Preamble: Welcome to the first installment of my regular roundup of the best science fiction stories ever written. Once or twice a month, I’ll select one of many great science fiction short stories (under 7,500 words), science fiction novelettes (7,500-17,500 words), or sci-fi novellas (17,500-40,000 words), briefly summarize it, and talk about why I think it’s a great story.
Full disclosure: there are major spoilers ahead. If you don’t want to see the spoilers, skip the “WHAT IT’S ABOUT” section. You have been warned, Earthling.
So! Straight to business—the short science fiction story “All the Way Back.”
WHO WROTE IT: Michael Shaara
WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED: Astounding Science Fiction (which later became Analog Science Fiction & Fact), 1952
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: After being teased with a short excerpt from a tome of galactic history concerning the Antha, an all-powerful race of beings who once ruled the galaxy but then died out, we begin the story. Two human spacemen from Earth are exploring the inner reaches of the galaxy. They are the vanguard of human civilization, which has found precious few planets to colonize in the outer arms of the Milky Way and desperately seeks to expand to new frontiers. As the two spacemen explore the seventh and final system on their itinerary, they are unaware that they are being watched by a patrol ship from the Galactic Federation, a league of alien species which controls most of the galactic core. When it becomes clear that the two human explorers are looking for a planet to colonize, the alien patrol ship follows them down to a habitable planet’s surface. The alien captain, Roymer, disguises himself as human and, with help from a telepathic translator, approaches the two human men and begins telling them the story of the Antha: how they arose in “the desert,” the farthest reaches of the galaxy where there are hardly any planets, and violently expanded outward, ravaging everything in their path. The spacemen are amazed and humbled. Roymer explains that the Antha achieved amazing technological progress in relatively little time, but misused their power, bloodily conquering the fringes of galactic space and finally attacking the Federation itself. Roymer recounts, with mingled horror and admiration, how the Antha—a single race, alone—managed to fight the myriad united races of the galactic core to a standstill. It was only after the Galactic Federation created the ultimate weapon (capable of turning any star into a hypernova at a distance) that the Federation managed to defeat the Antha. One by one the conquered worlds of the Antha were vaporized, and the Antha themselves slaughtered by the millions. They were almost completely eradicated, vanishing into the mists of history. The human spacemen listen to this story with a combination of puzzlement, anger, and mounting horror. One of them almost grasps the significance of what he’s hearing before Roymer apologizes and has his men (hidden in the foliage surrounding the human’s landing zone) execute the two Earthlings.
By now, we (the audience) have understood that the Antha are human beings, Earthlings who once commanded a great star-empire and committed the most hideous of atrocities against conquered alien races before being defeated by the Galactic Federation, beaten so thoroughly that we lost our technology and collective knowledge and became primitive tribesmen once again. Roymer ruefully reflects that, despite this enormous setback, it took only 30,000 years for humanity to claw its way back out of primitiveness, develop spaceflight, and come all the way back (title drop!).
BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS: Ever heard of the Fermi paradox? Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi (who, coincidentally, was heavily involved in the Manhattan Project) famously wondered why humanity has never encountered extraterrestrial life. He reasoned that, with so many billions of soft-burning suns and rocky, aerated planets out there, the galaxy ought to be swarming with life. Yet humanity hasn’t seen hide nor hair of an alien, ever. For all our searching, human beings have not found one credible shred of evidence of extraterrestrial life. The galaxy is one big bucket of mysterious silence and emptiness. This egregious contradiction is what became known as Fermi’s paradox. Shaara ingeniously thought of a way to account for this contradiction in “All the Way Back.”
Despite having cheerfully and energetically helped the United States develop nuclear weapons during World War II, Fermi grew concerned about humanity’s ability to make wise choices later in his life:
History of science and technology has consistently taught us that scientific advances in basic understanding have sooner or later led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionized our way of life. It seems to me improbable that this effort to get at the structure of matter should be an exception to this rule. What is less certain, and what we all fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires over nature.
In “All the Way Back,” Shaara takes the idea of “sufficiently adult” and runs with it. Though the ending is ambiguous (the Galactic Federation may eventually discover the Antha home world and finally destroy them—or maybe, just maybe, broker a lasting peace), Shaara implies that humanity is too cruel and drunk on its own power to survive as part of the galactic community.
WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT: America made itself a superpower in 1945, after dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ending World War II. The Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1949, and that’s when the Cold War really got into gear. “All the Way Back” was published in 1952, when the threat of catastrophic full-scale nuclear war was very real. Shaara’s story, as veteran sci-fi publisher and editor Jim Baen points out, is a thermonuclear holocaust writ large. Humanity starts an interplanetary nuke war, loses, and then rises from its own ashes, forgetful of history and probably dooming itself to make the same mistake twice. The story blew my mind for three reasons. First, I’d always wondered about Fermi’s paradox myself, and this story addressed it directly. Second, I was fascinated by the ideas presented in the story: that the current human civilization in which you and I live isn’t the first human civilization ever to have arisen, and that Earth might not even be humanity’s home planet, just the one that we retreated to after getting our butts kicked by the Galactic Federation. Finally, this story takes the usual “evil alien invasion” plot and turns it on its head, making humans the bad guys, cruel ravagers of worlds. I was young when I first read the tale and I wasn’t used to stories where intrepid human spacemen died such a sudden and violent death at the end, either.
After rereading this story to prepare to write this blog post, I was struck by how subtly and skillfully it’s written. Shaara manages to get his point across without being preachy, or trying to impose a sense of guilt upon the reader. He merely presents the story, raises a question, and wryly hints at an answer, letting the reader’s imagination take over from there. And that’s what the best sci-fi stories do: they make some profound comment on the human condition, yes, but they don’t bludgeon you over the head with it. “All the Way Back” is a none-too-subtle commentary on human nature and the bleak consequences that become possible when humanity’s technological development outstrips its spiritual growth.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Science fiction stories which concern the looming specter of a thermonuclear apocalypse may seem passé now that the Cold War is over. But with the current US administration and North Korea rattling their sizable sabers at one another across the Pacific Ocean, and with stories about human barbarism, cruelty, and excess in the headlines every single day, “All the Way Back” has lost none of its potency.
WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: Shaara’s story happily found its way into the pages of The World Turned Upside Down, which you can find on Amazon and in numerous bookstores. Unlike most other science fiction short story compilations (which sententiously claim to be “objective”), The World Turned Upside Down is delightfully and unapologetically subjective. Veteran sci-fi editor Jim Baen and his two top writers, Eric Flint and David Drake, came together to edit this very special compilation. In its pages are stories the three men read when they were young, stories which got them hooked on science fiction—tales that turned their worlds upside down. Shaara’s story joins dozens of others—some well known, others not so much—which speak of worlds, ideas, and imaginings beyond humanity’s wildest dreams. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s (subjectively) the best short sci-fi story compilation I’ve ever read. It also served as my introduction to A.E. van Vogt, who I’m sure I’ll be talking about on this blog later.
WHAT IT INSPIRED: While “All the Way Back” has not, to my knowledge, ever been adapted for the screen, Michael Shaara himself is indirectly responsible for creating one of geekdom’s favorite sci-fi franchises. I am speaking, of course, of Firefly. In 1974, Michael Shaara wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, which tells the story of the four-day Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. The novel inspired screenwriter and director Joss Whedon to create Firefly and its feature film tie-in Serenity, which have a loyal following of “Browncoats” tens of thousands strong. The title of Shaara’s novel originates with one of its main characters, J.L. Chamberlain, who recalls his father reciting a verse from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man…in action how like an angel!” Chamberlain’s father then quips, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.”