“The Mile-Long Spaceship” by Kate Wilhelm – Classics of Science Fiction

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Group Read 72: The Best Science Fiction Stories of 1957

“The Mile-Long Spaceship” by Kate Wilhelm #03 of 20 (Read)

I’ve read “The Mile-Long Spaceship” before, in The Great SF Stories 19 (1957) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I read it again today as it appeared in the April 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Then reread it again. I’m still not sure I got exactly what Wilhelm intended. I’m especially confused by the ending. I tried finding reviews of this story, but only found a couple, and neither reviewer seemed to care much for this tale and didn’t dwell on understanding it. However, Richard A. Lupoff liked the story so much that he picked it for his collection What If? an anthology of stories he believed should have won a Hugo for the years 1952-1958.

“The Mile-Long Spaceship” is about telepathy. Allan Norbett had a car accident, and while he was in a coma for six days, his mind roamed the galaxy, and he found a mile-long spaceship. That’s one explanation. Another is, while Allan Norbett was in a coma, aliens in a mile-long spaceship made telepathic contact with him, and that made Allan believe his mind roamed the galaxy while he was in a coma. There’s a subtle difference there, but it might matter.

The story’s third person point of view shifts back and forth between closely following Allan when he’s conscious back on Earth, when his mind is traveling around the galaxy, and closely following the aliens on the mile-long spaceship.

From Allan’s perspective, he’s having some wild dreams. But when he’s dreaming, he enjoys speeding around the galaxy with an eye-less perspective. Allan thinks this mind viewing is better than eye viewing because he sees a broader field of view that is sharper and more detailed.

However, when we’re with the aliens on the mile-long spaceship, we’re listening to a conversation between the captain, astrogator, telepath, psychologist, and ethnologist. The captain is anxious to find Earth because he believes his race must always be the superior race and plans to make us their slaves. The astrogator struggles to find where Earth is located from what the telepath can read in Allan’s mind. Allan doesn’t know much about astronomy. The psychologist wants to interpret the telepath’s reports as if they were analyzing the chaotic dreams of an inferior species. The ethnologist also tries to understand our civilization from what the telepath reports of Allan’s memory of our history. However, the telepath feels Allan is more evolved than what the captain wants to believe or what the psychologist assumes to be true, but neither will believe him.

The reason I wonder if Allan is mentally space traveling on his own is because he sees things when the mile-long spaceship isn’t around. I was never sure if he had that power, or if the telepath was putting those scenes into his mind.

Eventually, the aliens get Allan to watch lessons on astronomy using a three-dimensional screen, but Allan gets bored. So, the captain orders the telepath to secretly suggest to Allan to study astronomy. However, when Allan gets out of the hospital, he takes night courses in atomic energy.

When the captain hears this, we get this ending: “Quietly the captain rolled off a list of expletives that would have done justice to one of the rawest space hands. And just as quietly, calmly, and perhaps, stoically, he pushed the red button that began the chain reaction that would completely vaporize the mile-long ship. His last breath was spent in hoping the alien would awaken with a violent headache. He did.”

I can’t make absolute sense of this ending.

Why would this captain blow up his ship? At one point Wilhelm says they might be a million light years away, so the mile-long spaceship would not even be in the Milky Way galaxy. Has the captain decided that Allan has been spying on them, inspiring him to study atomic weapons?

“The Mile-Long Spaceship” deals with one of the major science fiction themes of the 1950s, telepathy. And it’s also about first contact, a major subtheme.

Starting in the 1930s and peaking in the 1950s, science fiction often portrayed advanced intelligences as having telepathy or ESP (extrasensory powers). Sometimes this is referred to as psionics. Did the captain of the mile-long spaceship suddenly realize that they had discovered a race of beings with latent ESP? On the mile-long spaceship, only the telepath has psionic power, and its apparently only telepathy. Allan seems to have the ability to see at a distance, which could be a more powerful talent.

Personally, in our real world, I believe ESP is pure fantasy. But it does make for some wonderful science fiction stories. My favorite of such stories is Time for the Stars (1956) by Robert A. Heinlein. In that story, Heinlein proposes that twins could have telepathy, and that telepathy isn’t affected by Einstein’s speed limit. In Heinlein’s fictional future, we build slower-than-light spaceships, and make one twin a crew member, and the other a receiver back on Earth. Or put one twin on one spaceship and the second on another spaceship. This creates what Ursula K. Le Guin did with her concept of the ansible.

In “The Mile-Long Spaceship” telepathy is evidently instantaneous, like how Heinlein imagined. Of course, not much is explained. Why doesn’t the telepath on the mile-long spaceship hear the voices of billions when he’s listening in on Earth? This is why I think Wilhelm is suggesting that Allan has mental powers and finds the mile-long spaceship, and that’s when the telepath detects him.

Wilhelm’s story is also a first contact story, and she mentions this old issue: Do we want an intelligent species from another star system to know we’re here? Since the captain blows up his ship, he’s obviously afraid that Allan will discover their existence and home world. But from Allan perspective, he was just having vivid dreams. The telepath knew that, but he didn’t convince the captain not to press the self-destruct button.

Evidently, the captain felt any possibility was too much of a risk. This reminds me of the film Oppenheimer when General Groves overhears scientists taking bets on whether the first atomic bomb will set off a chain reaction that will ignite the world. Oppenheimer explains to the panic general that the likelihood is near zero, but not zero.

The captain obviously thought the chances of us finding them was not zero, so he’s takes no chances. Now that’s my interpretation. But I’m not confident with it because Wilhelm never explains why.

What’s interesting is science fiction seldom deals with ESP anymore. It’s still used mostly in comic books and fantasy, but not very often in science fiction. Nor do we worry as much about giving away Earth’s location in first contact stories.

A whole monograph could be written on ESP/Psionics in science fiction, and another on first contact stories. I believe the public became skeptical of ESP after scientific studies investigating it produced zero evidence And nowadays, first contact stories are usually about the problem of overcoming language barriers, spreading microbes, or conflicting cultures and psychologies. I wonder if we’re less paranoid?

James Wallace Harris, 3/15/24

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