Generation Ship Short Story Review: Fred Saberhagen’s “The Long Way Home” (1961)

This is the 15th post in my series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. Today I have an unusual take on the subgenre–a young scavenger couple encounter a mysterious blip on their radar!

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: Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” in Amazing Stories, ed. Raymond A. Palmer (October 1940). You can read it online here.

Next Up: TBD


3/5 (Average)

Fred Saberhagen’s “The Long Way Home” first appeared in the June 1961 issue of Galaxy Magazine, ed. H. L. Gold. You can read it online here.

Among the Asteroids out Near Pluto

Marty and Laura–recently married and very much in love–form the crew of the Clementine, a robotic mining, ore refining, and hauling vessel. They spend their isolated existence identifying prospective asteroids out near Pluto. Laura, on her very first space voyage, remains his liaison in the control room when Marty scoots off in his space bike to investigate a blip on the radar. If it’s a wrecked hull of “a ship dead for decade, or a century, or a thousand years” if theirs by right of salvage if they could tow it into a port (181). The robotic librarian indicates that no such vessel has ever existed! Marty’s investigation reveals that the thirty-mile long hull is part of a two-thousand-year-old larger vessel that has suffered a possibly cataclysmic disaster.

And Marty sets off again, determined to enter the vessel to see if there is anything worth salvaging… But the slow movement of the hull’s “space anchor” suggests a far less lucrative yet mind-blowing explanation.

Our Infinitesimal Movements across the Void

Further investigations of the hull reveal that there’s a chance that the human occupants the residential spaceship-section have survived for two-thousand years! This was part of a generation ship that set off from Earth before losing its drive and other sections out near Pluto. And so Marty enters a strange new world in which unusual rituals explain the slow movement of the hull towards Sol. His brief explorations reveal a society fixated on dragging space anchor the thirty miles a day across the length of the hull. He observes fragments of artistic and social activities that occupy the masses and maintain the peace. Marty and Laura must make the ultimate decisions–allow the survivors to continue their ritualistic yet futile movements towards Earth or call the authorities. Laura doesn’t wait for Marty to decide and takes the matter into her own hands.

A vague future history emerges from the story in which humanity has intermittently explored the cosmos for three thousand years. At some point in the distant past the Old Empire, which sent out massive generation ships like the section discovered by the couple, fell. There’s no mention of the current governmental structure of Marty and Laura’s time. Most importantly, this is a world of humans–no aliens have ever been encountered.

The setup to “The Long Way Home” contains fantastic pieces of a riveting story: isolated prospectors, mysterious “Big Dumb Object,” and a fascinating mystery with profound implications for everyone involved. That said, Saberhagen’s prose is functional at best that fails to convey the immensity, futility, and horror of it all.

“The Long Way Home” joins a small list of SF stories–from the decades I cover–focused primarily on the discovery of a generation ship rather the lives of the travelers: Chad Oliver’s “Stardust. (1952) and Samuel R. Delany. The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965) come to mind. As with the Saberhagen, I found neither entirely satisfying. How does one reintegrate the isolated survivors with the ideologies and institutions of survival dictated by the journey? Would principles of contact should be followed? What about those who refuse to leave? Marty should never have entered the vessel with its hyper isolated inhabitants if he had any inclination of survivors. I am reminded of the contact procedures followed with isolated Amazon tribes. Are there newer novels outside of my range of study that tackle this premise (perhaps on my list) in a more sophisticated manner?

This is the first Saberhagen work I’ve read–I procured Berserker (1967) back in 2016 and The Broken Lands (1968) in 2019–and despite the faults I was pleasantly surprised. I plan on tracking down more of his short fiction. In the final calculus of its parts, “The Long Way Home” is a minor yet intriguing generation ship story told from a less than common viewpoint.


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29 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: Fred Saberhagen’s “The Long Way Home” (1961)

  1. I’m sure the cavils you’ve enumerated would irk me as well. I suspect it’s an artifact of the story’s age. But the Galaxy having no aliens is definitely in line with what I expect to be the case when we finally do leave home.

    Well done, as always, and very interesting review.

    • There are plenty of well-written stories from the early 60s! I mean, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Kornbluth, and Aldiss (he does a lot with his functionalist prose) come to mind. I’ve been reading a lot of Aldiss’ early 60s work recently… I am hoping that this is more a symptom of the fact that this is one of Saberhagen’s earliest published stories.

