Titans' Daughter
by James Blish

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

expanded from —
"Beanstalk", Future Tense, edited by Kendall Foster Crossen, 1952
"Giants in the Earth", Science Fiction Stories, January 1956
"Beanstalk". Galactic Cluster (British edition), 1960

Berkley: New York, 1961
142 pages

with an introduction by Virginia Kidd —
Avon: New York, 1981
143 pages

November 2011

Missing fire, or the absent Prometheus

I was rereading the other day in Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction, and admired the acuity and was impressed by the praise which Knight lavishes on James Blish's novella "Beanstalk", of which Titans' Daughter is an expansion. I first read the novel when I was a teenager, so I thought I'd give it another try.

Titans' Daughter is about the first generation of genetically engineered supermen and -women, chromosome-doubled "tetraploid" as opposed to "diploid" ordinary folks. These "tetras" are several feet taller, smarter, stronger, and likely to be much longer-lived. These are quantitative differences, though, most visibly in the height which so obviously marks them as other-than-us. What we do not see is anything markedly different qualitatively, any exciting new talents or supranormal intelligence or other emergent properties to suggest a further stage of humanity. Instead we get little that advanced medicine might not give us in the bodies and lives we have, without going to the trouble of bioengineering a new breed or at least a new subspecies.

Hoping to see Blish's approach to the exotic potentials of the transhuman, instead we are given a few dozens of a race of Big Folks, mostly working at the university whose researcher brought them forth. It's not fair to say that these are Goliaths rather than Titans; but they surely do seem like a bunch of smart basketball players being passed off as the Next Big Thing for mankind. Any born slan or outfitted Lensman would look up at them and into their minds and wonder what was the big deal.

Given these limitations, the theme of Titans' Daughter — gifted outsiders in a suspicious society — fails to sharpen to the anguish of Painted Birds among the drabs, but waddles along like awkward Big Birds on a campus of confused Muppets. The high-risk gladiatorial-stadium exhibition games are not well realized and do not move the story forward. Most of the real conflict turns out to be among the Titans themselves, which would be fine if they did anything especially exotic or striking; but they don't.

Damon Knight is correct in calling attention to many little felicities of phrase with which Blish brightens his story, and a few of these sparkle; but I am less impressed with some structural tricks which Knight admires. Unfortunately the Titans' ambitions, risks, loves, or fates do not rise much out of a chronicle that we merely read, into fictional lives that we sympathize with and care about. It is symptomatic of Blish's dryness here that the title character Sena Carlin, the young woman Titan who is the story's most engaging person, spends most of the novel offstage.

Titans' Daughter is a readable novel, but far less than it might have been. There is a lot of labored detail, but scarcely anything visionary to justify it. For collectors of James Blish, or aficionados of misfired attempts to strike into the rarefied atmosphere of the human potential.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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