By Andrew Gifford
“Earth that was could no longer sustain us, we were so many.” The film Serenity opens with a fleet of generation ships leaving a polluted, ruined Earth behind and heading for the system that’s the setting for the movie and the TV series that preceded it, Firefly. The events in that series take place 500 years after those generation ships left. For the descendants, the Earth, and whatever it was that happened to it, had become little more than a fairy tale.
Post-apocalypse literature is littered with zombies, vampires, and nuclear fallout. It’s obsessed with survivors, holdouts, and lonely people walking in the ashes of our ruined cities and dreams. But what about the people who flee the Earth in the hopes of finding something better?
The generation ship sub-genre isn’t always about people fleeing the apocalypse, though it always incorporates apocalyptic elements. Sometimes a catastrophe has befallen the Earth, and sometimes an internal catastrophe has plagued one of the earlier generations on the ship. Most generation ship stories are a study in how the center cannot hold—a staple for most zombie stories, where the group of survivors ultimately destroy themselves.
The generation ship has been a huge staple for sci-fi TV. Doctor Who, in its fifty-two-year run, has seen three stories set on generation ships. The unfortunately unwatchable The Starlost is about an Amish-style group who don’t realize they’re on a runaway generation ship. By the time we got to Galactica 1980, the battlestar had become a generation ship. The Stargate and Star Trek universes are full of generation ships. In recent years, we’ve seen an attempt to revive the genre. SyFy’s Ascension was a feeble attempt to do so, and we can go ahead and call the Snowpiercer a generation ship, even if it was on rails.
In literature, the idea of the generation ship has long fascinated us. There are scientific papers and studies and thought experiments on the idea that go back as early as 1900. In fiction, there are a handful of sci-fi stories predating WWII about what the slumbering residents of giant sleeper ships would discover at the end of their journey. Heinlein brought the idea into mainstream science fiction with Orphans of the Sky, originally published as two novellas in the 1940s. It didn’t appear in novel form until 1963, which meant it fell under the shadow of Brian Aldiss’ 1958 novel, Non-Stop, often considered to be the grandfather of this post-apocalypse sub-genre.
In Amanda Pell and the Post-Post Apocalypse I talked about how advancing the post apocalypse story by decades, or centuries, gave authors a chance to try out new things within the genre. With a generation ship, hell, fourteen centuries later and no one even knows what “Earth” means (except for the occasional mad computer babbling away to a control room full of skeletons). It’s the ultimate writing frontier for the genre.
Sometimes, the Earth is just fine, as in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, a recent attempt to revive the genre. Though Robinson embraces the “our little apocalypse” trope. The denizens of the Aurora are plagued by the fallout of a tragedy that a long dead generation has erased from their memories. Robinson’s book, mostly narrated by the burgeoning artificial intelligence across two generations of the Aurora’s crew, is more a book about the development of that A.I. The computer relates the details of the forgotten tragedy, with a strange semi-compassionate clinicalness, late in the story.
Sometimes the generation ship isn’t even from Earth, as with Clark’s Rendezvous with Rama, and Robert Reed’s The Greatship. In both cases, humans discover a derelict generation ship and either take it over to have an intergalactic joyride (The Greatship) or engage in a little sci-fi Indiana Jones-esque esoteric mystery (Rama).
We live in a Reboot Culture. Everything’s coming back. In the last few years, post-apocalypse literature has rebooted vampires (The Passage), zombies (Zone One), and lonely wanderers, (Station Eleven; The Dog Stars). I don’t mind the reboots, because the apocalypse genre has become cool. Literary authors are dabbling here and there with stories that challenge the old rules and tropes. These days, for the most part, the entire genre feels less about the apocalypse and more about stunning prose and a damn good tale. There’s no need to be obsessed with the minutia of the apocalypse, as we see in the classics Alas, Babylon and The Last Ship and On The Beach. The Reboot Culture has allowed writers to give us character-driven apocalypse stories. We no longer care about the creeping nuclear fallout that’ll eventually kill everyone in On The Beach, we want to know if Hig will catch any fish during his latest poetry-filled foray into the wilderness in The Dog Stars.
Rebooting the generation ship story is the latest craze, and it’s interesting to read, but it’s damned hard to do. Aurora failed, in my opinion. Writing a generation ship story for modern audiences demands a little bit more thought—for sixty years, the running theme has been that the ship is a character. Perhaps even the star. It kills characters, it changes and advances the plot. Maybe the human characters are on a journey of discovery through the ship, maybe the ship itself is sentient and acting as our narrator (as the Aurora does).
