Note: this review is for the novella “The Wreck of the Godspeed”, not the short story collection of the same name. A review of the collection can be found here.
Godspeed, along with being an old fashioned term of good luck, is also the name of the British ship which first brought people (all men, actually) to the US, settling what would become the US’s first official city, Jamestown (or at least so history tells us). A metaphor just waiting to be used, James Patrick Kelly selected it for his 2004 novella The Wreck of the Godspeed. The story of a passenger aboard a search and discovery vessel that continually pushes at the boundary of known space looking for planets humanity can colonize, he takes the metaphor only so far, however. Given the religious commentary, perhaps the Mayflower might have been a better choice? (I ask jokingly.)
Wreck of the Godspeed is the story of the pilgrim Adle Santos. Winner of a church essay contest, his reward is to be teleported to the Godspeed. Captained by an A.I. nicknamed Speedy, Adle’s first days onboard are anything but standard. Raised in a conservative family, he is soon enough participating in pleasures he’d never imagined. But on a spacewalk one day, a fellow crew member makes him aware of certain anomalies in reality as explained by Speedy, as well as the Continuum they are in contact with on their home planets. Doubt and uncertainty brewing inside Adle’s head thereafter, the Godspeed eventually ‘wrecks’ in a way his fears never allowed.
While John Clute calls Wreck of the Godspeed Kelly’s homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: Space Odyssey, I see the novella as possessing more parallels to Brian Aldiss’ Non-stop or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun. While not a standard generation starship story, Wreck nevertheless sees humanity going where it has never gone before to inhabitat, and tackles profound ontological questions similar to Aldiss and Wolfe’s stories. As Adle learns more about the situation aboard ship, in particular the details of the lives of previous passengers, the changes Speedy’s personality has undergone, and other finer points of setting, it becomes apparent that the reality of the situation may not be, in fact, actual reality, and coming to terms with this new reality will require as much personal input as revelation from whatever reality is. Certainly pushing at the evolution of mankind among the stars is an element, but Kelly’s story seems far more personal than a simple Clarke homage.
Extending beyond questions of existence, Kelly also includes religious allusions. Where Wolfe uses his generation ship to create a scenario in support of Catholicism, Kelly uses his to deconstruct the form of Christianity. Plus and Minus (a virtual angel and devil Adle had implanted in his consciousness as a youth), the rote recitation of Shakespeare, Lina’s religious devotion, a certain “state of existence” at the climax, as well as other aspects, all point to the ship and the cultures and beliefs of the crew members as metaphors for what appears Catholicism. Adle’s story one of a crisis of conscience, and the subsequent resolution thereof, the unraveling of reality serves the title in more ways than one. (The religious commentary may be pointed, but at no time does Kelly outright slam the religion, instead letting the Adle’s story and the images at work speak for themselves.)
In the end, Wreck of the Godspeed is space drama with more depth than the words conjure. Utilizing a (semi)generation starship setup, Kelly proceeds to intertwine the personalities of the crew members, the AI captain, and the backgrounds they come from to represent aspects of, and questions regarding, Catholicism and existence—the conclusion playing out in symbolic terms. As such, it falls right in line with other Kelly stories, and would be enjoyed as such.