Theological Slapstick: The Good Place

I can’t recall who suggested I start watching The Good Place, which recently released its finale after four seasons.  I do remember being warned not to look up the show on Wikipedia or anything first; and that was good advice.  The series’ twists and turns are entirely unexpected and it would ruin the effect to know they were coming.  So, at the top of this post, I need to point out—

Here Be Spoilers!

The Slapstick Element

The Good Place opening sceneA TV series about the afterlife is, to the best of my recollection, a novel idea.  There’ve been shows that featured regular visitations from the afterlife, such as Topper or My Mother the Car.  But these were’t about the afterlife, any more than My Favorite Martian was about life on Mars.  They were about events here on earth when visitors from the afterlife intruded.  Those who know more than I about the history of TV may be able to provide other examples; but The Good Place’s approach is at least fairly rare.

The second unexpected thing about The Good Place is the transcendent silliness with which Michael Schur and the show’s other writers imbue the series.  Almost invariably, if something seems profound or weighty, there’s a pratfall (verbal or otherwise) waiting just around the corner.  Even when typical afterlife tropes are invoked, such as torture in hell, they are so exaggerated or understated that one can’t take them seriously.  The characters are also drawn very broadly, to the point of caricature—no one could be quite as perfectly airheaded as Jason, as status-conscious as Tahani, as indecisive as Chidi—except for Eleanor, who serves as our Everywoman hero.

The Good Place yogurt shopThis perpetual wackiness makes the show entertaining, but it also accomplishes some other things.  The silliness of the events and characters prevents us from taking the theology seriously.  It would be hard to present a serious visualization of heaven or hell in an era when there is no general consensus about such things.  But we can all laugh along with the notion that a heaven featuring a really, really great yogurt shop is a bit of a letdown—even if you like yogurt.  It’s hard to be offended or galvanized to argument when the theological features are clearly not meant seriously.

In the moments when the show actually does get serious, the surrounding wackiness also keeps it from getting preachy.  The levity of the overall atmosphere lends the genuinely moving moments a sort of innocent sincerity.  (A fan of G.K. Chesterton, of course, will find that sort of atmosphere immediately congenial.)

The Ending

I’ve seen some lively comments online on how the show ended.  Several people have said they hated to see it end.  It’s true that one is always reluctant to say goodbye to favorite characters and situations.  On the other hand, it’s better for a TV series to close before it’s worn out its original premise and goes into that long slow decline.  Exhaustion of the premises is especially likely to occur when the premise is as bizarre as that of The Good Place.  So I was kind of pleased to see the writers were bringing the show to an end after four good seasons.

Is it a good ending?  Dramatically, yes.  I’m content.  That’s the essential criterion for the show’s creator:  “there’s really only one goal ever for a show finale, in my mind, and that’s to make people who have been watching the show and invested time and energy and emotion in the show feel like it’s a good ending.”

However, the completed work does leave some questions hanging.  Appropriately enough, the leftover puzzles are big issues about the fundamental things.  I don’t mean that the show should have tried to deal with them:  it can best to leave some mystery.  However, it’s entertaining to look at what some of these holes were.  I present them, of course, from my point of view; those who approach the fundamental questions differently may see the gaps in somewhat different ways.

(Since I flew the spoiler alert above, I’m going to assume that anyone who makes it this far has a pretty good acquaintance with the series.)

First Cause

The more we find out about The Good Place’s underlying machinery of the afterlife, the more we may wonder:  Who put this madhouse in place to begin with?

Judge Gen

Nobody seems to be in charge of the whole shebang.  The demons who run the Bad Place don’t have complete power, or they’d have simply gone on happily torturing humans indefinitely.  The Good Place, apparently, is run by a committee of nonentities, who show up only once or twice, make some entirely ineffectual remarks, and flee at the first opportunity to abdicate their responsibilities.  Disputes between the two are resolved by Judge Gen, an irritable, easily distracted entity who seems annoyed by the whole business.

We never do find out who dreamed up the point system that’s used to evaluate human actions.  As Sam Adams’ article on Slate puts it, “Introducing a painless exit from the afterlife allowed The Good Place to punt on some of its biggest questions, like who created the universe (the highest-ranking figure we ever meet, the nearly omnipotent Judge Gen, still feels like she’s enforcing someone else’s rules) . . .”

