Notes for Robinson’s The Dark Beyond the Stars
Robinson, F.M. (1991). The Dark Beyond the Stars. New York: Tor Books.
- Read Robinson’s story ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (1954)
- Read comments and notes about Robinson’s ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (1954)
- A short summary of the novel
- Themes, motifs and tropes
- Quotes from the text
- Discussions of the novel
- Relevance to focus questions
- Resource list
- The novel The Dark Beyond the Stars starts memorably with, “The only thing I remembered was that I had seen extraordinary sights on the morning of the day I died.” (Robinson, 1991, p3). This is the first memory of Sparrow, a crew member of the Astron, a generation spaceship that orbited “a not particularly important planet circling an obscure G-class star”. Sparrow remembers dying on the planet after falling from a cliff whilst exploring but he awakens back on board the Astron and he seems to have no memory of his past life.
- Sparrow explores the ship and its crew and the strange Captain Kusaka. The Astron has been searching for life in the galaxy for over 20000 years, but with no luck.
- The GS Astron has reduced in size since it set out, now using parts of the old ship to renew itself. The crew has diminished, also. Time has taken its toll on the mission.
- Captain Kusaka wants to take the Astron across the great dark of the empty space between the spiral arms of the galaxy, the Dark, but this is a vast distance and the crew knows that most will die, generation after generation, as the ship loses capability over the thousands of years necessary to accomplish Captain Kusaka’s plan. There is a secret and continuing plan to mutiny against the Captain but Sparrow does not join this mutiny due to some loyalty to him and because of the Captain’s eloquence in persuading Sparrow of the value of the Mission whilst looking out across the star fields from the Captain’s large quarters.
- Sparrow changes his mind as he discovers that he is very long-lived, like the Captain. In Fact, Sparrow learns he has had many different lives on the Astron and when he is resurrected by a medical procedure, his memory is wiped, by orders of the Captain.
- Sparrow is used as a model of a human mind because the centuries have changes the culture of the crew on the Astron. They have evolved a different, collective mind that is gentler and more liberal than Sparrow remembers the original human culture from when they set out on the Mission. Sparrow represents the original human mind and the crew are interested in this and respect Sparrow, but they have changed, evolving into what many would believe was a better society.
- Sparrow learns enough to lead a mutiny against the Captain as the Astron turns into the Dark. He found evidence that Earth had lost interest in the Mission of the Astron and, because of the effects of time dilation due to the incredible speeds the Astron has reached moving away from the home planet, there could be no life left on Earth, at all and the crew are the only humans left. Perhaps the only lifeform in the Universe …
- Captain Kusaka will not change from his Mission and decides to kill everyone on board by depressurising the Astron but Sparrow and a few other mutineers save the crew and Sparrow battles Kusaka in hidden cabins accessible to the Captain. During the confrontation, Sparrow finds the remains of the first crew on the Astron, some with their heads preserved in cryogenic vaults. The discovery triggers Sparrow’s memories and he finally understands that his real character was Raymond Stone, the Return Captain – equipped with longevity and command codes to return the Astron to Earth. Sparrow/Stone kills Captain Kusaka who, in his death throes, apologises for the death of so many of the crews over the centuries.
- Sparrow/Stone takes command of the Astron and they return to Earth. This voyage back takes 400 years and in that space Captain Stone sees his friends and lovers die, their children also die and many generations pass before his lone, watchful gaze. Captain Stone is a kinder and easier Captain than Kusaka but even so, the constant evolution of the crew with their very different culture rising and falling as he watched them teaches Stone the value of life and what it means to be virtually immortal.
- On return to Earth the Astron has travelled for 2500 years but on Earth their time away was 17,000 Earth years. In this last, short section of the novel the crew finds the Earth uninhabited and they plan to repopulate the planet but there is a final and shocking revelation. An alien spaceship has arrived at Earth.
Themes in the novel:
A theme in a novel or shorter narrative is an important idea that emerges from a literary work (Baldick, 2015). The subject matter of a novel can be described in terms of its action and events, but the theme of the novel will be “described in more abstract terms (e.g. love, war, revenge, betrayal, fate, etc.)” (Baldick, 2015). Some themes are described in the quotes section, below, but readers can always find their own themes and these can be defended with evidence from the text.
In a novel or shorter narrative a motif is a “distinctive recurrent element” (Chandler & Munday, 2016). Some motifs are found frequently in the genre of Science Fiction (SF), such as the protagonists search for answers, a planet, a person of a place in deepest space. In the sub-genre of the Generation Spaceship within SF some motifs are found across many texts, such as the vast array of stars seen through a visor or a transparent shell. The repetition of the motif leads it to “acquire a ‘ symbolic ’ significance” (Chandler & Munday, 2016).
