Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Generation Starships

Entry updated 18 November 2019. Tagged: Theme.

Icon made by Freepik from


For writers unwilling to power their Starships with Faster-than-Light drives or to make use of a Relativistic time contraction, there is a real problem in sending ships between the stars: the length of the voyage, which would normally span many human lifetimes. The usual answers are to put the crew into Suspended Animation, as in James White's The Dream Millennium (1974), to send germ cells only, as in Kurt Vonnegut Jr's "The Big Space Fuck" (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison), or to use a generation starship, whereby the human beings who reached the destination would be the remote descendants of the original, long-dead crew, intervening generations having lived and died aboard the journeying vessel.

It was probably Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who first went into any detail about the necessity for using generation starships in the Colonization of Other Worlds; he presented the idea in "The Future of Earth and Mankind", which was published in a Russian anthology of scientific essays in 1928 but may have been conceived even earlier. Tsiolkovsky here argued for the construction in the future of space-going "Noah's Arks": he envisaged such journeys as taking many thousands of years. The notion was anticipated as a passing fancy, though with a more realistic timescale, in John Munro's A Trip to Venus (1897):

"... with a vessel large enough to contain the necessaries of life, a select party of ladies and gentlemen might start for the Milky Way, and if all went right, their descendants would arrive there in the course of a few million years."

Murray Leinster prefigures the sf theme in "Proxima Centauri" (March 1935 Astounding), whose spherical starship makes the relatively modest journey from Earth to Proxima Centauri in seven years, but is crewed with families who produce more children en route: it is noted that "not only could the mighty ship subsist her crew forever, but that the crew itself [...] could so far perpetuate itself as to make a voyage of a thousand years". (Also anticipating later treatments, there is a revolt of crew against officers.) However, the first Genre-SF dramatization of the notion in its full-fledged, multi-generation version was probably Don Wilcox's "The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years" (October 1940 Amazing). Here the captain of the ship is in hibernation, but wakes every hundred years to check on progress. Each time he wakes he finds great social changes among the successive descendants of the crew, and a sinking into brutality accompanied by plague. His successive appearances render him an object of superstitious awe to the tribesmen on board. The theme of social change and degeneration inaugurated by Wilcox was to become the dominant motif of such stories. (In Seekers of Tomorrow [1966] Sam Moskowitz claims the first generation-starship story to be Laurence Manning's "The Living Galaxy" [September 1934 Wonder Stories], which is set in a small, self-powered world and so does not fully embody the concept. It is however a good example of the overlapping theme World Ship – which see.)

The other dominant theme was presented in the following year in an altogether more famous story, "Universe" (May 1941 Astounding) by Robert A Heinlein, and in its sequel in Astounding the following month, "Common Sense" (October 1941 Astounding); the two were published in book form as Orphans of the Sky (fixup 1963). In this classic generation-starship story the crew have forgotten that they are on a ship and have descended to a state of rigidly stratified and superstitious social organization; the unusually intelligent hero discovers the truth in a traumatic Conceptual Breakthrough. Indeed generation-starship stories remained paradigmatic for the conceptual-breakthrough theme, and are important, too, in rite-of-passage stories showing the growth from puberty to adulthood (see Pocket Universes). Brian W Aldiss, who loved the idea but thought it crudely developed by Heinlein, devoted his first novel, Non-Stop (1956 Science Fantasy #17; exp 1958; cut vt Starship 1959), to a very successful reworking of the same theme. Other stories in which surviving generations think of the ship as a world and not a mode of transport are "Spacebred Generations" (August 1953 Science-Fiction Plus; vt "Target Generation" in Strangers in the Universe, coll 1956) by Clifford D Simak, "Ship of Shadows" (July 1969 F&SF) by Fritz Leiber, in which the ship is not strictly a starship, though the degenerated society is similar, and Harry Harrison's remarkable Captive Universe (1969), in which the crew and colonists have been transformed, in an act of insane Cultural Engineering, into medieval monks and Aztec peasants.

Some stories begin at the outset of or after the end of a generation-starship voyage. Arthur C Clarke's early story "Rescue Party" (May 1946 Astounding) has Earth evacuated in the face of a coming nova, the evacuees heading confidently towards the stars in a giant fleet of primitive generation rocketships. Brian M Stableford's Promised Land (1974) tells of a society of colonists whose social structure is based on that developed over generations in the starship on which they arrived.