As the setup comes to seem more and more arbitrary, an inquiring viewer is likely to become more and more perplexed about why this particular cockamamie system should exist, rather than any other.  (Much less “why there is anything at all,” the fundamental question of metaphysics.)

These are the kinds of questions addressed by the traditional “First Causearguments for the existence of God.  Why is there this universe rather than some other?  Why is there this universe rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we sail along day to day without bothering much about the matter.  But because The Good Place is showing us (in its own wacky way) the entities that ought to have the answers, the questions become hard to avoid.  Once the main characters get backstage, you might say, the God-shaped hole in the overall system becomes more and more evident.

A related issue appears when at one point the judge proposes to wipe the slate clean and start over—annihilate all humans who have ever lived and start the new system from scratch.  I found myself wondering, what is the judge trying to accomplish?  What are her motives?  If the idea is to find a better way to deal with the ongoing human population, that’s fairly clear.  But if she’s going to eliminate the humans and start something different, why go to the trouble?  Is there some sort of cosmological imperative that there be a human race, or a life-and-afterlife system?  We don’t have any idea what her motives might be, because we have no earthly (or unearthly) idea why the existing framework is there in the first place.

Unintended Consequences

Carbon footprint graphicOne of the most interesting moral speculations in the show turns up when the main characters are trying to figure out why no humans for centuries have succeeded in qualifying for the Good Place.  The reason, it’s suggested, is that the modern world is so complex that an ordinary human can’t know all the consequences of an action.  If I buy a Coke, I have to consider not only the effect on my budget and my waistline, but also the bottle’s carbon footprint, whether it was produced using child labor or unfair business practices, and so forth.  Every choice is laden with unknowable results—and apparently these are mostly bad, bringing people’s point scores down.

It’s an interesting idea, with at least superficial plausibility.  The modern world is more complex than our pre-technological world, and maybe it’s just grown beyond our ability to manage.  Today we are constantly being told that it’s our obligation to take into account all sorts of remote consequences, becoming so scrupulous that the slightest decision is weighted with ponderous political and moral consequences.

This argument itself is based on some significant moral assumptions.  For instance, it takes for granted that actions are to be evaluated on their results—“consequentialism,” of which the most popular form is utilitarianism.  That’s not the only possibility.  Chidi, for instance, apparently embraces a “deontological” or rule-based ethics.  And then there’s the Aristotelian virtue-based ethics.  What actually drives the main characters’ decisions in the end seems to be the worth or importance of persons, which has something in common with Kant’s deontological ethics (every person must be treated as an end in itself) or, more directly, personalism.

One might also wonder whether the problem of unforeseen consequences is really unique to modernity.  Life has always been complex, and actions have always had ramifications stretching out far beyond what we can anticipate.  It does seem plausible, though, that in a highly interconnected world (“the world is getting smaller”), the effects of a given cause propagate faster and further.

Good Place cast, inquiringThere’s an additional complexity in the The Good Place’s point system insofar as it uses these remote results to judge the person who is acting.  There’s a difference between judging the results and judging the agent.  Traditional axiological (good-based) or consequentialist theories of ethics would not normally hold us responsible for consequences we can’t reasonably foresee.  If someone does something terrible (or, for that matter, something heroic) we take into account the pressures that person was under, which may include their history and experiences; the limits of their knowledge; the effects of outside conditions like drugs or alcohol; and many other factors that might diminish (or enhance) responsibility.

None of this seems to be considered in the point system with which The Good Place begins.  And no wonder:  the point system is presented from the beginning as a caricature of real moral judgment, an oversimplified and somewhat unfair scheme.  But the “new system” we’re given at the end doesn’t really solve that problem either.  Giving the poor humans many lifetimes to become better people is kind, perhaps, but how does it take degrees of responsibility into account (much less resolve the issue of unpredictable consequences)?

