“Wish Upon A Star” by Judith Merril is the third story for Joachim Boaz’s discussion about generation ships in science fiction. See my original post for more details. Here are the reviews so far:
- Science Fiction and Other Ruminations – Joachim Boaz gives the story a 4.25/5 (Good) rating and says: A radical story but a quiet one—a slice-of-life rumination where the action stays in the distance, in the board rooms and classrooms of the female crew, the places where men cannot go. Recommended.
- MPorcius Fiction Log – MPorcius says: This story is successful–entertaining and interesting enough–but no big deal. I have to admit I was expecting a more hardcore feminist or leftist story which trumpeted the benign rule of women and/or argued that gender roles are socially constructed and could easily be changed for the better by an enlightened elite.
- Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud – Richard said: I gave this story three and a half stars because it’s not the revelation that it would’ve been sixty-one years ago to have women in charge. There’s a decent chance that’ll happen in the USA in 2020, or so I hope. It’s also a very small story, a slice of adolescent life; that’s not all that interesting to me personally. It’s fine as a story, it has good things to say about equality and the arbitrary nature of society and the fairness doctrine is far fleshier for its 1958 readers than it would’ve begun by being.
- Also, there are some interesting comments at Young People Read Old SFF.
- I’d rate it 4 out 5 stars. Not a classic, but a better-than-average story for the time. It’s worth reading for the generation ship angle, and for the feminist poke at male readers in 1958.
You can read “Wish Upon A Star” at the Internet Archive, or in these anthologies. It’s currently in print in Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963).
Update: After writing this essay I discovered an earlier story that describes the launch of the mission in "Wish Upon A Star." I strongly recommend reading it first. It's called "Survival Ship" and you can read it here. It's a quick read and answers some of my questions I had with "Wish Upon A Star."
What I enjoy about reading generation ship science fiction is how each writer imagines a society adapting to the long voyage. What’s funny is none of the stories I’ve read have things working out like I imagine. I assume generation ships will have carefully planned societies, even utopian. The Simak story tells us at the end that the planners intended what happened, and I get the feeling Merril’s matriarchal society was carefully planned as well but neither writer talks about the planning details and the whys.
To build a ship and society that will voyage for a century or a millennium implies a kind of planned perfection. You’d think the designers of such a ship would build an experimental community on Earth to test out their ideas. That would make an interesting novel too. (And DAW just announced they are open to submissions from writers without agents.) Of course, Biosphere 2 failed rather spectacularly. Space colonies, in general, might be very difficult to pull off.
Setup for “Wish Upon A Star”
A generation ship named Survival, propelled by ion drives is approaching its destination after just one generation. The ship traveled at a good fraction of lightspeed. None of the original crew are older than 45. Some of their children have reached adulthood, while most are still teens and younger. In this ship, the command crew is female, while men work the gardens, take care of the children, and do other support work. The original crew consisted of twenty women and four men. As the ship approaches a time of landfall the men wonder if their roles will change. There is resentment among the males because the females have all the opportunity.
Merril’s story came out in January 1958, well before the second wave of feminism began in the 1960s. At this time job ads in the newspapers were divided between Men – Wanted and Women – Wanted, with nearly ever job type going to men.
- Toshiko (Sheik) – 13-year-old boy protagonist
- Sarah – the girl that Sheik wants for his girlfriend but resents her crew training
- Naomi – 12-year-old girl Sheik resents because she’s in advance crew training and he’s not
- Harendra (Hari) – 3-year-old boy in Sheik’s care
- Abdur (Ab) – one of the four original male crew members in charge of plants, and fatherly mentor to Sheik
- Bob – Sheik’s father and one of the four original male crew members
- Lieutenant Johnson – an older second-generation woman in charge of Sheik and Sarah, who might have an eye out for young Sheik.
The story begins with Sheik thinking “I WISH, I WISH, I WISH . . . .” Sheik, a young teen hiding in the shady shrubs, shirking work and daydreaming. We know he’s a passenger on a generation starship because of how we came to the story. Plus the editor tells us when introducing Judith Merril, “Here she turns her compassionate eye on the problems and inner conflicts of an adolescent boy who has lived his life on a starship commanded by women.” (Doesn’t that sound bias?)
I wish I had read this story dead cold. How soon would readers know the story is set on a starship? And when would they know what Sheik was wishing for. Sheik is upset, crying even, because Naomi, a girl younger than him had just left for “Special Sessions” getting to learn something he’s not allowed to study. We learn Sheik is destined to replace Abdur who runs the botanical room. He will have to take orders from Naomi, as Abdur now takes orders from Lieutenant Johnson – another woman.
We hear him think: “It just wasn’t fair! I wish I wish I was …”
Was he about to say he wish he was a girl? Then Sheik starts thinking about Sarah, a girl he wishes would ask him something. (Ask him out?) Sheik longs to have Sarah under the bushes, the shady escape he loves. But since he’s thirteen we have to assume he needs more than some company in his hide-out.
