This is the 8th post in my newly resurrected series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. As this series has a real chance to cover every pre-1985 generation ship short story available in English, I’ve bitten the bullet and stepped back to the pre-WWII SF landscape to track down a generation ship story by Otto Binder. I tend to be far more interested in post-WWII US and European SF history and have geared most of my site towards those decades.
As a reminder for anyone stopping by, all of the stories I’ll review in the series are available online via the link below in the review.
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.
Otto Binder’s “Son of the Stars” first appeared in the February 1940 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, ed. Mary Gnaedinger. 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average). You can read the story online here. As always, I will have spoilers.
First, a note about authorship and pseudonyms: According to The Internet Speculative Fiction Database, Otto Binder is the sole author of “Son of the Stars.” “Eando Binder” was a joint pseudonym used by American brothers Earl Andrew Binder (1904-1966) and Otto Oscar Binder (1911-1975). After 1934, the elder brother Earl stopped writing SF and Otto continued to sign his work under the shared name. For more on their SF, check out their SF Encyclopedia entry.
“Son of the Stars” tells the story of Dr. Roscoe and his young charge, Dave Standish. The purpose of their generation ship voyage? Rescue humanity from Earth’s scientists whom, “drunk with a certain discovery” that harnessed “artificial cosmic-rays” (73), accidentally unleash hell on human biological functions. Dr. Roscoe carefully reveals the details of the mission to Dave, selected due to his “perfect health and strong mind” (72), over many years. When Roscoe dies, Dave’s training allows him to survive the rest of the mission to the utopian planet of Rendora, and back, alone.
Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)
I find SF produced after WWII far more historically interesting (i.e. the post-atomic “end of victory culture” to steal historian Tom Engelhardt’s phrase) than earlier visions. However, Binder’s sinister ending genuinely took me by surprise. Dave Standish’s life transforms from triumph to tragedy in the blink of an eye. Humanity doesn’t need his sacrifice. And the version of humanity that remains cannot even emphasize with his plight. In Binder’s formulation, the generation ship enterprise, often oriented towards discovering the purpose of the mission or the “true” nature of the unusual world of metal hallways, is but an empty gesture towards salvation. At this level, I found the story a success. Binder’s story is a pessimistic take on technology. Scientists’ misuse of knowledge accidentally create disturbing supermen without empathy and the successful last gasp creation of the generation ship ruins Dave’s life and cannot bring technological salvation. Is this an oblique reference to the miasma of hopelessness as the world plunged towards WWII? While the US had not yet entered the war when the story was published, the Nazis had brought France to the brink of collapse.
The “iron-bound world” (71) of the ship, designed for only two generations, remains maddingly undefined. Binder hints at “radium” powered engines (73), preserved stores of food enough for the 48-year voyage there and back, viewports to the expanse of stars, and “talking and moving pictures” (71). It lacks the glorious wonder of other generation ship stories where the length of the voyage creates bizarre repressive societies and mass delusions about the nature of the world. Binder attempts to evoke the stark emptiness of the voyage but can’t move beyond simplistic descriptions of the mental “harshness” of the voyage (78).
I found the utopian world of Rendora, described as a “matriarchy,” a bit more interesting (77). Binder depicts the planet ruled by women and its society as genuinely happy. There is no hint of misogynist gender reversal SF narratives that plagued the shelves. Albeit, the narrative slips into more problematic but expected waters due to the eroticization of the alien “other” (in tame 1940s pulp SF terms). I giggled at Dave’s “warm throbbing” when he sees an alien woman in the flesh for the first time (76).
Of the 1940s generation ship stories, Robert A. Heinlein’s triumphalist fix-up Orphans of the Sky (1963)–comprised of “Common Sense” (1941) and “Universe” (1941)–exerted far great influence on the trajectory of the subgenre.
Recommended only for fans of early formulations of the generation ship.
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