Thursday, 14 June 2018

Book: 'The Seedling Stars' (1957) by James Blish

Suppose, for a moment, that the consensus view on moving out into the stars was a little wonky, and had been manipulated by vested interests bent on making money through one specific methodology. (Where have we heard something like that before?) Suppose that there were another ultimately cheaper but more contentious strategy for populating less than suitable worlds by something other than terraforming. What if we changed the people instead of the planets, and then left them to proliferate on their own, seedlings of new adapted humanities across the galaxy? How does that sound? Pretty weird? Yes!

'The Seedling Stars' is a fix-up of three connected short stories and an abbreviated epilogue, concerning the origins of adaptation and some case examples of adapted people on other worlds. It's an amazing work of great scope, while still being remarkably adventurous in its construction. It's important to do both: to be both an enjoyable story and one which pushes at interesting ideas. Blish has such a track record with 'Cities In Flight' and 'A Case Of Conscience', and this does not disappoint that tradition, adding in a discussion of how much humans can be adapted before they stop being humans. Oh, and of course, the continued prejudices of humanity. Racial differences will be of little import when there are gilled amphiboid humans, hairy tree-dwelling humans, and cold-blooded humans who run on entirely different kinds of blood to exist on the Moon or the moons of Jupiter!

Why think small when you can adapt humans to other worlds instead of other worlds to humans? There could giants as well as people only an inch tall. There could be water dwellers and people who live on clouds, tree climbers in addition to hole diggers, and even people who live in the gaps between dimensions and in black holes. Would it be the right thing to do, though? In 2018, that answer is still just as fuzzy as it has ever been.

There are three stories: 'The Seeding Program', 'The Thing In The Attic', and 'Surface Tension', the last of which is the most famous and involves a crashed spaceship seeding a puddle with some adapted people based on the genetic material of the doomed and few remaining crewmembers. They're the most alien people of the three sets considered, being less than an inch tall, sporulating and therefore hibernating in shells during the Winter, dwelling in the water, and having lost all of their heritage in the process. For them, life is all about beating down the natural predators, and eventually reaching and exploring the other 'worlds' of different puddles in the neighbourhood. Space to them is air and less filtered sunshine. It's fascinating, but I prefer 'The Thing In The Attic', with it's tree people and a band of un-Orthodox exiles rediscovering life on the surface. Finally, the first story is much closer to being an origin tale for the set, revolving around yet another dystopian future Earth, but it has its moments.

Toss the coin. Shall we change planets or ourselves?