Robinson, F.M. (April, 1954) The Oceans are Wide. Science Stories. Issue No. 4, April 1954. Pages 6-70. Retrieved 15 November 2016 from https://archive.org/details/Science_Stories_04_1954-04_cape1736
- Easy Observations
- Discussions of ‘The Oceans are Wide’
- Relevance to the focus questions
- Resource list
- As with all the major sections of this long short story, Robinson (1954) begins with a quote and here is a major theme of the story: the character of a leader for journeys across wide oceans, in this case the wide oceans of space
- The protagonist, Matty, is onboard the Astra. This ship has been on a voyage for such a long time that the gun ports or blisters are now empty. The guns themselves were taken and recycled. The reader also finds that Matty floats through the empty gun blisters and is lit by stars around about, so the reader knows the Astra’s context, deep in space.
- Matty is interrupted by his uncle Seth and told his father is dying. Matty is scared by the sudden intrusion of Seth and then he hears from his cousin, Jeremiah Paulson, who calls Matty a coward. He is pushed around by his uncle Seth and derided by Jeremiah.
- Matty is taken to see his father, the Director of the space ship Astra, who is dying. Matty’s father also criticises Matty, calling him “too weak” for the inherited job of Director. There are several observers in the room as Matty’s father dies and they all look at Matty with either hate or pity.
- Matty is hailed, mockingly, as the new Director and Seth takes him to the infirmary, locking him in. Matty overhears the others plotting against him, deciding to either strangle him or poison him. Footsteps come back to Matty and nhe escapes, snapping a bulkhead to run down the corridor when his nurse takes hold of him.
- His nurse agrees that Matty must escape and says he should take refuge with the Predict (Page 12). The nurse has brought tools to change Matty’s appearance. Matty escapes on a slow-moving walkway that runs down the spine of the ship.
- Matty escapes on the long Walk down the spine of the vast ship, moving past advertising signs as well as distinct sections of the Astra, the Shops area for building replacement machinery, the commercial area and then Engineering, seeing a more prosperous section as the automatic Walk moved him down the ship’s spine.
- In a Walkway Restaurant Matty meets a man who wants to turn him in for the reward but Matty’s changed appearance saves him. He learns that the ship has been told there is an ‘illegitimate’ loose, a person not entitled to life onboard and they would face the public strangler if found.
- In the Executive section, near the Predict’s offices, Matty finds a trap is waiting for him and he outwits it in the traditional way by throwing a bolt down and he sends the awaiting surprise party down after the sound. He makes it through into the large and comfortable cabin of the Predict.
- Robinson starts section II with a quote from the 23rd Psalm, speaking of safety and surety forever and the reader is keenly aware of the irony in this as Matty has seen no safety or mercy to date, just the constant threat of his murder.
- The Predict’s cabin is fantastically luxurious to Matty, with a 3D image of life on Earth from the early days projected out the window.
- The Predict uses a projection to explain why the Astra had to leave Earth and how the other GS ships did not survive. Matty explains that the others want him dead to seize his Directorial position but the Predict says to Matty that they may not have been better Directors, that the position had to be hereditary.
- Noticing the sound box, the Predict asks Matty to sing a song and Matty performs an important filk song about ‘The small green globe of Earth’.
- The Predict asks if Matty wants to be a minstrel but Matty tells him, “I want to be Director,” he said steadily.
- The Predict takes Matty on and promises to advise him but Matty notices how hard the eyes of the Predict can be. The Predict asks who Matty thinks should be acting Direcor until Matty is eighteen and he can claim his title and Matty nominates Seth, even though ‘he would not be loyal’. The Predict gives very callous advice to Matty saying that once he is Director he can send Seth to the public strangler for execution.
- The Predict organises to change Matty’s appearance and tells him he will live with the Reynolds family in Hydroponics.
- Part III opens with Matty and Sylvanus Reynolds training with bow and arrows in a forest simulation on-board the ship. Matty hits the little rabbit but it is also claimed by a young girl, also in training. They check the best shot with a huntsman who watches the training and the reader learns the room is controlled to simulate a forest to help the colonists hunt on a new planet. The rabbit is mechanical, with a red dye sack for blood.
- The young girl is Karen West and Matty is attracted to her but also embarrassed.
- That night Sylvanus awakens Matty to tell him there is a game of ‘slip’ on that night. This is the first mention of this dangerous, micro-gravity game played with a small razor and several passes by another boy with another razor. Slit games are banned by Security so they creep around to a deserted area where the contest is held and an audience bets on the outcomes.