A trope in a novel or shorter narrative is a figure of speech “especially one that uses words in senses beyond their literal meanings” (Baldick, 2015). Tropes in formal argument could be metaphors or rhetorical questions but in the genre of Science Fiction they are a “familiar, metaphorical, and/or rhetorical figure of speech or way of telling a story” (Harcup, 2014). Some SF devices, such as space shuttles, fusion engines and virtual reality displays are tropes that shortcut the process of explaining what these actually do or how they work. Instead, the reader and writer accept them as part of the SF furniture and move on with the narrative itself, unless the trope is a vital part of the story.
Reasons to continue the voyage of the Astron, against the odds :
The Captain convinces Sparrow of the importance of the Mission. His single-minded zeal persuades Sparrow of the worth of the journey about to commence across the Dark, also called the Deep. The theme here might be human curiosity, or perhaps a need to feel less isolated, less alone.
The Captain’s Pitch to Sparrow about the Importance of the Astron’s Long Voyage
He pushed out of the sling and glided over to the ports, motioning me to follow. I thought I was good at maneuvering in free fall but he was much better. He twisted gracefully in space, his feet barely brushing the arch, to slow to a halt a few centimeters away from Outside, his outstretched fingers resting lightly on the thick glass. I drifted up beside him and he put a hand on my shoulder. My skin promptly broke out in bumps again.
“Do you know why we’re here, Sparrow?”
He didn’t raise his voice but somehow it filled the bridge. I could sense those in the compartment coming to attention—the Captain was talking as much to them as he was to me.
“Out there are the Deeps, Sparrow. We’re the first ship sent out from Earth to explore them, we’re the advance party for civilization. We’ve been entrusted with the most important task given to any group of human beings—to find life forms other than our own. There’s no event in human history as important to the race as the task of this ship.”
I shivered on cue. He waited a moment before waving a hand that took in all of Outside.”It’s vast beyond imagining, Sparrow—a galaxy teeming with billions of stars and millions of planets and hundreds of thousands of civilizations …”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 41)
How long has the expedition journeyed?
The theme in this quote might be the human ability to be too easily impressed. Here, Sparrow misjudges the Captain and is caught off-guard by his extraordinary longevity. This longevity in GS narratives is also a trope. After all, the story must have someone who maintains the ideals of the Mission, however risky and stupid.
“A hundred and two generations.” He concentrated on his pipe again. “On board ship, a generation is approximately twenty years.”
The Astron had spent two thousand years, give or take a few decades in the depths of space. More than a hundred generations of crewmen had been born, lived, and died during its voyage.
The security guard was drifting toward me; my session with the Captain was over. I shook his hand for the last time, smothering my surprise at what he had said.
“The previous captains would be proud of you, sir. ” I sounded as pompous as only a seventeen-year-old can sound, but I wanted to assure him that I was ready to march in his army. He shook his head, still faintly smiling, still watchful, still curious which way my thoughts might jump.
“There’s been only one captain of the Astron, Sparrow. It’s an honor I’ve held since Launch.”
For a long moment I couldn’t say anything. “I’m s-sorry, sir,” I finally stammered. “I didn’t know.” I sounded like I was offering condolences rather than trying to hide my shock.
His smile turned sardonic. “I bear up, Sparrow.”
The guard was by my side then and I followed him into the passageway.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 42)
Nobody Becomes Ill but Everyone (Almost) Dies – the Mass Must Not be Lost
The hint here in this quote is similar to many GS narratives. It is a trope that the human bodies in death, or even before death must not be wasted but rather recycled for energy or food production.
“People don’t get sick on board,” Crow whispered, “but they do die.”
“Crow’s right, nobody gets sick. But nobody lives forever, either. On the Astron, nothing ever goes to waste—we’re a closed system, we can’t afford the loss of mass.”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 59)
So many generations have passed – emptiness and silence
The quote here seems to be a popular motif in GS narratives. Generations have come and gone and the sheer weight of time is evidenced in the Astron.
Everything was thick with dust and at times the emptiness and the silence were so overwhelming we spoke in whispers. (Robinson, 1991, p. 61)
Hydroponics – a place where people can be happy, as part of the natural world
The Hydroponics area of many GS narratives offers a rare, natural setting. It is a place where humans can feel at home, away from the curving metal dome of the GS craft.
Hydroponics another favorite stop; once I got sick from eating what I found out later were green tomatoes. Another time we consumed half a row of strawberries before guilt finally caught up with us. (Robinson, 1991, p. 62)
The Dark and the Distance and the Astron will not Make It
Sparrow is told the reality of trying to cross the galaxy to explore the far reaches of the Dark. This is a trope that reinforces the amazing, real distances between humans and other possibly habitable planets. This is also a theme in that it stresses humankind’s loneliness.
“We’re going there. But to get there, we have to cross the Dark.”
She pointed at the blackness between and was silent for a moment. I stared at the empty space by her hand and tried to translate it into distance and time. I shivered.
