The Seedling Stars Analysis
by James Blish

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The Seedling Stars Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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The form of presentation, as a loosely connected series of stories set in various stages of the “seeding program,” does not permit a full discussion of the problems arising from genetic alteration of human beings. Rather, the stories pinpoint some exemplary aspects in the development of pantropy. The appeal of the best story, the classic “Surface Tension,” lies not in the idea of pantropy but in the inherent attraction of minuscule human beings fighting overwhelming environmental odds and winning. Pride in the indestructibility of humankind is the key.

Generally, however, the plots of the stories are not adequate to the theme, and James Blish was not very inventive in his presentation of the kinds of Adapted Men. The beings in “The Thing in the Attic” (adapted to trees) and “Watershed” (adapted to a waterless desert world) are not necessary adaptations. In these stories, humankind does not make itself master of nature but adapts to physical conditions that should have been easy enough to change or adapt to technologically. This is a regression. The first story posits terraforming against pantropy without indicating the obvious objection that pantropy itself might be the most powerful tool of terraforming. Since Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), however, authors have begun at the top, with the most difficult task, alteration of human beings.

Only the last story provides a rationale for the seeding program—the seizure of thousands of worlds that might otherwise have been inaccessible to humans, before aliens can claim those worlds. This is also an irrational point, however, considering that there are no aliens in Blish’s stories. The last story also makes the point that basic humans have become a minority in the galaxy and therefore have no reason for racial pride. The fact that they are a minority might give rise to a feeling of superiority and elitism.

The primary failure of the book is that it never comes to grips with the central issue of what constitutes a human being. It enlarges the scope of the term “humanity” to include Adapted Men, but the definition is still in terms of genes, not of a common history, sentience, or shared psychological traits. When humans and apes are genetically almost identical, should one feel a closer relationship to an ape than to an intelligent alien, a sentient robot, or an artificial intelligence? Blish’s stories raise a number of fascinating points but fail to do justice to a rational definition of humanity.