This is the 10th post in my newly resurrected series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. I’ve returned to an author, Frank M. Robinson (1926-2014), that I promised to read more of after the wonderful “The Wreck of the Ship John B.” (1967).
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.
Frank M. Robinson’s “The Oceans Are Wide” first appeared in Science Stories (April 1954), ed. Bea Mahaffey and Ray Palmer. 3.75/5 (Good). You can read it online here. Note: I read the story in Starships, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin Harry Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh (1983).
A Boy Comes of Age, or How Do You Make a Machiavellian Tyrant
For 500 years the Astra hurtles through space with its thousands of crew–the last of the surviving generation ships sent from a dying Earth. The Predict, but a mythical entity, ensconced in his antique cabin in a hidden juncture within the ship manipulates, guides, and kills the crew via the figure of the Director, a hereditary dictatorship spawned over the generations. The music-playing “weakling” (100) Matty, the son of the dying Director whom the Predict could never control, must give up his hobbies and play the part. A scheming cabal of powerful men and women and his charismatic cousin stand in his way. At ten years of age, Matty escapes an assassination attempt and finds the Predict’s haunt where he’s ordered to take on masculine persona more in touch with the currents that rule the ebb and flow of the metal world until he can reclaim the position outright. Matty gives into the Predict’s increasingly disturbing manipulations–rigging trials, cornering rivals, marrying for power.
And finally the Astra arrives at its destination. But something is definitely wrong. And a final Machiavellian choice must be made.
The Generation Ship As Laboratory of Authoritarian Desires
In the last few pages, the Predict and Matty discuss Astra‘s authoritarian government. Matty asks if a democracy could be implemented instead. And the Predict responds, “The Astra couldn’t have been a democracy under any conditions. Democracies are run by men who agree among themselves as to their course of collective action. The colonists weren’t free agents” (170). Only after the crew lands at their final destination does the Predict suggests to Matty that a new society “fashioned by a poet and a sound-box player” could be fostered rather than the necessary dictatorship. But even then, a Predict is required to guide rather than allowing an organic process.
Generation ship short stories often formulate the trip, and the lives of everyone in the intermediary generations, as a transitory space in which authoritarian experiments are presented as justified. In Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations” (variant title: “Target Generation”) (1953), Simak posits that religion is required to satiate the generation ship crew in order to reach its destination. In Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” (1957), the Heritage Day celebrations–conveyed via propagandistic media saturation–reaffirm the ship’s conservatism in order to maintain the status quo. In most instances, the transitory space is a morass that must eventually be escaped from. In its most pernicious formulation, E. C. Tubb in The Space-Born (1955) ends up endorsing a brutal dystopia based on eugenics and Stalinist purges of non-conformists in order for the generation ship to arrive at its destination.
Robinson’s story can be read as a commentary on this transitory space. While other stories might present the government as a given, “The Oceans Are Wide” charts Matty’s disturbing evolution (which he allows) from kind kid to Machiavellian prince. He is a tragic character. In part due to Frank M. Robinson’s own life story (he was part of the gay rights movement and wrote speeches for Harvey Milk), I would suggests that the Predict’s manipulation of Matty represents the forces of 1950s society–Second Red Scare, the Lavender Scare, the 50s suburban family, etc.–in molding someone supportive of a government willing to persecute its own people. The generation ship–with its preset path–requires everyone to play their part without deviation.
One other element suggests that Robinson is writing a commentary–the Predict is named Joseph Smith i.e. the founder of Mormonism. Does their voyage across the stars might echo the exodus of Mormons from the East to the West? If so, does the story then suggest that the enterprise itself is a manipulative religious pilgrimage to escape persecution?
A dark and rather metafictional take on the subgenre!
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