Generation Ship Short Story Review: Frank M. Robinson’s “The Oceans Are Wide” (1954)

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.

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

Next Up: Arthur Sellings’ “A Start in Life” in Galaxy Science Fiction (September 1954), ed. H. L. Gold. You can read it online here.

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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20 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: Frank M. Robinson’s “The Oceans Are Wide” (1954)

  1. “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)…the generation ship–with its preset path–{that} requires everyone to play their part without deviation. A dark and rather metafictional take on the subgenre!
    It’s the exploration of the social forces that require some to be sacrificed for all to benefit idea that’s coming to the fore here. Matty’s pretty clearly coded queer here, and he buys the Overculture of binary behaviors as the Predict carefully manipulates him into seeing it as Necessary. Thus is the fragile closed system maintained at its optimum performance…surely you see how necessary that is (now that you’re at the top)….
    Next stop, Omelas!

    • Thanks for the comment. I thought Matty might be coded queer as well but I was struggling to identify more overt moments than the dismissal of his original path as not “masculine” enough. I think I might remove the section where I claim the commentary is half-hearted. I couldn’t escape the feeling that this binary, in Robinson’s formulation, was needed for the ship’s survival. Of course, perhaps that’s the Predict’s rhetoric vs. reality.

      • I couldn’t escape the feeling that this binary, in Robinson’s formulation, was needed for the ship’s survival. Of course, perhaps that’s the Predict’s rhetoric vs. reality.
        Yeah, I feel pretty sure that’s the case. An outside authority is explaining to a Chosen One how Things must be? Pretty much a dark comment on manipulation.

          • Apparently Robinson went full Ahab-and-Billy-Budd in that one. I just read the synopsis! There’s a motherin’ audiobook but no ebook. Apparently we’re so enfeebled at decoding as to need someone to read to us. And what about when “They” stop making the story-time editions? One can copy, or photocopy a tree-book, and ebooks are very slightly more secure-able than audios.

            • While I do not personally listen to audiobooks frequently, when I had a longer commute I listened to Silverberg’s The Tower of Glass and A Time of Changes, VanderMeer’s Annihilation, China Miéville’s The City and The City, and even (it was bad) James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes.

              But, as you can tell, I never got around to reviewing either Silverberg novels (wasn’t going to try the others) despite owning paper copies. I can’t review if I listen. For whatever reason…

  2. JB: There’s a motherin’ audiobook but no ebook. Apparently we’re so enfeebled at decoding as to need someone to read to us.

    The attraction of audiobooks (and podcasts) is minimal to me, as it takes 4-10 times longer for me to absorb information from a spoken voice than simply to read a text (and I don’t particularly want the effect of an actor’s voice and accent introducing information or prejudices that aren’t in that text, anyway).

    Unfortunately, nowadays 54 percent of U.S. adults 16-74 years old – about 130 million people – read below sixth-grade level. And 21 percent of adults — about 43 million — are functionally illiterate. Nearly two-thirds of fourth graders read below grade level, and the same number graduate from high school still reading below grade level.

    Still, you’re probably more aware of all this than me, being in the education business.

    On a personal note, I’ve encountered sophomore university students who cannot construct a sentence with a subordinate clause and sat across from middle managers who move their lips when they read. At MIT, most of the faculty and administrative staff send their kids to private schools, paying $50,000-plus fees a year per child — and almost all of them still hire Russian maths tutors (themselves merely the products of normal public education in the Russian Federation/former USSR) because even the ‘elite’ private school maths teachers are fairly awful.

    The US has largely become the country of Kornbluth’s ‘The Marching Morons’ and of ‘Idiocracy.’

    • I graded a sophomore paper at Indiana University a few years back (where I received my PhD) with zero capitalized letters… Considering my own experience with k-12 education (that you indicated) and “college prep high schools” none of that is a surprise.

      I didn’t make the original comment though — Expendable did. I don’t think audiobooks are a sign of any American intellectual decadence but my personal preference. I too struggle to get sucked into an audiobook due to accents, and sound effects, etc. But simultaneously an effective narrator can pull me into books I would normally care less about. Without much of a commute I’ve ditched my Audible subscription and won’t go back until my 15 min drive changes.

  3. It just so happens that I finished Frank M. Robinson’s gen ship epic, The Dark Beyond the Stars, three weeks ago. There are parallels between the novel and the earlier short story, though I would hesitate to say the former is simply a worked-up version of the latter. As Expendable Mudge has noted, the novel draws heavily upon Moby Dick and Billy Budd (though it’s only now that EM mentions the latter that it makes sense— the protagonist of The Dark Beyond the Stars and his relationship to the gen ship’s Captain bears striking similarities to Billy’s relationship to both Claggett and Captain Vere). Robinson uses the novel to more clearly—and much more exhaustively—explore thoughts on the nature of hierarchy, order, and rule. What is front and centre is the role of rebellion and disturbance as a legitimate aspect—even the key aspect—of self-rule. There are definite analogues between the story and the novel, and the latter is certainly more adult in theme and tone.

    • Count me intrigued. If I discover a copy at a used bookstore in town or on my various travels, I’ll buy it. And while it is outside my normal reading decades, I might make an exception. I, too, read the plot description and it sounds far more sinister and disturbed than “The Oceans Are Wide.”

  4. I have not read “The Oceans are Wide”. It looks fairly interesting. I really didn’t even remember the existence of another Palmer magazine, in SCIENCE STORIES. (Was it a temporarlily retitled OTHER WORLDS?) Bea Mahaffey is famous as one of the first significant women editors in SF — preceded as far as I can recall by Dorothy McIlwraith at WEIRD TALES and Mary Gnaedinger at FAMOUS FANTASTIC MYSTERIES (and many other magazines.) Though she always shared credit with Palmer, I think she was the primary editor for much of that period (partly due to Palmer’s health.)

    I did read THE DARK BEYOND THE STARS back when it came out, but I don’t remember it that well, beyond think it pretty decent and the (perhaps somewhat predictable but well-enough handled) mild twist. Antyphayes’ discussion seems to peg it pretty well, as best I can recall.

    • I enjoyed “The Oceans Are Wide.” I thought it felt like an idea he had for a novel but couldn’t figure out how to expand it — it did feel a bit stretch out and padded. It must be at the very upper edge of words for a novella. It felt more like a short novel.

      One of the joys of perusing SF-adjacent birthdays every morning for the last few years is that I get to read up on people like Bea Mahaffey. What I know about her is from SF Encyclopedia:

      No mention is made of Palmer’s health. It states that she was simply the de facto editor of most of his SF magazines. If you remember where you read more about their partnership, let me know!

  5. I read this for the first time in “Starships,” at least 40 years ago, and found it very memorable. It pops into my mind every few years, and I go on a hunt for “Starships” on my disorganized shelves, to re-read the story.

    I knew nothing about Robinson before I read your article. Gay and wrote speeches for Milk? This info definitely adds an interesting layer to the story of Matty, the outcast and artist. I’m going to have to read it once more.

    I was always intrigued by the Prefect and his methods and his claims about human behavior.

    The story always gets me thinking: The needs of the many, vs the needs of the few. The fulfillment of self, vs the fulfillment of the mission. Structure vs anarchy. Etc., etc.

    But mostly, it’s that ending that gets me: The growth and learning and progress that evolve from struggle, vs the bitterness and unhappiness and suffering that evolve from same. The need to provide support while also fostering and encouraging independence. It’s tricky business that today’s polarized political environment brings to mind, daily.

    For me, it was an unforgettable story, beautifully written and structured.

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