I recently published this essay in the Turing Church‘s Medium channel:
In 1958, British World War II veteran Brian Aldiss published his first novel, one that relied on some of his experiences during the Burma campaign in the humid Southeast Asian jungle.
In the novel, a group of jungle dwellers wanders around their strange environment, and the reader quickly realizes that the jungle has grown inside a gigantic starship. Multiple adventures occur before the protagonists understand that they live inside a sort of interstellar ark in which their ancestors lived, died and bred for generations. Eventually, something even more astounding about their predicament is revealed (1).
Aldiss’ novel, called “Non-Stop,” was the founding piece for a new kind of science-fiction tale: stories about generation starships, a hypothetical type of craft that travels at sub-light speed while its human occupants spend generations inside, waiting to set foot on another world.
These tales are interesting in themselves, and as illustrations of current concerns, as well as plans and hopes for the future expansion of the human race. Some generation ship novels are among the best sci-fi books ever written; many others are frustrating pieces overflowing with ideas but also prejudices, clichés and particular obsessions that reflect our age only too well.
When we discuss generation ship stories, we not only discuss the future of an idea, or the present state of that idea: we also discuss what writers have imprinted in their minds when they execute that idea. This is of great importance at this moment for any of us transhumanists who anticipate a long future for mankind among the stars, while fulfilling what may be its unique destiny in the universe.
The role of writers, as bards and propagandists for that future, inspiring future generations of engineers, explorers and settlers, can’t be stressed hard enough. This role, sadly, has been taking on negative connotations for some time now, as radical ideology permeates science-fiction and pretty much every other human endeavor.
“Non-Stop” may not have been the first actual story to depict a generation ship, but is definitely the first complete example of the genre, since it contains almost all of the features later to be seen in similar novels: characters confounded by their situation; characters who come to forget the reason why they’re floating in space in the first time, or doubt that they’re actually floating in space; internal struggles for power that go beyond anything the mission designers anticipated; frustration; sickness; swift death; a melancholy reflection on the fragility of human societies.
Even conceding that fact, there are the many varieties of generation ship narratives out there: there are, for example, multiple stories with hibernated crews that are unfrozen at the wrong time, or too early, or too late, or are killed while frozen, or are frozen and defrozen at specific points by a childish AI (“the Chimp”) leading a crazy mission spanning billions of years, such as in Peter Watts’ outstanding Sunflower Cycle.
Such narratives, while often similar to those in actual generation ships, are fundamentally different in that it’s the very same people who start and end the trip. In fact, the defining characteristic of the generation ship tale is that “generations” span between the start and the end of the journey: at least two. Otherwise it’s just a very long trip, with little to do.
A good, little-known example of the non-generational ship tale is “The woman from the ocean,” a short story written by Karl Bunker, published in 2014. It’s about an astronaut who comes back to Earth far in the future, with news that colonization of space is impossible because everywhere else in the universe is just too inhospitable.
Like the dudes from the Planet of the Apes, she returns to a much-changed Earth of the far future, due to relativistic effects: society there has regressed to agriculturalism for interesting reasons. In a way, “The woman…” is a sort of variation on “Non-stop”: even if the travelers stay sane and focused on the mission, it may be our whole planet that goes crazy and primitive and back to, literally, the law of the jungle.
The interesting thing about “The woman…” is that the protagonist has been to other star systems, and she has returned to Earth in defeat, the last survivor of a doomed enterprise which message is: Earth is where you should be, don’t have silly dreams. This is surprisingly often the message of generation ship stories, and the negativity is only increasing in recent decades…
You can read the whole thing here.