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Friday, October 17, 2014

The Tensions in "Surface Tension"

 This is an essay I wrote for my LIT 166 (Science Fiction) class.  We were to take one of the short stories assigned in our reading and research what was going on in the world at the time of its publication - what scientific advancements were being made, what cultural events were occurring - and to "reflect" on these in light of the story.  I chose to write about James Blish's short story "Surface Tension.

The science and technology represented in the sci-fi short story “Surface Tension” by James Blish, first published in the August 1952 edition of Galaxy Science Fiction, was well ahead of the scientific realities of the world outside of the pages of that science fiction digest.  And though Blish may have outreached the science of his time (and ours still today) his extrapolations of the various tensions between science and faith are fantastic. 

Blish wrote of great interstellar crafts carrying men and women to far distant parts of the universe carrying human colonists as well along with all that they would need to “seed” the new planet with life. 

In 1952 however, the exploration of space had only just begun.  Building upon the technologies developed by German scientists during World War II for the V-2 rockets, The United States (as well as the Soviet Union) developed and launched a number of sub-orbital “sounding rockets” – research rockets like the Aerobee and the Viking rockets, designed to reach a height of 50 – 1,500 kilometers above the earth’s surface and carrying recording instruments, scientific tests, a various kinds of animals – including chimps, mice and dogs (Gray 1).

When Blish published his story of interstellar travel, mankind hadn’t yet travelled into space. Indeed, no Earth based life form would reach orbit until 1957 – with the Soviet launch of the canine cosmonaut, Laika into orbit around the planet. 

If the space travel of his story far exceed the abilities of his time, the panspermic / evolutionary / genetic manipulation program of his interstellar colonists must have seemed like an impossible dream.  And still seems so 62 years later. 

But “Surface Tension” isn’t really about the science and technology necessary for interstellar travel or the transfer and modification of “human germ cells…toward creatures who can live in any reasonable environment” (Blish 8). Perhaps this is why Blish gives no details about the technology or process, but only describes the results.  “Surface Tension” is not about the science, but the effects of science, and the tensions created between scientific exploration and religious faith. 

The microscopic humanoid creatures created by the panotrope adaptions of human genetic material to the indigenous life found on the watery planet Hydrot are given a record of scientific information, micro-engraved on corrosion proof metal leaves.  In the course of their development these creatures credit the records with religious significance and there is division among them as to whether these documents are myths to be discarded or science to be trusted.

Religious faith (Christianity and Judaism in particular) in America during the 1950s tended toward the fundamentalist.  This trend had been developing since the 1920s and the publication of “The Doctrinal Statement of the World Conference on Christian Fundamentals” (Moody 382). The fundamentalism so prevalent then held a firm belief that the sacred scriptures were authoritative, and infallible and inerrant. The tension between this kind of belief and scientific exploration is described somewhat in Blish’s story.

There was also a strong backlash from Fundamentalists against the theory of Evolution.  The idea that biological life-forms could engineered and modified according to some sort of evolutionary pattern would have been provocative and very controversial in that time.

One tension that is not addressed in Blish’s short story is that of the problems of colonialism.  The human characters met in the first pages of “Surface Tension” are presented as noble explorers, valiantly adapting human life to strange conditions of faraway planets in a program establish human colonies throughout the galaxy. 

During the 1950s the last vestiges of the European colonial empires began to crumble – often violently and painfully.  From Algiers in North Africa to Vietnam is South East Asia, colonized people began to call and agitate for their independence from European nations.  The transition from colony to free nation often resulted in open warfare, but even where it didn’t there was much political corruption and violence and turmoil.

Blish may have been a visionary in some regards, dreaming of interstellar travel and genetic panatropes capable of transferring some quintessential essence of human life to other alien life forms, but if Blish could have been as forward thinking in the political spheres as he was in the scientific, “Surface Tension” would have been a very different story.  Perhaps the human colonists of the far distant planets would have been presented as being less cavalier about imposing human adaptions to the newly discovered life forms.

Blish, James “Surface Tension,” Galaxy Science Fiction, Vol. 4. No. 5. New York. 1952.
Gray, Tara. "Animals in Space." Animals in Space. NASA, 2 Aug. 2004. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.
Moody Bible Institute, “The Doctrinal Statement of the World Conference on Christian
Fundamentals.” The Christian Workers Magazine Vol. 20 Chicago, IL, 1920.

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