Lost in the Wilderness

Search the Sky — Frederik Pohl & Cyril M. Kornbluth

Search The Sky

1954’s Search the Sky is a standalone(ish) science fiction novel. It was the second novel-length collaboration between Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth,.

Ross has lived his whole life on Halsey’s Planet. Somehow he senses what his fellows cannot or will not: population levels are slowly, inexorably declining. The future will be grim.

Halsey’s Planet is just one of many worlds settled by humans. Contact with its sister worlds is intermittent, carried out by sublight longliners, smaller versions of the ships that delivered the original colonists to Halsey’s Planet fourteen centuries earlier.

A longliner arrives with an inbred crew of happy idiots bearing an enigmatic message and doleful news about the other human worlds. Another Halsey merchant, Haarland, asks Ross to come meet with him. This is odd, as Ross works for a rival firm. It turns out that Haarland has some bad news to share.

 Spoilers….



Halsey’s Planet was not the longliner’s first destination. It was the seventh. Similarly, the previous ship to arrive at Halsey’s Planet visited three worlds without a response before finding a worldwith an active civilization. That’s nine silent worlds. Halsey’s Planet isn’t the only colony in trouble. What’s happening? It seems prudent to investigate. If only worlds were not centuries away by longliner….

Actually, they aren’t. Faster than light travel was perfected centuries ago. But only a handful of people scattered across the human worlds know that FTL starships exist. Haarland knows. He offers Ross a job: helm an FTL ship and explore. Ross accepts the job.

Armed with a list of systems and contacts on each world, Ross heads out to the stars. He visits worlds gone horribly wrong, but does at least acquire some companions on his way.

  • Helena hails from a world where the young are dominated by greedy, feeble geezers.

  • Bernard comes from a crazy world where men are ruled by women.

  • Doc Jones is from a world locked in dreadful conformity

What’s going on? Ross visits near-mythical Earth and finds answers.

 ~oOo~

So, uh, Pohl and Kornbluth may have written classics together but this isn’t one of them. This book is more, uh, really really terrible.

It is evident even to the dimmest reader that at least one of the authors had a low opinion of humans who aren’t sensible young men like him, inferior humans like women and the aged. When inferiors rule, things go wrong. Especially when it’s women in charge:


And, here on Azor as on the planet of the graybeards, it had laid a king-sized egg. Women, Ross thought bitterly, women were basically inward-directed and self-seeking; trust them with the secret of F-T-L; make them, like the Cavallos, custodians of a universe-racking truth; and see the secret lost or embalmed in sterile custom. What, he silently demanded of himself, did the greatest of scientific discoveries mean to a biological baby-foundry? How could any female — no single member of which class had ever painted a great picture, written a great book, composed a great sonata, or discovered a great scientific truth — appreciate the ultimate importance of the F-T-L drive? It was like entrusting a first-folio Shakespeare to a broody hen; the shredded scraps would be made into a nest. For the egg came first. Motherhood was all.


Another eruption of misogyny is to be found in the depiction of new crew member Helena. She’s a loathsome stereotype. She may not be from that crazy matriarchal planet, but she is an adorable bubblehead who nearly kills everyone when she tries to fix the ship with a hairpin. She must be kept in line with firm beatings.

I’m inclined to blame Kornbluth for this rampant misogyny. Pohl had tales to tell about Kornbluth’s treatment of his wife. Pohl may have slyly given a bit of his own spin to the Azor section, in that the mistreatment of men on the matriarchs’ world is all too like abuse of women in the 1950s USA. I can’t see Kornbluth writing those bits … but I will never know for sure.

The background is reworked from Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons.” That story’s vision of an Earth dominated by rapidly breeding idiots kept alive by long-suffering geniuses puts in an appearance at the end of the book. As it turns out, each world has fallen into a genetic trap. The founding populations were too small; bad genes have been spread by inbreeding.

The writing is acceptable, the world building ludicrous and sexist, the plotting episodic — but the book does have one virtue: it’s short.

Search the Sky is available onProject Gutenberg.


Comments

  • Ryk Spoor

    Yeah, while P&K were a good team, and wrote some pretty good stuff (I think my favorite remains Gladiator At Law), they had some bad aspects and Search The Sky hit all of them at max power. Even as a very young man I found this one somehow off and annoying, and upon re-read I decided I probably wouldn't read it again. You've merely confirmed that decision.

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  • JVjr

    What is "it" in the first sentence of the quote?

    Also, "biological baby-foundry"!!!

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    • James Nicoll

      It is the secret of flt travel.

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  • Carl

    What is "it" in the first sentence of the quote?

    I speculate (haven't read the book in over 40 years) that it's some variation on the Founder Effect. I'm experimenting here, so we'll if the blockquote tag works in James' unique blogging software.

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    • Carl

      Nope. Silently ignored. James, is there any benefit to using this over the several open source or commercial blogging packages that offer feeds, text formatting in comments, etc.?

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      • James Nicoll

        The main one was that it didn't silently vanish the way the previous comment package did. I think I just discovered the site does not let me post comments including a previous used string of words, so let me paraphrase: it happens I have relayed your observations to the person who manages this site.

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        • James Nicoll

          And "it" is the carefully hidden method of travelling more quickly than photons.

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        • Carl

          WordPress is open source, it can't go anywhere by definition. Your tech person can download the source.

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          • Adrienne Travis

            Speaking as the tech person in question,

            1. a) WordPress is not going to happen unless James gets a different tech person.
            2. b) The previous comments plugin was LiveFyre; it didn't "go somewhere" because it was not WordPress, it "went somewhere" because it was SAAS which Adobe bought and killed.
            3. c) I have disabled HTML tags on purpose for safety and XSS reasons. However, Markdown works just fine in comments. I should add a note to this effect, but consider yourself informed. Please note that a major upgrade to comments (among other things) is coming soon; however, it will still not include raw HTML tag parsing in comments. If you want a blockquote, i recommend looking up Markdown syntax for it; it's quite simple (it's actually based on old Usenet conventions) and it will work just fine.
            4. d) The lack of RSS feed is my fault and should be in place very shortly.
            5. e) You have now, by my count, bugged James about WordPress at least three times this week; you should definitely consider your message received by the tech person, who is not going to recite for you the list of extremely good reasons why the site is not using WordPress.

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            • Carl

              @Adrienne: noted. I apologize if my repetition annoyed you.

              I was only mentioning WordPress because I'm familiar with it, and I'm certainly not claiming to have the right to insist on anything.

              I have used markdown in the past, and that's an excellent choice, in my very personal opinion. My previous comment wasn't meant to insist on raw HTML, and I absolutely see why you would be reluctant to allow it. It was just an experiment, as I wrote.

              Again, sorry to have irritated you (sincerely).

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  • James Nicoll

    See above. I have passed your comment about comment software to my web person.

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