Silverberg’s Ship-Sister, Star-Sister

I sought out this 1973 short story because of how it led a friend to discover Go.

Almost three decades ago my friend read this work, and with no Internet and no visiblity of Go in the West,  assumed the game described was fictional. Silverberg does sketch the game to some degree of detail, and my friend designed his own imagining of Go, on a 19-by-19 board with black and white stones. This game had its own version of “fortress-like” eyes, capture, atari and ko, but still felt clunky and somehow flawed. One day my friend was watching a science program on TV; it depicted a Japanese scientist relaxing at the lab, with a familiay board nearby: in an instant  he recognised the wooden grid and the white and black stones and realised that the game actually existed. He scoured his school library and was very fortunate to find a book; he went through the phone directory and happened upon an entry for the city’s Go club. Over the next four years, he learned Go, getting a lift to the club each week and made it to Shodan (equivalent to a black-belt, which is amazing).

Anyway, Silverberg describes a crew on a ship travelling through “nospace”, a medium of superluminal travel that inspires feelings of spiritual transcendence. They are searching for inhabitable worlds to settle upon; this is for the curiosity of Earth rather than any great stakes such as survival. The crew maintains instantaneous contact with our homeworld via telepathically linked twins. Go is the latest craze to sweep the ship, and Noelle, the twin upon the ship, asks the captain to teach the game to her.

As previously mentioned, Silverberg goes into quite some detail about the rules of Go (though it has in essence  an extremely simple ruleset) but the game isn’t tied strongly into the plot. It is interesting to see the role Go takes in the story: it mirrors the development of a relationship between two characters, and is simultaneously a hermetic refuge and intellectual podium for one of them. The first thirty moves of a game (it seemed realistic to me) plus a fragment of commentary on its outcome are interjected into the text.

Initially, it’s just slightly unusual that the story is written in the present tense, but a fractured stream-of-consciousness style intrudes more and more through the story: first a dream sequence, then second-person narration, internal monologue, flash literary analogues, the above Go moves, and then almost free-association through neurological anatomic terminology. Despite its unevenness, I enjoyed this effect, as a kind of reality-breaking crescendo that matches the direction of the story.

Nevertheless, Silverberg falls prey to the standard flaws of science fiction writing: character interactions are stilted, too direct and intimate and then suddenly impersonal; dialogue is all grand concepts and no management of social image; motivations are abstract and lack emotional depth; decisions with massive consequences are taken instantly; and Silverberg’s language is at times very awkward.

The storyline was too brief for my tastes, with the major problem being resolved in a couple of pages of accelerating events, and other threads left mostly potential.

I enjoyed the Silverberg’s Ship-Sister Star-Sister, but in a very idiosyncratic way.


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