[Reading Room] The Death Ship by Richard Matheson

It’s tough to read Matheson’s stories now because his are the quintessential Twilight Zone type story (they were turned into several of the best TZ episodes) and have been ripped off, parodied and lovingly copied so many times that they feel cliched.

But concentrating on that takes away from the exquisite, concise, clear writing, characterization and big ideas of the original material. He really is a tremendously good writer.

His stories contain big ideas, thoughtfully dealt with in crisp prose that I could read until the end of time.

The Death Ship

This story was adapted into an early Twilight Zone episode. It comes from the early days of space exploration, when ideas were big and facts in short supply. Some of the assumptions in the story are suspect by today’s scientific standards, but that was never what these early sci-fi stories were about. (You know, unless they were written by Arthur C. Clarke, who also had a hand in inventing Radar, so he’s a bit of a special case.)

In this story three men in a space ship survey new planets, looking for new homes for the humans from the chronically overcrowded Earth. When they go down to investigate a particular planet, things start to get weird.

From that point on, the story is a purely about human nature and drama, with the space-faring backdrop becoming fairly unimportant.

That’s one of the things I find irresistible about science fiction. The writers hook you with the setting, with the gadgets and the ‘what ifs’, but then all the best stories end up being about the human condition.

They do what art is supposed to do: make life look a little bit strange, so that we can reassess our own position towards it. No matter which side of the political shouting match you’re on, it seems like that’s something our civilization could us at the moment, don’t you think?

What setting or story type could you use to reel in a reader who needs to see part of their own life with fresh eyes?

Read the story in The Time Traveler’s Almanac

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