I’ve been thinking about generation ships lately. Not because I have any interest in setting off across the stars, then dying, so that my great great great great great great great great great great great *deep breath* great great grandchildren can land on a new planet and have to scramble together creating a meager existence on a hostile rock dozens of light years away from a planet they never knew. Largely because there’s not one in the works. Unless you know something I don’t know. Do you?
Sorry, got distracted there. No, I’m thinking about generation ships because I’ve got some plot ideas. Three that I think are the foundation of a trilogy of novels, and a few stray ideas that might work their ways into short stories. But this isn’t about my ideas for generation ships, this is about ideas others have had. Looking at the stories out there, two tropes stand out.
Trope the first. Passengers on a generation ship forget they’re on a generation ship. The original Star Trek did it in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” an episode title so long that it was quicker to look it up and copy-and-paste the title. Heinlein used the trope in two novellas that became Orphans of the Sky. It’s the central theme behind the novels Non-Stop and Captive Universe. This is, in shot, your go-to story when creating a generation ship plot.
And I understand it. There’s a built in twist, at least when the story is being told from inside rather than from outside. There’s the internal conflict of what to do with this information. There’s the potential external conflict if a small number of people are the holders of this knowledge. There’s the potential for plots where the ship that no one knows is a ship is disastrously off course, so you get the one-two discovery punch. There are fascinating stories to be told within this structure. However, entirely because of these stories, it strikes me that the first essential thing anyone on a generation ship would learn is the nature of their ship. Because widespread ignorance of this fact leads only to troubles several generations down the road. 2001 isn’t about a generation ship, but it did teach me one thing: don’t trust the ship’s computer to do everything.
Trope the second. Monocultural generation ships. Really, within science fiction there’s a wider monocultural trope. It can be a generation ship, an off-earth colony, a starship. Anywhere that a writer can put a community that starts with a small seed has that opportunity to be a monoculture. In the above mentioned Captive Universe, the culture is Aztec (thus giving us the one-two punch of tropes). In The Dazzle of Day, recommended to me by several Twitter users when I asked about generation ship stories that don’t use the forgetting plot, the generation ship is populated entirely by Quakers. In the Doctor Who episode “The Beast Below” it’s a generation ship entirely populated by the Welch and English, with another ship of Scotsmen existing somewhere never seen on-screen.
Again, this is a great trope. Ideas like these are reused because there’s a lot of story-telling potential. It’s an opportunity to examine what is typically an isolated minority on Earth and see how that culture responds to being at least dominant, and often all-encompassing. What becomes of that culture when allowed to purify itself down to the roots? What happens when someone speaks out against that culture?
I’m not saying that every generation ship story falls into one of these two categories. The starliner Axiom in Pixar’s WALL•E has a hell of a lot of problems, but it’s not monocultural (unless “fat American slobs” is a monoculture) and the passengers clearly know they’re on a generation ship, even if they treat it more as a cruise ship. They know they came from a place called Earth, and they expect to go back there one day. In its own way the Axiom is an odd version of a generation ship, as it’s going out and back. Clearly it can and will return to Earth at any time, just as soon as the planet is no longer toxic to human life. It’s a fascinating set-up, and while I like the story told in WALL•E, there are other stories that could be set on the Axiom.
And I think that’s what’s drawing me to generation ships, and to the idea of setting multiple stories on a single generation ship. It’s easy to take a story out of a moment of time within a generation ship. The moment of departure. The moment of arrival. The moment of someone discovers the nature of the ship. The moment the cute little robot brings a plant in a boot to the ship. By coming up with several stories, I hope to have some fun looking at the ship and the society therein evolves over the journey. But…wow, does that make for a lot of world building.
I’m going to close out by asking for recommendations! I’d like to see what other people have done with generation ships, specifically looking at generation ship, or intergalactic ark stories that don’t conform to trope the first above. I asked this on Twitter and already got the recommendations of The Dazzle of Day, Journey Into Space, and the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy. Any others I should be reading? Any that I should absolutely still read even though they do trip trope the first? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.