This was the cover story for the June 1977 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s an okay-ish cover for an okay-ish story.
The Star Eel is a story with a lot of interesting ideas that are marred a bit by sci-fi cheese and a lot by half-hearted storytelling. Back in 1977, one could have a character named “Starfinder” and not be met with muffled snorts of laughter that eventually burst into guffaws, but really that’s the only part of this story that you can say didn’t age well. The rest is on the story itself. Why do I say half-hearted? Because of all of the lazy twists Young uses to extricate himself when he’s written himself into corners. Things work out simply because he’s got to get to the end of the story somehow to mail it off to Fantasy and Science Fiction. My reaction was pretty much the opposite of the Jennings story; everything was there to make me want to like this story but it just never quite came together.
The story’s premise is that the main character is the lone pilot/captain of a giant time-travelling Space Whale that gets attacked by a parasitic Star Eel. In this universe, Space Whales are hunted and their brains burned out by “Jonahs” because it’s easier to kill and gut one and fill it with space ship stuff than to build a space ship of equal tonnage. The same is also the case for Star Eels. Anyway, Starfinder’s Whale was unique in that it was double ganglioned, so Starfinder made a deal with the Whale that he would ‘save’ it by sparing its second ganglion and the whale would take him anywhere he wanted to go.
It turns out that Starfinder’s attacker is another intelligent ship that has been “liberated” by a little girl. Starfinder tries to convince the girl to detach the Star Eel, then unsuccessfully tries to trick the girl so that he can manually force the Eel to detach, and ultimately begs for the life of his Space Whale. The girl orders the Star Eel to stand down, but by now the Space Whale has lost it, isn’t going to listen to Starfinder or the promise he made to the girl that nothing bad would happen, and totally goes berserk on the Star Eel. Little girl bursts into tears as gobs of her space friend drift into deep space. Afterwards, the Whale feels really bad about what it did and promises to be the little girl’s friend so she’ll stop crying.
As a stand-alone, this was kind of a bad story. The concept of the living ships was cool, and some of the discussion on the relationships between ships and their pilots when ships are living things, but as a whole, the story was a disappointment. Starfinder was kind of a lame-o who screwed up in his ‘heroic’ attempt and only really got out of his predicament by grovelling to a 12 year old girl. I know it makes me a monster, but he would’ve been a more interesting/compelling character if he laughed in her face, all “Space Whale 1, Star Eel 0!” At least then you could be all “Wow, what a bastard!” and have a genuinely emotional response to one of the characters. The Space Whale’s ‘let’s all be friends’ seemed like too much of an easy-out for the story; Young didn’t know how to deal with the crying 12 year old any more than Starfinder did. The Star Eel might work if it were actually the first chapter of a longer story that better fleshed out the ideas and the characters, provided it doesn’t go into Piers Anthony territory. Otherwise it would be better rewritten as a pilot for a sci-fi reimagining of “The Misadventures of Flapjack”.
“Bubby’s sorry she killed your Star Eel, Flapjack. C’mere, n give Bubby a hug.”