Generation Ship Short Story Review: Arthur Sellings’ “A Start in Life” (1954)

This is the 11th post in my newly resurrected series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. I’m continuing my exploration of 50s visions.

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: Frank M. Robinson’s “The Oceans Are Wide” in Science Stories (April 1954), ed. Bea Mahaffey and Ray Palmer. You can read it online here

Next Up: Michael G. Coney’s “The Mind Prison” in New Writings in SF 19, ed. John Carnell (1971). You can read it online here.

Arthur Sellings’ “A Start in Life” first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction (September 1954), ed. H. L. Gold. 3/5 (Average). You can read it online here.

As always, spoilers…

Reluctant Robotic Parents Learn the Ropes

Two robots–Em and Jay–are placed in charge of raising two babies named Paul and Helen, the only remaining survivors of a plague that devastated a generation ship. Em, a later model with more computing power, takes on the role of a human mother. Jay, a clunkier earlier model, attempts to be a supportive father but defers to Em as “she” can more adeptly respond to the changing behaviors and questions of the growing children. Regardless, “bringing up a human baby was an almost hopeless task for a robot” (50).

Both Em and Jay do not know when and how to reveal the nature of the generation ship beyond the nursery in which the children grow up in. However, the increasing divergence between the world of children books (with cats and trees and objects not found on board) and the world of the nursery forces the necessity of a standard “conceptual breakthrough” common in generation ship stories. The real world of the throbbing metal vessel and the emptiness beyond its walls must be revealed… if only the robots knew how…..

It’s Almost All on the Surface, I Poked and Prodded

Arthur Sellings’ science fiction has not gone over well in the history of this site. I attempted to read The Power of X (1968), promptly gave up, and sent it off to a friend with a higher tolerance for science fictional dregs. I found “Gifts of the Gods” (1966) bland and forgettable. Marginally better, “The Last Time Around” (1968) attempted to explore the emotional state of an irradiated “direct continuum propulsion” space pilot subjected to time dilation (normally a topic I’d devour). If I can find a copy of his final novel Junk Day (1970) for cheap, I’ll give Sellings a final chance.

There’s nothing overtly wrong with “A Start of Life” (1954). It’s hard not to feel for Em and Jay who, despite their original programming, attempt to care for the two children and make the right choices in introducing the strange new world they find themselves in. The story lacks powerful images–Senz’s interior art attempts to add some visual panache the bland proceedings.

Where Sellings’ vision challenges the standard template is its robotic narrator. Em, “more delicate of voice, too [with a] quicker intuition” and “certainly a greater tendency to worry” (50) than Jay, must reluctantly take on the role of mother. And as they are created by humans for a limited role (to assist in moments of stress on board the vessel), they do not entirely know the human reasons for the mission. Earth and its problems remains in the distances. And like all parents, robotic or not, the questions of children create moments of indecision and confusion.

There’s an innate goodness about the proceedings. The robots want the best for the children. The children, while confused about the nature of their existence, confront their world in the best way they can. And, when the hatches open and the stars shine through, the new challenges will be met in time.


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7 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: Arthur Sellings’ “A Start in Life” (1954)

    • Haha. I’m also reading Saberhagen’s “Birthdays” (1976) which unfortunately isn’t a generation ship story per se. Or, not enough is revealed to suggest it is… and it too places children in a nursery on a vessel. And I am shocked by how RADICALLY different children are presented. I will eventually write-up my thoughts on “Birthdays.” It’s quite the tale….

        • For some reason years back I put it on my generation ship list… but I can’t find any evidence online that anyone actually classifies it as a generation ship story. So one of those “does not really fit the theme but I’m reading and writing about it anyway” stories — like Leigh Bracket’s “The Ark of Mars” (1953). Unlike the miserable Bracket, I didn’t suffer through “Birthdays”!

  1. I finally read ‘A Start in Life’. I agree that there is not much to this story. It’s fairly bland, even if its narrative conceit is certainly not without interest. I feel that Sellings never got beyond his good idea to dig into its rich potential. For instance, there is a great brief reveal about how the now gone adult humans had coincidentally attributed gender to the robots sheerly on the basis of their size, raising a more interesting question that is only touched on and never explored: that gender is itself largely a social construct (pages 50-51). There is also the more sinister question of the position of the remaining children: that they are simply a breeding pair that must be brought to adulthood in order to perpetuate the human colony. No doubt the period and context of publication would have hampered a full exploration of these themes—not to mention that they are kids in this story—but these themes are raised nonetheless, even if tangentially, and a better writer (say, Judith Merril for instance) would have perhaps made more of them.
    The final paragraph raises the question that maybe Sellings just fluffed the best frame for his story. For instance, imagine if the story had been written from the perspective of Paul and Helen’s adolescence or adulthood, when the grim truth of their position would have been harder to disguise.

    • I’m with you on all points. The robots’ approach to gender as construct angle was the most interesting. And of course the implications that the two kids are destined for more incredibly disturbing sequences where they need to learn about the world — as in, have babies NOW!

      But my entire sense was Sellings hints at interesting bits but never addresses them in a direct manner (the gender discussion is the most direct part) so it all feels unintentional.

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