1975 (Victor Gollancz). This edition 1976, Readers Union Book Club
Some books that haunt you were not ones you originally enjoyed reading. Shipwreck was hard work to read because it tells, in mundane detail, the experience of a man – Isidore Tansis – shipwrecked on an alien world after a nuclear propulsion accident wrecks the spaceship and kills the rest of the crew.
The most striking thing to me is the truely alien nature of the world. It is populated by what could be one type of plant, interconnected around the whole planet and covering it many metres deep in tubes and stalks that only vary slightly by climate. Small protozoa and microrganisms are found in small numbers and strange cubic forms. He finds one form of sea creature; mute cuboid seal-like beings. The dullness and impassiveness of this simple arrangement of lifeforms is baffling, and almost empty of touchpoints, and therefore frightningly different.
The story turns over, day to night, place to place, mundane observation to small curiousity, routine obviation to small advance. There is no big moment. No reveal or terrible danger. The two biggest dramas are being washed up a canal by tide, and a storm that breaks an energy mast.
Rescue isn’t coming. Tansis figures out the likely timeframes depending on his energy sources. He gets on with the work, with quiet determination and resignation – without any Mars-like “Science the shit of this” self-regard. The operation of survival is innate, not self-conscious.
The challenges are frustratingly ordinary. For example, the computer won’t give Tansis control of some of the ship’s capabilities because he doesn’t rank high enough and there’s no proof of what happened to the crew. He has to convince the computer with logic.
He has to analyse the microorganisms to work out their nutrient value, and then work out how to extract those nutrients. He tries to communicate with the mute seals by working out differences in their eyes movements – but is unable to crack the code.
He’s aware of the mental stress. He hallucinates that other crew members are still there – sometimes threatening him. He is lonley. He talks to the computer. This never feels overplayed.
About two thirds through, maybe, it dawned on me. My frustration at the story not going anywhere, was because Tansis was not going anywhere. His successes were too small. The frustrations and failures were small but many, and mounting. He could not secure a future of energy to keep him alive. His options were closing off.
He kept going. Rather than hoping for an end, I began to want him to keep going. I had wanted wanted the author to deliver a discovery but I now knew it wasn’t coming. Air, contaiminated in a way Tansis couldn’t figure – by a kind of pollen – got into the ship. The organic food tanks rot. Still Tansis kept going. He kept going. Weaker, but trying one thing, then another. Then, one day, he puts down the tools and walks out onto a small peninsula. He has decided, but almost imperceptibly to himself and therefore to the reader. But the mute seals seem to know, and they gather as Tansis dies.
This was apparently the only novel Logan wrote. He told a fan that he had written some short stories, but there is no trace of these. Logan was apparently
This appears to be the only novel Logan wrote. He told a fan that he had written some short stories, but there is no record they were published. Logan was apparently a nurse for the mentally handicapped.
It’s a remarkable achievement that this story, so almost deviod of emotion in its telling, or in the insights and behaviour of its only character, is, in the cold reality of the event it depicts, so intensely emotional.
The payoff of the mundane cycle of effort, reward and failure, living alone on an alien world, is a sublime, understated, prosaic death – observed by the universe.