The science fiction story “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak

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Analysis of "Desertion" in the Context of Soft Science Fiction Genre

During what has been referred to as the Golden Age of American science fiction writing, Clifford D. Simak penned the science fiction tale "Desertion" in 1944. The story, which was written close to the end of World War II, is an example of soft science fiction because it imagines a future in which humans try to colonize Jupiter by modifying their bodies to withstand the harsh conditions and intense atmospheric pressure of the gas giant. Despite the story's reference of technology it is primarily a tool for what comes later because the use of the soft science fiction genre is the driving thrust in this story as the story concentrates on the human experience and glosses over the technology used to transform humans to adapt to the environment on Jupiter.

The Focus on Feelings: Kent Fowler's Regret

From the very beginning of the story, the focus is on the feelings of the character Kent Fowler. This is a central theme of the soft science fiction genre which tends to emphasize the feelings of the characters over the technological aspects of the story as explained in Module 5. He regrets sending young men to what he believes is their death because none of the four previous men he has sent out have returned. He rationalizes these missions by thinking that "If the tests succeeded, the resources of the giant planet would be thrown open" (Simak 2) but the regret he feels deep down is driving him to reconsider his mission. Another man now stands before him that Fowler notes has "the easy confidence of youth, the face of one who never had known fear" (Simak 1). Fowler tries to dissuade him from going and points that that fact that the others that have gone out have not returned. Even this does not discourage the young man from going.

The Influence of Miss Stanley and the Question of Evolution

Fowler's feelings are further stirred up by the technician who runs the converter, Miss Stanley, who points out the futility of sending yet another man out to what will most likely be his death. There is considerable discussion between them ending with what seems like a challenge to Fowler by Miss Stanley to act when she states; "Someday, you will be a great man. You never let a chance go by. This is your chance." (Simak 3). This seemingly off-hand comment about what Miss Stanley sees in Fowler's character has a profound effect on the course that Fowler's life will take before the end of the story.

Another theme of the soft science fiction genre that is used in this story is questioning of whether natural evolution is the proper course for man or whether evolution aided by science should take precedence. Fowler realizes that man could not conquer the planet Jupiter in his natural form because of the environmental extremes which are inherent to the planet. However, he is aware that in the Jovian form of the Lopers, which man can be converted into, the inhabitation and use of the planet's resources is possible. He also realizes the limitation of man to truly understand Jupiter in his current form may be at the root of why all these men had died out in the vastness of Jupiter noting "the fault might lie with Man, be inherent with the race. Some mental aberration which, coupled with what they found outside, wouldn't let them come back" (Simak 5).

Fowler's Fateful Decision and the Perception of Jupiter

Spurred on by what Miss Stanley pointed out during their argument by saying "You're going to keep marching them out face to face with Jupiter. You're going to sit in here safe and comfortable and send them out to die" (Simak 3), Fowler made a fateful decision, he and his dog Towser will be the next to be converted and sent out. Fowler at this point has begun to doubt the efficacy and necessity of his mission as well as his moral and ethical reasons for continuing with an experiment which has already caused the presumed deaths of five men. As pointed out in Module 5, what is "natural" or "normal" tends to change with the passing of generations of mankind. It is apparent in the writing of "Desertion" Simak is conveying the "natural" and "normal" opinions of the day (1944), the anxiety felt by leaders who had to make tough decisions to send young men into dangerous situations (for example, combat in World War II), to which he decides to send no more men until he first goes himself.

In the final scene of the story, after their conversion into Lopers, Fowler and his dog Towser venture out into what they expect to be the harsh environment of Jupiter. It is at this point in the story that the idea of evolution versus nature, one of the theme points of soft science fiction, is brought out. Fowler and Towser venture into the new experience only to discover that their transformation has given them the ability to communicate directly with one another through telepathy. That is not all they discover. Fowler and Towser also realize that with the new forms of the Lopers, their very perception of Jupiter has changed from a forbidding, noxious, and dangerous planet to a planet of magnificent beauty and their transformation has endowed them with enhanced senses that they do not now wish to give up. Therefore, they make the decision not to return to the dome, and they finally understand that they others were not dead but merely exploring this new and fascinating world which their conversion has introduced them to.


Throughout the short story "Desertion" the themes of the soft science fiction genre are used, from the focus on feelings to the glossing over of technology. In addition, the story brings out the conflict of nature versus evolution which is another theme of soft science fiction. The characters' perceptions of moral and ethical norms are tested and the outcome of the story is one in which ideas are challenged and perceptions are seen through a different view. Overall, "Desertion" is a classic from the Golden Age of Science Fiction which holds its meaning even as the years pass.

Works Cited

Simak, Clifford D. “Desertion.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (WASF).

W17-Science Fiction Course Materials. Modules 1-5. George Brown College. (2017).

June 19, 2023




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