The planets of the solar system having been individually examined through the lens of the telescope and speculative fiction in Born of the Sun, the latest anthology collected by Mike Ashley for the British Library’s ongoing Science Fiction Classics series considers the obvious corollary of life between the planets and the stars, on stations and vessels, be they short range explorers, generation ships or capable of faster than light travel, they all serve as Spaceworlds.
The end is nigh, and very much with a bang rather than a whimper, but hope exists in the form of E C Tubb’s Umbrella in the Sky, if it can be completed before the imminent radiation storm which will scour the Earth and render it uninhabitable, yet despite being the most important undertaking ever to which the whole world is supposedly committed it is falling further behind schedule and an undercover agent is assigned to find out whether gambling on survival is possible or if humanity is destined to be self-defeating.
Jack Vance is a hard taskmaster as he introduces Henry Belt, old dog of the spaceways with his thirteenth intake of cadets on what he says will be his last tour from which a select few of his charges may graduate; he is capricious and wilful, accepting no question of authority or his decisions, as final as the cruel indifference of space itself, yet in contrast to its captain Flight 25 is thing of grace and beauty, a solar sail ship at home in the void though not without challenges exacerbated by the particularly hostile situation which the cadets find themselves in.
First published in 1967, the most recent story in Spaceworlds continues the theme that “one does not expect the universe to be fair,” Richard C Meredith recounting the first manned mission to Jupiter of three ships and how it ended in disaster for each of them with one sole survivor, injured and far beyond any chance of help yet resolved to live. With nothing to lose, it is better to die trying than wait for death, so Lieutenant Colonel Scott Sayers returns to first principles to make The Longest Voyage back to Earth.
Perhaps the best known story in the anthology through its later expansion first to a novel then a series, that The Ship Who Sang offers such an easy read belies how deeply Anne McCaffrey dives, challenging expectations and exploring atypical relationships in all her work, most famously with Dragons of Pern and their riders but here with “brain and brawn,” a healthy and adaptable brain trapped in a body congenitally deformed beyond repair melded with a spaceship as its central operating system.
The adventures of the mindship Helva and her partner Jennan tragic yet affirming of Helva’s humanity despite the unconventional shell in which she lives, despite the limitations of her limbs she flies freer and farther than any baseline human ever could, while typically those who object most vocally to the process are not those who have to deal with the unenviable situation or propose alternative solutions.
James White is represented by a story set early in the chronology of his Sector Twelve General Hospital series, the facility under construction when a tragic industrial accident occurs which leaves an infant Hudlarian in the care of one of the manual workers. A non-human species evolved for radically different environmental conditions, the challenges of caring for O’Mara’s Orphan are compounded by the belief of his colleagues that he was at least partially responsible for the accident in which its parents died.
A tersely written story of three men, all together and all alone, Eric Frank Russell’s trip to Ultima Thule brings misadventure when the hyperspace drive malfunctions and deposits them in a starless void. A cosmic concept anchored by the deadweight of unimaginative pulp caricatures, it is further muddled by mismatched technology, their ship referred to as a rocket despite its capability and with navigation conducted by looking out viewports with binoculars.
Dating to 1940, the earliest story is The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years as recalled by Don Wilcox, planned as sixteen married couples aboard the SS Flashaway and Professor Gregory Grimstone as the “keeper of the traditions” who emerges from his hypersleep once every hundred years, providing continuity to the assurance of an American colony settled in the Robinello planetary system.
The mission hopelessly naïve in its conceit that every possible problem had been considered before launch, after only the first century the population is in disarray, and like Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop it becomes apparent that a closed society without challenges of stimulation will decay, the issues magnified as over generations grudges between emerging family lines become vendettas.
Ambitiously aiming for Sirius in fifteen years, Judith Merril’s Survival Ship is conceived as “the greatest spaceship ever engineered” and carrying a complement of four and twenty led by Captain Melnick, the structure of the crew kept a closely guarded secret before launch to prevent public outrage but optimised to achieve their ultimate goal should the mission be fruitful.
Published seventeen years after Wilcox’s generation ship debacle, John Brunner’s Lungfish is more considered though equally bleak, a voyage of less than forty years yet with problems emerging with the first generation of “tripborn,” at odds with the Earthborn with whom they have little in common, bred to a purpose in which they have no say rather than dedicated to it by choice and forming their own enclosed parallel society on board ship in numbers which swiftly overtake their estranged parents requiring a reframing of the mission goals from both sides, Spaceworlds closing with a tale where compromise is the only alternative to absolute failure.