      Yes, I was pleased by the lack of aliens!

  2. JB: There are plenty of well-written stories from the early 60s! I mean, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Kornbluth, and Aldiss (he does a lot with his functionalist prose) come to mind.

    Kornbluth died in 1958. From ’59, all you got were Pohl finishing off variously sized and scoped pieces of prose Kornbluth left, from the novella-length ‘The Quaker Cannon’ to the near short-short ‘A Gentle Dying.’

    JB: I’ve been reading a lot of Aldiss’ early 60s work recently…

    I’m located in the UK right now and one advantage of that is that practically every piece of SF ever is available here on Kindle from Amazon UK for cheap prices (forex, all of Tiptree books, which aren’t even in ‘print’ in dead tree form in the US). All of Aldiss’s short stories are available —
    https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=Brian+Aldiss&rh=n%3A341689031&ref=nb_sb_noss
    — with four volumes of Aldiss’s 1960s-era stories. I got the first volume.

    It was astonishingly varied quality-wise. As in, one great story. ‘Old Hundredth,’ and a bunch of very dated stinkers that brought home to me that at the 1960s’ start Aldiss was churning stuff out for Carnell’s magazines and the lesser US markets because he really needed the money. It put me off reading the next three from the 1960s, though maybe I’ll try the last one — because I recall some very good Aldiss stories from later in the decade, like ‘The Moment of Eclipse’ and ‘Man In His Time’ — and if that stands up, work back in time.

    JB: I am hoping that this is more a symptom of the fact that this is one of Saberhagen’s earliest published stories.

    No. Saberhagen’s prose never got above merely functional, though he had enough good story ideas — the Berserker stuff, most of all — and professionalism to sustain a career through to the start of this century.

    • Yup, the Kornbluth comment was in haste as I just reviewed his final short story — “The Advent on Channel Twelve” (1958).

      Mark, hopefully my vast number of Aldiss reviews demonstrate what you point out about the varied quality.

      I have reviewed some 40 odd Aldiss stories on the site and four novels (and read but never got to review Greybeard). The handful of repeat stories indicate that they crop up in more than one collection I reviewed. For links: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/science-fiction-book-reviews-by-author/

      THE LIST:

      “…And the Stagnation of the Heart” (1968)
      “Amen and Out” (1966)
      “Another Little Boy” (1966)
      “Appearance of Life” (1977)
      Bow Down to Nul (variant title: The Interpreter) (1960)
      The Dark Light-Years (1964)
      Earthworks (1965)
      Galaxies Like Grains of Sand (1960)
      “Out of Reach” (1957)
      “All The World’s Tears” (1957)
      “Who Can Replace A Man?” (1958)
      “O Ishrail” (1957)
      “Incentive” (1958)
      “Gene-Hive” (1958)
      “Secret of A Mighty City” (1958)
      “Visiting Amoeba” (1957)
      “Multi-Value Motorway” (1967)
      Non-Stop (variant title: Starship) (1958)
      No Time Like Tomorrow (1959)
      “T” (1956)
      “Not for an Age” (1955)
      “Poor Little Warrior!” (1958)
      “The Failed Men” (1956)
      “Carrion Country” (1958)
      “Judas Danced” (1958)
      “Psyclops” (1956)
      “Outside” (1955)
      “Gesture of Farewell” (1957)
      “The New father Christmas” (1958)
      “Blighted Profile” (1958)
      “Our Kind of Knowledge” (1955)
      Panel Game” (1955)
      “The Small Betraying Detail” (1965)
      Starswarm (1964)
      ”A Kind of Artistry” (1962)
      “Hearts and Engines” (variant title: “Soldiers Running”) (1960)
      “The Underprivileged” (1963)
      “The Game of God” (variant title: “Segregation) (1958)
      “Shards” (1962)
      “Legends of Smith’s Burst” (1959)
      “O Moon of My Delight” (variant title: “O Moon of My Delight!”) (1961)
      “Old Hundredth” (1960)
      Who Can Replace a Man? (variant title: Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W. Aldiss), Brian W. Aldiss (1965)
      “Who Can Replace a Man?” (1958)
      “Not For An Age” (1955)
      “Psyclops” (1956)
      “Outside” (1955)
      “Dumb Show” (1956)
      “The New Father Christmas” (1958)
      “Ahead’ (variant title: “The Failed Men”) (1956)
      “Poor Little Warrior!” (1958)
      “Man on Bridge” (1964)
      “The Impossible Star” (1963)
      “Basis for Negotiation” (1962)
      “Old Hundredth” (1960)
      “A Kind of Artistry” (1962)
      “Man in His Time” (1965)

