Notes for Selling’s ‘A Start in Life’

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Notes and Comments for Selling’s ‘A Start in Life’

Sellings, A. (1957) A Start in Life. In Galaxy Science Fiction, Volume 8, Number 5, August, 1954.


Cover of Galaxy Science Fiction Vol8 No5 1954

Image of the cover of Galaxy Science Fiction Vol8 No5 1954

Observations of the story:

  1. The narrative starts with an intriguing hook, “What a problem for a robot . . . having all of the answers, but not knowing when to give them!” before a conventional scene is described.
  2. An instructor, Em, is teaching Paul and Helen. The reader learns immediately that Paul is a more difficult child to teach than Helen. Seen through his dialogue Paul is quarrelsome and demanding. While Helen is quieter and less trouble, Em never really knew whether Helen understood the teaching.
  3. The reader learns two important things in the early paragraphs. One is that the two children can never have or really understand the animals and objects in the beginning books read to them. The second is that Em is a robot but we see in the story that she has feelings, even though these are not exactly like human feelings. We also learn that there is another instructor, also a robot, Jay.
  4. The child Paul is a six-year-old and when he becomes angry that the story books are all lies, Em notes that there are only the four characters, anywhere: Em and Jay, Paul and Helen.
  5. The robot Em tries to comfort Paul but she is self-aware enough to know she can never comfort like a human mother as she has a “hard, cold metallic lap”.
  6. Helen arrives with Jay and she has a flower, a “sickly yellowish bloom”. The robot Jay explains that the flower grew on its own, that he was not responsible for giving it to Helen.
  7. Em allows Helen to keep the flower after initial hesitation. Helen rushes over to kiss Em in gratitude because she was more demonstrative than Paul but this makes Em feel inadequate as she keeps her away.
  8. Paul and Helen leave and the robot Jay comes back. Jay and Em have a very human and parental conversation, though both are painfully aware of their limitations. Em thinks that she should never have been left with the job of raising human children and she remembers a recurring fear, that she would explode under the strain with “cogs and springs and synthetic braincells flying in all directions”.
  9. Em remembers the early days when Paul and Helen’s parents treated Em and Jay like male and female because “Jay’s prefix made a man’s name and hers a woman’s” and Jay was an earlier model so was larger and bulkier. Robot Jay was less perceptive than Em and they both assumed human roles, Jay “thinking more of making the children happy — she of keeping them safe”.
  10. The two robots converse in dialogue, sounding like a married couple and eventually jay says that they will have to tell the children the truth. Em agrees but is frightened of the impact of the truth on the children. Robot Em calls Jay “dear” and lays her metal hand on his. The truth lies behind large doors that soon the children will be able to open on their own.
  11. Time passes and Em studies teaching manuals while the children slept and she observes the children becoming more hurt and distrustful of their robot guardians. Paul asks where he came from during a Maths lesson and Em was about to out him off when she noticed Helen listening with her face “set, obdurate — and yes, accusing”. Paul says that Helen believed a large machine created the children but Em is upset with this notion as machines could not make men – men made machines.
  12. Paul demands to know why he is locked away from other boys and girls and why the bid door is always locked. Em decides to tell the children the truth. Their parents are dead. All twenty of the original people are dead with only Paul and Helen left alive. Em decides to take the children outside the only area they have ever known.
  13. Em opened the big door and walks the children along a dim corridor with Jay trailing after. The children feel the vibration increase and they confront “the great engines, purring and purring”. Em is asked what the engines are used for and she shows the children the control room.
  14. The children gasp and fall back and she calms them. They see a screen that shows them their postion “in the breathing heart of the Universe” and Paul whispers, “Stars!” Helen is entranced by a beautiful nebula and Paul asks why the sight was kept from them for so long.
  15. Em tells them they were not ready for the experience and doubts her wisdom in telling them the truth, at last. Em tells them the rest of the story, how the parents and the rest of the crew had died from a germ created by an unknown radiation. Em digresses to explain why the lessons for the children were so important because “one day the ship would have to be piloted down to a new world”.
  16. The children are silent, thinking, then Paul says that he understands that Jay and Em will not die. They talk about Earth briefly and then the children become excited that the creatures of the books; dogs, cats and trees, might also be on the planet they are travelling towards. Em says that anything at all might be possible, on the new planet but she does not tell the children that they will not arrive for another 120 years. “That could be told later” Em says to the reader.

Links to the GS Project Focus Questions:

The focus questions for the GS Project texts presented are –

  1. What is worth holding onto over the generations?
  2. What should be discarded for the voyage? and
  3. Can life be sustained in the GS …or on Earth?

Only a few comments are made here related to the three questions, above, mostly because the narrative itself will be interpreted differently by different readers. But what might be noted are the following:

  • The story is crafted carefully and cleverly, opening with a familiar scene of a teacher or parent with a simple reading book for a child. The reader seems to understand the context but this is overturned when the narrator, Em, is both a metal robot and understands her limitations as a robot, rather than a human teacher or parent. Nevertheless, the reader find the robot Em to be compassionate. What’s more, she seems to be in a relationship with a larger, older robot named Jay and their dialogue with each other has many similarities to stereotypes of parents with two children. The stereotypes are used comically by Sellings with Jay showing fatherly tenderness but deferring to the more intelligent and insightful Em.
  • Sellings notes that the robot Em worries about her abilities as a guardian and teacher for the children, mirroring many parents concerns about their own parenting. Through this, does Sellings argue that the traditional role of parenting and teaching the children is one aspect of contemporary society that should be preserved over the generations?
  • Em and Jay decide together that the children deserve to know the truth of their strange situation. The untimely death of the twenty adults of the first generation crew of the GS from a disease is disclosed to Paul and Helen, at a point when Paul’s questions make dissembling difficult for robot Em. By a shared glance and nod between robots Em and Jay the children learn the full story of their isolation and their role as the ‘last, best hope’ for future humanity. Does this gradual disclosure, based on the apparent emotional and intellectual growth of the children show that Selling also believes the traditional notions of maturity and readiness to accept societal roles should be held onto over the years as the great spaceship moves ‘purring’ through interstellar space?
  • Finally, the last element of the truth is hidden from Paul and Helen, that they will not see the destination planet, not probably will their own children. Does this indicate that Sellings believes they are not yet emotionally mature enough for this final fact? Is Sellings arguing that young people should not know the reality of their lives until they are adults? Is this concealment of ugly truths something that should be continued?
  • While the comic use of male and female character and physical attributes works well with Jay and Em, is this stereotyping to be continued on a future Earth II? In the narrative it is Paul who is difficult, inquisitive and forceful while Helen is quiet and compliant, loving pretty things. Are these characteristic stereotypes of gender in society and should be they discarded for the voyage or, as Sellings seems to indicate, are they just inevitable, for both humans and robots alike?
  • The sustainability of the GS is not a feature of the story except that Helen is taken by Jay to what might be a sort of hydroponics section of the ship, where she finds a flower. The disaster that killed the adult crew has left only two humans from the original twenty so it is assumed there will be enough resources for the remainder of the trip. The sustainability of the ship for the remaining 120 years of travel is not discussed or even noted, even though the original crew was wiped out by a mutating disease. Are a surviving male and female enough to allow the successful completion of the mission?


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Resource List

Sellings, A. (1957) A Start in Life. In Galaxy Science Fiction, Volume 8, Number 5, August, 1954.

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