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There used to be a genre of fiction known by some as “Sea Stories.” The world was a bigger place then, with much of it unmapped and unknown. Men on sailing ships brought back tales of wonder. They came home with strange artifacts from distant lands, and even stranger stories. It was easy to imagine that anything was out there. All a writer had to do was to set a tale in some unknown land across the sea and the imagination could run wild.
The world has gotten smaller since those days. Robert E. Howard, of Conan fame, started out writing Sea Stories. There are the “Tigers of the Sea” collection and the Sailor Steve Costigan stories. However, Howard was working at the tail end of the genre. Many of those stories were later rewritten by him as Conan stories. Howard’s world had already gotten too small and he had to set them in an imaginary past.
The old tales of the sea and tales of space travel have a lot in common. There are space explorers heading out to uncharted space, like Captain Cook and his voyage of discovery. We have travel to exotic ports. Spaceports in S/F have the feel of old sea ports. That makes sense, as anyone on a long voyage will be looking for the same sorts of things. They want good food, drink, and some companionship of the opposite sex. Of course, they are keenly attuned to any business opportunities in the new port. Political intrigue is everywhere.
Sailors or spacemen both have to deal with being strangers in a strange land. (That might make a good book title.) Will the natives be friendly or will they end up in the stew pot? How about dealing with different cultures and languages? Imagine the perils of being shipwrecked. Travel changes everyone, for better or worse.
A common term in S/F is to refer to “Space Navies.” Naval tradition seems to fit space travel better than anything else. Maybe it’s because air and space forces don’t have a long tradition to mine. Just to make things interesting, the US Navy actually has a space command. They know the future is in space so they want a part of it.
Last January, my wife and I launched our small sailboat in the Gulf of Mexico. It occurred to me that owning a sailboat is about as close as I’m ever going to come to owning a spaceship. Think about it; for our journey we had to bring all our consumables with us, food, water, and fuel. (fortunately, we didn’t have to pack air) Our sailboat was a small self contained world, just like a spaceship. We had to live in a confined space, yet we were out in the wide open spaces.
As we set off down the boat channel, my wife said, “We could go anywhere.” I think that’s the feeling that unites the sea and space -the feeling that you could set out for places you’ve never seen before.
The writing market for the old sea stories is long gone, but our sense of adventure still needs to be fed. Let’s set sail for the stars.
mark211 - Really interesting piece, especially the stuff about Robert E Howard that was completely new to me. Maybe one small thing I'd add ... that before man (or woman) sets foot any place, the way has been mapped by stories before they get there. Fiction comes before fact every time.
Gene Roddenberry tried to pitch Star Trek to CBS by calling it "A wagon train to the stars" - so it's appropriate that we're setting sail for the stars. Obviously, Star Trek's ranks are naval in origin. One change in the sea-space stories might be the starngers that we meet, for as mankind begins to mess with our own DNA, the strangers that we meet may be ourselves eventually. A thought-provoking editorial, indeed.
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