As I’ve already reviewed one of the other stories in the Federations anthology, I thought I would review “The Shoulders of Giants” written by Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer.
This story was the lead story in Star Colonies, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers, of DAW books, which was published in June 2000. It was a finalist for the Aurora Award, as the Best English-Language Short Story for 2000. It has since been reprinted in Federations (2009), edited by John Joseph Adams. The text for the story is also available on Sawyer’s website, and has also been included in Robert J. Sawyer’s short story collection Iterations, published by Red Deer Press in 2002.
The title of this story is an allusion to the words most famously written by Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676. The phrase can be attributed even earlier, as in 1159, John of Salisbury attributed this phrase to Bernard, a scholar in Chartes.
When one reads science fiction, it’s often easy to see only the future, without considering the impact of the past. Science fiction actually has more of a claim on tradition, as it pays homage to many great scientific theories and figures.
Sawyer’s story was not quite what I had first expected. There are no physical confrontations. When the people of earth aboard the Pioneer Spirit arrive at their destination in Tau Ceti after 1200 years in cyrogenic transport, they do not find alien beings, but instead other humans. As Sawyer notes, “while the colonists aboard the Pioneer Spirit had slept, some dreaming at an indolent pace, other ships had zipped past them, arriving at Tau Ceti decades, if not centuries, earlier — Long enough ago that they’d already built human cities on Soror.”
The theme that Sawyer presents is both ambitious and modest. The pioneers reached for the stars when they were first within grasp. They reached their objective, only to find their achievements eclipsed by the ones who follow. Sawyer pays homage to the greats authors of science fiction who came before, “Asimov, Clarke, Clement, Herbert, Niven, and all the others upon whose shoulders the SF writers of my generation are fortunate enough to stand.” More than just paying respects to the past, it’s an acknowledgement of the importance of reaching for the stars. Without those few giants among us, there would be no stepping stones for future generations.
It’s an appropriate story for this anthology, which John Joseph Adams notes in his introduction to the anthology that writers such as Sawyer “are keeping the tradition alive, building on what the generations before have laid out, innovating to keep the sub-genre fresh and vital”.