- The slit game resembles Medieval jousting as two contestant rush at each other and try to give a razor cut to the other. The best of three passes decides the winner, as does the blood.
- The author uses snatches of conversation from the crowd betting on the game as well as direct action as Matty takes his turn in the match. Some of the fragments of conversation show that Matty is watched closely. Matty and his opponent attach clear plastic shields to their faces and groins. The story in its original version included several images of the contest by Virgil Finlay.
- Matty makes it through to the finals when he is matched with a ‘husky youth’ and even though his opponent wears a black mask, there is something Matty recognises about him. As they grapple the masked youth calls Matty a coward and Matty knows who it is. Matty is losing the fight to Jeremiah when the lights go out at the crucial time and the crowd yell, ‘Security!’
- Matty flies to escape down a shaft and he realises it is not Security that is chasing him but those who want him dead to allow Jeremiah to be Director. Matty realises also that Sylvanus Reynolds is not with him. He is even more worried when the Predict commands Matty to come to see him.
- The Predict tells Matty that slit is a stupid game for children and Matty has to stop. He also tells Matty the game was rigged and Jeremiah had a special slit made that would have killed Matty, if the game had not been broken up. It proved Matty’s enemies thought they knew who he was but the Predict says he would organise for a substitute young man to be ‘staked out for the wolves’. Matty shivers when the Predict talks about the death of the substitute youth “with all the casualness of a man ordering breakfast at a Walkway Restaurant”. The Predict also says that Matty’s foster-brother Sylvanus was caught and killed by the conspirators. (Page 30)
- Part IV also opens with a quote, this time from Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’. The quote complains of selfish judges who just want to end the case to eat, and innocent wretches who hang so the jury, who are paid, can also afford to eat.
- The narrative resumes with Matty watching a ‘judging’, a trial on board the ship, and the reader can expect poor judgements and no justice. A crew member from Shops tells Matty about the judging process The judge is Junius Shroeder, “white-haired and grossly fat” and the reader can tell this is another harsh criticism of the way the ship is run.
- Matty learns the trial is of his old nurse, Margaret, who is accused of poisoning the crew through negligence. Matty distrusts the evidence and does not believe he can help. The verdict is given rapidly and Matty averts his eyes as the Public Strangler kills Margaret. To the reader he seems weak and callous at this point. The reader loses sympathy for Matty when he does nothing but observe.
- Matty goes to the Predict to tell him what he has seen and the Predict says the judging was just an entertainment, “Something to do during their lunch period.” Matty realises that the Predict does not care at all about the lives of either the Crew or the Colonists. He comes to hate the Predict.
- The narrative skips forward to Matty’s sixteenth birthday when Matty becomes an apprentice. He is placed in Shops under the control of Olson. Matty is placed to work with Dion West, who had been at the slit game designed to kill him. Two years later, Matty discovers West working late. He created a new allow that would create a much stronger crossbow. Matty becomes interested and follows West to his home.
- Dion West admits that what he really wants is to accepted, regardless of his disability. As they talk Dion’s sister Karen comes in and she is the same young woman Matty was originally smitten by, though now she has matured and is beautiful.
- Matty and Dion act poorly to Karen, showing the sexism of the story and Matty refuses to play the sound box she offers him, saying they are for ‘minstrels and women’.
- The narrative leaps forward in time with a quote from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, urging the use of action and will to decide an individual’s fortune. Matty is looking at the stars in a gun blister when he realises the Predict is in there with him, a shadowy figure.
- The Predict points out a star and says it is the destination of the long voyage, in only a few years. He notes that Matty is due to become Director in only a few hours and advises him to have a plan to keep himself safe. The Predict advises Matty, who understands that he hates the Predict and the way he does not value personal freedoms and individual worth.
- The scene changes to the swearing in of the new Director and everyone assembled expects Jeremiah Paulson to be nominated after Matty does not show.
- Matty changes his appearance back to his original and waits until the final moment to claim the Director’s chair, calmly stating his proof of identity. He is seized but he uses a lie make the viewers of the televised event hate the conspirators, saying their leader, Reba, is sixty-one. The maximum age on the ship is sixty before euthanasia, to balance the population. Matty tells the audience they will come to their planet in two years and the euthanasia laws are revoked, if he is made Director.
- Seth, the Acting Director of the Astra, is 59 years old and he immediately acknowledges Matty as Director.
