“How Can We Sink When We Can Fly?”

I'm reading Terry Carr's Best Science Fiction of the Year from 1972, and most of the stories in it, although they're classic and generally well-regarded stories (and I've read some of them before), aren't doing much for me.

But I just read Alexei Panshin's “How Can We Sink When We Can Fly?” for the first time, and wow.

The first two-thirds of the story is a well-written mostly-autobiographical piece about Panshin trying to come up with a utopian story for an Asimov anthology, while being distracted by the decidedly non-utopian US of circa 1970. It has a wealth of detail that I don't often see in sf, and all of it is relevant, contributes to the story. I almost stopped reading at the end of that section, because it made a pretty good story on its own. But the fully fictional final third is also excellent, and rounds out and completes the piece. Really good story.

Here are a couple of quotes from the autobiographical part. First, on gardening and society:

“Do you really have a garden?”

“Of course,” I said. “Tom Disch tells me that a half hour in the garden every day keeps the soul pure.” Tom's another writer. We tend to pass basic tips like this around our little circles.


Gardening was an act of faith that the seasons would change and warmth and flower come. Gardening is an act of faith. I'm a pessimist, but still I garden.

It's much like the times.

Our society is imperfect. That's what we say, and we shrug and let it go at that. Societies change in their own good time, and there isn't much that individuals can do to cause change or direct it. Most people don't try. They have a living to make, and whatever energies are left over they know how to put to good use. They leave politics to politicians.

But let's be honest. Our society is not just imperfect. Our society is an unhappy shambles. And leaving politics to politicians is proving to be as dangerous a business as leaving science to scientists, war to generals, and profits to profiteers.

And from later in the story:

Is there really a Revolution, or are there just a lot of people pretending? What will happen when enough people pretend hard enough, long enough?

The five of us and the two cats gathered around our candle late on a spring night. If there really is a Revolution, are we its leaders? What if we pretended to be long enough, hard enough?

And I wondered in how many other rooms people were gathered around a flame thinking the same things, dreaming the same dreams. There have to be new ways, there have to be better ways, and we all know it.

The story has been reprinted several times. It's currently available as part of Baen's ebook edition of Panshin's story collection Farewell to Yesterday's Tomorrow. Highly recommended.

The title comes from a song by Sylvia Tyson, “We Sail,” from the album Great Speckled Bird, which Panshin-in-the-story listens to at one point. Here are the lyrics (which don't appear in the story):

We sail, and we sail together.

The name of our ship is the New Beginning,

And our sails are a hopeful color

Filled with the wind of changing times.

We sail, and the sea around us, it wanes

And it swells as a great heart beating.

All the storms of the night are passing.

How can we sink when we can fly?

(You can hear “We Sail” on YouTube, but I like the lyrics better than the performance.)

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