One of my favourite science fictional short stories is William F. Nolan's
And Miles to Go Before I Sleep.
It can be dealt with in three to four lessons and offers ample
opportunity for discussions, preferably in form 10 or 11. Here is the story:
Alone with the humming ship, deep in its honeycombed chambers, Robert Murdock waited for death.While the
rocket moved inexorably toward Earth - an immense silver needle threading the dark fabric of space - he waited
calmly through the final hours, knowing that hope no longer existed.
After twenty years in space, Murdock was going home.
Home. Earth. Thayerville, a small town in Kansas. Clean air, a shaded street and a white two-storey house
near the end of the block. Home after two decades among the stars.
The rocket knifed through the black of space, its atomics, like a great heartbeat, pulsing far below
Robert Murdock as he sat quietly before a round port, seeing and not seeing the endless darkness surrounding him.
Murdock was remembering.
He remembered the worried face of his mother, her whispered prayers for his safety, the way
he held him close for a long, long moment before he mounted the ship's ramp those twenty years ago.
He remembered his father: a tall, weathered man, and that last crashing handshake before he said
goodbye.It was almost impossible to realize that they were now old and white-haired, that
his father was forced to use a cane, that his mother was bowed and wasted by the years.
And what of himself?
He was now forty-one - and space had weathered him as the plains of Kansas had weathered his father. He, too,
had fought storms in his job beyond Earth, terrible, alien storms; worse than he had ever encountered on his
own plant. And he, too, had labored on plains under burning suns far stronger than Sol. His face
was square and hard-featured, his eyes dark and buried beneath thrusting ledges of bone.
Robert Murdock removed the stereo-shots of his parents from his uniform pocket and studied their faces.
Warm, smiling, waiting faces: waiting for their son to come home to them. Carefully, he unfolded his mother's last letter.
She had always been stubborn about sending tapes, complaining that her voice was unsteady, that she found it so difficult
to speak her thoughts into the metallic mouth of a cold, impersonal machine. She insisted on using
an old-fashioned pen, forming the words slowly in an almost archaic script. He had received this last letter just before
his take-off for Earth and it read:
We are so excited! Your father and I listened to your voice again and again, telling us that you are coming
home to us at last, and we both thanked our good Lord that you were safe. Oh, we are so eager to see you, son. As you know,
we have not been too well of late. Your father's heart doesn't allow to get out much any more. Even the news that you are
coming back to us has over-excited him. Then, of course, my own health seems none too good as I
suffered another fainting spell last week. But there is no real cause for alarm - and
you are not to worry! - since Dr Thorn says I am still quite strong, and that these spells will pass.
I am, however, resting as much as possible, so that I will be fine when you arrive. Please, Bob,
come back to us safely. We pray God you will come home safe and well. The thought of you
fills our hearts each day. Our lives are suddenly rich again. Hurry, Bob, hurry!
All your love, Mother
Robert Murdock took the letter aside and clenched his fists. Only brief hours remained to him - and Earth was days away.
The town of Thayerville was an impossible distance across space: he knew he could never reach it
Once again, as they had so many times in the recent past, the closing lines of the ancient poem
by Robert Frost came whispering through his mind:
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep
He'd promised that he would come home, and he would keep that promise. Despite death itself,
he would return to Earth.
Out of question! the doctor had told him. You'll never reach Earth. You'll die out there.
You'll die in space.
Then they had shown him. They chartered his death almost to the final second: they told him when
his heart would stop beating, when his breathing would cease. This disease - contracted on an alien
world - was incurable. Death, for Robert Murdock, was a certainty.
But he told them he would go home nonetheless, that he was leaving for Earth. And they listened
to his plan.
Now, with less than thirty minutes of life remaining, Murdock was walking along the ship's long corridors,
his bootheels ringing on the metal walkway.
He was ready, at last, to keep his promise.
Pausing before a wall storage-locker, he twisted a small dial. The door slid back. Murdock looked up at
the tall man standing motionless in the interior darkness. He reached forward, made a quick adjustment.
The tall man spoke.
Is it time?
Yes, replied Robert Murdock, It is time.
The tall man stepped smoothly down into the corridor; the light flashed in the deep-set eyes, almost
hidden under thrusting ledges of bone. The man's face was hard and square-featured. You see,
he smiled, I am perfect.
And so you are, said Murdock. But then, he reflected, everything depends on perfection.
There must be no flaw, however small. None.
My name is Robert Murdock, said the tall figure in the neat spaceman's uniform.
I am forty-one years of age, sound of mind and body. I have been in space for two decades - and
now I am going home.
Murdock smiled, a tight smile of triumph which flickered briefly across his tired face.