Eternity and the Good Life

The driving force of the series’ last episodes is the notion that an eternity of pleasure is itself intolerable.  We get bored, and, we’re told, the tedium gradually degrades our faculties, so that the esteemed philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria shows up as a shallow airhead (“Patty”), to the main characters’ dismay.  The series’ answer is that the system must provide the opportunity to end this eternal lassitude at a chosen time—“die the real death,” as Zelazny might have put it.  The option of ending it all somehow removes the tedium of eternal pleasure and allows us to enjoy the Good Place until we walk through the final door.

The idea of eternity as a bore presents a valid question.  It isn’t a question restricted to the afterlife, either; it points back to the classic philosophical issue of what is a good life for human beings.  The good life, in the classical ancient or medieval sense, isn’t just the absence of wrongdoing or the ability to score arbitrary points; it embodies the idea of a life that is worth living.

For this reason, it’s worth taking a closer look at what The Good Place has to say about the good life.  From the perspective of that question, the show’s final solution looks a bit superficial.  Sam Adams, again, says:  “The idea that going through the door would simply allow a person’s energy to rejoin the universe—as Eleanor took the fateful step, she dissolved into otherworldly fireflies that wafted down to Earth—felt more like New Age goop than moral philosophy, or maybe just a midway point between Immanuel Kant and Dan Brown.”

It’s true that “[t]he way to love anything is to realise that it might be lost,” as Chesterton says (Tremendous Trifles (1909), ch. 7).  But the idea of loving something is curiously muted in The Good Place.  The Good Place as we see it in the show does look boring, but that may be because the writers built it that way.  The focus on simple pleasures like milkshakes lends itself to this—an eternity of sitting placidly and drinking even the best milkshake would be a bore.  With admirable consistency, the screenwriters do apply the same argument to other goods like learning and reading.  But it’s not quite as clear that something like learning is as inherently limited as ordinary (and genuinely good) gustatory pleasures.

Baby kicking its legsEven with respect to the simpler pleasures, The Good Place doesn’t take into account the possibility that becoming bored is a a human weakness—a physiological or psychological failure to continue appreciating something that remains worthwhile in itself.  That weakness isn’t necessarily incurable.  Chesterton remarks:

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy.  A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.  Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. . . .  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.  (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image 1959), ch. IV, p. 60)

The one factor in the depiction of the Good Place that seems to be understated, oddly enough, is love and friendship—relationships.  The show does make something of personal interactions, mainly in the two romantic relationships, Eleanor and Chidi and Jason and Janet.  But none of the four main characters becomes involved with any other interesting people—despite the plethora of historical figures that might be called on.  (As we noted above, the interesting Hypatia has been deliberately dumbed down for the episode to make a point.)

Steven Curtis Chapman, from The Great Adventure music videoOutside the central four, together with Michael and Janet, there’s no sense of camaraderie or community.  We do not see the potentially unlimited constellations of True Companions—just the one cluster of main characters.  And of course the one big relationship is missing:  that God-shaped hole.  In traditional Christian thinking, at least, God is infinite, and our relationship with God is one time can never exhaust.  Because The Good Place adroitly sidesteps the whole question of divinity, that line of solution to the problem of eternity can’t be explored.

Moreover, the show cheats a little when it suggests that a final dissolution is the real end.  At least one character uses the conventional phrase “moving on”—which undermines that notion of finality.  And what one commentator refers to as “a complete and unknowable end” isn’t quite what we actually get.

For a while, it seems as if Michael Schur is no more prepared to answer existence’s ultimate question than anybody else. But when it’s Eleanor’s turn, the camera doesn’t cut away. Instead, it pans up to the sky above her, a group of ethereal lights floating up into the frame, suggesting that this is what the person that was Eleanor Shellstrop has become. . . . . What that gorgeous final scene suggests is that the best possible reward would be the ability to continue to touch the lives of those we left behind . . .  (Rolling Stone)

Even the series’ best attempt at agnosticism about the good life seems to recede before a sense of good action as in some sense eternal.

The Good Place cast portraitConclusion

The Good Place has been a great show, and I’ve enjoyed it throughout.  Simply giving us an opportunity to think about such matters as these is way beyond what most TV series achieve.  And to do it in a way that’s consistently entertaining is the cherry on the top of the frozen yogurt.

Comfort Reading

Reading for Reassurance

Chicken soupYou’ve heard of “comfort food,” right?