We slowly learn about the generation ship. Merril is more creative with the details than the previous stories. Evidently, it’s a large cylinder that spins along its axis to create artificial gravity. Too bad these stories don’t come with diagrams of the ship, because each writer has an image in mind, but I’m not sure they are good at conveying their ship’s design with words.
The ship’s farm is on the inside of the outside wall. There are artificial lights on the outside wall of an inner cylinder that provides their sky and quarters. Children are expected to spend a certain amount of time under these artificial lights for health reasons. This area of the ship belongs to the men who raise the crops. We quickly learn that men also raise the ship’s children. Sheik has two and three-year-olds under his charge, both girls and boys. The younger girls seem precocious, learning faster than the boys.
Merril provides gender role reversals for 1958. The story isn’t blatantly feminist. And this might be showing my ignorance, but I can’t recall any famous feminist books from the 1950s. Wikipedia only lists two books and an article. I do know from reading the outstanding When Everything Changed (2009) by Gail Collins that women had very few job choices in the 1950s. Plus Merril knew that most of the readers of F&SF then were teenage boys. There were some female readers and writers, but not many. It’s interesting in this story that the men never claim the women can’t pilot and navigate the ship. They just want better jobs too.
I really would have loved to know the readers’ reactions to this story when it came out in 1958. F&SF didn’t have a letter column. I wonder if any fanzines from the time discuss it? Fanac.org does have a chronological list of fanzines. (A few random reads tell me it will be quite a job to find any reaction to the story. Someone needs to build an index to fanzines.)
As “Wish Upon A Star” develops we learn the starship is nearing its destination. Its goal is a colony scoutship. They are looking for worlds to help depopulate an overcrowded Earth. The men hope after they land they can have more involvement in decision making and diversity of work. They fear the women are secretly plotting to hold onto their power, or even choose not to land. We don’t know if this is true or not, or just a conspiracy theory of Bob’s.
Merril imagines more details of shipboard life than Simak and Oliver did for the two previous stories we discussed. Shiek is part of the second generation. Only half the crew quarters are used in the ship because they assumed they might need to travel longer, producing a third and fourth generation.
Merril sets up a very interesting situation in this story. She tells us: “This much was common knowledge and one further fact: that the original crew of twenty-four had included twenty women and four men for obvious biological race-survival reasons.”
Merril doesn’t go into the genetic diversity needed to start a colony, but we can read a lot into these numbers. We know that Sheik’s father is Bob, but we don’t know if Bob has four other wives. Why didn’t Merril go into these details? Sheik never mentions a sibling or having half-siblings. He does list several girls who he doesn’t want to mate with and calls them nasty. Could they be siblings? There’s a hint that he might have to mate with more than one girl and even considers Lieutenant Johnson.
The first generation is way out of whack when it comes to the female-male balance, but the second generation will have a 50-50 ratio. Sheik realizes this will bring change. I’m not a rocket scientist, but I wonder if starting with one-fourth of crew capacity on a generation ship saves on reaction mass? (The ship doesn’t gain mass with larger generations.)
Was Merril suggesting the colony will have more genetic diversity if the first generation had more mothers? She could have increased the diversity if the first 20 women were pregnant by men not from the ship, or got pregnant the first time by sperm donors from back on Earth. If that was true, did they need any men in the original crew? Maybe for “men’s” work, and then only four were needed. Did Merril ever write about writing this story? I’d love to know what she was thinking.
Because the men resent the women for their status and jobs we assume Merril meant this story to be a role-reversal story, and it is. But it might be more. Maybe the women run the ship because Merril thinks they would be better. Merril doesn’t go into that, though. I need to reread it and read between the lines. When you have twenty Eves and four Adams, that seems to imply the men’s roles are less important. Was Merril criticizing traditional women’s roles in the 1950s? I’m surprised Merril didn’t imagine an all-female crew in the first generation. That would have been radical. Maybe too much even for her.
I also wondered if Merril had an idea that more women on a generation starship are more practical. But she didn’t make her case.
Before the story is over, things get more complicated. I’ll leave that for readers to discover. But we learn that Sheik wishes for more than Sarah even though Sarah is the main thing on his mind. I can’t help but wonder if Merril is making additional comments about men’s role in space colonies, or of science fiction fans.
On the other hand, Merril might not have thought a lot about her setup. It might have been a quick inspiration and she didn’t think through the implications. The story is mainly about Sheik wanting to hook up with Sarah and the complications he encounters. Those complications hint at what the society on the ship is like. I wish this had been a whole novel.
I do like the fact that the Clifford Simak story, like the Merril, considered the idea that the crew might prefer living on the ship living on a planet. Merril’s story is a little different. The men worry that the women might prefer it.
JWH – 12/8/19
3 thoughts on ““Wish Upon A Star” by Judith Merril”
“I’m surprised Merril didn’t imagine an all-female crew in the first generation. That would have been radical. Maybe too much even for her.”
Pregnancy leave issues? How, in fact, are these infants fed/changed/raised in those first incredibly labor-intensive four decades?
“Toshiko” is a female name in Japanese…perhaps an unconscious bit of dislocation/potential futurism…