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Abernathy, Robert – “Axolotl” (1954)

12/10/2013

Started off seeming like an exercise in the kind of hyper-realist early spaceflight story that does nothing for me, but took an abrupt turn into something far more interesting. The story is interspersed with italicized text describing the maturation of the axolotl into the tiger salamander – in reality, these are two separate species, although the axolotl does look a lot like the tiger salamander larva. Interestingly, the axolotl can be artificially provoked into undergoing a similar metamorphosis, which drastically shortens their lifespan – this would lend a very dark twist to the end of this story if I thought that it was what Abernathy was hinting at, but I think he just got his amphibians wrong.

Anyway: Jim Linden is set to realize his lifelong dream of being the first person to experience free fall for more than a few seconds. He is supported in this endeavor by Marty the engineer, who knows and relates to the “hard, metallic souls” of machines, and opposed by Ruth, his fiance, who worries that “cosmic rays” will mutate any potential children they might have. He insists that she isn’t being logical.

The rocket that will take him into space has been consistently alienated by the narrative, which describes it as alien, not made for this world, and anxious to be gone. One Linden is on-board and ready to go, though, we switch to birthing and evolutionary metaphors, with him cradled in (amniotic) fluid and then leaving the sea for the air, as it were.

Once he wakes up in space, though, Ruth’s warnings about “cosmic rays” turn out to have been rather prescient:

“His hands clawed for support and found none. The myriad mirrored stars seemed to flare into novas and whirl around him. A voice screamed hoarsely, that must be his own, for there was no other human being in all space. He was falling down, down, and down into dizzy and searing darkness…” and he freaks out, smashes the instruments in his shuttle, breaks open the airlock door, and passes out again, before shedding his larval state, losing his fingernails so that his fingertips become more mobile, altering the machinery of his ship in ways incomprehensible to a human mind, and beginning to hear the voices of Earth and the stars. Space, he now understands, isn’t a road to other planets, but a “sea of unguessable shores” where he belongs. He contacts Marty and Ruth telepathically to spread the word that he isn’t dead, but evolved, and that the latter should join him as soon as another ship is built:

“For a long time the biologists have been telling us that man is a fetal throwback, a sort of embryo that grows old without ever truly maturing. Now I’ve found out why: the conditions of maturity, the destiny that we are created for, don’t exist on Earth…We’ll meet beyond the Moon, and all the stars of space will be around us. Our children will have suns for playthings…”

This idea that humans are stuck in a kind of endless larval stage that’s later broken for one man pops up a few decades later in Larry Niven’s Known Space stories.

Between this and “Heirs Apparent” I’m surprised Abernathy is a relatively forgotten name – per ISFDB he appears to have published stories regularly throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, stopping abruptly in 1956, with one odd outlier in 1978 (which might just be a translation of an earlier story into Italian?). He never published any novels, and no collections of his work have been issued. This biographical snippet has him hoping finish his Ph.D soon after 1950 and Clute’s encyclopedia has him as a professor of Slavic languages, so presumably his SF stories were a hobby that fell by the wayside.

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