- Part VI also opens with a quote about leadership and its tedious duties and the first paragraph sees Director Matty as busy, re-educating the colonists with skills for the new planet. He learns there are rumours that he has health issues and he combats this by organising an inspection tour of the ship to show himself.
- Deep in a distant part of the ship Matty is ambushed by Reba and Junius. A conspirator is shot by a cross-bow bolt but Matty escapes with a bolt through his thigh, crawling through an air vent into a Shops storeroom.
- Back in safety Matty uses the logic of keeping his enemies close by appointing Seth his chief of Security and asking him to concoct evidence against the would-be assassins. He orders this on the advice of the Predict.
- Matty watches one of the Judgings with the fake evidence and lying witnesses and the reader is reminded of Matty watching the conviction and strangling of his nurse, years before. This is Matty’s revenge, to use the same tactics against his enemies. The accused are sent to death except Jeremiah as he was “too popular, too handsome, to be killed”. In this we see that Matty is now acting and even thinking like the Predict.
- Dion West, who made the cross-bows for Reba and the others stands accused and his sister Karen comes to beg for his life from Matty, who stills loves her. She accuses him of being in love with power and Matty spins her round and grips her arms tightly, hurting her and swearing he hates the job of Director. He pardons her brother, “for the good of the ship”.
- Part VII starts with a brief quote talking about the duties of leadership and opens dramatically with the hulling of the Astra by a meteorite. The meteorite caused damage on level 25, where a slit game was running, again returning the reader to an earlier dramatic incident from Matty’s life. Matty goes up to Level 25, which is gravity-less or close. Matty acts clearly and rapidly, saving many lives but it is Jeremiah Paulson who is the hero of the hour by welding the hole shut to save survivors. Coldly, Matty thinks that Jeremiah acted heroically for the glory, now making himself impossible for Matty to eradicate.
- The scene shifts to the training compartment simulating a moonlit night where Karen is playing her sound box. Matty looks at her and admires “the tilt of her head and the mass of curls at her neck and the thrust of her firm breasts against the stars”. Karen knows Matty has to tell her something distressing and he does. He cannot beat Jeremiah in a race of popularity, so he will marry Jeremiah’s sister, Julia. Karen is sorry for Matty and she leaves him alone in the simulator compartment, under a synthetic moon.
- Part VIII starts with a quote from Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ describing a beautiful garden paradise. The quote leads straight into the description of a planet for colonization that seems perfect with good air, water, plant life and no obvious threats. Matty orders ‘Landing Stations!’
- Matty leads a group down to land and the planet is Earth-like and lovely, with stately forests, “green meadows and valleys carpeted with purple flowers.” The next day Matty heads away to survey the planet, leaving Uriah in charge. The planet is a paradise. That night they sleep in the open and a small, grey animal is discovered by their lights, a herbivore. Matty realizes that this is a “friendly world” and then he worries that perhaps it is too friendly.
- They return to the colonist camp but little has improved. Uriah and his family is down at the beach. The planet is so easy for the colonists that little is done for the next month. Matty walks along the beach and meets the Predict who tells Matty they must all leave the planet. Some of the colonists have left the camp to live on the bountiful land and this is not the sort of Civilisation the Predict wants. He believes the planet will make the colonists degenerate into savages, to forget their training and their purpose.
- Matty encourages a party with plenty of food and drink on the beach. The food and drink are drugged and the colonists drop down to sleep. Fifty men help Matty with the drugged colonists, who will be unconscious for two days. They are carried back to the Astra and locked into a hold, then knives and other items that could be used as weapons are locked away. Matty looks back at the beautiful planet as they leave thinking it “was a goodbye to Eden.”
- Matty fears the colonists will try to kill him and his faithful fifty and he heads the Astra to the next planet out. This planet is not friendly and will in fact be terribly difficult with a continuing battle to survive, but these are the conditions Matty wants for human Civilisation. He surprises even those still loyal to him by saying he is taking the Astra down to the planet, not ferrying down the colonists in shuttles from space. The Predict takes over as pilot of the Astra and declares he will shoot anyone who tries to stop him. Matty agrees with the Predict that they will crash-land the Astra so they will never be able to leave the planet.
- The Astra crash-lands rapidly and spectacularly, killing many colonists and tearing the ship apart. Matty wonders what the survivors will do to those who crashed the ship.