      I also just finished Kincaid’s recent monograph in Aldiss — highly recommended! My favorite later (as in late 70s) short story is definitely Appearance of Life” (1977) so far. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2019/08/11/book-review-the-1977-annual-worlds-best-sf-ed-arthur-w-saha-and-donald-a-wollheim-1977/

    • As for Saberhagen, I guess I’ll just need to read the Berserker (1967) collection I own. I assumed he managed to evoke the terror of the encroaching self-replicating machines? If I were to pin something down lacking in this story it’s definitely the sense of wonder of the premise. This is a thirty-mile-long spaceship chunk yet it comes off as something dull and banal….

      • JB: This is a thirty-mile-long spaceship chunk yet it comes off as something dull and banal….

        It’s very early Saberhagen, and he got better. But yeah ….

        JB: I assumed he managed to evoke the terror of the encroaching self-replicating machines?

        Not particularly. Greg Benford explored that better in his Galactic Center stories in the 1970s and ’80s. Ancient machine civilizations destroying organic life is arguably one solution to the Fermi Paradox and Benford is a physicist (and an expert on the galactic core), so could do more with the idea.

        Where Saberhagen’s Berserker stories were relatively strong was in basic narrative/plot mechanics, in the sense, now I think of it, that they’d have been a good fit for Campbell’s ANALOG at the time — a lot better than the majority of the stuff Campbell did print. Campbell still paid better word rates, IIRC, but I guess Saberhagen was (1) loyal to Pohl and (2) put off by the idea of dealing with Campbell, who was pure troll by that time, writing editorials advocating the benefits of slavery and smoking (he died of throat cancer at 61).

  3. I read ‘The Long Way Home’ a few years back and it has not stayed with me. Your description of the set-up sounds a lot more memorable than what I recall, though perhaps its less than thrilling denouement overrode any remnant of this in my reading of it.

    The only one I can think of that vaguely takes up the question you raise is Harry Harrison’s ‘Captive Universe’ (1969). Harrison even incorporates the problem of the observer/observed into the structures of his fictional gen ship, though it is made internal to the ship’s structure rather than arising as a result of the ship’s contact with traveller’s from without. Definitely worth a read, though I felt that despite Harrison’s interesting fictional conceit, and his attempt to address the question of contact with isolated groups, the story itself suffers from the limitations of the trope—i.e., that after Heinlein’s and Aldiss’s respective elaborations, there really is little more to say about this trope (to my thinking at least).

    A more interesting take on it is Molly Gloss’s more recent work, ‘The Dazzle of Day’ (1998). She overcomes the problem of novelty vis-à-vis the trope by focusing on the intimate details of the social relations of her gen ship community in isolation, and how such isolation comes to shape this community for better or worse. Highly recommended (though I understand it falls outside of your temporal zone of interest).

    • Yup, I read Captive Universe (1969) a few years ago. A solid novel. My short review: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2019/12/31/short-book-reviews-harry-harrisons-captive-universe-1969-john-christophers-the-death-of-grass-1956-nancy-kress-an-alien-light-1987-and-joe-haldemans-mindbridge-197/

      I was thinking about Captive Universe as well but the majority of the book focuses on the main character and his conceptual breakthrough.

      I intended my comment to be more about outsiders discovering a ship (like in this story) vs. an internal view. But Gloss’ work does sound fascinating. In this instance I wanted to know far more about the culture that Saberhagen only hints at through Marty’s short exploration of the ship’s interior. And a way to do that would be to focus on the steps that come next after Laura calls the Navy to make a proper first contact (which is what I assume happens next). What happens next would have been even more interesting in my view!

      • I forgot that you’d read it already.

        I like the idea of a more considered and extended narrative than Saberhagen’s that proposes to treat the missing/lost/whatever gen ship in the way Western anthropologists have contacted pre-industrial societies. You may have to write this story yourself!