“It would take a thousand generations. The planetary systems are very few and far apart. We would run out of mass for the converters as well as most of the elements we need for subsistence and repairs. And we would run out of them in a generation—this generation, Sparrow.” She hesitated, then said flatly: “Even if that part of space weren’t empty, we would never see the other side. The Astron is falling apart, it can’t make it.”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 67)
But there is nothing out there – nothing at all
In this quote the theme of humankind’s loneliness in the apparently lifeless galaxy is stressed, with more vigour and force than in many GS narratives.
“Sparrow—we’ve explored a thousand systems and fifteen hundred planets, from gas giants to lumps of airless rock, and we haven’t found so much as a flea or a germ or a single living cell! The only life in the universe is what’s inside this ship and in that thin green layer of scum covering the Earth!”
“There’s you and me and three hundred others on the Astron. We’re all the life there is for light around. There are no lobster men on Galileo Ill and there isn’t any advanced civilization of intelligent slugs on Quietus ll. There isn’t, there wasn’t, there never will be!”
She spread her arms to take in the whole view of Outside, much as the Captain had done on the bridge.
“There’s nothing out there, Sparrow! Nothing at all!”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 68)
Human belief in the alien other is always disappointed
The quote here is the Captain convincing Sparrow to help continue the search for life. The quote also summarises, from a future viewpoint, humankind’s past and current search for other sentient life, so it relates to the theme of loneliness in the vast cosmos, again.
“Men have always hoped they weren’t alone in the universe, Sparrow. Long before the Astron was launched, they believed there might be life on Venus and Mars. There wasn’t. Then they thought there might be life on some of the satellites of the gas giants. They were disappointed once again. Before they built the Astron, they spent decades with radio telescopes listening for signals from other systems. They never heard any. We haven’t, either. Oh, our equipment will pick up what we think are signals, but inevitably they turn out to be due to phenomena that have nothing to do with life. We haven’t run across anything yet that could be traced to sentience, not even any Dyson spheres.”
“We will!” I cried. I was close to tears.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 69)
Insurrection to return to Earth – there’s nothing out there!
This quote relates to the crew of the Astron and their desire to return to Earth. This is not so much the theme of loneliness as a need for community. The community must return to Earth because this is the only place where life exists.
Ophelia looked relieved that at last I understood what they were driving at. “That’s exactly what we want to do. Take over the Astron and go back —go back to the one planet where we know there’s life.”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 72)
Death for Life – there must be a trade-off between energy used and biomass created
The quote here relates to the trope seen in many GS narratives where to be given permission to have a baby must be preceded by the death of another crew member or colonist
“Life is very rare and valuable in the universe. It’s also rare and valuable on board. Mass is limited, so nobody can have a child until food is assured. That usually means somebody has to die before a child can be born.” (Robinson, 1991, p. 78)
Astron AI is a fragile biocomputer and the ship suffers inevitable, slow loss
There are two tropes in the quote here. The first relates to some technogabble about the GS computer being a discrete mind, as seen in several GS narratives, and the next to the decay of the ship in its long journey, in this likened to a balloon with a slow leak.
It was Thrush who showed me, describing how the huge fusion motors in Engineering were tied into the memory matrix of the Astron‘s biocomputer. Then he explained the inherent fragility of the latter. It was living, he said, and subject to its own illnesses and diseases. The piping was sealed and if it were ever breached, the memory fluid would become contaminated, the neural net would die, and in short order the ship would become a drifting hulk.
He also explained that the Astron was actually a “cluster ship,” not a single cylinder but a group of three, two of which had long been abandoned. I had no idea that so much of the Astron was deserted and vacant, that as the crew had shrunk, it had gradually receded into the central cylinder. Even though the ship was a closed system and everything was recycled, there were still unavoidable losses. Over the generations, living in the Astron had been like living in a balloon with a slow leak …
(Robinson, 1991, p. 88)
Description of the Astron from outside
One of the things Science Fiction does best is create a moment of awe when the reader is overpowered by the immense image described by the author. In this case the motif is the familiar GS scene of the narrator seeing the vast GS craft from outside, for the first time.
I gave the maneuvering jets a brief squirt and watched the ship dwindle beneath me. For the first time I saw the Astron from the outside. I could see the three individual cylinders that made up the vessel, located where the hatch was, and then tried to guess the location of the various compartments. (Robinson, 1991, p. 99)
Darkness and distance 3
The quote here again relates to the theme of loneliness in a vast galaxy. As with many GS narratives, the sheer distance is described powerfully and the reader is forced to reevaluate their own size and importance in the Universe.
The darkness itself was smothering, reminding me of times on board Astron when I had been alone in closed compartments and the glow tube had failed. I was buried alive in a thick, silent blackness where nothing had both texture and substance.
The loneliness hit me first. Inside the Astron, I had been sandwiched between layers of life, from the hundreds of crewmen who crowded corridors and the working spaces to the racks of dense foliage in Hydroponics. I had been immersed in the stink and the sweat and the feel of life and now I was alone, surrounded by nothing at all. If the Astron had shrunk to the size of a grain of sand, the nearest Star system—aside from Aquinas—would have been an impossible ten thousand kilometers distant.