- Part IX starts with a quote from HG Wells depicting humans like gods living where they choose amongst the stars. This leads to the difficult status of the colony thirty days after the Astra crash-landed. There were no defections from the group and morale was high even though the weather was boad and subsistence difficult. What’s more, the world is already inhabited by small, primitive humanoids who are hostile. This section begins in the words of Matty writing a journal and it becomes clear he is to come before Judging, run by Jeremiah Paulson. The crew who stayed loyal to Matty are also accused and face execution.
- Matty sums up the situation for himself and his loyal crew stating they are all innocent and the guilty one is the Predict. Through truth and lies he convinces the court.
- The scene cuts rapidly to Matty visiting the Predict in a filthy cell, a complete juxtaposition from Matty’s first meeting with the Predict, again reminding the reader of the start of this long, short story.
- Matty has been made Director again and the punishment for the Predict is to be exile. In this final meeting the Predict lets Matty understand the role of the Predict and Director on the ship. The Predict says the role is to be a “man apart” and that the real term for the Predict should be Psychologist, his original title on board. Life on the Astra was run like a business, not a military dictatorship but it fell apart. The predict explains why: “You take a race that’s used to a whole planet to live on and coop them up in a steel cell a few miles long and a thousand yards wide and you might be surprised at the result. The individuals stay sane, but the culture itself goes mad.”
- The Predict explains that a democracy would not have worked for the colonists and crew of the Astra because they were not free agents. The Earth civilisation decided what was to happen and that made democracy impossible because “If the Astra was a democracy they would have voted to stay behind on the first planet we landed on.” (Page 67) The Predict says he “I’ve acted under the orders of four billion people who died five centuries ago” (Page 68) and as a result he acted terribly to the generations of travellers on the Astra.
- The next day the new colony is functioning well and working hard. Matty visits the Predict, who is packing to leave for exile. Matty says he can help the Predict by bringing him food but the Predict says he is entirely sick of the humans he had to live with on-board for five hundred years and he desires isolation and exile.
- The Predict tells Matty that he has been groomed to be Predict, to be hard and cold and emotionless and work only for the Mission. He gives a small box to Matty and walks away into the wilderness. Matty looks in the box given him by the Predict and finds a small bottle of clear liquid and a syringe. Matty realised the syringe held the longevity substance that made the difference between the Predict and the colonists.
- In a strange conclusion to the story, Mattty swabs his arm with alcohol and injects himself with the longevity substance, assuming the role of Predict for the continuing Mission.
In Caroti’s The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001 (2011) a good deal of attention is given to ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (Robinson, 1954), mostly through a comparison with Robinson’s later GS novel The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991), also (soon) to be discussed here. The comparison is an excellent way to see what has happened to the idea of the GS in Science Fiction as well as how fiction itself in this genre changed over the nearly forty years between these texts.
Just to focus on ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (Robinson, 1954) here, one of the first points Caroti makes about this important story is that the reader hears that Earth’s loss is due to human nature, to human stupidity and greed. This is important because many other authors have blamed either natural cataclysms such as a meteor, solar activity or a rogue planet threatening Earth. Instead, Robinson focuses on the essential problems of human society and this is seen throughout the story, forecast by quotes that remind the reader of the need for ruthless social control to achieve simple societal goals.
Caroti (2011) also notes the assumptions of American cultural values of the 1940s and 1950s in ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (1954) with a bland and limited range of cultural models seen onboard the Astra. Caroti sees the construction of the Astra with its large amphitheatre with televised executions and public performances as a device that allows Matty to find clues about the real nature of the Astra and its voyage. “Every aspect of the physical world surrounding the protagonists is there to provide them with clues on their way to conceptual breakthrough, and to reward their persistence when they find the previously undiscovered pieces of evidence that finally shift their sense of reality in the proper direction” (Caroti, 2011).
As with many GS narratives, Matty must work through several challenges to find the truth about the Astra and its destination. Matty is on a quest for the truth and he accomplishes this quest through hardship, sometimes through physical feats and at last by suddenly perceiving the role of the Predict and the Director and what was required to keep the Astra on its mission to found a new human colony in the stars.