        However, I wonder also what would be the point of this. Presumably even the most isolated human social group on Earth would still not be as isolated as the hypothetical gen ship that has lost its way.

        Increasingly I feel that the genship trope, no matter how interesting I’ve found it over the years, is very limited. Perhaps this is why someone like Gloss takes it in a more relational direction rather than pushing its speculative limits–that have, in any case, been well pushed to the point of breaking.

        • antyphase: I like the idea of a more considered and extended narrative than Saberhagen’s that proposes to treat the missing/lost/whatever gen ship in the way Western anthropologists have contacted pre-industrial societies. You may have to write this story yourself!

          THE BALLAD OF BETA-2 (1965) by Samuel R. Delany
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ballad_of_Beta-2

          ‘…the descendants were incapable of and uninterested in settling on the system’s planets … and were left alone – to continue living in the spaceships as an obscure backwater culture isolated from broader human history.

          ‘The degenerate “Star Folk” and their culture arouse little interest among the flourishing interstellar human culture. Only one researcher had bothered to record their songs, these being dismissed as “derivative” due to their repeated reference to “cities”, “desert” and other Earth-bound concepts. However, an Anthropology professor charges a promising student with looking deeper, pointing out that these were the only humans to ever actually cross the depths of space between the stars, since later FTL ships are able to simply bypass these depths … The student, for his thesis, is charged with investigating the source and antecedents of a ballad …. ‘

          • Hello Mark, yes, I mentioned Ballad as an example of what I was talking about along with Chad Oliver’s “Stardust” (1952) in the review. Despite the intriguing premise, I wanted to enjoy the Delany more than I did…. But yes, he definitely fits the bill and is the most sustained attempt to explore that clash of cultures.

        • No worries! I’ve accumulated a ton of reviews of the decade plus I’ve been around. And if only I could motivate myself to review the novels and short story collections that are gathering next to my desk… these series are a good way to focus my mind.

          There’s an Aldiss novel, a Disch novel, the Silverberg collection Capricorn games that I probably will never get to reviewing as its been months, and a Leiber collection….

          I feel that the Oliver, Saberhagen, and Delany touch on enough issues in an insubstantial enough way that there could be a more sophisticated treatment.

          Yes, the trope is ultra-limiting. But there are still refreshing more modern takes on it — Le Guin’s “Paradises Lost” comes to mind. Although when I read it I wasn’t so knowledgeable about the subgenre that I might be wearing rose-colored glasses… If I’m remembering correctly, she also narrowed in on the realities of daily life in the story.

          • I vaguely recall the Le Guin being good. I’d also recommend Frank M. Robinson’s ‘The Dark Between the Stars’ a relatively refreshing take on the gen ship considering its “late” date–1991.
            I’d love to hear what you think of Capricorn Games. ‘The science fiction hall of fame’, ‘Breckenridge and the continuum’ and ‘Ship-sister, star-sister’ wee stand outs for me, though the collection as a whole hasn’t stayed with me (in the sense of worming their way into my hideous brain).

            • I’d be interested to read Le Guin’s Paradises Lost. What collection is it in?

              Two other fairly recent treatments of this theme–which I haven’t yet read–are Richard Paul Russo’s Ship of Fools, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora.

            • It’s in ‘The Birthday of the World’. You might also want to check out a gen ship novel by one of Le Guin’s friends, Molly Gloss, called ‘The Dazzle of Day’–highly recommended.
              I haven’t read the KSR novel. I’m a bit like Joachim in the sense I rarely stray beyond the 1980s when it comes to SF.

            • Many thanks, antyphayes! Maybe I’ll look them up. I sometimes read post-eighties SF, usually in theme anthologies published by DAW, etc., but even then I like stories that deal with the classic themes (space travel, time travel, etc.)

            • As Anthony said, it’s in The Birthday of the World. I include those two and many many many many newer works on my generation ship list (linked above). I suspect there are a ton of great newer takes on the genre.

            • I don’t think I’m going to get to Capricorn Games unfortunately. I read it on my vacation during the summer and then I was smacked by work when I returned (August is always my least productive month of the year) and the prospect of reviewing some of Silverberg’s densest and most experimental works lost its luster…. I’d have to reread it to say anything intelligent and comprehensible about the stories!

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