Tuesday, March 11, 2008

James Blish's "Surface Tension" aka "Lavon" (novelette, science fiction, free): Redesigning humans for colonizing hostile planets!

Quote from short story titled Surface Tension by James BlishFantastic concept. Great start. But much of the story came across as yet another version of a society gone to primitive times & now rediscovering wonders of technology. But it's set in an extremely exotic locale.

Free SF Reader gives this link to an MP3 version of this story. I've not heard this audio version.

Story summary.

In this era of faster than light travel, humans have been colonizing space by a rather exotic means: send a "seedship" to an earth-like world, create new life forms adapted to live on that world but still essentially humans - basically reengineering the body but not the thought processes or thinking ability. Ensure these locally adapted "humans" will survive, & the ship goes off to repeat the process on next world.

One such ship ("la Ventura") has just landed, or rather crashed, on the world called Hydrot, in Tau Ceti system. It's a waterworld - "only one small, triangular continent, set amid endless ocean; and even the continent was mostly swamp." Crew know they are doomed; cannot get help - communications gear is gone.

Their "germ cell bank" is gone too, so "can't seed this place in the usual way". They won't last a month - the air is poisonous. They will "be able to populate this world with men, but ... won't live to see it." They must create local versions of humans that can survive, & then rediscover their humanity in due course. The world has a lot of local life - but none that is intelligent.

Panatropes (machines for this reenginnering of humans) "take human germ cells - in this case, our own, since our bank was wiped out in the crash - & modify them toward creatures who can live in any reasonable environment. The result will be man & intelligent. It usually shows the donor's personality pattern too, since the modifications are usually made mostly in the morphology, not so much in the mind, of the resulting individual.

... The adapted man is worse than a child in his new environment. He has no history, no techniques, no precedents, not even a language. Ordinarily the seeding teams more or less take him through elementary school before they leave the planet, but we won't survive long enough for that. We'll have to design our colonists with plenty of built in protections and locate them in the most favorable environment possible, so that at least some of them will survive the learning process.

... One of the new creatures can have my personality pattern, but it won't be able to remember being me...

... There may be just the faintest of residuums... we'll leave behind people who behave as we would, think and feel as we would, but who won't remember la Ventura, ... - or Earth."

They choose to create the local humans as microscopic shallow fresh-water-inhabiting life forms - an individual about 500 microns in size! Adapted for puddles & lakes of this swamp. They will be equipped with limbs to make & use tools etc. These descendants of humans will eventually have to come out of water again, the way our ancestors once did!

Crew of ship also leave corrosion resistant metal plates with text that tells the story of humans & how locals came to be. Hoping the descendants will some day figure it out & eventually claim their rightful place in the bigger star-faring community of humans.

That's may be first 10% of the story. Rest of it is the story of these microscopic water-borne humans. They have survived & thrived, have discovered tools & agriculture, medicine & pets, have subdued hostile natives, etc. They have decoded parts of ancient plates left by colonists, though some are lost; but these texts are treated with skepticism by practical people.

Lavon, hero of the story, will lead the discovery of the world above water - & dreams of eventually figuring out if the little lights in the night sky are indeed stars mentioned in the ancient plates.

Collected in.

  1. David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (Ed)'s "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF".
  2. Robert Silverberg (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964".

Fact sheet.

First published: Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1952.
Rating: A
Download MP3 audio from Internet Archive. Disclaimer: I've'nt heard this one. [via Free SF Reader].
Related: Stories of James Blish; fiction from 1950s.


Anonymous said...

This story has stuck in my mind for years. I finally figured out the title and then the author. The Internet makes it so much easier to find lost stories. Surface Tension is a wonderful story.

harsha said...

This is really fantabulous story . I believe strongly that if a movie based on this story is filmed , surely it'll find a place in the top 10 hollywood list .

I wow to James Blish for his innovative thoughts.