Introduction to Starswarm

Introduction to Starswarm

by Joseph Milicia
As everyone knows, it is customary for writers to gather previously published stories into books, in pursuit of larger artistic schemes or simply of larger sales. The most memorable volumes as volumes are usually novel-like in some way, as when the stories have a continuing cast of characters in a more or less chronological sequence (e.g., William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, 1938 and Go Down Moses, 1942) or at least a common setting (in science fiction, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, 1950, and J. G. Ballard’s Vermillion Sands, 1971.) Somewhat more unusual are volumes with connecting passages: new material to give a framework to the original tales, at best creating an organic whole, at worst gluing the tales together like an album of photographs with captions. Outside SF, perhaps the most famous volume of linked stories, in American literature at any rate, is Hemingway’s In Our Time (1926), an experimental structure with deliberately oblique relations between the stories and the linking passages. In SF, probably the best known volume is Clifford D. Simak’s City (1952), in which the links purport to be scholarly analyses of a collection of “ancient tales,” fussing over the tales’ credibility and textual inconsistencies. (City is of course further unified by chronological sequence and the saga of the Webster dynasty.) Another representative example is Lewis Padgett’s Mutant (1953), in which a telepath recalls episodes in the history of his 200-year-old mutant race; he happens to be marooned on a mountainside and thus has plenty of leisure to recall/relive each tale in full.

Brian Aldiss early in his career produced two volumes of stories with frameworks — they were called “chronicle-novels” by his publisher, Signet. Aldiss comments on the first:

I was ambitious early in my career, and soon began to compose stories which would fit roughly into a millenia-long plan for the future, to create a giant perspective. The result ran to about 110,000 words, which my British and American publishers (Faber and Signet) then regarded as far too long for an SF book. It contained about fourteen stories embodied in connecting narrative. Signet loved the connecting narrative and asked to drop some stories; Faber preferred the stories. So the two hooks [The Canopy of Time, Faber, 1959, and Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, Signet, 1960; Gregg Press, 1977] resulted. I always liked Galaxies Like Grains of Sand the better, believing that the narrative strengthened the stories.¹

Starswarm, on the other hand, originally “was just a collection of tales,” and published as such by Faber as The Airs of Earth:

Signet, however, thought the title unadventurous and wanted me to try what they called another “chronicle-novel”, to follow up the success of Galaxies Like Grains of Sand. Well, I saw the attractions and was modestly pleased with the results; but here was the case of commercial considerations dictating the shape of the volume. . . . I altered bits of the stories to fit their procrustian bed.²

All the same, despite its commercial origin, the Starswarm framework, like that of Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, is of some interest in itself; and while the volume as a whole may be less organically conceived than Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, it is a much finer collection of stories.

Galaxies Like Grains of Sand recalls the format of City to a certain degree. Again the stories, each set in an increasingly distant future, are presented as ancient narratives, with bridge passages supposedly written by a yet more distantly future race superceding mankind (as we learn only near the end of Galaxies Like Grains of Sand). But there is no mock-scholarly exegesis in Aldiss’ framework — the perspective is that of history rather than myth-criticism, and the timespan is even wider than Simak’s, more in the tradition of Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic chronicles Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930) and Star Maker (1937). The stories themselves are arranged chronologically but have many fewer internal links than Simak’s — the most notable are the references to the intergalactic language Galingua and to a future Earth renamed Yinnisfar.

Starswarm, with all its stories set in the remote future of a galaxy widely populated by the descendants of man, makes references to Galingua but is otherwise quite discrete from Galaxies Like Grains of Sand. Although it too has a frame-narrative, its overall conception is rather different. First, the sequence is not chronological: the stories are supposed to be contemporaneous with each other and with the frame narrative, which is presenting a “survey.” (The Theory of Multigrade Superannuation espoused on the first page — i.e., in a given complex system, cultures will be found at every level of growth and decay — is a most convenient one for a collection of tales, since any culture, no matter how barbaric or sophisticated, can be introduced without further justification.) Another difference between the two collections is that Galaxies Like Grains of Sand has two rather long introductions (to the fifth and seventh tales) of four to five pages each, supplying important additional information on the evolution of mankind á la Stapledon; while Starswarm’s introductions are brief, none more than a page and a half. Aldiss does, all the same, include some intriguing supplemental details on denizens of Starswarm who could easily be the subjects of stories, if not novels, on their own: for example, the telesensual beings of the Alpha Wheel (p. 29).