I had been a creature on that grain of sand wondering about the possibility of other creatures on other grains of sand on a beach a continent away …
(Robinson, 1991, p. 102)
Sexuality on board for the immortals
The quote here is not found in many GS narratives. Here the Captain tells Sparrow about the effects of ageing while generations pass and die. The Captain has a very different approach to sexuality that the majority of the crew, who treat each other with care and consideration. Here, the Captain shows his disdain for ordinary humankind and their passions. The theme might be the value of sexual expression in the loneliness of the immeasurable galaxy.
“Two thousand years,” he said quietly. “I did everything there was to do in the first two hundred and then I got bored. I had sex with everybody in the crew, I found all the buttons you can push, all the possible movements and positions, all the phrases you can utter, all the promises you can make. I indulged in all of my fantasies and all of theirs. Then my interest turned clinical and I merely watched. Now I look away because it sickens me. Monkeys, masturbating in a zoo.”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 114)
The Falsies, the VR used on the GS
Virtual reality lockers, theatres, headsets and chambers are frequent tropes in GS narratives, asking the reader what they would do if they needed to pass a lifetime in a tin can in space.
The last few projections were far more complicated than the ordinary training plays or even the compartment falsies, mere three-dimensional images meant only to be perceived. These were artificial realities with which the observer could interact. You were not only in your surroundings, you could reach out and touch objects and even move them about as you desired. To crewmen wearing the necessary data suits, the “realities” were very real indeed.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 126)
Cultural memory 1 – Sparrow has the culture of a Launch time human
The quote here shows a popular trope in GS narratives. The author wants one or more characters to remember their Earth-based humanity, even if the crew onboard change for the worse or better over the generations. Sparrow is then a sort of hibernating human who awakens to observe the crew as they change from the vantage of a contemporary Earth culture, representing the reader’s own backgrounds and beliefs.
“They knew the voyage would last a long time. They didn’t want the crew to forget.”
“What it’s like to be human.” She corrected herself. “What it was like to be human at the time of Launch. You haven’t changed since then.”
Another tumbler fell into place.
“The crew studies me, don’t they? You study how I react, how I think, how I talk, the importance I give to the things I do. Or you do. You watch me watching you. I’m a living mirror in which you can check your own image—that’s it, isn’t it?”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 132)
Cultural memory 2 – Sparrow has the strongest human memory
The quote here relates to the trope of needing a constant, human and Earthlike reference to judge the changes of the crew as they changes over the generations.
“The Astron is a very tiny village, the only one in a country that stretches to infinity in whatever direction you care to look. There are only a few of us, and we get to know each other very well. Hardly anything ever changes on board and if it does, it changes so slowly we don’t realize it. Our lives are exactly like the lives of the generation before us. They’re very structured, limited lives. They can’t be anything else; they’re the result of two thousand years of ship culture. But you lived your life back on Farth. You’re very … unstructured. You’re very human. Watching you reminds us of what it’s like.”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 133)
Life – the Captain’s reasonable argument to go on and search for life
The author uses the quote here to argue the Captain’s point-of-view. The Captain believes that if the Astron keeps looking, they will find life. This is the theme of curiosity again, stressing humankind’s adventurous need to discover.
“We’ve seen our share of planets, Some are bubbles of gas, others solid rock. Some are covered with deserts, others have oceans of water. Some lack an atmosphere, others are blanketed with clouds and flooded with heavy rains of organic compounds. There’s heat, there’s lightning, there’s billions of years of time, and yet your friends would have us believe the galaxy is lifeless except for one chance on a small planet orbiting a minor sun.”
He cocked his head and squinted at me and I wondered if he felt the wine as much as I.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 151)
The Green Bank equation
The Captain here sums up a rational argument to keep looking for life out in the far reaches of the galaxy, across the Dark and the Deep. He argues using a well-known GS trope of the Green Bank Equation that argues the very learge number of stars and habitable planets must result in life on one or more of these.
“Time is why the Astron is a generational ship, time is why I’m the captain – many variables can be factored into the Green Bank equation, but one that nobody figured on was the time needed for a ship such as ours to find one of those planets harboring life. The more time spent, the more lifeless planets eliminated, the greater our hope in finding one with life. Considering the time already by now the odds in our favor are great indeed.”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 155)
The purpose of the Astron – great general use for GS texts
The quote here relates to a very important theme in GS narratives, although it is not dealt with in any depth in this novel. Can parents sign their children and children’s children for generations into a project? Can young or unborn children be consigned to a fate because of their ancestors? The Captain argues that such a contract is binding,.
The Captain says, “when the Astron left the Earth two thousand years ago, it had a purpose far different from yours. Your ancestors enlisted in that purpose of their own free will and their Earth-born descendants were paid enormous sums of money because of that enlistment. That was a contract, Noah, one that can’t be broken purely because it no longer suits the interests of one of the parties.”
“Parents can’t make contracts binding their children—”
“It’s been done throughout history,” the Captain sneered. “And those children who broke their contracts did so at their peril.”
He waited a moment, then became conciliatory again, this time speaking directly to the crewmen in the hangar area.
“Few of you know the state of the Earth at the time of Launch. It was a used-up planet, a world of frontiersmen with no frontiers, a world whose people doubted the value of their existence because their own planetary system had proved barren. They took almost all their treasure and built this ship and gave it a very definite purpose. It was to open Outside as a new frontier, to find living creatures elsewhere and in so doing, find a purpose to their lives. They knew it would take time. They didn’t expect the Astron to return early with a message that there was nothing out there and their very lives were an accident of nature!” (Robinson, 1991, p. 195)
Cultural memory 3 – How memory works: 3 generations to forgetting
The theme in this quote relates clearly to the human ability to forget, over time, one of the key themes of the GS narrative subgenre.
“This crew, perhaps,” he said easily. “Maybe even a few in the next crew. But to the crew after that and all those that follow, Tybalt’s death will be history, no more important in the long run than his life. Or anybody’s life. Every three generations, God clears the stage for a new cast of actors, Sparrow.”
Huldah had said the crew were mayflies to him.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 216)
Cultural memory 4 – Gradual leaking of resources, need to cannibalise the crew and ship
As with the earlier quotes, this quotes stresses the inevitable decline of the Astron over the generations. This trope of the inability to create a sustainable GS environment and society is revisited across many GS narratives.
Now I realized he had been cannibalizing the crew as well. The ship was not quite a self-contained environment; there was a slow but gradual leakage of everything important for the maintenance Of life. Every generation there would be fewer and fewer of us until finally there would nobody left to return to the ancient kingdom of Spain. But that didn’t really matter to the Captain.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 217)
Religious impulse on board – a veneration of the birth process and fecundity
Over the hundred generations of travel the crew evolved a veneration for life, simply bacuase they could find no other life in the galaxy. This relates to an important theme for this novel, the veneration of life itself.
The crew had searched for life for two thousand years, but the only place they had ever found it was on the Astron. To have a part in its creation was of vastly more importance—at least for the moment—than a mutiny or even the ship’s venture into the Dark.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 236)
Religious impulse on board #2 – link to communion for males waiting to impregnate women
Here in this quote there are links to this novel’s unusual treatment of human sexuality on-board the GS Astron. The theme of the veneration of life itself amongst the crew is seen as a religious process that celebrated the creation of life.
Huldah pushed her way through the crowd, handing out small bulbs of wine and wafers, blessing both the crew members and the forthcoming happy events. I watched her intently, trying to decide if there was a difference among the bulbs of wine she passed out. But however she did it, she was more clever than that. The contraceptive drugs in the food had been eliminated during the ritual period and the bulbs of wine Huldah gave some would-be fathers were laced with fast-acting versions of the drugs. Huldah would control who was fertile and who wasn’t. But she never told me and I never knew for sure until much later…. I swallowed the wine and chewed the wafer.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 236)
Religious impulse on board #3
The quote here has the narrator, Sparrow, commenting on the sacred rite of impregnating females by males chosen by lot. This need for humans on a GS craft to create their own religiousn structures and processes is a trope of many GS narratives.
I felt uneasy and nervous. It was a rite of passage for them. It was also barbaric and I wondered what I could compare it to. Maybe to the erotic duties of priestesses in some ancient temples, except that most of those priestesses were prostitutes and the worshipers knew it, paying for their favors with temple offerings.
This was as close as the Astron came to having a religion, and coupling with the birth mothers would probably be as close as any of the crew members came to religious ecstasy.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 237)
Here we read a combined trope. The hydroponics unit, so often a feature of GS narratives, is here seen in disrepair. The visual images of the wrecked and cannibalised hydroponics troughs meets the descent into chaos. This brings the two visual tropes of so many GS stories into clear focus. The very section that provides food and oxygen is gone, and life with it.
I flicked it off and we continued down the corridor, pausing briefly in what was left of Section Two’s Hydroponics compartment. The grow lights had been ripped out, probably as spares for those in the main tube, leaving only the metal troughs and the plastic mesh.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 246)
Religions onboard and off – the old Earth message shows a return to primitive prayers for fecundity – the Great Egg
In this scene Sparrow and a few others are looking through the abandoned hulls of the Astron. They find ancient recordings sent from a dying Earth, thousands of years ago. Far from giving them help with the disintegrating ship where they live they find a recording of a prayer for better crops. Clearly, the tropes of a descent to barbarism and away from technological sophistication and the rise of mindless religions is seen.
“Damn it,” Crow groaned, and drifted over to see what I was pointing at in the globe. At first it was vague and insubstantial, then the words firmed up and became readable. The message was a religious one and fragmentary at that, in a language that seemed only dimly related to what we spoke on the Astron. There were no scientific references in it at all.
“For Christ’s sake,” Crow said, his bladder temporarily forgotten. “It’s a plea for better crops.”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 247)
Ship change: static society versus Earth in accelerated time changing utterly
The trope of the relativistic time displacement found on GS craft is seen. The Astron has been travelling for over a thousand years but on Earth, millennia have passed and the planet’s climate and geography have also changed.
The ship was a static society; nothing had changed much despite the steady deterioration of the ship itself and the decrease in the size of the crew. But on Earth governments had come and gone, wars had been fought, minor ice ages had covered parts of the Northern Hemisphere, the very continents had drifted another few feet apart.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 248)
Darkness: perhaps Earth is gone and the ship life is the only life, anywhere
The quote here, late in the novel, again restates the trope that there may be no life anywhere but Earth, as seen in a few GS narratives, and also the central theme for the novel that life itself is precious and sacred.
But I wasn’t sure there was anything to return to. Perhaps that thin green layer of scum covering Earth had vanished completely and now the only life in the entire universe was that on board.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 249)
Description of the Earth to which they return – the blue marble
Echoing the very famous photograph of Earth as a blue marble contrasted with the barren craters of the Moon, this quote combines the tropes of evolved religion, such as the ‘Great Egg’ noted by the narrator, as well as the Earth as the only fecund life in a galaxy of emptiness and sterility.
“When you look at it from space, ‘ I said gently, “the Earth is very blue, covered with shreds of clouds that are blinding white. It has deserts and mountains, plains and lakes, rivers and vast prairies. There’s life under every rock and in every drop of water. It’s home—and it’s time to go back.”
The Great Egg would forgive me my small lies and extravagant hopes.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 257)
Darkness: Sparrow has aged and sees the younger generations and feels alone in a tiny space
Not only is the theme of loneliness in an empty galaxy seen here, but also Sparrow’s own separateness and loneliness amongst the rest of the crew because he is the only one who has been engineered for longevity. This relates to the theme of the effects of extreme longevity in a changing world as well as the essential isolation of humankind in space.
I shivered inside, as always feeling small and insignificant in a tiny world that extended not more than five hundred meters in any direction. I was surrounded by the ship’s company but I knew each and every one of the fewer than three hundred of them, and they were no protection at all against the sudden ache of loneliness I felt.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 262)
Dark and deep: Perspective on the GS trip – a worthwhile description
The quote here works well in developing the theme of humankind’s loneliness in a sterile galaxy but also introduces the idea that if it were not for humans, the whole universe would be meaningless.
Darkness and the Deep, I thought bleakly. Here we were, a group of frightened, chattering primates light-years away from the safety of the jungle, breeding and fighting within the steel confines of a tiny artificial world that had been launched millennia ago. Once it was gone, there might be no life left in the universe and no point at all to the vast explosions of matter and the whirling lumps of rock and bubbles of gas that filled the void …
(Robinson, 1991, p. 267-8)
Captain and crew: distancing of captain from expendable crew
The narrator, Sparrow in his latest incarnation, perceives the gradual changes that occurred for the Captain Kusaka. The narrator seems to be describing his own emotional state because he is in the same condition as the Captain. His extreme longevity distances him from human contacts: friends, lovers and all the others who rise and die across the generations.
We sat there and stared at each other. With time, friends change. And there had been more than enough time. He’d had his friends among the first crew, at least at the start. But they must have told their children what had happened, and then their descendants avoided him and fell silent when he approached. A man already alienated had grown more distant with every generation until the crews became merely part of the machinery, maintaining the ship and exploring the planets until they were replaced by still another generation.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 299)
The return home at last
With Captain Kusaka killed in combat, Sparrow assumes commands as the Return Captain, as was always his role and fate. This quote reiterates the necessity of return to the only known life source in the galaxy, but also restates the trope of several GS narratives, of a fear of what has happened to the Earth since the craft’s departure. The relativistic time shift for the travellers makes Earth unknowable.
“What are your plans?” she asked, but the question was a formality.
Everybody on the bridge knew what I was going to do.
“We’re going home,” I said.
But I wasn’t sure there was still a home to go to.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 304)
Purpose 2: the return home lacks purpose
As is found in the conclusion of the novel, the Astron was never meant to be GS craft but just a vessel undertaking short duration exploration. Captain Kusaka perverted the purpose of the Astron and made it a GS, condemning thousands of the crew to death as the millennia passed and the ship broke apart. Now, when the Astron is finally returning o Earth, the narrator Sparrow feels a lack of purpose, as if the doomed Mission was at least a cause for the journey. This quote restates the motif of the Mission, showing its dual nature in giving purpose for the journey, but also condemning the crew to death.
“You’ve seen the Earth, Sparrow. They never will. Before, we went from planet to planet and while we never found anything, there was always the hope that we would. And we kept ourselves busy preparing.”
(Robinson, 1991, p. 309)
Ship life – responsibility if this is all the life there is and will be
The quote here shows both Sparrow’s feeling of oppression rom his new responsibility for the crew, as well as the theme of loneliness through the human condition in a vast and sterile galaxy, as well as the loneliness of the leader with his extreme longevity.