An interesting variant which appears in several stories, most notably John Brunner's "Lungfish" (1957 Science Fantasy #26; vt "Rendezvous with Destiny" March 1958 Fantastic Universe), has the ship itself taking on the role in its occupants' minds of surrogate mother; even on reaching their destination they will not leave the womb. This theme is also prominent in the Simak story mentioned above.

Among the more interesting stories about social changes on generation starships are the Aldiss, Harrison, Heinlein, Leiber and Simak tales already cited, along with: The Space-Born (1956) by E C Tubb; Rite of Passage (July 1963 If as "Down to the Worlds of Men"; exp 1968) by Alexei Panshin (though, since the starship in question can travel also through Hyperspace, this is not a pure example of the subgenre); The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965) by Samuel R Delany; Rogue Ship (1947-1963 var mags; fixup 1965) by A E van Vogt; Seed of Light (1959) by Edmund Cooper; The Star Seekers (1953) by Milton Lesser, which features a four-way division of society in a hollowed-out asteroid; Alpha Centauri – or Die! (September 1953 Planet Stories as "The Ark of Mars"; fixup 1963 dos) by Leigh Brackett; 200 Years to Christmas (1961) by J T McIntosh, which features a competently thought-out but conventional cyclic history within the ship; "Bliss" (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures UK) by David Rome; and Noah II (1970; rev 1975) by Roger Dixon.

Some enterprising variants on the theme are found. In Arthur Sellings's "A Start in Life" (September 1954 Galaxy) a plague decimates the ship, leaving two five-year-old survivors to be raised by Robots. Judith Merril's "Wish Upon a Star" (December 1958 F&SF) features a ship originally crewed by 20 women and four men, with a resultant matriarchal society. Chad Oliver's "The Wind Blows Free" (July 1957 F&SF) takes the birth-trauma theme to its logical conclusion with a story about a man who, goaded to near-madness by the claustrophobic society of the ship, opens an airlock only to find that the ship landed on a planet some centuries back. James White's The Watch Below (1966) ingeniously counterpoints two generation-ship sagas, one of humans trapped Under the Sea and another of water-dwelling Aliens traversing space towards Earth.

A rare film example – whose alien crew have all died en route to our Solar System – appears in Il Pianeta Degli Uomini Spenti (1961; vt Battle of the Worlds; vt Planet of the Lifeless Men; vt Guerre Planetari, 1978). Harlan Ellison wrote the script for a generation-starship television series, The Starlost, made in Canada, disastrously, in 1973. Ellison repudiated the series as it stood, and used his derisive pseudonym Cordwainer Bird in the credits; his original script for the pilot episode appears as "Phoenix without Ashes" in Faster than Light (anth 1976) edited by Jack Dann and George Zebrowski, and was also novelized as Phoenix without Ashes (1975) with Edward Bryant.

From the mid-1970s the theme has been used only sparsely. In Kevin O'Donnell Jr's Mayflies (1979) the lives of humans seem ephemeral (hence the title) by contrast with the near-immortal human brain, embedded Cyborg-fashion in the ship's Computer, which (though only partially) controls those lives. An interesting variation is found in Damien Broderick's idea-packed The Dreaming Dragons (1980), in which a generation Time Machine is uncovered beneath Ayers Rock in the Australian desert. In Pamela Sargent's juvenile novel Earthseed (1983) the generation starship is a hollowed-out Asteroid occupied by teenagers. The voyage accomplished in Frank M Robinson's The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991) is ultimately circular. The most ambitious late-twentieth-century attempt to invest the theme with new energy is contained in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, whose four volumes – Nightside the Long Sun (1993), Lake of the Long Sun (1994), Caldé of the Long Sun (1994) and Exodus from the Long Sun (1996) – are (except for a brief coda in the final book) set entirely within a generation starship or World Ship called the Whorl. Also of note is Ken MacLeod's Learning the World: A Novel of First Contact (2005), whose latest generation of travellers is net-savvy and has effortless access to the background knowledge which in more traditional scenarios has been lost. Rather more routine is Paul Chafe's Ark sequence opening with Genesis (2007) and continuing with Exodus: The Ark (2009). [PN/DRL]

further reading


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies