This is the 16th post in my series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. Today I have an interesting formulation of the generation ship–its component parts dispersed across multiple vessels–that did not appear on Simone Caroti’s list that spurred this project.
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: Fred Saberhagen’s “The Long Way Home” in Galaxy Magazine, ed. H. L. Gold (June 1961). You can read it online here..
Next Up: TBD
Julian May’s “Star of Wonder” first appeared in the February 1953 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, ed. Samuel Mines. You can read it online here.
After getting involved with SF fandom in her teens, Julian May (1931-2017) published two short stories in the 1950s before returning in the 1980s with the multi-volume Saga of the Pliocene Exile sequence (1981-1984). In between, according to Wikipedia, May worked with her husband T. E. Dikty in publishing, wrote children’s fiction and nonfiction, Buck Rogers comic strips, and even Catholic catechism for publishers affiliated with the Franciscans. Of her two 50s SF tales, “Dune Roller” in the December 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction remains by the best known (I suspect for good reason). It received both a TV adaptation for Tales of Tomorrow and film version.
While a poor story in many respects, “Star of Wonder” conjures some historical value as the second generation ship short story after Judith Merril’s “Survival Ship” (1951) published by a female author that I’ve been able to identify. As a reminder, I will inevitably feature plenty of average to poor stories as I plan on reading everything available in English pre-1985 for this series.
“Star of Wonder” follows the exodus of a humanoid alien race from their home planet Eiollyra, with its “familiar sky of blue-green” and “emerald seas” (85). The reason? Scientists predicted their sun would go nova in seven years. Rather than individual self-sufficient generation ships, the refugees created a fleet of “carefully compartmentalized–farm units, cityships, administrative and research units” (87). As a whole, the armada, like a generation ship, functions as a “living, functioning organism, operating under optimum efficiency and a delicate balance” (87). May does not go into additional details about how the individual ships interact with each other. Unlike many generation ship stories, these vessels do have FTL capabilities. The reason the journey might last longer than a single generation–and no limit is given to the length of potential duration–is the lack of a sufficient planet for the refugees. Instead, their seven-year-journey (Biblical numerology intended) increasingly feels hopeless–another “dead-end in space” (87).
Despair grips the flotilla as the years pass by. First Commander Hondra spends his free time–in-between failed expeditions to unsuitable planets–crafting detailed models of his previous planet. His wife spends her time crying and begging him to land on any planet so that she can spend her time on land: “I don’t care about the race! All I care about is us! I’ll die in space” (84). And a pernicious rumor that the original calculations future nova of Eiollyra’s sun were incorrect. Shendy, Astrophysicist Blue-Three, voices his desire to return to their home over broad beam to all the ships. In a tense moment, the commander Hondra calls a vote–and some ships will be allowed to return home. Of course, at that instant, their distant planet’s sun goes nova on their telescope. Grief now grips the flotilla. And perhaps on the poisonous planet below hope can be found before the armada must go on…
With the theme of this series in mind, I debated whether or not “Star of Wonder” can be classified as a generation ship story. I came down on the side of “sort of” and included it in the series. As a whole, May’s very brief discussions of the fleet imply that all the component parts are present for a generational voyage–dispersed across the spaceships. I wish this basic idea was fleshed out a bit more. Unfortunately, and this is the real flaw of the story, May is more interested in affirming, in trite fashion, a biblical message of God’s universality. I find it humorous that I read this story after Ward Moore’s “Lot” (1953), that deliberately retells the most morally suspect biblical passages for satirical purposes, and Thomas M. Disch’s stunning The Genocides (1965), that revels in pantomiming the biblical as empty movements of historical imagination that have spent their force. “Star of Wonder” reaffirms destiny and cosmic coincidence as all part of God’s plan in a simplistic manner suitable for Sunday school.
I cannot recommend the story for anyone but generation ship short story completists (like myself). And maybe those interested in more polemical Christian interpretations of SF…
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23 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: Julian May’s “Star of Wonder” (1953)”
While that story may be lacking, the magazine’s cover art would make a nice plastic model kit and a nice metal miniature for games.
Maybe! I find it a clunky cover too… alas.
“I cannot recommend the story for anyone but generation ship short story completists (like myself). ”
Damn! I suppose I’m going to have to read it now!
Though your bare bones description of the plot makes it sound a lot better than what you say it is.
Haha, even then the “generation ship” part of the story is subsumed by the Sunday school take on Christianity…. That said, I can’t help but think it would have a place in a more recent article on generation ships as the fleet itself–and all its individual ships–serve as the parts of a self-sufficient macro-ship. She spends little time discussing the intriguing scientific core idea so there’s not a lot to go on.
I don’t know if it is the story itself or your analysis, but I am getting strong vibes of both Battlestar Galactica and Space 1999. I’ve always liked the settler armada motif more than the literal generation ship. It seems to me more realistic, just like the idea of leaving under duress (or involuntarily), with no intended destination. Of course, those two elements are also quite biblical.
Now that I think about it the religious feel of the original (not the new) Battlestar Galactica isn’t that far off from the vibe! The new one was far more dirty and sinister in feel (this feels wholesome and “true”). But yes, the general generation fleet setup of both Battlestar Galacticas is a good parallel.
The story is super short so feel free to give it a go and let me know what you think. I link an online copy in the review as you probably saw.
Only do it if you really really want to — haha, it’s not a great story. I’ve reviewed far better ones for this series 🙂
I’m glad I read it. Thanks for posting about it.
There are some really interesting aspects. First, I am a sucker for any kind of retro-futurism, and there is plenty here on display. Of course, there is a massive physics boo-boo, but I really don’t mind that. The portrayal of the wife wouldn’t go over so well nowadays, and maybe it didn’t even back then. I think my mother would have found it objectionable even in the 50s.
Part of the problem is that there is a trilogy’s worth of stuff in here crammed into a few pages, which inevitably means that exposition dominates and narrative short-cuts abound. And there is even less space for the actual story because of the shaggy-dog story at the end. The punch line lumbers its way over the horizon.
I grew up Catholic, so I was fed lots of these little edifying message stories, mostly adventure. Interesting to see one done in SciFi.
I had to smile at the opening. I have a story in which the leader of a rogue colony ship (not a generation ship in the sense of these selections) goes to his workshop to do some carving when he needs to think about big decisions. His discusses his options with his wife while he carves 🙂
Thank you for the wonderful comment! I wanted to mention more of those moments of ritual at the loss of the home world–the carving, etc.–but they felt completely subsumed by the plod to the end (or beginning?). It’s definitely an ideas story and they overwhelm the reader in the brief ten pages. And the one that she really cares about, the “little edifying [Christian] message” is the one that is least transfixing. I am personally far more interested in the ways in which sanity would be maintained on a long space voyage (and the trauma of separation from home and the inscribed landscapes that give us meaning) and this story adds another wrinkle with the sequences of carving.
Agreed on all points. There is some value in this, and I am glad I read it.
You mentioned on your substack that you read the rest of the issue. Anything else worth tracking down?
Actually, yes. Dark Nuptial by Robert Donald Locke.
It isn’t terrific, but certainly interesting. The middle of the story has some very questionable character psychology driving it, but it goes straight to the heart of the Star Trek transporter philosophical issue.
It would have benefited from being a longer story, with more time taken to watch the characters evolve through their trauma. Interestingly, just as in Star of Wonder, there is a theological aspect that goes way beyond subtext.
“there is a massive physics boo-boo”
Maybe the part where they don’t seem to understand that they are lightyears away and should expect the nova to take longer than they predicted to reach them?
Now I get it. I had not read the story when I asked the question. (Or, not in 7 years anyway.)
Observing the light from the exploding star.
In my group, we had this as a group read back in december 2015, as a Christmas story. Which is basically its only purpose.
Interesting story, with some loose ends and some clumsy writing. Some rather nice parts though, particularly toward the beginning.
If these people can breathe the air, then maybe they could have set up greenhouses for growing food they could use? Or import it from the ones in the ships? Life is after all, thoroughly adaptable.
You are right in that everything is subsumed to its central Christmas-related message. And yes, I can’t help but think that if a people could figure out the technology for an exodus across the stars they could figure out how to shield from the radiation and grow the required “safe” food.
After skimming over it again: this is not a multi- generation starship story. The people who started out on the journey are the ones who arrive at Earth.
It’s a flotilla of starships story. There’s only about which features a multi-generation flotilla of starships I’ve seen: Rescue Party by Arthur Clarke.
I discuss that very point in the review. Yes, the story as a whole does not cover multiple generations. Plenty of stories on this topic only focus on one — be that the final generation, some in-between, or in this instance the first generation. This is a story of how the first generation grapples with the idea to continue on even if it means that their children or their children’s children find a home rather than themselves.
I debated whether to include it in the series and eventually decided to do so because the flotilla is set up (albeit across different specialist ships) to travel as long as it takes to find a new planet (and MUCH further than the 7 years the characters have within the story). Earth is not the ultimate destination. And after the interaction with the baby Jesus, some form of hope is restored for a journey that takes as long as necessary to find a suitable home.
The portions from the review:
The first section–with the relevant quotes–suggest that yes, the fleets acts like a dispersed generation ship. May even points out that some ships leave the group, if they want to return to the home planet, it might as well be a death sentence for the race.
As for Clarke, yup! I reviewed it in the first years of my site and it’s on the generation ship list linked above. Check the review index if you wish to read my short paragraph review. A far superior story to this one!
Allright… I can see your stance. Especially if one is making an exhaustive list of multi-gen starship stories: they would want to err on the side of inclusiveness. It can be seen as either yes or not a multi-gen story.
Regarding Clarke, his later and famous (and also far superior) story “The Star” uses the same Star of Bethlehem as nova idea. It may very well have been borrowed from this.
I’ve also read and reviewed “The Star” on the site. I enjoyed it: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2021/01/26/book-review-infinity-one-ed-robert-hoskins-1970-poul-anderson-anne-mccaffrey-gene-wolfe-robert-silverberg-miriam-allen-deford-et-al/