Caroti notes this in his summation,
“Each story develops as a sort of Bildungsroman in space, in which the ward figure meets the Predict figure for the first time, is informed of the reason why the ship exists and where it is going, and subsequently starts learning the hows and whys of the world around him.” (Caroti, 2011)
While Matty must work through his own, very challenges, sometimes seeing the death of allies friends around him, the Predict does not seem to interfere in ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (Robinson, 1954). The concluding sections of the narrative and the quotes used to introduce the sections argue that there was a deep plan always unfolding onboard the Astra, even if Matty (and all the other passengers and crew besides the Predict) could not see it. All Matty has to do is swallow the bitter pills that Predict Smith gives him. He must learn to lie, control others, and even to send to death those who do not follow the Predict’s plans. The Astra has been kept in its simple barbarity and ignorance for over five hundred years by “the implacable will of the Predict. So implacable, indeed, that when the ship finds a paradise planet where its crew would have the chance to truly develop along an independent line from that of their ancestors, Smith exerts his power to irreparably strand everyone on a hellhole world where they will be forced to replicate the evolution of humans on Earth, with all the implications that decision entails.” (Caroti, 2011)
In The Generation Starship in Science Fiction, Caroti (2011) compares ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (Robinson, 1954) with the same author’s very impressive The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991) and several other important GS texts, including Simak’s ‘Spacebred Generations‘ (1953) and Sterling’s much more recent ‘Taklamakan‘ (1998). This can be found in more depth on the page discussing The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991).
The focus questions for the GS Project texts presented are –
- What is worth holding onto over the generations?
- What should be discarded for the voyage? and
- Can life be sustained in the GS …or on Earth?
For Matty, there is very little choice about what should be held onto over the generations. From the very first events of ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (Robinson, 1954) Matty’s life is at risk and he must flee. He ends up in the first instance with the Astra ‘s Predict and for the rest of the story he is compelled to follow the Predict’s advice or instructions, often against his own will. This means that Matty’s choices are few so he does not actively choose his own values or even his own short-term future. However, there are many good things that Matty finds on the Astra and he actively follows these: the friendship found with those who help him and foster him through childhood, musical composition and performance, the attraction to a girl and then the same young woman and also the comradeship of different types of work and sport found on the Astra. Matty actively follows the dangerous competition of ‘slit’, competes in archery, finds friends and allies and attempts, often unsuccessfully, to help these allies. In this way Matty holds onto definite values that a contemporary reader understands. Finally, Matty holds onto the most painful value of all, the success of the Mission of the Astra with its founding colony on a difficult planet amidst all the chaos and uncertainty of human society.
It is much easier to think about what Matty chooses to discard for the voyage and the final colonisation of the new planet. The whole story revolves around Matty’s education. Matty learns the true nature of the shipboard community, who is in control, who is to be feared, and how he must gain leadership to ensure the Mission is accomplished. In this way, Matty rejects almost everything about the culture into which he is born. He rejects the stupidity of the apparent systems of control, the never-ending quest for power amongst the crew, the lack of justice and tolerance and the extraordinary ignorance of a society on the Astra that has lost so much since it left Earth five hundred years before.
But in the end, does Matty discard the treachery and manipulation of actual control of the GS Astra, or does he become as much as a tyrant as the Predict he first met? Does Matty discard some, all or none of the imperatives of the Mission on a new planet light years from Earth? Is Matty’s control the same ruthless and unfeeling manipulation as Predict Smith’s? Is it better, or worse, or just determined by the final arrival of the colonists and crew to a new home?
The life Matty finds on the Astra is nasty, brutal and short. He witnesses his friends murdered or killed by the corrupt system of justice. He allows the Predict to have others killed to allow Matty to survive. But there are also the strengths of friendship, love and self-sacrifice. Is this new world where Matty plays the role of the Predict sustainable? The Astra certainly survived with all its faults and horrors for five hundred years, can that be translated into a successful future for the new colony and humanity? If this kind of life can be recreated on the new planet, is it sustainable …and should it be sustained?
Caroti, S. (2011). The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001. USA: Mcfarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-6067-0.
Robinson, F.M. (April, 1954) The Oceans are Wide. Science Stories. Issue No. 4, April 1954. Pages 6-70. Retrieved 15 November 2016 from https://archive.org/details/Science_Stories_04_1954-04_cape1736
Robinson, F.M. (1991). The Dark Beyond the Stars. Tor Books.
Simak, C. (1953). Spacebred Generations. In Science-Fiction Plus. April, 1953. Accessed 4 March 2016 from <http://mreadz.com/read301868/>
Sterling, B. (1998) Taklamakan [Chattanooga]. In Asimov’s Science Fiction. Vol.22, No.274, October/November, 1998. Accessed 6 February 2016 from http://lib.ru/STERLINGB/taklamakan.txt