But I also had my dark periods when I would lie in a hammock on the hangar deck, stare at the unwinking stars overhead and think of the crew sleeping below. I felt crushed by my responsibility for them. They were the only life for thousands of light-years around, perhaps the only life there was in an interstellar desert populated by occasional lumps of rock or flaring globes of burning gas or bits of black capable of swallowing everything, including light itself ….
(Robinson, 1991, p. 309)
Going out again
The quote here relates in the end of the novel to Sparrow’s shared enthusiasm for exploration he found with Captain Kusaka in the beginning of the novel. Robinson displays the theme of human curiosity, but by the time of this quote it is held in balance by the inevitable death of generations of the crew.
There would be a relaxation time and then they would go out again, maybe even crossing the Dark this time. Perhaps not so much to explore as to colonize, though that was a vastly long time In the future.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 322)
Life found Earth: something beat them home, but it should be respectful
In this, last quote from the novel there is a major plot twist. Unexpectedly, the Astron has returned to an Earth that seems as if they are the only sentient life inhabiting. Then, just as they prepare to send down the crew, an alien ship is seen orbiting the Earth. An alien lifeform has found the Earth. This relates strongly to the theme of humankind’s isolation in the sterile galaxy because this is clearly not the case. It also means that perhaps the crew should have followed Captain Kusaka into the Dark and to certain death as there was other life in the universe. Finally, after the terrible ordeal of the four thousand year return journey, the author also brings the theme of a respect for life into clear focus. Whatever the aliens are in their vast ship, they must also respect life simply because there is so little of life in the galaxy. This, perhaps, leads the reader with a sense of hope for humankind’s future: a caring and compassionate community meeting another advanced sentience with a matching respect for life itself.
In their search for life in the vastness of the universe, neither of them had ever considered a third alternative.
That life might find them.
I readjusted the viewing globe while my thumping heart settled back into normal rhythm and I reassured myself that no race could have traveled this far through the empty void without developing as vast a respect for life as we had….
In the viewing globe, the image leaped into sharp focus.
Sweeping into view, thrusting out from the terminator that gradually crept over the world below, was the outline of a huge, alien ship.Something from Outside had beat us home.
(Robinson, 1991, p. 328)
Caroti on The Dark and ‘The Oceans are Wide’
Caroti, in The Generation Starship in Science Fiction (2011) makes several strong points about Frank M Robinson’s The Dark Beyond the Stars (1998). This is understandable, particularly because Robinson made a major contribution to the sub-genre of GS narratives with ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (1954), also reproduced and discussed in this site, and then followed that important short story with a more complex novel The Dark Beyond the Stars (1998) forty-eight years later. Caroti notes that The Dark Beyond the Stars (1998) “openly displayed its debt to ‘The Oceans Are Wide'” (Caroti, 2011). Some of Caroti’s points on The Dark and the short story are summarised, below:
- The Dark brings the reader into the GS craft after many generations have passed. By this stage the crew of the Astron apart from the Captain and a few others believe that the Mission is hollow and worthless and that the Astron should return to Earth. There is a feeling that their lives are meaningless continuing the search for life other than their own.
- The crew has evolved complex networks of behaviour over the course of their travels. The crew has become a deeply caring community. The unsuccessful search for new life and their own closed society has given them a respect for life, including strong violence.
- The crew has evolved new and different morals including a prohibition on the taking of a life. They have also lifted taboos on sex. Sexuality in many forms occurs onboard the Astron and it is seen as “the great outlet for pent-up emotions” (Caroti, 2011)
- There are increasing tensions between two factions of the crew. One faction is pro-Earth and want a return while the pro-Dark faction led by the Captain wants to continue exploration into and across ‘the Dark’ a vast stretch of uninhabited space that will take hundreds of years to cross. While there are increasing tensions between these groups, the tension is not manifest in violence, until much later in the novel.
- As with many GS narratives, memory plays a major role. The first-person protagonist, Sparrow, begins to remember details from earlier times, when he was known as someone else. He starts to remember previous lives.
- The Captain, Kusaka, has been alive from the start of the journey, thousands of years before. He is prepared to use deadly force. He is fanatical, driven and Ahab-like in his determination to continue the voyage across the Dark. In this way his continuing memories for thousands of crew over thousands of years seems to have made him unbalanced, even psychotic, willing to do anything to continue the Mission, even if it means the death of all on board.
- Continuing with the major theme of ancient memory and its ramifications for people, when Sparrow remembers his past lives and loves he leads a rebellion against the Captain and eventually kills him. He becomes the Return Captain to take the Astron back to Earth. He now shares thousands of years of memory and he feels the extraordinary lioss of friends, lovers, their children and their distant children, as he survives.
- Caroti sees The Dark Bildungsroman as a in space. He notes the strong parallels between The Dark and ‘The Oceans are Wide’ many years before, both linked as Bildungsroman where a young man is an apprentice to an older man who teaches him the way of the world in all its horror and with all its failures.
