Short Story Reviews: Robert Silverberg’s “The Seed of Earth” (1958) and Doris Piserchia’s “Pale Hands” (1974)

I’ve decided to reframe my series on 50s sex and sexuality to include my entire area of SF interest (1945-1985). Thus, I’ve paired Robert Silverberg’s “The Seed of Earth” (1958), a rumination on colonization and human/alien sex, with Doris Piserchia’s “Pale Hands” (1974), a distressing dissection of a future society designed to fixate all sexual desire on masturbation stalls.

Here are the earlier installments in the series:

  1. Philip José Farmer’s “The Lovers” (1952)
  2. Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (1952)
  3. Wallace West’s “Eddie For Short” (1953)
  4. Fritz Leiber’s “The Ship Sails at Midnight” (1950)
  5. Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Sex Opposite” (1952)
  6. Ward Moore’s “Lot” (1953)
  7. Langdon Jones’ “I Remember, Anita…” (1964)
  8. Damon Knight’s “Not With a Bang” (1950)

If any short stories published between 1945-1985 on sex and sexuality come to mind that I haven’t reviewed yet, let me know in the comments. I have a substantial list waiting to be covered but it’s far from comprehensive.

3.5/5 (Good)

Robert Silverberg’s “The Seed of Earth” (variant title: “Journey’s End”) first appeared in Super-Science Fiction, ed. W. W. Scott (April 1958). You can read it online here. It is also available in his collection Dimension Thirteen (1969) that I plan on reviewing in the near future.

A preliminary note about publication: Silverberg reused the title “The Seed of Earth”–chosen by W. W. Scott over “Journey’s End”–for a later unrelated novella and a novel.

Robert Silverberg’s “The Seed of Earth” explores the sexual nature of exploration, conquest, and colonialism. Two stories unfurl simultaneously. The narrative follows the Earth-born Barchay as he returns to an alien V’Leeg village on the planet Loverad. He grapples with the traumas of his past propelled by the hope that one of his illegitimate descendants might still be alive. He had arrived with the first group of Terran settlers and his wife, remembered only as “romanticized vision that could never have really been,” and young son (104). Soon after settling on the planet, the thirty-year-old Barchay explored the village and interacted peacefully with its natives. However, despite his young family waiting for him at home, he lusted after the seventeen-year-old daughter of the V’Leeg village chief and “overlooked” her leathery red skin, lidless eyes, and facial ridges (109). Hoping “his wife and son far away would forgive him for what he was about to do,” Barchay sleeps with the young V’Leeg. He leaves the next morning “unable to meet his host’s eyes or the eyes of his daughter” (110).

Two devastating events convince Barchay to trek back to the place of his immoral failure. His wife contracted a fatal disease that left him the task of raising his son. In the more recent past, the V’Leeg youth rose in revolt against the human interlopers, massacring eight hundred of the ten-thousands colonists, including Barchay’s son. Shorn of his family and struggling with his legacy, his memory returns to the V’Leeg village and his sins of passion.

The Colonial Gaze

Silverberg’s story relentlessly focuses on Barchay’s colonialist gaze. In both trips, he fixates on how V’Leeg women look similar to humans. He cannot take them on their own terms. He even conflates the alien women with human domesticated animals: “unlovely: a beast of the fields more than a woman, her body thickened and stooped by toil, her pendulous breasts more udders than breasts” (105). Barchay’s sexual desire for the younger female aliens, who he views as “human enough,” overrides his revulsion (105). He has sex in the dark where “he could not see the lidless eyes or the redness of the skin” (110).

While Silverberg does not delve into detail, it’s implied that initial interaction with the aliens and Terrans was mostly cordial, “neither caring too greatly for the other’s company, neither having much to do with each ither” (107) with occasional outbreaks of violence with both races “struggling for life on the same barren infertile world” (107). When Barchay leaves village the second time, the V’Leeg hurl the “accusing chant” of “seducer” and cut him down (115). Barchay, despite his own traumatic past and half-hearted attempts to understand how he might have effected others, cannot escape his colonial mentality. The events of his life and the undercurrent of revulsion in how he views the world suggest the culminative and corrosive effect of the colonial presence that led to the V’Leeg act of violent resistance.

Final Thoughts

I found it hard to separate Silverberg’s commentary on colonialism, represented by the flawed Barchay and his views of the other, from his own tendency to objectify female characters. If you don’t know what I mean, check out my review of Downward to the Earth (1970). As with his later novel, Silverberg endlessly fixates on the shape of female anatomy. That said, colonial critique runs through Silverberg’s 50s short fiction. In “Why?” (1957), he speculates on why humans have the urge to explore, perhaps it’s to avoid self-analysis by subsuming self within grand purpose. In “Neutral Planet” (1957), he spins a Cold War allegory of an alien people caught between the two super powers who want them as an ally. In both “Birds of a Feather” (1958) and “The Lonely One” (1956), aliens exhibit humans like Victorian arm-chair anthologists exhibited colonized peoples. “I found “The Seed of Earth” a worthwhile early Silverberg story and useful material for anyone interested in SF and colonialism.