In Robert A. Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast (1980), one character asks the others:  “Write down the twenty stories you have enjoyed most. . . . Make them stories you reread for pleasure when you are too tired to tackle a new book.”  (ch. 33, p. 349)

I’d never actually thought about it before I read that passage, but there is such a category.  There are times, especially toward the end of the day, when we want to immerse ourselves in a story, but not an arduous story.  Even if we’re currently reading something new that we like, we may not feel we can fully appreciate it when we’re tired out.  We’d rather relax into something less demanding.

The same can be true when we’re feeling emotionally drained.  Sometimes we pine for what we might call “comfort reading” on the analogy of “comfort food.”

We might be tempted to regard this urge for the familiar and reassuring as craven or self-indulgent.  But there’s nothing wrong with giving way to that impulse—some of the time.  We can welcome a new book as a challenge; but we don’t always have to be challenged.  Sometimes we simply need to recoup our energies for a while.

This is true in general, I think, but especially at Christmastime—so today seemed like a good time to bring up the subject.

Good Comfort Reading

What kind of stories one likes for “cocooning” will vary, culturally and individually—as the Wikipedia article cited above makes clear for comfort food.  In TV Tropes terms, “your mileage may vary.”  By way of example, here’s some of what I find myself looking for.

When I relax, I want something relatively light, not a matter of life and death.  A fan of adventure fiction spends a lot of time embroiled in saving the world, or the galaxy—or at least the imperiled main characters.  And a lot of science fiction deals with world-changing issues and problems.  That’s pretty strenuous.  It’s nice to be able follow a narrative where the stakes are not quite so high.

At the same time, there has to be enough substance to engage our interest.  A story in which nothing is at stake won’t hold our attention.  So pure farce or silliness doesn’t always fill the bill.

And for me, at least, it helps if the story is fairly “warm-hearted.”  Happy endings, sympathetic characters, a certain degree of kindness and encouragement in the air.  A cynic might have a quite different preference here:  a happy ending may not be congenial to his world-view.  But we sentimentalists want some of the milk of human kindness in our chicken soup.  (Well, maybe not literally.)

For this reason, romances make good hunting grounds for comfort reading.  Not necessarily genre romances; I’m put in mind of Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow, which is almost uncategorizable (social comedy? political commentary? science fiction?) but incorporates no fewer than seven separate romances in a scant 217 pages, possibly a world’s record.

In a good love story, something that matters very much is at issue—but generally only for the main characters.  This is why P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies are almost always romantic comedies.  His amiable main characters are never in very great danger, but rooting for their love affairs keeps us focused through the plot’s succession of hilarious absurdities.

Melendy children with Christmas greensPersonally, I also like children’s stories to relax with.  There’s a category of what I call “family adventures,” where preadolescent children get into a series of scrapes or difficulties that are interesting but never too serious.  Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet (starting with The Saturdays, 1941) is my paradigm example.  Some of E. Nesbit’s books, such as Five Children and It, have a similar air, but with a fantasy component.  (I’d cite Eleanor Estes and Edward Eager as well, but that would raise the mysterious question of why so many writers in this category have the initials E.E.  Same reason Superman’s girlfriends all have the initials L.L., I suppose.)

Christmastide Reading

Of all the times of the year, the Christmas season may be when one most wants to be reading something engaging but pleasant.  There are probably people who want to stage a “Game of Thrones” marathon on Christmas Day, but I’m not one of them.

There are of course the traditional comforting stories that are specifically about Christmas.  A Christmas Carol is one obvious choice (though the actual book is a bit spookier and more tough-minded than some of the adaptations)

Interim Errantry coverLess obvious favorites of mine include “A good-humoured Christmas chapter” from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (ch. 28); “How Lovely Are Thy Branches” from Diane Duane’s Interim Errantry; chapter 5 of The Wind in the Willows (“Dulce Domum”); Madeleine L’Engle’s Dance in the Desert and The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas; Elizabeth Scarborough’s Carol for Another Christmas; chapters 12-13 of Kate Seredy’s The Good Master; and Manly Wade Wellman’s “On the Hills and Everywhere,” in the collection John the Balladeer.  The only trouble is that some of these are quite short; they’ll barely last you through lunch.

