Dull, Duller, Dullest:
A Neglected Issue for Generation Ships
by Mark Koerner
Science fiction fans have long known that leaving aside a faster-than light “warp drive” or “hyperdrive,” there are only three ways of conquering the vast distances involved in interstellar travel: suspended animation (“coldsleep” for “corpsicles”), relativistic time dilation (everything inside a spaceship slows down as it approaches light-speed), and generation ships.
Of the three, generation ships are probably the most technologically feasible. They are also the most expensive, as they require placing the population of a small town inside a megastructure engineered for a one-way trip that will last at least a century. The spaceship’s original crew will not find a planet to colonize, but perhaps their great-grandchildren will.
Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” (Amazing, October 1940) was the first of dozens of generation-ship stories, most written about an nth generation that has lost any sense of the original mission and believes that Earth is only a legend. The template for all such plots is Robert A. Heinlein’s classic “Universe” (Astounding, May 1941). Bundled with its sequel, “Common Sense,” “Universe” was later published as Orphans of the Sky in 1962. It has never been out of print.
What Heinlein and his successors never came to grips with is that whether the crew keeps doing its job or descends into barbarism, generation ships will be incredibly boring. They are small towns without the stagecoach to bring in new and interesting people. They are small towns without quadrennial elections. They are small towns that no circus will ever visit.
Even worse, most authors assume that the inhabitants will lose their technical skills over several generations, so lest someone accidentally let the air out or release a deadly fungus from an old Petri dish, no one can be given any really crucial job. Survivability must be engineered into the ship’s design. But if survivability is engineered into the design, isn’t the crew doomed to a lifetime of unemployment and all that implies?
There may be ways to fight the boredom. One is to maintain radio contact with Earth at all times, which is of course impossible if the ship’s inhabitants forget how to operate radios. But assuming the crew remains technologically adept, genuine conversations with Earth will gradually become awkward and then impossible. Even when the ship is only one “light-day” from Earth, the minimum time between a question from the ship and an answer from Earth is two days. Another method is to send out flotillas, with each ship launched in relatively rapid succession so that later ships can catch up and send shuttles back and forth. Unfortunately, the cost of such a multi-stage program (presumably with the ships assembled in orbit) might well bankrupt a medium-sized country.
Other boredom-reduction efforts seem more contrived. The designers could hardwire extreme climate variations into the ship’s computer. And every ship could have a jester (as in Arthur C. Clarke’s closed-off city in The City and the Stars) who plays socially disruptive tricks on his fellow inhabitants.
The large-scale self-contained environments of real life — nuclear submarines, prisoner-of-war camps, and the like — give us a sense of how caged people deal with the time on their hands, though any comparisons with generation ships are hardly exact. Moreover, most of these examples have no women or children and everyone fully expects their community to dissolve one way or another in the next few years. The Biosphere 2 experiment of the early 1990’s may be slightly more enlightening. In Biosphere 2, a handful of men and women volunteered to live in a closed-off artificial eco-system for months at a time, though they all had jobs to perform and stayed in constant contact with the outside world. They ended up being more fanatical about celebrating holidays than they had been before. Inhabitants of generation ships might do the same.
Harlan Ellison and Edward Bryant have suggested that several radically different cultures be placed aboard the same ship. Perhaps this is the ultimate in the fight against boredom, though Ellison and Bryant seem to present the idea more in terms of survivability, i.e. with more cultures, at least some of the inhabitants will be able to adapt to the planet at Journey’s End. Their idea was the basis for a short-lived television program of the 1970’s, The Starlost. Predictably, the story begins when the ship has been lost in space for hundreds of years and the inhabitants no longer think they live in a ship. A young member of the Amish pod is expelled. As he wanders the abandoned hallways (ignoring the cheap and cheesy sets), he discovers that his ship has many cultures, each as isolated as his own. The award-winning teleplay by Ellison and Bryant may well have been really great, but their novelization, Phoenix Without Ashes: a Novel of the Starlost (1975) is only marginally more interesting than the television show.
Although SF writers have not addressed boredom explicitly, one gets a sense that they are aware of the issue. What else can explain the slow death of the generation-ship story? After Brian Aldiss’ Starship (1959), the idea itself became a cliché, suitable for a comic book or a Star Trek episode but not for serious treatment by a serious writer. Perhaps the writers themselves saw the difficulty in creating interesting plots out of such necessarily static societies.
Recently, Richard Paul Russo revisited the genre with Ship of Fools (2002). Although Russo’s novel has many points in its favor, life on board the Argonnos remains interesting mainly because the ship still has a mission (contacting aliens) and still makes planet-falls. Thus, Ship of Fools tells us about a different kind of generation ship; its mission is exploration, not colonization. The same can be said of Frank M. Robinson’s The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991), though Robinson’s ship, the Astron, weighing in at 2,000 years old, must break all SF records for generation-ship longevity.
If anyone has ideas on how to redesign generation ships to address the boredom factor, please respond. I’d hate think that I’m the only one who cares.
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Koerner