In the beginning, the story was always the same. Heinlein did it, Aldiss did it, and then everyone else did it. The human characters didn’t know they were on a generation ship. In Non-Stop, Aldiss gives us the story of Roy Complain, a native from a brutish, backwards tribe who is thrust into a mad journey through the vegetation-choked corridors with a man who believes their world is artificial. They encounter various other tribes, all isolated and of varying degrees of sophistication, until they encounter the “Forwards,” the most advanced denizens of what they all now learn is a multi-generational ark. Twenty-three generations prior, the ship fled a failed colony in an attempt to return to Earth, but a pandemic wiped out the crew so the ship was left to its own devices.
Rinse, repeat: In Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, a mutiny resulted in the death of the officers and crew aboard a generation ship and, for fourteen centuries, it randomly roamed the void. On board, the descendants of the survivors were roughly split into two groups—normal humans who followed a religion largely based on performing the regular chores needed to keep the ship running, though without any knowledge that they were on a ship, and mutant humans. Our hero falls into the hands of the mutant faction and befriends its leader, who has a rudimentary idea that their world is not what it appears to be.
In both stories, and the many that followed, the themes are nearly identical—stone age idiot figures out that there’s a metal wall behind the trees and curiosity leads him on a journey of adventure and discovery fraught with bad guys and sci-fi stuff. The cast of characters all eventually realize that they’re on a ship and there’s a struggle to assume command of the vessel. In some cases to complete the mission, in others to play god. Or maybe we get an eye-rolling twist and everyone turns out to be schmucks. (The eye-rolling twist is usually along the lines of “we were on Earth the whole time, ha-ha.”)
Aurora doesn’t tread those same waters at all. Everyone knows where they are and the computer isn’t mad. But the spirit of the novel feels uncomfortably close to the old school generation ship stories. We get journeys through the bowels of the ship, we get the sentient A.I., we get a secret tragedy that everyone’s forgotten, and there’s lots of talk about how each successive generation is devolving into what may eventually become stone age yahoos worshipping power cells. And I won’t tell you the ending, but I was unhappy. If you’re going to reboot something then, by god, reboot it! Don’t just put it in a new dress and curl its hair.
The more successful reboot comes from Neal Stephenson and his latest, Seveneves. I’m a bit down on Stephenson. He either doesn’t know how to end his stories or he spends too much time analyzing the minutia of the science in his stories. Seveneves suffers from the latter fault, but it’s still a powerfully addictive and fun read, if only because it’s the only generation ship story I’ve read that truly moved the genre to the next level. How nice not to have half-naked, two-headed men in loincloths sitting in the pilot’s seat! How nice not to have a computer wax on about the nature of Humanity like it’s closing out an old Twilight Zone episode!
Seveneves is pure post-apocalypse. We open up in the modern day and, one night, the moon mysteriously explodes (it’s theorized that a miniature black hole zapped it). The story then unfolds from the point of view of several characters—mainly a robotics expert on the ISS, and her boss, and an analogue of Neil deGrasse Tyson. The latter figures out that the Earth has roughly two years to live as the shattered moon’s rapidly decaying orbit will lead to a “hard rain” of meteorites that’ll result in the ultimate extinction level event. The Earth unites (somewhat) to develop the “Cloud Ark” around the ISS—a conglomerate of hastily made life rafts that, by the time the Earth is destroyed, contains a couple thousand souls. Halfway through the book, we fast-forward to 5000 years in the future, when the effects of the Hard Rain are wearing off.
It’s the only generation ship saga I’ve read that spends almost 600 pages talking about the evolution of the generation ship itself. That seems excessive (and it is, in hindsight), but it was captivating. So … whatever. Keep doing whatever you’re doing, Stephenson. As with all good post-apocalypse literature, Stephenson takes a jab at our modern world—the future civilization descended from the survivors on the Cloud Ark are split into two opposing groups—the Reds and the Blues. (Is Stephenson subtly brushing up against a reboot of the work of J.G. Ballard as well?) The real secret to the success of Seveneves, however, is that the generation ship is not a character. Nor does it actually stray too far from Earth. The book is purely character driven. It’s all the best elements of the generation ship trope without the failings.
So I end this series about post-apocalypse literature (with a whimper instead of a bang?) talking about the apocalypse that we leave behind. After all, I began this series talking about the battlestar Galactica, a de-facto generation ship fleeing an apocalypse. Generation ship stories were my gateway to the post-apocalypse genre, and now they’re coming back with a fresh new look and feel. Bring them on!