Generation Ship Short Story Review: Otto Binder’s “Son of the Stars” (1940)

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.

Previously: Chad Oliver’s “Stardust” in the July 1952 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. You can read it online here.

Next Up: Leigh Brackett’s “The Ark of Mars” in Planet Stories (September 1953), ed. Jack O’Sullivan. You can read it online here.

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.


For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

27 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: Otto Binder’s “Son of the Stars” (1940)

  1. Adam Link, with his iridium sponge brain, was the exemplar of Eando Binder for me. No idea why I found that book appealing enough to buy in whichever of the 1970s it was. But that this existed was beyond my scope. Fascinating that he attempted the genre at all!

  2. I suppose one has to be indulgent of stories on the cusp/beginning of the so-called golden age of SF. For sure Heinlein could write more interesting characters and plots, despite his often objectionable editorialising (tho still, in the 40s, only a dim pointer toward his later full spectrum alt right outlook in anticipation). Binder’s story is at least “serviceable” in a bland, utilitarian way, with a few interesting ideas.
    One that I liked, tho little is made of it, was the way he described Dave being rendered emotionally cold by the burden of the mission thrust upon him. That this anticipates the chilly rule of the intellectual mutants is never explicitly taken up.
    The positively presented matriarchy is a nice touch. But Dave’s “love” has all of the subtlety of a straight nerd boy fantasy—albeit of the relatively gentle and harmless kind. It’s still laughable, even by the standards of the time, surely.
    The fear of the rule of intellectuals is a well worn trope, no doubt caught up with the various “technocratic” and “revolutionary” plans and solutions of the time. H G Wells has a lot to answer for…
    Meanwhile the world at war in the 1940s was busy submitting intellectuals to the exigencies of military needs and rule. The fear of the intellectual is surely a conspiracy set up by other “intellectuals” to throw us off of the real nature of power!
    I like the way that the ship, “pancake” shaped sounds like a flying saucer—a term then yet to be invented.
    Is Binder’s story an example of the gen ship variant? I’m not sure. It’s set over a “generation”, but what i would call essential aspects of the sub genre are missing: namely the world in microcosm. Dave’s world is barely social—more hermit like barring the brief idyll of Rendora. But does this matter? And am I being too harsh? Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” and Heinlein’s “Universe” and “Common Sense” are more obvious templates to my mind.

    • I debated whether it was a generation ship story or not as well. According to Caroti (and I’ve forgotten exactly what his definition was — I need to acquire his book again), it fit his definition and appeared on his original list: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/sci-fi-article-index/list-of-generation-ship-novels-and-short-stories/

      No one is born on this ship but it’s designed for two generations — does that make it a generation ship or simply a vessel designed for a long voyage? I think your identification of a lack of crew also challenges the definition. That said, Binder explores generational issues that often characterize this subgenre with Roscoe and his young charge that could be metaphoric representations of larger societal issues. Maybe I’m pushing this WWII on the horizon correlate too far. Do you not see Roscoe has a relic of the previous generation who thought that the world could be saved with a technological marvel and sold this narrative to the younger generation plunging towards cataclysmic oppression? Generation ship stories often depend on issues of knowledge transfer between generations, conflict between generations, etc. This one fits that paradigm.

      The positive description of the matriarchy took me completely by surprise. And yes, the Dave finds his partner sections are all a bit silly and creepy (i.e. “sexualizing the exotic alien other” that I mentioned in the review).

      The story isn’t great for sure. I gave in a bit, or realized where I had erred, and dropped the rating to “vaguely acceptable.”

      If I missed engaging with one of your ideas, I’m sorry — there were so many interesting observations. And I’m glad you’re reading along despite the “meh” quality of some of these stories. I’m having fun mapping the territory and chatting along the way.

      • I’m sure I bought the Caroti as a kindle book on the back of you talking about it, but i can’t find a record of it anywhere. I really need to read it.
        I like the idea of Roscoe as a relic of the mindset that was responsible for the problem in the first place—trying to fight fire with fire. Dave is the real result of Roscoe’s experimentation tho, and despite his warming to the delights of the matriarchy he ultimately conforms to his programming and pays the price. This story really sounds a whole lot better than it is when we’re discussing it!
        I feel my commitment to this sub genre is similar to yours—in for the generations long haul!

  3. “I mean, what other SF from the early 40s is worth reading? Some Leinster stories? Heinlein?”

    Kuttner/Moore in ASTOUNDING. L. Sprague de Camp, especially LEST DARKNESS FALL (though that’s cheating by a month–it was in the December 1939 UNKNOWN. Some Sturgeon, notably “Microcosmic God.” Occasional oddities such as Frank Belknap Long’s “To Follow Knowledge” (ASTOUNDING Dec. 1944).

