Judith Merril’s 1974 Survival Ship and Other Stories is a collection of science fiction stories, curated by the author.
Some better-known Merril stories, such as “That Only a Mother,” do not appear here. Merril wanted to offer works less frequently anthologized. Those of us who spent the 1970s grumbling about getting two collections worth of stories in every three Laumer collections salute Merril.
In addition to being an interesting retrospective of Merril’s body of work as it stood in 1974, this is also a snapshot of Canadian publishing in a period when Canadians were desperate to prove that Canadian meant something other than a neglected imperial backwater or perhaps that part of North American the Americans had not yet got around to brutally subjugating, depopulating, and resettling. It’s not just the content of the introduction. The paper used and the physical dimensions of the book are very slightly different from American mass market paperbacks. Not by much but enough to be obvious as soon as one picks up the artifact.
Of course, certain people (terrible people!) might point out that Merril was born in the USA and could in some senses be regarded as an American SF author. The relevance to Canada of Merril stories written and published in the US is addressed in the text. However, I must point out that a large fraction of Canadian SF authors are immigrants, often from the United States, and a certain fraction of those Canadian SF authors who were born in Canada have family ties to the United States. One might further observe that all it takes for an author to be Canadian by location of birth is for their parents to fumble their birth control regimen, but that immigrants make a deliberate choice to be Canadian, sometimes despite significant bureaucratic barriers.
Oddly, the individual sections of the collection are called chapters, for reasons that escape me. I blame Michelism. Or possibly the quirks of a Canadian publishing industry still finding its feet.
The collection seemed more antique when I read it in the 1970s than it does now. Of course, the stories are the product of their time — what story isn’t? — but Merril often takes her stories in directions her male contemporaries did not.
Survival Ship is out of print.
If you want to know more about the stories included, read on.
Introduction (Survival Ship and Other Stories) • essay by Donald F. Theall
A short introduction to Merril’s work, which points out that Merril’s rejection of certain obviously wrong-headed American trends made it logical that she would move to Canada.
Prologue (Survival Ship and Other Stories) • essay
What it says on the tin. The preface spends a surprising amount of time discussing “That Only a Mother,” even though the story does not appear in this collection.
“Survival Ship” • (1951) • short story
Everyone knows of the slower-than-light starship being dispatched to Sirius. Everyone knows the crew is called The Twenty and the Four.” What the public does not know is anything about the sex ratio aboard the vessel.
The story being seven decades old, I think spoilers are OK. The twenty are the highly trained women who will occupy the command roles. The four are the blue-collar men recruited for reproductive rather than intellectual potential. The point is: women are more of a reproductive bottleneck than men, so obviously a new colony needs more women than men. Putting the women in charge was very unusual in 1951.
Readers might ask “why not replace the men with an equal mass of sperm banks?” That is addressed in a later story.
“Wish Upon a Star” • (1958) • short story
In this sequel to “Survival Ship,” a young boy chafes against the social conventions that place him at the bottom of the ship’s pecking order.
In the story’s afterword, Merril points out that her social expectations were shaped not by 1950s conformity but by 1930s radicalism, thus her rejection of the default belief that the girls’ role is to reassure the boys who run everything. Also, she was a significant figure in the Futurians and it may be that dealing with certain male Futurians did not incline her to see men as natural leaders.
Exile from Space • (1956) • novelette
Armed with a sack of diamonds and the best information her mentors could give her, a young woman tries to seamlessly integrate into American society. Her parental figures being woefully underinformed about human affairs, things do not go entirely to plan.
This is a comedy. It’s not the only comedy I can think of featuring a naïve woman being sent to Earth. I wonder if I can come up with a list of five.…
“Connection Completed” • (1954) • short story
Paranormal abilities bring isolation before facilitating romance.
This is the mirror image of Poul Anderson’s 1957 “Journeys End.”
“The Shrine of Temptation” • (1962) • short story
Humans observing an alien culture misapprehend the significance of local conditions: an unusual phenomenon which Terran observers insist on interpreting as myth rather than a physical event (until the evidence forces them to reconsider). Luckily for the humans, the results of this misunderstanding are not as tragic (for them) as these things usually are in SF.
Peeping Tom • (1954) • novelette
A wounded American veteran uses his convalescence to study under a local wise man willing to sell telepathic mentoring in exchange for cigarettes. The smokes are no doubt no good for the old man’s health, but their deleterious effects are as nothing compared to the effects on the veteran of being able to know exactly what his fellow Americans are really thinking.
The thing that seems to most throw the protagonist for a loop is discovering that not only do women have interior lives, a significant fraction of those interior lives centre on lust. Also, things would have gone much better for him had he taken the full course offered, rather than quitting partway when he figured he knew enough.
“The Lady Was a Tramp” • (1957) • short story
A young spaceman is flustered by the implications of a tramp spaceship crew’s gender balance: four men to one satisfied woman.
Auction Pit • (1946) • poem
Women display themselves to men. Poems are very much not my thing.
“So Proudly We Hail” • (1953) • short story
On the verge of leaving for an American space colony, a happy couple is devastated by the revelation that one of them is unfit to make the journey.
“The Deep Down Dragon” • (1961) • short story
Potential colonists, drawn from Earth’s slums, are subjected to a grueling test whose point is not to weed out the unfit, but rather to leave them confident in their ability to survive what is to come.
Whoever You Are • (1952) • novelette
Having surrounded the Solar System in an impenetrable force field for protection against the alien horrors that no doubt lurk in the Milky Way, humanity proves curiously resistant to ostensibly friendly aliens claiming to be only interested in love.
“Death Is the Penalty” • (1949) • short story
Social hygiene demands sacrifice, even when — or especially when — the root cause of social contamination is love.
“The Lonely” • (1963) • short story
First contact between alien and human is complicated by differences in biology. Also by the alien’s ignorance of the fact that the group of humans they encounter are an atypical sampling of humans in general.
This is a sequel to “Survival Ship,” in which a ship that did go the sperm bank route discovered almost too late that all of the girls born from donated sperm were sterile, which to me suggests that someone sabotaged the sperm bank.
Epilogue (Survival Ship and Other Stories) • essay
A very short epilogue.