- Caroti notes the two narratives are alike, but very different. Caroti believes these differences can be attributed to changes in Science Fiction itself. The first narrative by Robinson ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (1954) is based on what many critics see as the Pulp Magazine time of the great SF editor Gernsback. At this time and under the direction of this editor, Science Fiction seemed to offer many narratives of humans heading out to colonise and conquer space, defeating distance, nature and even alien species to create new worlds for Earth humans, and specifically white, Western male humans. This leads up to and includes the time of stories like ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (1954). However, by 1998, the time of The Deep, Robinson echoes many of the more complex, layered and more sophisticated narratives. This follows the famous editor, John W. Campbell, when colonisation of distant planets and the manifest destiny of the scientific or pseudo-scientific Western man was questioned. Instead, the society of the Astron treasures life itself and is stable and protective.
- In the light of this change in the sort of SF narratives, The Dark does not offer the conquest of a new world where the indigenous inhabitants are tio be eradicated, instead it offer a return to Earth, to treasure life itself. Sardonically, whe the astron does return, finally, it finds an alien intelligence waiting. So, in this way the search for new life succeeds, but only when the astron gives up the search and limps back to Earth.
- Caroti carries this further (2011) by noting that in ‘The Oceans’ the crew and the narrator seem to believe a sort of “faux Darwinian notion” (Caroti, 2011) that would justify the small group of humans colonising a planet already inhabited by an indigenous species. By the time of The Dark, this belief is not held and instead the crew want a simpkly, caring and meaningful life, sharing with others.
- Caroti believes a comparison of the earlier and later GS story by Robinson (1954, 1998) does not show just the changes in the thinking of the author himself, but also provides “a cogently argued Case study of the changes in GS narratives and in Science Fiction as a whole” (Caroti, 2011).
- Finally, in a review of the novel, Olizewski also makes a strong linked point. He notes that Sparrows story as seen in the The Dark “explored what it is to be part of a group, as well as an outsider … Frank M Robinson works out what it means to be human, both with our frailties and our nobilities.” (1998) In this way The Dark is a more complex narrative (as might be expected from a novel) than ‘The Oceans are Wide’ where the protagonist learns to be strategic and ruthless and rules the community unseen, from the background, like a puppeteer. In The Dark, Sparrow is part of a community, needs the community and while he ultimately leads the community back to their desired destination, he feels for them and understands their pain as they pass, and pass, and pass.
The focus questions for the GS Project 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?
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 here are:
- For many readers the most noticeable characteristic of the society within the Astron is the care and respect evident between the vast majority of the crew. Even though Sparrow is a very different crew member, he is treated by others with the care they show for each other, with a few exceptions. The crew has evolved a strong and stable society and this is unusual in a GS narrative. They have formed a community that respects life and its own evolved moral system.
- Also very unusual in GS narratives, sexual mores have been abandoned and a more liberal, tolerant approach encouraged. This can be seen by Sparrow’s strong response to a homosexual liaison, which is finally forced upon him. He learns from others that any sexual advance must be accepted, for the first time and this is very different from his own memories, that come from the time of the Astron’s launch. Also discarded from the beliefs of the original, launch crew is the notion that violence including killing can be condoned for the good of the Mission. The crew of Sparrow’s time, with only a few exceptions, treats life as sacred. Life itself and creating life is one clear belief for the contemporary crew, as seen clearly in the quotes, above, where the festival of conception is treated with the utmost respect.
- The reader joins the GS Astron after many generations of travel. Much of the vast ship has been abandoned or is worn out and malfunctioning, including older hydroponic units to feed the diminished crew. The Captain is aiming the Astron into the Dark. This is widely believed to be a death sentence for the entire crew as the exhausted ship itself dies. Finally, the crew decide to turn away from the Dark and return to Earth, the only place they know their own offspring can survive in a cold and empty galaxy. Does Robinson choose this return to Earth as an argument for the reader to treasure the Earth and life, with new moral codes within a reborn community that cares for each other and the environment? Is The Dark an argument to change ourselves and our attitudes, rather than look for more places for the old, fierce humans to wreck?
Baldick, C. (Editor). (2015). The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Fourth Edition. Oxford University Press : Oxford.
Caroti, S. (2011). The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001. Mcfarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-6067-0.
Chandler, D. & Munday, R. (Editors). (2016) A Dictionary of Media and Communications. Second Edition. Oxford University Press : Oxford.
Harcup, T. (Editor). (2014). A Dictionary of Journalism. Oxford University Press : Oxford.
Olszewski, L. (1998). The Dark Beyond the Stars. In SFsite. Published January 1998. Accessed 9 August 2016 from https://www.sfsite.com/05a/dark32.htm
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. New York: Tor Books.
- Read Robinson’s story ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (1954)
- Read comments and notes about Robinson’s ‘The Oceans are Wide’ (1954)