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.
The 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.
My 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.
In 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.
Another 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.
I 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.
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.
Escape 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.