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Doris Piserchia’s “Pale Hands” first appeared in Orbit 15, ed. Damon Knight (1974). If you have an Internet Archive account, you can check out the book in 1-hour increments here.

The year is 2021. Overpopulation results in draconian policies–culminating in the “Conditioning Center in Illinois” (28)–to fixate all sexual desire of the populace on the park toilet-like masturbation stall. This is a future where “no one could live together; no roommates; no girls together, no men together, and, of course, a male and a female were not permitted to share a pad” (30). Vega cleans masturbation stalls on Fifth Avenue. Lydon cleans stalls on the other side of the street. She initially views Lydon as “a grubby little mutt” (34). But something inside her clicks.

How Can One Talk About Love When You Cannot Talk About Love?

The story follows Vega’s sexual awakening interpreted entirely through her social conditioning. The reader is immersed in her struggle to understand what she feels without the vocabulary or referents to put it into words: “There is a kind of sweetness like no other, and it only comes riding on the person of another. This sweetness worries me. It makes me despair” (35). She imagines herself as a “worm clinging to his skin” so he couldn’t leave her (38). He brings her small gifts that neither entirely understands. One day he brings a camera but rather than take a photo as a couple, each take a photo of each other. In another instance, he brings her an old household eggbeater appliance. Neither understands that it represents the domestic responsibilities of a couple. As Vega and Lyndon cannot express themselves via the canned language of love (expunged from their mind), Piserchia spins a love story unlike any other.

There’s an unnerving sensory physicality and rawness in Vega’s engagement with the world. Vega observes how the stink of the stalls permeates the air and how it mixes with the rain and moans of the occupants (36). She fixates on hands as the instruments of fulfillment. She notices a political advertisement that zooms in on the candidates hands around which “colored noodles strung on them like ornaments” (32). Her dreams terrify: “a skeleton that had no flesh on it except in a crazy place” follows her around as she proclaims “leave me alone because I was dead as a doornail in the beef department” (34). As her desire grows, the physical pain–caused by her conditioning–grows as well. Her longing, her pain, her fears, her naiveté, swirls and eddies and attempts to find footing in a mind designed to reject it.

Final Thoughts

This is a brilliant story of a fragmented future that has lost the ability to communicate desire for your partner and convey hope for a fulfilling life together. Piserchia succeeds in mediating everything through the filter of social conditioning. They can only understand so much. They are detached from the life that used to be.

Recommended only for fans of the darker more queasy avenues that science fiction can take. I am eager to read more of Doris Piserchia’s short fiction! This is nothing like A Billion Days of Earth (1976) or Doomtime (1981)

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22 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Robert Silverberg’s “The Seed of Earth” (1958) and Doris Piserchia’s “Pale Hands” (1974)

  1. I’ve actually read Silveberg’s THE SEED OF EARTH — but not this story, instead, the later Ace Double of the same title, but otherwise unrelated. Silverberg later retitled this one “Journey’s End”. Looks interesting, likely one of his better early stories.

    Super-Science Fiction, as I recall, was one of the outlets to which Silverberg submitted multiple stories each issue, published nearly sight unseen, under different pseudonyms. Nice to know that some of these rose above the minimum!

    A couple more suggestions for stories about sex with aliens — I might suggest the complete works of Tiptree, but more specifically “The Milk of Paradise” and “And I Awoke and Found me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side”. Also Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah”.

    • Yup, “Journey’s End” is the title Silverberg originally wanted so he reverted to it when he included it in his collection Dimension 13 that I mention. The editor changed his original title for the magazine. I guess Silverberg later realized that the title would fit another concept he had in his mind! hah.

      I’ve read both “Aye, and Gomorrah…” and “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” so I’m probably not returning to those — never reviewed them. But yes, they would fit!

      I’ll put “The Milk of Paradise” on my list.

      According to Mike Ashley, Scott was a very undiscerning editor who knew little to nothing about science fiction despite his grandiose claims that his magazine was cutting new ground. Essentially whatever his authors wrote he published. Ellison also sent story after story after story to him…. before he made far more money with men’s magazines.

    • Rich, if you want to know some hilarious asides about Silverberg’s early pulp career, check out the story intros to this collection (you can check it out on Internet Archive). Including Silverberg’s account of agreeing to write a sequel novella for a trash space opera by Fairman sight unseen in two days…. and Randall Garrett gave him speed. And “Cosmic Kill” was at the editor’s desk in the time required.

