Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Seedling Stars

Of the four stories that make up 'The Seedling Stars', James Blish's 'Surface Tension' is generally regarded as his best. It's certainly original. Following on with the concept of 'Adapted Men', humans genetically altered for alien planets, the story has a seeding ship crashland on a planet almost entirely covered by water. With no hope of survival themselves, and their cargo of colonising zygotes destroyed, the crew attempt to do the job themselves from their own cells. Creating an aquatic based version of humanity goes without saying, but given the ecology they find, the crew decide on a radical step; they make the new humans microscopic!
It is the most successful story in the book. That it is enjoyable goes without saying; there is a certain fascination in the realisation of the recognisably human at home in such a bizarre context. Better yet are the few glimpses of the cosmology the colonists develop; it puts our own amazing predicament in the right light.
There are two writers one can link with Blish in the case of this book. It's quite clear that Blish is trying to follow in the tradition of Olaf Stapledon, a writer whose best work deals with adaptation to alien environments on a truly cosmic scale (Blish even mentions him). Also, in his constant posing of the question of what it means to be human, he prefigures the best work of Philip K. Dick. However, Stapledon's evolutionary extrapolations were cold affairs, any human warmth sucked out into the vast vacuum of the space he conjures up (although 'First and Last Men' is certainly a warmer affair than 'Starmaker'). 'The Seedling Stars', in contrast puts human stories at the heart of its speculations, usually involving the same cast of characters: the Wiseman, the Leader, and the Leader's Mate. Only the last story, 'Watershed', deviates (debatably) from this model. Unfortunately the warmth is usually muddled with the sentimental.
It's this sentimentality that means his exploration of what it means to be human never comes close to the mind-bending, angst-ridden speculations of Dick. Blish has his comforting answer to the Big Question, an old stalwart; it is the human 'spirit' that defines humanity. While this helps in his social agenda of combatting the racial prejudices of the day ('Watershed' explicitly links his 'Adapted Men' theme with racial disharmony), it makes for very cosy reading. Cosy, as opposed to challenging.
Make no mistake, this is high-calibre stuff. Big questions and big ideas wrapped up in big fun. The stories don't always work ('Seeding Programme' has some silly plot points), but if the purpose of sci-fi is to open our minds to new possibilities each one is successful. However, for all the fine writing and interesting concepts, it is still a slightly naive work. Altering humanity is not as simple as altering its form, and in showing the persistence of the so-called 'human spirit', Blish inadvertently demonstrates the conservativism of his vision. Stapledon and Dick could have taught him a thing or two still.
Now earlier today I had my knuckles rapped for omitting a certain obituary. Okay, Stephen, here it is.

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