Home Is Where the Carapace Is

by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

The definitive giant-lobster story, and so much more than that.

A man of the twentieth century (presumably) McCulloch, offers himself as a subject for time travel into the future — only problem is, the people who've developed time travel aren't exactly sure how far he will go (although they expect a few decades, centuries, or perhaps even a millennium). To the people around McCulloch it will seem that he has only been gone a few seconds. He is cast into the very far future, and there he encounters an underwater culture, where giant lobsters and other forms of sea-life have developed an entire society, of sorts, including a Pilgrimage to the place of dry land at the Time of Molting, where they perform certain holy rituals. The arrival of McCulloch's disembodied consciousness into a giant lobster seems to some to be an Omen, a sign that the Time of Molting is at hand, and so the Pilgrimage begins. But one of the lobster's gods, a great octopus, corrects them and puts an end to the Pilgrimage. McCulloch's arrival thus causes quite a stir (ouch, that hurts!) and he comes to believe that he has played an important part in this world's affairs — which, to some extent, he has. He spends years inhabiting the same body as the giant lobster, even resisting a few attempts from his fellow Earth men to send him back to his time. Eventually, he returns, and gets back together with the woman he loved before he made the trip, Maggie. But his true "home" will forever remain the sea of the future, where he felt, with unparalleled intensity, that he truly belonged.

The story unfolds in a lovely way, alternating modern-day sections and future-earth sections with the well-timed and gentle rhythm of waves. There is certainly a strong sense of suspense, originating from various plot threads, among which the following two are prominent: the meaning of the Pilgrimage and its ultimate success, and the fate of McCulloch. In the introduction to it (in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 1: Secret Sharers) Silverberg states that he "deliberately intended "Homefaring" as a sleek and modern version of the sort of imagination-stirring tale of wonder" that the editor Donald A. Wollheim had enjoyed reading many years ago, as a young man. He certainly succeeds, but I think goes beyond that, exploring man's sensibilities and the importance of feeling that one belongs, wherever and however that may be, through excellently-crafted prose descriptions.

The protagonist of "Homefaring" feels a sense of complete belonging, with the lobsters, as he has never done before (and never will again, so he says himself). There seems to me to spring forth a wonderful duality from this approach: 1) the sense of disconnection to our reality, to our society, so essential to post-modernism and the angst therewith associated is well treated, making McCulloch feel like a real character, someone with whom it is easy enough to identify, like so many other Silverberg characters; 2) from an evolutionary point of view, our origin is the sea, so there is the undercurrent in the story that returning there would provide some kind of fulfillment, make our cycle of existence symmetrical, even, as it does with McCulloch, perhaps only on a subconscious level.

Some other observations:

  • The name of the protagonist, McCulloch, sounds like some kind of sea creature, a kind of mollusk, perhaps. This creates a kind of resonance within the story.
  • The structure of the story, in essence, is this: a person is placed into a situation where he feels he really belongs, where he is content, and then returned to his normal situation. This reflects an obvious feeling of disenchantment with the way things are, and, more strongly, creates a sense of nostalgia once one has returned to one's point of departure. In this case Silverberg opts to end the story on such a note, creating a very emotionally potent (sad) ending. I think it's hard to do that kind of story well, and Silverberg excels at it.
  • Before he departs, Maggie quotes McCulloch some poetry by Eliot, from "Little Gidding":
    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.
    It is clear that these lines encapsulate an idea Silverberg has treated before and will certainly return to, a truth of our existence that he considers important. More concretely, he quotes precisely the same passage by Eliot in "The Grand Kumpania", the eighth section of his masterful novel Star of Gypsies (there he provides the preceding three lines, too), removing all doubt as to the importance this theme has to him.
  • This story is additionally interesting because it offers us a fully developed vision of the far future very different from that seen in Son of Man. It's great fun seeing how accomplished and fascinating Silverberg's various far-future scenarios are, even the description by the lobsters concerning the various worlds before theirs.
  • When telling his colleagues how far he has traveled into the future, near the end of the story, McCulloch uses the phrase "millions of years". When he asks the lobster, however, how long ago the second Molting was, the one which produced their world, the third world, the lobster replies: "...If every grain of sand in the sea were one lifetime, then it would be as many lifetimes ago as there are grains of sand in the sea." This implies billions of years, perhaps even trillions. Then again, maybe we're not supposed to interpret this literally, but rather as a metaphor.
  • Silverberg has often commented on the importance of H.G. Wells and the impact the author had on him, evoking a deep sense of wonder with The Time Machine at an early age. Especially, Silverberg has remarked that the ending, in which Wells offers us a vision of the far future in which a kind of (largish) crabs seem to be the only life form, made quite an impression on him. In a way, "Homefaring" is a tribute to this, conscious or otherwise: the youngster once so enthralled by The Time Machine's ending has provided an equally wondrous story, with crabs of its own.