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverBut even at Yuletide, we may not want to marinate in Christmas quite to that extent.  So I also cultivate a selection of books that strike (or encourage) the right mood, but don’t have anything specific to do with Christmas.  I’ve mentioned Wodehouse; Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have a similar combination of light-heartedness and warm-heartedness (I’ve often thought of her as Wodehouse crossed with Jane Austen).  Other kindly and entertaining tales not specifically about the season include Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign—one of my all-time favorites for all seasons—Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn.

Have any favorites of your own for Christmastime, or comfort reading generally?

Lost World-Ships

Lost Universes

Suppose it turns out that the world in which you and your ancestors have lived isn’t a natural world at all, but a construct.  All you know of reality is the interior of a vast spacecraft.  If the truth ever becomes apparent, you’re going to be in for a shock:  the universe is vaster and stranger than you ever imagined.

Warp Drive exit signThe immense distances between the stars, and the speed-of-light limit, make this kind of situation a staple of modern science fiction.  Barring some as-yet-undiscovered method for faster-than-light travel, like the Star Wars hyperdrive or Star Trek warp drive, an interstellar voyage is likely to take many years.

The “generation ship” is a common SF assumption.  What I call “lost world-ship” stories, in which the inhabitants have forgotten they are even on a spaceship, form a subset of generation ship stories.  The generation ships, in turn, are a subset of the broader category of what might be called “sealed environment” tales:  people live for generations in an restricted artificial environment, but it isn’t a spaceship (as for instance in the movie City of Ember).  The sealed environment stories can in turn be seen as a subset of “exotic environment” SF tales, where an unnatural situation places unique pressures on the people who live there.

 

. . . And Where To Find Them

I find the lost world-ship plot particularly fascinating, so I’ve accumulated a number of examples over the years.

The Star Seekers coverMy first exposure to the idea as a child was in Milton Lesser’s The Star Seekers (1953), one of the distinctive Winston Science Fiction publications that introduced so many kids in that era to SF.  I recently obtained a Kindle copy and was charmed to encounter the story again, after all these years.  On a 200-year trip to Alpha Centauri, the four levels of the starship have separated into four different cultures, three of which are no longer aware they are on a spacecraft.  The setup is not entirely convincing; there’s no real explanation as to how most of the inhabitants simply “forgot” their origins.  But the book conveyed to me the mystery of discovering something that changed one’s whole world-view.

Orphans of the Sky coverIn pursuing the stories in Heinlein’s Future History, I ran across the real bellwether of the lost world-ship tale, the two novellas “Universe” and “Common Sense” (1941) that form the book Orphans of the Sky.  It may not be the earliest treatment— Don Wilcox was a year ahead with “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” (1940).  But in the Wilcox story, as in The Star Seekers, there was still someone on board who remembered the ship’s purpose.  In Heinlein’s starship Vanguard, no one preserved that memory.  A mutiny long ago had killed off the technically skilled, and their descendants preserved the story of the “Trip” to “Centaurus” only as mythology—which they interpreted as pure allegory, not to be taken literally.

Orphans of the Sky focuses on how hard it is for those raised in the artificial environment even to conceive that there could be an outside.  The escape of a few characters to make landfall on a planet, at the end, is a dramedy of errors.

Aldiss Starship coverAnother lost world-ship story that fascinated me in my misspent youth was the Brian Aldiss book Non-Stop (1958), published as Starship in the U.S.  As in Heinlein’s case, Aldiss’s travelers have reverted to barbarism.  The artificial nature of their surroundings is masked by the fact that much of the ship is filled with “ponics” – mutated hydroponic plants that have spread through the corridors.  The real story does not emerge until close to the end, mediated, as in Orphans, by a diary left over from earlier times.  The ship had been ravaged by a disease of sorts, the result of a previously-unknown amino acid picked up on their destination world, from which the ship was now returning.  This plague, and the long unpiloted voyage, has rendered the inhabitants far different from their ancestors, rendering their hopes for escape from the degenerating vessel problematic.