One other important difference between the two volumes is that by the time he wrote Starswarm, Aldiss had developed a dryly ironic tone for his anthologists of the future. The narrator(s) of Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, though generally objective, sometimes write in an elegiac, occasionally even overripe style: “Human and inhuman characters are pinned to time like butterflies to a card; yes, though the wings stay bright, flight is forgotten” (p. 7). In contrast, the editors of the Starswarm stories seem very quietly proud of and also amused at the variety of the spectacle before them.

As a volume, Starswarm is strongly unified in certain respects. Of course the framework contributes a great deal to the sense of unity (without really disguising the fact that the book is a collection of short stories); but the stories themselves contribute to that sense as well. One would expect to find some thematic consistency, or common subject matter, in any writers work within a given time span, but Starswarm may be unusually consistent in its concerns — that is, for a book that completely avoids the monotony of retelling the same story eight times.

A clue to one concern can be found in the introduction to the first story. In their survey of the Starswarm sectors, the editors say, “Perhaps we may find a hint that will show us why the ancients launched their frail metal spores into the expanses of space” (p. 7). In other words, we may expect the stories to show some interest in whatever drives a part of mankind to explore unknown territories (or, one could add, to write and read speculative fiction on the subject). Nothing could be more common to SF than explorations of alien worlds, but the drive to explore is usually taken for granted, as a matter of simple curiosity or, more ambitiously, a desire to contribute to the store of human knowledge. Of course there is nothing wrong with such a given if the author’s dominating interest is in the environment to be explored. An example of a particularly “pure” tale — exploration “because it’s there” — is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973).

But Aldiss’ tales in this category — including his first novels, Non-stop (1958, published in the U. S. in 1959 under the title, Starship) and Hothouse (1962; Gregg Press edition, 1976; published in the U. S. in paperback as The Long Afternoon of Earth) — are nearly always concerned with what is driving his characters onward. Most often his explorers are more like escapees — either from the “home” environment or from the new one into which they have been thrust. Thus some of the travels in Aldiss are Byronic journeys, more to forget than to find; while others are odysseys, searches for home. In either case the characters are severely conscious of the pressures upon them, either from the outside environment or from within. Often they are free to explore, yet extremely limited by those pressures. The stories of Starswarm, including those which are not about exploration in any strict sense, dramatize the tensions between freedom and constraint, capability and limitation, or what the first tale calls “obscure patterns of will and compulsion” (p. 12).

“A Kind of Artistry,” the first tale, is perhaps the most rich and subtle — and also most direct — of the eight tales in its portrayal of these tensions: here, more accurately, tension between yearning for freedom and attraction to the restraining force. Ostensibly, Derek Ende would prefer to remain with his Mistress in his ancestral home, and spends a good part of his time exploring alien planets only because Star One needs his talents; but his restlessness and his weak denials of his Mistress’ accusations that he is “running away” from her indicate that a part of him is very glad to go. When we later learn that his “Lady” is mother as well as mistress, we see that Derek is an archetypal case of the male who “loses himself” to escape a smothering maternal domination. Derek himself generalizes that all explorers (or at least the male ones) have had the same motivation: “‘. . . wouldn’t it be strange if most of them only ventured into the unknown because the struggle at home was too much for them?'” (p. 27)

This basically simple drama becomes more complex when we consider the implications of Derek’s contact with the alien “Cliff” a much grander maternal figure than the Mistress. The sentient asteroid-turned-planet-dweller communicates with its visitor simply by suspending him womb-like in its interior. (Star One has called the mission “making liaison” with the alien without realizing the full implications of the term.) Derek’s relationship with the Cliff is certainly more satisfactory than that with his Mistress, for in this case to surrender is to share, to submit is to experience and know. The difference lies in the fact that the Cliff does not want to possess but to make contact: “one of the deepest urges of living things,” Derek realizes, is “to make an impression on another living thing” (p. 18). Unfortunately, relations with others of his kind are not as easy for Derek as this myth-like one-time encounter.

