Search the Sky

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by C.M. Kornbluth and Fredrik Pohl

Introduction to the Audible Edition by Andrew G Gibson

Search the Sky is a satirical science fiction novel set in the far future, at a time when humanity has long since colonized the stars. It begins on a planet called Halsey’s which is in a state of decline. When a “Longliner” generation ship arrives, having failed to make contact with at least six other colonised planets, Ross (the main protagonist in the story) is sent to investigate what is going on at the other colonies. He is given access to a faster than light spacecraft that can make each journey almost instantly. It transpires that this technology had been shrouded in secrecy and hidden away behind a secret code, due to the risk of interstellar war. However, the isolated colonies that Ross and his crew encounter are affected by their own lack of genetic diversity in different ways from Halsey’s planet, resulting in a decline in their uniquely strange societies.

Search the Sky is the second novel that Fredrik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth produced using their extreme endurance form of creative collaboration. This is worth looking at in more detail. The following is an extract from a conversation that Fredrik Polh had with Alfred Bester about it in 1978:

With Cyril, because we had this background of common experience and common attitudes, the writing was almost painless on most of what we wrote. We published altogether I think, seven novels and maybe 30 or 40 short stories. Mostly what we did was talk to each other for a while. He’d come out to my home in Red Bank, where we kept a room for him with his own typewriter, and we’d sit around and drink for a while, and when the booze ran out we’d start to talk seriously about what sort of book we’d plan to write. And we’d think about a situation and talk about a few characters and what might happen to them, and as long as the conversation was flowing we’d keep on talking. We didn’t put anything on paper.

“And then when we were beginning to flag, and it felt like it was ready to write, we’d flip a coin and the loser would go up to the third floor — Cyril’s typewriter was in one room there and mine was another — and he would write the first four page“We called it the ‘Hot-Typewriter System’ — just keep the thing going day and night — and we did in fact usually work straight through. … A couple of times when we were towards the end of a novel and getting a little giddy we’d play tricks on each other. There was this scene at the end of one novel when, at the bottom of the last page I had somebody look through a microscope and the next line was, ‘What did he see?’ and I said it was Charlie Chaplin in a bowler hat. Then I went down and said, ‘Take it from there.’

“But he fooled me — he just crossed out that line. Usually, we didn’t even cross out a line, we just drove from line to line. Page 5 to 8 would be Cyril’s and page 9 to 12 would be mine; we just kept on going until we came to the end of the book. This was a rough draft and it always got rewritten all the way through, by one of us, almost always by myself except for the case of one novel, Wolfbane, which was the last writing Cyril did before he died, and there was quite a lot of revision involved in the rewriting. But basically, when we were finished, the novel was there, and it would sometimes only take five or six days to do a whole novel, because we’d work straight through for 24 hours a day.” 

This kind of endurance marathon of creativity certainly produced some interesting results from Polh and Kornbluth, the first of which was the book for which they are perhaps most famous: The Space Merchants. However, I would argue that Search the Sky, which was first published in 1954 by Ballantine books (and is now in the public domain) is an underrated classic of the science fiction genre and provides essential listening, in the form of this new Audible Edition.

One of the factors often cited in criticism of the book is its episodic structure. It is frequently stated that in many ways it’s more like a collection of short stories, linked by the characters they contain rather than any significant plot developments. In this respect, it bears some thematic similarities to both Gulliver’s Travels and the Wizard of Oz. Certainly, each character that joins the crew has a crucial role to play in proceeding episodes. However, the isolated episodic structure is central to the core plot of the novel. The powerful ending to the book simply would not work without this disconnection. It is quite literally part of the DNA of Search the Sky. As such it can be argued that its episodic structure is a strength, not a weakness. 

Another frequently raised issue with the novel is that the main character, Ross, lacks motivation. What is Ross’s main motivation? While boredom might not be the most interesting motivating force, it’s certainly a realistic one. Ross is literally unable to face any more of the morally bankrupt, fundamental meaningless job that he is trapped in. Which makes the choice he makes in Chapter 3 all the more understandable. In the second chapter of the book, the existential horror of Ross’s existence is made abundantly clear:

“I can’t stand it,” Ross said quietly. “Captain Delafield, you don’t know—I’m so sick to death of the life I’m leading and the work I’m doing that I’d do anything to get away. Mr. Fallon offered me a purser’s spot on his ship; I’ve been thinking abouts. And then at the end of those four pages, which would stop in the middle of a line or a word sometimes, he’d come down or I’d come down, and say, ‘You’re on. ‘

 it very seriously.”

“…If even the purser’s berth was no way out, what was left for him? Sixty more years of waiting for a starship and scheming how to make a profit from its contents? Sixty more years watching Ghost Town grow by nibbles on Halsey City, watching the traders wax in savagery as they battled for the ever-diminishing pool of consumers, watching obscene comedies like Lurline of the Old Landowners graciously consenting to wed Marconi of the New Nobodies? He said wearily: “Then what shall I do, Captain? Rot here with the rest of the planet?”

Search the Sky is often accused of being sexist when in reality, the authors are clearly satirising the very concept of sexism itself, through the character of Ross. For example, great pains are taken to illustrate the time it takes for Ross to master the complexity of operating the Wesley F.T.L drive:

 “For a week under Haarland’s merciless drilling he jetted the ship about its remote area of space, far from the commerce lanes, until the old man grudgingly pronounced himself satisfied.”

However, Helena flies the ship competently enough with virtually no training at all. Helena also grasps the concept of Jones world correctly, leading Ross to have a meltdown before she is proved to be entirely correct:

Helena said stubbornly: “But he shouldn’t. We’re not. What if they just think we are because they all look alike and we don’t look like them”

Ross collapsed. After a long pause during which he tried and almost failed to control his temper he said slowly: “Thank you, Helena. You’re wrong, of course, but it was a contribution. You see, you can’t build up such a wild, far-fetched theory from the few facts available.” His voice was beginning to choke with anger. “It isn’t reasonable and it isn’t really any help. In fact it’s the God-damndest stupidest imitation of reasoning I have ever——”

Ross’s sexism is highlighted once again in a section where he rants the following in a stream of consciousness:

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.

All of this creates the picture that one of the main satirical targets of Search the Sky is the concept of sexism itself. This particular passage can only be seen as a joke on the part of the authors, designed to highlight the idiocy of the main character’s sexist views.

Considering that this novel was written in 1954, it only contains a few anachronistic elements. Characters are still struggling to thread film projectors in a world that has developed faster than light travel. Generation ships deliver microfilm and there are very few mentions of computers or robots. But overall, there is a great deal to enjoy in what is, without doubt, one of Pohl and Kornbluth’s most underrated works.

Here’s an exclusive MP3 audio preview of the Audible version of this introduction to Search the Sky. This includes clips from James C. Gibson’s amazing narration, as well as the full text of Andrew G. Gibson all new introduction to the novel:

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