Strangers in the Universe coverI encountered Clifford D. Simak’s Target Generation (1953), originally published as Spacebred Generations, in Simak’s collection Strangers in the Universe.  There’s a well-done summary and analysis of the story by Zachary Kendal on his Web site.  When Simak’s automated starship reaches its destination, it triggers a sequence of events that lead the main character to open a sealed book of instructions that has been waiting for that moment—rather like the instruction page in City of Ember.  He concludes that the builders of the ship had deliberately caused the travelers to forget their origins, except as a vague quasi-religious observance, because that was the only way they could (in Kendal’s words) “survive the journey without terrible psychological trauma.”

All these stories affected me with a sense of vast, brooding spans of time and forgotten lore.  The settings tended to be gloomy, the societies stunted or degraded, the environments worn-down and cramped.  But the tales also raised a sense of hope—that the travelers could somehow break free of their limited universe in the end, and recover the way humans were meant to live.

 

Other Media and Sources

The lost world-ship trope has turned up in other media too.  The original Star Trek series included a third-season episode (1968) with the cumbersome but evocative title “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” in which the Enterprise crew discovers that an “asteroid” approaching a Federation planet is actually a generation ship.  There was a mercifully short-lived TV series in 1973 called The Starlost, a decent concept (by Harlan Ellison) with a completely botched execution—an entertaining story in itself.  The Pixar film WALL-E incorporates the idea that the remaining human beings have been living for generations aboard a luxury starship and have almost, if not entirely, forgotten what it’s like to live on a planet.  There was even a 1976 role-playing game called Metamorphosis Alpha set on a generation ship afflicted by an unknown cataclysm.

There’s more.  The Wikipedia and TV Tropes pages on generation ships provide useful lists.  Still more are summarized in a study by Simone Caroti, The Generation Starship in Science Fiction:  A Critical History, 1934-2001 (2011)—though Caroti’s study is a little heavy on the academic Marxist/deconstructionist attitudes for my taste.

For the broader categories I mentioned above, examples of non-spaceborne sealed environments include Hugh Howey’s Wool, James White’s The Watch Below (which pairs an alien fleet of generation ships with a human group trapped in a sunken oceangoing vessel), and Daniel F. Galouye’s Dark Universe.  TV Tropes lists others under the headings City in a Bottle and Small, Secluded World.  Other “exotic environment” stories include Ray Bradbury’s memorable “Frost and Fire” and Christopher Priest’s Inverted World.

 

Themes

What is it that’s so compelling about the lost world-ship stories as to explain my lifelong love affair with them?

Sense of Wonder.  The strangeness of the environment—the union of familiar human concerns with surpassingly unnatural situations—evokes the “sense of wonder” that is characteristic of F&SF.  But we can point to more specific themes that arise in the lost world-ship setting.

Loss and Forgetfulness.  A sense of loss pervades these stories—a loss not fully appreciated by the characters, but clear to the reader.  The starship inhabitants have lost their history, and with it, their sense of who they really are.  They have lost other kinds of knowledge as well, especially technological knowledge, often existing as barbarians in the ruins of a superscientific construct (again, a wider SF trope).

This sense of loss is like that of another subgenre, the post-apocalyptic story.  The disaster that afflicts the starship is a sort of localized apocalypse; this is what differentiates the lost world-ship from a functioning generation ship.  Pondering the causes—whether mutiny, plague, accident, or even deliberate obliteration of the past—makes us reflect on the fragility of our own histories and societies.

Illusion.  In these stories, the world is never what we think it is.  One need not live on a starship to share that experience; the whole history of modern science can be read as a progressive penetration of appearances.  (Heinlein has a character in Orphans unknowingly echo Galileo as he tries fruitlessly to convince others of how their world really works:  “Nevertheless—Nevertheless—it still moves!”)  The lost world-ship story brings home the way our knowledge is bounded by our experience—or by our assumptions.

The Natural and the Artificial.  This dichotomy can play out in two ways.  Either the inhabitants take their artificial world so matter-of-factly that it seems perfectly natural to them, and they can hardly imagine anything else (Heinlein); or the unnaturalness of their world subtly warps or frustrates them (Aldiss).

