Saturday 10 July 2021

Spaceworlds: Stories of Life in the Void, edited by Mike Ashley


The theme for this British Library Science Fiction Classics anthology sent to me for review is living in space: in space stations, spaceships and generation ships (sub-light-speed starships which take several generations to reach their destinations).  The editor includes in his usual introduction mention of earlier writers who tried to address the problems of living in space, such as the lack of air and the low temperatures. Some well-known names were promptly on the case... Edgar Allen Poe mentioned technology to provide fresh air (Hans Phaall, 1835) while Jules Verne added thickly padded walls (Autour de la Lune, 1869). By the end of the 19th century, scientifically-mined writers were tackling such issues as long-term survival in the light of the expected length of journeys, including growing food, and even the indelicate question of how to cope with human waste. Moving closer to the present time, the ultimate in living space was envisaged in Larry Niven's marvellous Ringworld. Now to the stories:

Umbrella in the Sky by E.C. Tubb (1961).  The Sun is building up to going nova. A huge but lightweight movable shield is being contructed in orbit, which will protect the Earth from the effects. But progress is much slower than expected and time is running out. So a special investigator is sent undercover to join the construction crew and discover the cause of the problem. An interesting plot focusing on the psychology of those working in space.

Sail 25 by Jack Vance (1962). This time, a steerable sail ship is the technology of choice and a trip in one of them is the basis of a "finishing school" for trainee pilots, with an assessor who is notoriously tough. Only the best will survive.

The Longest Voyage by Richard C. Meredith (1967). The sole survivor of a devastating explosion which wrecked his space ship struggles to make it back to Earth - from the orbit of Jupiter. He has to work with what he has and knows, and with a much lower level of technology.

The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (1961). The subject of a space ships having their own minds - either by "plumbing in" a human brain or via developing artificial intelligence - is a popular one nowadays but this rather poetic story is an early example.

O’Mara’s Orphan by James White (1960).  This is an early one of the Sector General series of stories about huge orbiting hospitals equipped to minister to the health of a large number of alien races. O'Mara is assigned to look after an orphaned baby Hudlarian, a race about which very little is known. I have to say that I find the whole concept problematic; in my (secondhand) experience of the medical profession, the tendency is to specialise, e.g. in major repairs to limbs and joints (human, naturally!) - and a surgeon who does that usually does nothing else.

Ultima Thule by Eric Frank Russell (1951). Hyperspace was an easy and very fast way to travel around the Galaxy; your spaceship disappears from one location and appears in another one. But what happens if it doesn't reappear? This story follows the fate of a small crew who find themselves stranded in hyperspace.

The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox (1940). This is an early example of a "generation ship" story, but it also incorporates suspended animation: one member of the crew is a monitor who spends almost all of the time asleep, only waking about once a century to check that the descendents of the original crew are still following the plan. The story consists of a series of glimpses showing the cultural and social evolution of the generation crew from the monitor's viewpoint. 

Survival Ship by Judith Merril (1951). A curiously high level of security surrounds the crew of a space ship intended to preserve human civilisation by establishing a colony on a planet in orbit around another star. Suspended animation is the method chosen for surviving the trip but, to obtain the maximum diversity among the settlers, the gender distribution is unconventional... No doubt shocking at the time, but would hardly cause a flicker now.

Lungfish by John Brunner (1957). Another "generation starship" story, this time with the emphasis on the relationships between the "earthborn" and the "tripborn".  After all, those born on the voyage did not volunteer for the journey, and might develop entirely different priorities from those of the original crew.

An interesting point about these stories I noticed compared with earlier BL collections is that they are mostly relatively recent: one in the 1940s, three in the 1950s and five in the 1960s.  Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the fact that the problems of extended living in space hadn’t really been thought through until then.

My pick of this bunch would be Brunner's Lungfish. He really was a very good writer. Wilcox's effort was also very commendable considering when it was written.

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