Derek’s ambivalent feelings about freedom and possession (i.e., being possessed) are further expressed in a great many images, the majority of them sexual, throughout the story, representing in compact form the tensions between the need to be enclosed and the need to be unfettered. Derek’s spaceship foreshadows the Cliff: it is a tight enclosure with a “theraputic bed” and a “nipple” to feed from. His spacesuit, giving him freedom to fly from the ship to the new planet’s surface, is still a “little animated prison” (p. 12). A more elaborate image is of the pleasure palace of Pynnati, the rooms of which cycle like the steps of an escalator, alternately sinking into interior darkness and “evaginating” (p. 19) into the open night sky above the city — suggesting that the full range of sensual pleasure includes both states. Eva, the really too appropriately named admirer of Derek and frequenter of the pleasure-palace, wonders whether he sees her as a “trap” (p. 21) to keep him from the Mistress.
Another enclosure is Derek’s castle, Endehabven, which may be identified with the Mistress: both are called “gaunt,” and Eva expresses jealousy of the castle as much as of the woman (p. 21). While houses are a traditional Freudian symbol for woman, it should also be noted that Derek is possessed by his entire way of life — the titles, the land, the chivalry — not only by his mother/mistress. Indeed, one may feel that both woman and castle are primarily symbols for that way of life. One further detail about the castle: it is situated on an island in a fjord (not in the open sea), another image of the “enclosed” nature of Endehabven. Incidentally, the other inhabitants of the castle, the parthenos, or test tube servants, are perfect representatives of one extreme: totally will-less, they are absolutely loyal to their master and mistress. The fact that one of them narrates the story gives a further ironic and melancholy cast to Derek’s struggles.

Another set of important images is that of the metamorphosis of animals, and eventually of Derek (an odd biological “advance” that we are somewhat prepared for by the fact that all the characters in the story are future mutations of man). When the Mistress turns a rodent into a fish, she foreshadows Derek’s transformation, though there are important differences. The rodent sinks into the depths of the pool into which the Mistress has thrown it; Derek has the greater freedom of a seal swimming toward the open sea, and of course the Mistress did not intend his metamorphosis, though she is involved in his fall from the cliff. Derek himself turns a fish (possibly the same one) into a bird; curiously, he does not take wing himself, but the seal image is exhilarating enough. This ending, despite the preparations for it, is rather startling, and perhaps too easy an escape for Derek. But it is certainly more satisfactory than a melodramatic and hackneyed murder/accident (after all, ambivalence is not always fatal). And it does express the point that a successful escape from self-imposed bonds must come intuitively (Derek has not consciously rebelled), just as bonds of communication, as with the alien, must be with one’s body, beyond or below the threshold of the conscious mind.

The second story, “Hearts and Engines,” is not about exploration (unless one counts the military scientists trying out a new hyperactivity drug on soldiers), but it is very much about lack of freedom. The weakest by far of the eight tales, it does at least have the dramatic irony of the scene in which Sergeant Taylor and his men execute a successful raid in apparent freedom and splendid animal vigor, but in fact are under the influence of a drug which will shortly “burn them out,” and as a further irony are only acting in Taylor’s dream-flashback. There is also sexual frustration in this story, but only of the simplest sort: the professional soldier knows he will never find a nice girl.

“The Underprivileged” and “Shards” (the third and fifth stories) are closely related to “Hearts and Engines” in their subject of manipulation. In the first, drugs are again used for mind control, this time without the subjects’ awareness; in “Shards,” physical transformation has a military purpose, like the drug in Sergeant Taylor’s story. Both the stories are more paranoia-inducing than “Hearts and Engines,” since they place more stress upon “superior” beings looking down upon the protagonists — literally in “Shards.” In both, apparent freedom is exercised: the Istino couple believe themselves to be walking unobserved on Dansson, and Double A is free to fantasize or to play with metamorphoses of language, until he remembers the military mission programmed into him. “The Underprivileged,” with its implication that relative freedom is genetically predetermined and with its splendid environment of the future that is yet a prison to most of its inhabitants, is quintessential Aldiss, recalling in miniature the “devolved” populations in Non-stop and Hothouse, and the foolish robots who think themselves free of their masters in the superb “Who Can Replace a Man?” (1966). “Shards,” with its language games that foreshadow Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia (1970), and rather more because of its duel-in-the-mud subject, is like Samuel Beckett’s How It Is (1964) within an SF context.

