Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley

Stories of Life in the Void. British Library, 2021, 315 p, including 12 p Introduction.

Mike Ashley’s Introduction to this collection is in effect a short history of the earliest SF stories set in space habitats such as a space station, spaceship or generation starship, in any one of which the nine stories herein are set. Their first publications date from 1940 to 1967. Few are without (but in one case plays upon) the mostly unconscious sexism of their times. A theme common to that era of SF, the suffering of a technical problem which must be solved, crops up regularly, though some of the stories do concern themselves with psychological matters.
The eponymous umbrella of Umbrella in the Sky by E C Tubb is a space shield being built to protect Earth from a solar eruption due to the imminent arrival of an anti-matter stream. Our narrator is hired to find out why the work is progressing too slowly. This story invites the reflection that nothing ages as fast as the future. (Consider all those flashing panel lights and toggle switches in the original Star Trek TV series.) This story contains many references to people lighting cigarettes and smoking. In a space-faring environment!
Sail 25 by Jack Vance was originally published as Gateway to Strangeness. A grizzled, curmudgeonly veteran trains a group of recruits to operate a solar sailing ship (the type sometimes known as sunjammers.) He doesn’t make it easy for them.
In The Longest Voyage by Richard C Meredith the first human expedition to Jupiter is beset by problems. Scott Sayers is the only survivor, engine gone, in perpetual orbit round Jupiter. He has to find a way to cobble together some sort of propulsion system to get him back to Earth.
The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey was the first SF story to feature a spaceship operated by a human mind. This one, Helva, inspired by music, is able to sing. This is a love story, of sorts.
O’Mara’s Orphan by James White I first read many years ago in the anthology Worlds Apart way back in the 1960s. It is one of White’s “Sector General” tales, set on a habitat designed for dealing with the medical needs of a vast array of alien species. O’Mara’s orphan is the offspring of two Hudlarians killed in an accident during Sector General’s construction. He is given its care as a punishment for his supposed responsibility for their deaths.
Ultima Thule by Eric Frank Russell finds a spaceship with a crew of three men emerging from hyperspace into nowhere – beyond the known universe, with no apparent way back. Each man reacts differently.
What was apparently the first ever generation starship story, The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox has thirty-five people setting out on the voyage – two of them stowaways of a sort. The narrator is the odd – therefore unmarried – one out. His job is to be revived every hundred years to solve any problems that have arisen in the interim. Over the generations there are plenty of these as he morphs from potential saviour and god to despised ogre. Just about all the subsequent tropes of this sub-genre are in evidence.
Survival Ship by Judith Merril is another generation starship story. This one is set on the Survival, sent off with much fanfare to “Sirius in fifteen years,” carrying its load of Twenty and Four humans. That capitalisation – and mix – is the single most important aspect of both the voyage and the story.
Lungfish by John Brunner focuses on the difference that developed between tripborn and earthborn as a generation starship nears Trip’s End. Unusually in the stories here, where marriage (and presumably, monogamy) are unquestioned social arrangements, a character in this one reflects that “promiscuity had to be encouraged to ensure the mixing of all genetic factors.”
Most of these stories – if not all – are still immensely readable. And they can still evoke a sense of the strangeness and immensity of the universe and humanity’s insignificance by comparison, though some of them lean towards the “humans can do anything” standpoint.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “in the same plane of Venus” (in the same plane as Venus.) Otherwise: “inside of me” (no ‘of’, just ‘inside me’,) “the death role mounted” (death roll,) “having just skirted a loose mass of asteriodal debris” (that is not how spaceship trajectories work,) Sayers’ (Sayers’s,) Isaacs’ (Isaacs’s,) “vocal chords” (vocal cords,) “the Horsehead Nebulae” (x 4. There is only one Horsehead Nebula,) Regulus’ (Regulus’,) insured (ensured; ditto insure/ensure,) “their mass and inertia was tremendous” (mass and inertia were,) a character allows water to boil off 2into the vacuum outside” (surely very wasteful,) “began to sag, and slip then was” (no comma needed,) “two volumes … showcases his …” (showcase,) “in behalf of” (on behalf of,) buncombe (x 2, usually spelled bunkum,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “got to … go to…” (the sense implies ‘got to … got to…’ but this may have been an attempt to simulate textually the losing of consciousness,) “Sirius’ planet” (x 2, Sirius’s,) chlorophyl (chlorophyll,) “the men must practically be able to read my mind” (it was an individual; ‘the man must be able to’.)

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