho. I read Fritz Leiber’s Ship of Shadows (1969) late last year and tho it was well written, I found it ultimately unsatisfying — maybe i had too many expectations for this one. In any case, looking forward to more of your thoughts on the gen ship sagas.

    • I’ve never read anything by Saberhagen so I’m leaning towards that one. I also read David Rome’s “Bliss” (1962) but for whatever reason it put me off my generation ship series (it read like a carbon copy of earlier ideas) and couldn’t write about it.

  6. Just an idle thought. Perhaps, someday, someone will offer you a book deal to put the best of what you read into an anthology. Just a thought.

  7. I remembered something. There have been other SF stories about FTL ships catching up with STL ships. In the Heinlein novel, Time for the Stars torchships are sent out traveling at sub-light velocity, but fast enough to create relativistic time dilation. The story is about telepathic twins who are used for faster-than-light communication. One stays home, one goes into space. Three generations pass on Earth, but the twin in space is still young. At the end of the novel, FTL spaceships have been invented and they go and rescue all those exploring torchship crews and bring that home.

    But I think I’ve read another story where FTL ships caught up with a generation ship. Can anyone think of another story that uses this idea?

    • There have been a fair number. One of the very first stories of STL travel to another star (though with the equivalent of “cold sleep”, not a generation ship), A. E. Van Vogt’s “Far Centaurus”, turns on FTL ships beating the slow ship to its destination.

      I would say that THE BALLAD OF BETA-2, by Samuel R. Delany, qualifies.

      And I know there have been others …

      • I’ve read both of those. I’ve read “Far Centaurus” in the last year or so, but damn I forget things so quickly. I read Beta back in the 1960s, so I don’t worry about my forgetting that one. But I’ve been meaning to reread it.

      • I echo Ballad (not my favorite Delany by a longshot despites its fascinating ideas). I reviewed it briefly at the link above. I might review “Far Centaurus” for this series. Is the slow ship a generation ship or a sleeper ship? Do you think it would fit?

  8. I think John Varley lives in the Pacific Northwest now … he had a heart attack and I recall seeing something to that effect … checking his website, as of this past April he was in Vancouver, WA.

  9. You’re right, this is not one of Oliver’s best. Still, it’s chock full of interesting tid bits. For instance, why is there a ship’s anthropologist? Convenient for the story, and never fully explained—“but of course there will be ship’s anthropologists in the future!” cries Chad Oliver the anthropologist.
    One thing that stood out for me, and that reoccurs in some of Oliver’s other stories, is his “cultural relativist” dogma. He appears to believe that culture’s are closed entities, “autarkic” in a way, in which there is no meaningful basis for communication between any two. Was Oliver influenced by Levi-Strauss and structuralism more generally? One of the more embarrassing results of this, to my mind, is that he tends to consider liberal, middle class US American values of the 1950s as just such an autarkic and closed cultural entity—something that surely the following 20 years called into question both practically and theoretically (i’m thinking primarily of post 1968), let alone the previous 20. Further, he tends to assume such a liberal middle class paradise as the last word on human development (i’m thinking of some
    other stories of his here, but this one too). Oh Chad…
    Another thing. In his brief discussion of the cultural split on the gen ship we get an insight into the times and Oliver’s perspective on them. He speaks of the “revolutionaries” on the ship in terms that resonate with contemporary arguments over McCarthyite anti-communism. I feel that Oliver was perhaps a liberal opponent of McCarthyism, nashing his teeth over the waste of otherwise “useful” people dragged down into the abyss of Stalinism: “Could they be saved, turned to use, if the ship was recovered? Collins had always said they could, and he believed it. For all their differences, for al their strangeness, they were yet people—people who had chosen to follow a different path from his, but people nonetheless.” (148) The degenerated gen ship as metaphor for early 50s USA?

    • Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment — work started. Alas.

      You bring up a lot of interesting points here about his views on cultures as closed entities (of course the spatial nature of a generation ship does give a bit more credence to the idea than in another environment). I’ve read only a handful of Oliver’s SF so I’d love to know where his views on the middle class crop up?

      I think you might be on to something with your description of Oliver as a “liberal opponent” of McCarthyism. I wish he had given a bit more insight into the culture of those who had gone off into the darkness around their tribal fires. It’s so undefined that I couldn’t detect a target for his critique.

      But I’m all for a reading of the story as a generation ship as metaphor of a degenerate USA. AND, of course, that would resonate even more with Oliver’s triumphalist narrative of anthropologists like himself (as you say mysteriously on this passenger ship) rescuing the day.

      • “Liberal opponent of McCarthyism” is my shorthand for those left liberals who were neither strictly pro or anti communist—in the sense that being a Stalinist was then what constituted being a “communist”. As an anti-Stalinist, left “libertarian” communist myself, I’m fairly sensitive to the nuances of this argument—perhaps too sensitive! In the words of the sittuationists, I am a Marxist to the same extent Marx was when he said he was no Marxist!
        I can recommend an excellent account by the anti-Stalinist communist C L R James that gives an insight to this nuances—indeed his account is contemporary with McCarthyism. It’s to be found in the last chapter of his book on Moby Dick: “Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In” (1953). In that chapter James recounts his imprisonment on Rikers Island in New York in the 1950s, hated by the authorities for being a commie, and also some of his fellow prisoners because he was an anti-Stalinist (needless to say they were Stalinists). It was under these unenviable conditions that he wrote his excellent essay on that most wonderful of works by Herman Melville.

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