“The Game of God” deals with freedom and restriction in a very direct way: “Daddy” Dangerfield, in the familiar situation of many a despot, is an absolute ruler at the mercy of the ruled, forced to do (or at least pretending) what he thinks they expect him to do. He is a man trapped in his own fantasy: in order to live in the world of the pop film biography of himself, he must stay on the planet he despises. A self-proclaimed misanthrope, one who seems to have been a space traveler to avoid humanity, Dangerfield suggests at one point that ” ‘Maybe all heroes are just escapists, if you could see into them’ “— but a less cynical character amends the point: “‘. . . It may be that all escapists pose as heroes’ ” (p. 67). On another level, the story is about restraint of the purely external kind: the imprisonment of the intelligent species of the planet, and the presumed eventual conquest (or shoving aside) of that race by human colonists. Here the story resembles Aldiss’ short novel The Dark Light Years (1964), a more grim portrayal of man’s barbaric misunderstanding of an alien species.

“Legends of Smith’s Burst” and “O Moon of My Delight,” the sixth and seventh stories, are among the best in the volume; while both are distinctively Aldiss works, they are unlike one another in almost every respect. “Legends,” rich in humor and bizarre imagination, is an odyssey, with bows to Homer’s in the wily ruses of its trader-hero — though, unlike Odysseus, he has no homeland, but simply wants to get back to relative civilization to practice his shady profession. The curbs upon his freedom are all external: like Odysseus, Sinbad and Alice, he regularly finds himself in captivity, but manages, gracefully or otherwise, to slip back into his travels. “Moon,” in contrast, is an intensely serious psychological drama in which all the characters are locked into their personal obsessions, and thus, while living on a perfectly civilized world, are much less free than the constantly threatened trader. Much of the riotous detail of “Legends” is of organic matter — smells, flesh, anatomies; typical is the hungry trader’s first meal from a “communal trough”: “Part of the dish was cooked, part raw, part still alive” (p. 99). But there is no explicitly sexual atmosphere, except surrounding Chebarbar, whose charms are disregarded by the trader. (The future editors of the tale do tell us that some “indecencies” have been removed.) “Moon,” again in contrast, is set on a nearly barren planet, beautiful in its bleakness but nearly sterile except for grass and sheep; yet the air is rife with sexual urges.
The affair indicated in the title is between Murrag and the moon itself upon which he lives, with the faster-than-light ships that land on the moon in a most spectacular fashion as his surrogate male part. Like Derek, he has a fixation which is at once maternal and topographic, as indicated by the language of “love” on the first page (p. 126) and by Murrag’s description of himself when wedged in a crevasse: “‘I was just communing with the great earth mother. She’s really swallowed me.. . . It’s funny, stuck down here in a fissure.., like climbing between the lips of a whale’ ” (p. 141; Aldiss’ ellipses). His fixation is more explicitly sexual than Derek’s upon his homeland (except as the latter is identified with the fixation to the Mistress), and more limited, not to say neurotic, than Derek’s communion with that former planetary body the Cliff.

Filled with his obsession, Murrag has no trouble resisting the allurements (intended and ingenuous) of Bes, her pubescent daughter Tes, who is given to walking around in the nude (p. 129), and even little Fay, of whom her mother is jealous (” ‘Pity you don’t like anyone else to carry on a bit more in that style'” (p. 132)), and whom her father warns Murrag to stay away from (p. 133). Unlike Derek, Murrag does not seem to be unhappy about his bondage to his “love”: he is barely aware enough that it is a bondage to content himself by thinking that once he understands the attraction, “he would be a man free of shackles, or free at least to unlock them when he wished” (p. 132). For now, like the old sonneteers, he is happy or free Only in captivity.

The narrator of “Moon,” Captain Roge, declares himself “fonder of women than of landscapes” (p. 137), and needful of raw, unglamorized” sexual relations (p. 146). Yet he is fascinated with Murrag enough to want to tell his story in a basically sympathetic fashion. Since Roge’s culturally “normal” relations make him less happy than Murrag’s “perversion”, perhaps the story is a lesson in open-mindedness. But whether or not Roge secretly longs for Murrag’s state of mind, the fact is that both men have an “impossible love”: Roge’s one serious commitment — unspoken — is to his daughter, Fay. The significance of the climax of the story — the two men locked in struggle — is somewhat obscure, since Roge’s grief over Fay is not really comparable to Murrag’s temporary frustration; but one can understand Roge’s envy of Murrag’s “perfect mistress,” from whom the lover need never be apart.