    • JB: I mean, what other SF from the early 40s is worth reading?

      Seconding John Boston, Kuttner and C.L. Moore, the husband-and-wife team, are still very good, period, full stop. In particular, their long novelettes/novellas where Moore (usually) was the dominant writing partner: ‘Vintage Season in 1946,’ forex, is the first fully adult piece of American magazine science fiction; ‘Mimsy Were the Borogroves’; ‘The Children’s Hour’; there are many more.

      As John also says, Sturgeon was occasionally good, with ‘Microcosmic God’ a standout. Unfortunately, Sturgeon was often a bad, mawkish stylist, whom subsequent SF writers later in the 1940s and 50s took as a model for how to write emotions and interiority well. I recognize his kind of mawkish ineptitude in some of the 1950s Carol Emshwiller stories you’ve been featuring, for instance. (‘Baby’ was pretty bad, I thought; I assume she gets better later.)

      Van Vogt is not intellectually lucid, to be sure, but he was the original Wild Man of SF. I have a lot of time for that, but YMMV. And you don’t get Philip K. Dick without Van Vogt (and without Kuttner-Moore).

      Heinlein isn’t without interest, though even when I was a kid there was a Dunning-Kruger aspect to his ‘let me tell how the world works, kid’ tone of voice that put me off. I find Heinlein best in his fantasies, ironically, like ‘The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag’; it helps to realize that the man graduated with a bachelors degree in engineering in 1929 when they were still flying prop biplanes, FFS, and he never got his head around General and Special Relativity. Putting it another way, he was a bit of a poseur/conman.

      I think it helps to understand that this was even more true of John W. Campbell, MIT dropout and ‘super-science’ pulp writer, and that this casts light on the development of American SF in the Campbellian so-called ‘Golden Age.’ It’s hard for most of us to grasp today, but if you go back to the 1930s and 40s, you can see these are pulp writers of varying degrees of (in)eptitude struggling to figure out answers to the question: ‘How the hell do you write this science-fiction stuff, anyway?’

      It was a big question. They tried all kind of strategies. One that Campbell hit upon in 1934 was stunningly obvious in retrospect and it produced his story ‘Twilight’, which is usually taken as the beginning of ‘Modern American SF’ —
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twilight_(Campbell_short_story)

      And what Campbell did in ‘Twilight’ was go back to H.G. Wells and fuse a Wellsian influence, and the long sweeps of time in something like THE TIME MACHINE, with a purely American setting and voice. And that’s the dominant and most successful approach that Campbell’s 1940s-era ASTOUNDING took: a fusion of the Edwardian engineer-mystic outlook of the earlier British Scientific Romance writers with mid-20th century American cultural assumptions. All the SF stylistic innovations that Heinlein is credited with, for instance, Rudyard Kipling had already innovated back in “With The Night Mail” (1905) and ‘As Easy as ABC’ (1912).
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerial_Board_of_Control

      Returning to Kuttner and Moore: they were the writers who probably did this engineer-mystic thing in ASTOUNDING the best. If you haven’t read the stories I mentioned above, you’re missing something because they still stand up very well.

      • Hello again Mark,

        I guess I opened something of a can of worms with my comment as it implies I don’t know about or have read early 40s SF (when I most definitely have albeit infrequently!) vs. my natural snark (perhaps misguided) aimed at 40s SF. Most of the authors you listed are completely out of my area of interest but not knowledge — I find Van Vogt mostly incomprehensible gibberish (Slan–mid-40s I guess–is my definition of bad SF), 40s Sturgeon rarely resonates (see reviews on site), and I care little for Heinlein (I’ve read a good 50 of his short stories and 25+ novels mostly before I started my site) other than the few I mentioned above. I’d call Sturgeon’s late 40s “The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast” (1949) the perfect definition of “mawkish ineptitude” — thankfully every single one of the Carol Emshwiller stories I’ve read so far are far better than that. Not sure why you snuck that rather sneaky slight of my assessment/review of “Baby” (as it dodges my actual argument about its value which you are welcome to argue against) into a review of an Otto Binder story when he is the far more valid target! hah 😉

        I’ve read some Moore and reviewed one of her 50s novels on my site but I haven’t read her co-written short fiction with Kuttner. That’s probably a more productive area of investigation for me. And, while out of the period of discussion, if you haven’t tackled Moore’s Doomsday Morning (1957) — you should! https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2013/10/17/book-review-doomsday-morning-c-l-moore-1957/

        • JB: I find Van Vogt mostly incomprehensible gibberish (Slan–mid-40s I guess–is my definition of bad SF)

          Perfectly understandable. SLAN in particular is bad. As you may know, Damon Knight wrote an essay called ‘A.E Van Vogt: Cosmic Jerrybuilder’ that kicked off the field of SF criticism back in the day and made Knight’s name in the small realm of SF then (while demolishing Van Vogt’s rep as arguably the most popular of the 1940s ASF writers, ahead of Heinlein etc., hard as that now is to believe.)