The former may seem more plausible to those who prefer “nurture” to “nature” as an explanation.  When you grow up with something, why wouldn’t you take it for granted as normal and natural?  The latter approach may appeal more to those with a strong sense of the natural as fundamental and superior to the artificial.  For example, a character in Non-Stop tries to show his companions that the ponic plants are natural, but corridors are not.  The key question, of course, is how he knows that plants are more natural than walls:  is the difference somehow wired into the human brain?  In Howey’s Dust, part of the Wool series, a knowledgeable character says of their underground sealed environment:  “They don’t know anything beyond their walls, so I guess they don’t have some of the stress about what’s out there that you and I feel.  But I think they have something else that we don’t have, this deep feeling that something is wrong with how they’re living.”

We frequently encounter such nature-nurture arguments in more conventional sociological contexts.  But the lost world-ship story brings us face to face with them in novel ways.

Incongruity.  The lost world-ship is a fertile ground for irony and “cognitive dissonance,” where the reader knows things the characters do not.  In principle this sort of incongruity could be played for light comedy or farce—but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it done that way, except perhaps toward the middle of The Star Seekers, a young adult novel and thus somewhat lighter in tone.  The starship stories tend to be too grim for farce.

Escape.  The somberness of the classic lost world-ship is alleviated by the possibility of getting out, into a freer and better world.  Once the characters realize there is somewhere else to go, they may be able to escape.

Flammarion cosmos paintingEscape is a major preoccupation in Non-Stop, and contributes much of the story’s emotional force.  It fits in with the fact that we encounter the starships in Target Generation and The Star Seekers just as they arrive at their destinations:  a hoped-for new world, a natural world free of the constraints of the world-ship.

The last generation is in a far better position, in this respect, than their ancestors.  As TV Tropes puts it, commenting on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora:  “A major theme of the book is the fact that while the original generation-ship crew may have consented to their risky mission, their children don’t get a choice.”  The writer of the ancient diary in Non-Stop, facing the beginning of the generations-long return trip, bursts out:  “Only a technological age could condemn unborn generations to exist in [the ship], as if man were mere protoplasm, without emotion or aspiration.”

But the characters we’ve come to know in the story do have the possibility of emerging into something wider and greater.  This hope is not quite the same as what Tolkien means by “Escape” in On Fairy-Stories (a topic for another day), although there is some common ground.

The contrast between the all-too-human characters and the artificial environment has still more resonance, perhaps, with the common human feeling that we don’t really belong in this world.  Some of the twentieth-century existentialists took this reaction as a sign of despair and meaninglessness.  But the notion of escape suggests instead that such emotions may instead point to another place where we do belong, evoking hope rather than despair.  The plight of the lost world-ship traveler may recall Chesterton’s lines in “The House of Christmas”:

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
. . . . .
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

The Backyard Spaceship

When I was little, my father told me he had a spaceship of his own, hidden back in the woods.  As an ardent space fan, I was wildly enthusiastic.  It was when he told me it was propelled by a hamster running in a wheel that I began to suspect he was putting me on.

But I wanted to believe it.

There’s a certain SF tradition of spacecraft built, more or less, in one’s backyard.  Of course, “backyard” may not be literal.  I’m thinking of spaceships constructed on an amateur basis, privately, and usually—though not always—by young people.Cover, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

This was the appeal of a childhood favorite of mine, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954).  Two boys (“between the ages of eight and eleven”) are recruited by a newspaper ad to put together a small rocket ship for the mysterious Mr. Tyco Bass, a small wispy man who turns out to be a “spore person.”  They fly the ship to a previously unknown miniature moon, “Basidium,” inhabited by other spore-based mushroom people.

Cameron is pretty good with her scientific facts—which means she lampshades the impossibilities carefully.  A rocket built by two kids isn’t going to get off the ground without plentiful helpings of what TV Tropes calls “Applied Phlebotinum,” the unexplained stuff or device(s) necessary to make the plot work.  A classic example is the faster-than-light space drive needed by a Star Trek or Star Wars story.  If the authors could explain how it worked, they wouldn’t be writing a story; they’d be off to the patent office and rake in billions.  Instead, the author and reader tacitly agree to postulate the necessary gizmo or substance for purposes of the tale.  It might as well be magic, in the sense of Clarke’s Third Law—“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Here, Mr. Bass supplies several crucial “inventions” needed to make the boys’ ship spaceworthy.  He provides the rocket motor, the special fuel, the clear sealant that makes the hull airtight, and the “oxygen urn” that provides breathable air—not to mention the “Stroboscopic Polaroid Filter” that allows a telescope to detect the otherwise-invisible Mushroom Planet.  These “phlebotinum” features make the boys’ vessel a little more plausible than my dad’s Hamster Drive.Cover, Rocket Ship Galileo

