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April 14, 2011

After John Masefield

I must out to the black again, to the bleak back-worlds and the war,
And all I ask is a good ship and a star to steer her for,
And the launch-pad and the take-off and the drive core spinning,
And the grey earth far behind me, and the grey clouds thinning.

I must out to the black again, for the war that is raging yet
Is my own fight and my friends’ fight, and I will not forget
The laser-burst like a lightning-flash off Orion’s shoulder,
And the death-throes and the death-knells as the shipwrecks smoulder.

I must out to the black again, to the wandering width of the void,
To the star-way and the sun-wind and the dust of things destroyed;
And all I ask is a moment’s peace as the last of the memories lingers,
And a road far from the long reach of the old war’s fingers.


This one is a pastiche on, or homage to, or one of the myriad other poetic sins covered by the weaselly term ‘after’, John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever”. And while I wouldn’t call this fanfiction for any particular canon per se – within sci-fi there are, after all, many wanderers and many wars – there is a great deal of Firefly, and specifically of Mal Reynolds, in it. “The black” seems to me not just a descriptive term for deep space but also, speaking through its connotations of blackout and to black out and so forth, evocative of that particular genre wherein space is primarily conceived of not as an exciting and dynamic space for adventure, but as a bleak and scary wasteland that people traverse by necessity – even if some of them end up enjoying it.*

Line seven echoes a famous line from Blade Runner.

The metre of ‘Sea-Fever’, incidentally, is simple enough to hit when speaking – and has a mesmeric lilt to it that does indeed recall the sea – but the very devil to reproduce. I ended up copying the poem and marking all the stressed syllables with little Xs just to try and work out what the hell was going on. Turns out it has the same number of stresses to every line – seven – but they’re arranged in three different ways (one for the “I must …” lines, one for the “And the …” lines, one for the “All I ask …” lines). I ended up reproducing Masefield’s stress pattern pretty much exactly, because it’s so idiosyncratic that even minor deviations made it sound weird.


*I wonder if this difference in outlooks corresponds to universes which have reliable and easy space travel versus universes without? Off the top of my head: Star Wars, Star Trek, easy interstellar travel and a generally optimistic outlook; Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, slow and arduous travel, much darker approach. Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels take this to the max: a recurring theme in his novels is characters waking up from cryogenic storage at the end of ten, twenty years of journeying, and finding that they’re in the wrong place – or worse, the right place, which has changed beyond recognition since they set off – and they now have to either stay and make the best of it, or go somewhere else and risk it happening again.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2011 4:00 am

    I picked up on the Blade Runner line!

    Fantastic work as always, and the metre of both this (and by inference, the original) is perfect for Firefly.

    Good point about the differences in space travel in the various genres within SF – I’ll be thinking about which ones are which all day now.


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