          Phil Dick took a different tack, arguing that the ‘cosmic jerrybuilder’ aspect was precisely what was powerful about Van Vogt and what he (PKD) took for his own fiction because he (being PKD) felt it was a truer representation of the chaos of so-called ‘reality.’ And indeed the stream of wild ideas and dream-like non-sequitur plot ‘logic’ can have power if you don’t find it just annoying. Knight himself later admitted as much and tried to write a Van Vogt-style novel, BEYOND THE BARRIER, which turned out to be simply bad in all the ways he said Van Vogt was bad.

          So there’s something going on with Van Vogt, although, yes, he’s not a ‘good’ writer by most of the usual criteria, as William Burroughs wasn’t. You might glance at Van Vogt’s stories ‘The Monster’ or ‘Recruiting Station,’ which probably represent what he could do at his best.

          I care little for Heinlein

          Again, I feel you. I didn’t used to much like Heinlein — only ‘THE DOOR INTO SUMMER and ‘The Unpleasant Profession etc.’ and a few other things. But I’ve come to appreciate his historical importance and recognize he was a couple of orders of magnitude more adept as a writer of compelling narrative than most of what was was around then, while simultaneously being neither as good as the American SF community claimed he was nor as his main influences, which appear to have been Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and Upton Sinclair.

          Same deal with Sturgeon as with Heinlein, though to my taste he had more genuinely good stories that stay in your mind. That brings us to the ‘mawkishness’ question ….

          JB: Not sure why you snuck that rather sneaky slight of my assessment/review of “Baby” (as it dodges my actual argument about its value which you are welcome to argue against) into a review of an Otto Binder story when he is the far more valid target! hah

          Obviously, you’re perfectly entitled to your opinions and they’re going to differ from mine because we’re different people. More to the point, I’m not coming from your ethnographic/historical angle; I’m primarily interested in ‘what makes good SF writing?’ and ‘historically, what strategies have the people who’ve written it tried and what has worked?’, with the added stipulation that a major criterion I maintain is that SF should be — don’t laugh — a ‘literature of ideas’ a la Wells or Stanislaw Lem. (Cf. Dark Suvin — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novum )

          Of course, most American SF has precisely NOT been a literature of ideas, but just puerile, badly-written power fantasies endless recycling a very limited number of tropes (often first imagined by Van Vogt, interestingly). Problematic as John Campbell was, he did create a revolution and the 1920s-30s era American pulp scientifiction that preceded what he did with ASTOUNDING is so deeply stupid and inept that I ain’t going to pollute my brain cells with it unless I’m getting paid to. And that applies to Binder.

          As for Emshwiller: so far her stories that you’ve reviewed have had a different angle of attack than most 1950s SF, I’ll grant you. But (a) none of them so far has had an actual SFnal Idea (or novum) and (b) ‘Baby’ genuinely annoyed me in its handling human emotion and interiority, which is the hard part of writing fiction. ‘Pelt’ was better because she wrote it through the dog’s POV, which automatically slanted that story’s handling of interiority.

          But this is a complicated subject that we can discuss when you do some more Emshwiller reviews, if she’s still doing the same things. I’ve already committed two overlong screeds on your blog for which I ask your forgiveness, and now I’m going to get lunch and go to the gym.

    • Hello John,

      As I mentioned to Mark, the Kuttner/Moore pairing (although not her solo work) is a hole in my knowledge. I struggle mightily with 40s Sturgeon (I’ve reviewed a few of his collections on my site) although I’ve heard good things about “Microcosmic God.” And Long is another I haven’t yet explored.

      • About the only ’40s Sturgeon I would consider worth going back to are “Killdozer!” (pulpy but still readable), “Yesterday Was Monday” (actually 1939–early tilt at a theme later beaten to death by PKD and others), “The Perfect Host,” “Minority Report,” and “Maturity” (a mess but still a nice try). “To Follow Knowledge” is about the only story by FB Long that I have ever thought much of. Mark’s identification of the Kuttner/Moore novellas published as by Lawrence O’Donnell as among their best work is completely right in my view.

        • I have read, and disliked, “Killdozer!” — never managed to write a review. I think it was in a Spectrum anthology.

          I am intrigued by “Yesterday Was Monday” — might get that one a shot.

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