“Old Hundredth,” the final story, returns us to an explorer-hero — heroine in this case — and offers a new variation on the theme of freedom vs. enthrallment. This time, the relationship in question, between Dandi and the Mentor, has been a workable one — for centuries — until the time of the story. In fact, it has been a kind of ideal, specifically of the student-teacher relation, allowing maximum closeness combined with maximum independence; as close as the mind-sharing of Derek and the Cliff but with freedom to explore for the sheer delight of knowledge. As the story opens, the only escape desired is from physical life itself, and not from dislike of the life but from readiness to retire to a new state of being. As for the breakdown in the relationship, it does not seem to be something inherent in the nature of the unusual bond, but rather a matter of the querulousness of the Mentor’s old age, and of the pair’s disagreement on the value of mankind (detested by the Mentor) and the virtues of non-violence. Dandi seems to have outgrown her mentor.

The story echoes other strains besides the love/bondage theme from other parts of Starswarm. Like Derek, the protagonist finds final release in a metamorphosis: not into an active animal but into the blissful stasis of a musicolumn. Again like Derek and even more like Murrag, Dandi is in love with a planet: but there is no suggestion of sexual displacement in Dandi’s love of Earth, and there appears to be more to love, considering Earth’s rich history, than Derek has on his dreary ancestral planet. The story also features Aldiss’ continuing fascination with mutation and grotesque physical variations: the Impures of “Old Hundredth” are in company with all the characters of “A Kind of Artistry,” the Istinos of “The Underprivileged”, the former men of “Shards,” and the fantastic creatures of “Legends” (not to mention comparable figures in Non-Stop and Hothouse).

The valedictory or autumnal tone of “Old Hundredth” is also typical of Aldiss’ early work, so much of which is concerned with the old age of races and also with what he calls devolution. The introduction to “The Underprivileged” speaks of planets “sunk. . . into antiquity. . . . the biosphere wears down, the soil dies, the inorganic conquers” (p. 39). We have already seen such an aged world in Derek’s planet, paralleled by the Mistress, a century older than her lover, in whom “weariness and knowledge” seem to “create beauty” (p. 10); and we encounter one again in Dandi’s world. (See also “Visiting Amoeba,” the final story in Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, for a worn-out galaxy, and above all Hothouse, set on an Earth billions of years in the future, but quite a different one from that in “Old Hundredth.”) As for devolution, sometimes beginning with mere degeneration into savagery, see Non-stop and Hothouse as well as the reptilian Istinos, the mammals on Dangerfield’s planet, the reduction of men to marine creatures in “Shards,” and of course the drifting back to bucolic animaldom of most of the Impures in “Old Hundredth.” There is a resemblance to City in this last story: all human beings have left the planet for a more blissful dimension (via Jupiter in City), leaving creatures evolved by mankind to rule. But man’s replacement in Aldiss’ story does not seem to be thriving culturally like Simak’s dogs — conceivably because mankind has not been forgotten as he has been in City. No other of Aldiss’ tales of rundown worlds has quite the gentleness of this story, or the playful humor without violent grotesqueries (even the bear is mild compared to the plants in Hothouse). The enduring musicolumns and particularly Dandi’s transformation into the slowly evolved anonymous hymn are among the most memorable images of Starswarm.

Aldiss has continued to develop as a writer, making some strikingly original contributions to science fiction, with as wide a range of styles and structures as anyone in the field. One thinks especially of the psychedelic visions of the quintessentially sixties Barefoot in the Head and the Shelleyan variations of Frankenstein Unbound (1973). But the best stories of Starswarm, still part of the first phase of Aldiss’ career, are masterfully written, with their beautifully controlled pacing and distinctive imagination. These stories may be somewhat less experimental than much of Aldiss’ later work — but they are classic.

Copyright (c) Joseph Milicia

Joseph Milicia has a Ph.D. from Columbia University and is currently Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Sheboygan – where he teaches a course in SF Film and Television; he also writes on SF for The New York Review of Science Fiction. The essay here is reproduced from the Gregg Press hardcover edition of Starswarm.


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