A more believable example (once you’re out of the middle grades) is Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947).  The project here is a private enterprise, with the spacecraft modified from an existing transcontinental “freighter-rocket” by four teenage boys.  They are, however, accompanied by one adult, Dr. Donald Cargraves, an uncle of one of the boys.  Cargraves provides the engineering expertise and the atomic drive he’s just invented, which (to paraphrase Doc Brown) “makes space travel possible.”

Starting with an existing well-equipped vessel, and kids who are already experienced amateur rocket-builders, makes the setup immediately more plausible.  Realistically, it takes months of elbow grease to do the conversion.  The Galileo isn’t actually built in a backyard, but out in the desert.  Still, the idea that kids like you or me could help build the first rocket to the moon is front and center in this story, which formed part of the basis for the early SF movie “Destination Moon.”

The notion of private-sector spaceflight was a favorite of Heinlein’s.  That theme reappears in his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1951), which also contributed elements to “Destination Moon.”  In that tale, however, the participants were all adults, and the project was a large and highly-publicized corporate endeavor more like the work of today’s SpaceX or Blue Origin.

A fully grown-up version of the backyard spaceship can be found in the widely influential first novel by E.E. “Doc” Smith, The Skylark of Space (1928, originally written about a decade earlier).  When scientist Dick Seaton stumbles upon an unknown substance that can be used to produce immense energy, his wealthy friend Martin Crane underwrites the construction of a spherical spacecraft to harness that power.  The work is started on Crane’s extensive property—not exactly a backyard, but close—and continues secretly in an independent steel plant after skulduggery enters the picture.  No kids are involved, but the private, secret, and essentially amateur operation makes Skylark an ancestor of this space opera trope.cover, Red Thunder

We might consider this theme an artifact of the naïve early days of SF, but for its reappearance in John Varley’s 2003 novel Red Thunder.  The passage of time has made some differences.  The protagonists are young adults, though they compose a motley group that still reads like “kids” to me (or perhaps it’s just that I’m that much older myself).  Their goal is Mars, rather than the Moon.  The requisite adult supervision, or phlebotinum contribution, is supplied by Travis Broussard, a cashiered former astronaut, and his quasi-autistic genius brother Jubal, who has invented a “squeezer” force field that turns out to be a fabulous rocket drive (among other uses).  Varley’s methodical development of the funding, engineering, and planning for the homegrown spacecraft (built out of a railroad tank car) makes the amateur project believable even for a contemporary audience.  Wikipedia describes the resulting adventure as an homage to Heinlein’s juveniles—since it’s essentially a Rocket Ship Galileo for the 21st century.

 

Why are we so fond of the backyard spaceship?

This kind of plot enshrines the long American tradition of inspired tinkering, from the Wright brothers and Edison, to Tom Swift, to 1950s kids with hot rods, to space kids with hotter rods (Luke Skywalker asking to go into town for parts to soup up his landspeeder).  The clever gadgeteer is a permanent part of our mythology, right down to Bill Gates and Paul Allen in their garage.

More than that, the idea that ingenious amateurs could conquer space has a democratic, underdog quality that appeals to our mythmaking imaginations.  We love the idea that spaceflight could be easy and accessible to the ordinary person.  It’s a natural evolution of the way we root for the underdog in politics or war (the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi”).  We cheer for the underdog just as much in personal life—for Cinderella, whose story exhibits, as Chesterton says, the lesson exaltavit humiles—“he shall lift up the humble.”

The backyard spaceship promises to lift the humble right off the earth, in the ancient dream of flight.  It makes for great inspiration, if dubious engineering.  And after all, the most sophisticated aeronautical engineer starts out as a wondering child and an aspiring teenager.  Our dreams rest among the stars; but the journey begins in our own backyard.