      Silverberg’s intros to “The Hunters of Cutworld,” “Exiled From Earth,” and “Second Start” discuss W. W. Scott and Super-Science Fiction before its turn towards monster stories. Silverberg writes that Scott “freely admitted to us that he knew next to nothing about science fiction and cared even less, and invited us to bring him as much material as we could manage.”

  2. For something entirely different, try John Novotny’s
    * A Trick or Two, (ss) F&SF Jul 1957
    A Decade of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Robert P. Mills, Doubleday 1960
    Sex in the 21st Century, ed. Michel Parry & Milton Subotsky, Panther 1979

    And of course the cited anthology may offer hitherto undreamed of delights.

    • Thank you John. I’ve only read one of his short stories–“On Camera” (1956)–for my media landscapes of the future series. It’s about a man who discovers that when he’s angry he can broadcast on CBS. For whatever reason, I never ended up writing about it.

  3. That Doris Piserchia story was a great read. She’s got a way with pacing and imagery that reminds me of a typical J. G. Ballard dystopia. The society she depicts in “Pale Hands” is very Ballardian (think “Billennium” or “The Concentration City”), since there’s that dash of bizarreness and mental breakdown from societal pressure, especially with that disturbing bit at the end.

    Thanks for the review. Since I like Tiptree, Piserchia seems up my alley.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Definitely a lesser known gem. I’m glad it was published for only the second time in Yaszek’s The Future Is Female! More Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, Volume Two: The 1970s.

      Most of the Piserchia I’d previously read was very different from this one…. maybe the stories she wrote for Knight’s Orbit are different than her average fair.

  4. What about Ellison’s1969 “The Place With No Name”, which hypothesizes that Jesus and Prometheus were gay lovers?

    Or most of Sturgeon: 1967’s, “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister”, or particularly, his 1953, “The World Well Lost”, I just deleted spoilers but everyone should read it, particularly you…

    I could probably think of dozens of others from that time period, drop me a line if you like.

    • The Sturgeon stories are on my list. I’ve read “The World Well Lost” but have not written about it yet. I did not know about the Ellison. Thank you! Feel free to join the conversation about those I’ve covered so far!

      • You probably have Farmer’s 1952 “The Lovers” (TBH I couldn’t get through it), but do you have David Gerrold’s 1973, “The Man Who Folded Himself” (which I have read a half a dozen times)?

        Some of the ideas in that last book only reappeared in SF with 2013’s “Rick and Morty”, which despite being pathologically juvenile, also manages to both deftly reference many classics and create brand-new SFnal concepts, just astonishing in this day and age.

        • Yes, my review of “The Lovers” is linked above at the beginning of the post — I read it in its original novella form. While I’m not covering novels in this series, Gerrold’s book is on my shelf and I really should get to it. I’ve reviewed some of his far less successful stuff—many years ago–on the site.

  5. One more suggestion for your SF about Sexuality series — Chan Davis’s “It Walks in Beauty”. Davis’s preferred version was in Sci Fiction and can be found here:

    But I think I slightly prefer the first version published, as edited by Fred Pohl, available (for now!) here:

    • Thank you. I can’t get the first link to work. I am interested in the original published form as it tells me more about that particular era.

      I am super worried about Internet Archive. I wonder which materials will be impacted by the ruling.

      • I haven’t read that story, but I do have a copy. (I have bound volumes of the complete Venture!) So I’ll give it a look. Seems like it might be yet another reason Joanna Russ felt the need to write We Who Are About To …!

        • Ah, I don’t think the Russ relates. I thought you read it as I saw your comments on the Galactic Journey post that brought up the story. As you pointed out on the Journey, Merril wrote a similar (although far less sexist) story with ““The Lady Was a Tramp” (1957).

          It might be Silverberg at his most offensive. As someone pointed out on the Journey, it might be Silverberg’s take on Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954).

          • Ah, I see. I’ll have to look back at that Galactic Journey. Maybe I did read it and forgot? But I don’t think so. Maybe I was just reminded by the description of it of Merril’s story?

            I will say I was pretty schocked at “The Lady was a Tramp” when I first read it, and I think then I didn’t even know that “Rose Sharon” was Judith Merril, and I wondered if it was by a man. (I mean, as full of agency as the woman in that story is — and even as she is clearly way more on the ball than the protagonist — the concept that that’s the only function a woman could have on a spaceship crew strikes me as pretty sexist.)

  6. Long After Midnight by Ray Bradbury
    Title story of a collection.
    A young girl is found dead hanging in a tree dressed up for a night out and heavily made-up.
    Except it’s not a young girl.

  7. I see now — yes, “Eve and the Twenty Three Adams” looks downright appalling. (I have read Garrett’s “Queen Bee” which is really bad and offensive.)

    The Seed of Earth (novel version) struck me as an earnest good try, but with the logical flaws mentioned in the Journey review (or the comments.) (And with some reflexive late ’50s sexism.)

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