How much longer? the tall figure asked.
Ten minutes. Perhaps a few seconds beyond that,said Murdock slowly. They told me it would
Then... The tall man paused, drew in alomg breath. I'm sorry.
Murdock smiled again. He knew that a machine, however perfect, could not experience the emotion of sorrow - but
it eased him to hear the words.
He'll be fine, thought Murdock. He'll serve in my place and my parents will never suspect that
I have not come home to them. A month, as arranged, and the machine would turn itself in to company
officials on Earth. Yes, Murdoch thought, he'll be fine.
Remember, said Murdock, when you leave them, they must belive you are going back into space.
Naturally, said the machine. And Murdock listened to his own voice explain: When the month
I am to stay with them has passed, they'll see me board a rocket. They'll see it fire away from Earth, outbound, and
they know that I cannot return for two more decades. They will accept the fact that their son must return to space -
that a healthy spaceman cannot leave the Service until he has reached sixty. Let me assure you, all will go exactly
as you have planned.
I will work, Murdock told himself: every detail has been taken into consideration. The android possesses
every memory that I possess; his voice is my voice, his small habits my own. And when he leaves them, when it appears
that he has gone back to the stars, the pre-recorded tapes of mine will continue to reach
them from space, exactly as they have in the past. Until their deaths. They will never know I'm gone, thought Robert Murdock.
Are you ready now? the tall figure asked softly.
Yes, said Murdock, nodding, I'm ready.
And they began to walk slowly down the long corridor.
Murdock remembered how proud his parents had been when he was accepted for Special Service.
He had been the only boy in the entire town of Thayerville to be chosen. It had been a freat day! The local band playing,
the mayor, old Mr Harkness with those little glasses tilted across his nose - making a speech, telling everyone
how proud Thayerville was of its chosen son...and his mother crying because he was so happy.
But then, it was only right that he should have gone into space. The other boys, the ones who failed to make the grade, had not lived
the dream as he had lived it. From the moment he had watched the first moon rocket land, he had known, beyond any possible doubt, that he would become
He remembered his last night on Earth, twenty years ago, when he had felt the pressing immensity of the vast universe surrounding him as he lay in his bed...
And then, somehow, the thunder's roar blended into the atomic roar of a rocket, carrying him away to the far
The tall figure in the neat spaceman's uniform closed the outer airlock and watched the body drift into blackness. The ship and the android were one;
a pair of complex and perfect machines doing their job.
For Robert Murdock, the journey was over, the long miles had come to an end. Now he would
sleep forever in space.
When the rocket landed, on a bright morning in July, in Thayerville, Kansas, the crowds were
there, waving and shouting out Robert Murdock's name. The city officials were all present to the last man, each with a carefully
rehearsed speech in his mind; the town band sent brassy music into the blue sky and children waved flags.
Then a hush fell over the assembled throng. The atomic engines had stilled and the airlock
was sliding back.
Robert Murdock appeared, tall and heroic in a splendid dress uniform which threw back the light of the sun in a thousand glittering
patterns. He smiled and waved as the crowd burst into fresh shouting and applause.
And, at the far end of the ramp, two figures waited: an old man, bowed and trembling over a cane, and a seamed and wrinkled woman,
her hair blowing white, her eyes shining.
When the tall man finally reached them, pushing his way through pressing lines of well-wishers,
they embraced him feverishly. They clung tight to his arms as he walked between them; they looked up at him
with tears in their eyes.
Robert Murdock, their beloved son, had come to them at last.
Well, said a man at the fringe of the crowd, there they go.
His companion sighed and shook his head. I still don't think it's right, somehow, it just doesn't seem
right to me.
It's what they wanted, isn't it? asked the other. It's what they put in their wills. They
vowed their son would never come home to death. In another month he'll be gone anyway. Back for
twenty more years. Why spoil what little time he has, why ruin it all for him? The man paused, indicating
the two figures in the near distance. They are perfect, aren't they? He'll never know.
I guess you're right, agreed the second man. He'll never know.
And he watched the old man and the old woman and the tall son until they were out of sight.
1. Split up the story into the typical structural pattern of a short story (exposition, rising action,
climax, falling action, denouement).
2. Examine the figurative language used by Nolan and the narrating techniques, e.g. of reported thought. Explain their functions.
3. In the middle section the author creates suspense by slowly adding more and more details
of Murdock's plan. What is his plan? What does the reader ask himself now?
4. How does the author characterize Murdock and his parents (implicit/explicit characterization)?
5. Do you find the ending convincing? Give reasons to support your opinion.
6. Do you think, science will go the way as descibed in this story?