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The Seedling Stars
James Blish
Victor Gollancz, 185 pages

The Seedling Stars
James Blish
James Blish was born in 1921 at East Orange, New Jersey. He received a BA in microbiology from Rutgers in 1942 and served in WWII as a medical technician. After the war, he continued his studies at Columbia for 2 years. His first wife was Virginia Kidd, the literary agent. Blish moved to England in 1968 with his 2nd wife, Judith Ann Lawrence. A prolific author, he also wrote under such names as William Atheling, Jr., Arthur Merlyn, Donald Laverty and John MacDougal. His awards include the 1959 Hugo for Best Novel for A Case Of Conscience. He died on July 29, 1975, at Henley-on-Thames, UK

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

The latest Gollancz SF Collectors' Edition to come into my hands is The Seedling Stars, by James Blish. Like the other entries in Victor Gollancz' very praiseworthy reprint series, it is a classic work of SF, and its reappearance in print is a welcome sight.

The Seedling Stars is a near textbook example of that common SF form: the fixup novel. Indeed, it includes as one of its "books" a somewhat rarer beast: a fixup novella! Blish took his 1942 story, "Sunken Universe," and joined it, in much revised form, to his 1952 classic "Surface Tension," to create Book 3 of The Seedling Stars. (The original version of "Surface Tension" appears in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I.) To this combined story, he added three more: the 1955 novella "A Time to Survive" that is retitled "Seeding Program" for its appearance as Book 1 of the novel; the 1954 novelette "The Thing in the Attic" forms Book 2; and the 1955 short story "Watershed" is the concluding Book 4. The Seedling Stars can be regarded as a collection of 4 (or 5, or even 6) shorter works, but the stories do gain resonance taken together -- so it is not entirely improper to call it a "novel."

The central conceit uniting the stories is that humanity will colonize other planets not by adapting the environment of those planets to men (terraforming), nor by avoiding the environment of other planets (living in domes, say), but by adapting men to alien environments. By so doing, man will "seed" the stars. The first book tells of the beginning of this project. The main character, Donald Sweeney, is a young man who has been altered so as to be able to survive on Jupiter's moon, Ganymede. He has been raised completely alone, and told that his job is to infiltrate the criminal colony of Adapted Men already on Ganymede, and to bring their leader to justice. If he succeeds, perhaps he can become a true human, and live on Earth. It won't come as a surprise to learn that when Sweeney goes to Ganymede, his views change -- and that the genius scientist who is leading the Adapted Men has a visionary plan for man's future. The story is slightly marred by overly evil villains, and by a bit of silly science (not counting the wildly implausible "Adaptation" technology -- that impossibility I allow), but the overarching vision is wonderful, and the story is exciting and involving.

The next two books involve two different planets with radically different Adapted Humans. In "The Thing in the Attic," humans have been Adapted to live in the trees which dominated their planet. Over generations their society has ossified, held back by a fear of the ground, and by a reverence for the myths about the "Giants" who supposedly placed men in the trees. Honath is a heretic -- he doesn't believe in the Giants, and for that, he and several of his fellow unbelievers are condemned to exile and certain death on the ground, or, in their terms, in Hell. But after much hardship, Honath and a couple of his friends manage to survive on the ground -- only to make a shattering discovery.

In "Surface Tension," a spaceship crash-lands on a planet around Tau Ceti, a watery planet quite unsuited for even ordinary adaptations. The only solution the desperate crash survivors can see is to make adapted humans of microscopic size, to live in the tiny ponds that dot the planet's surface. The two episodes, one derived from "Sunken Universe," the other from the original "Surface Tension" novelette, tell first of the humans' alliance with some of the protozoans, and their joint battle against the more dangerous microscopic creatures; then, generations later, of the brave attempt of some of the humans to make a "spaceship" with which to travel to other "universes": i.e., to leave one pond and make their way to another. The concepts here are wonderful, and the ironic commentary is nicely handled, though the story itself is rather straightforward.

The final story, "Watershed," is set centuries or millennia in the future, and the wonderful twist is that now humans and Adapted men from all over space are returning to Earth -- to Adapt men to live on the environmentally ravaged hellhole that remains. Against this backdrop Blish tells a morality tale about the true nature of "humanity": it's a bit baldly put, but still well-taken.

This "novel" represents some of James Blish's very best work. He takes a striking idea and develops it fully, in the best tradition of pure Science Fiction. It's exciting and often inspiring: justly regarded as a minor classic of the field. Bravo to Victor Gollancz for returning it to print.

Copyright © 2001 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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