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 Malleability of Myth

Our stories are always built on other stories.  We draw not only on real life, but on all the other tales, tropes, and archetypes that we’ve encountered.

Some of those stories are especially powerful.  They express patterns that seem particularly meaningful to us.  Tolkien and Lewis called these “myth”—not in the sense of something false,  a “lie breathed through silver,” but in the sense of something fundamental.

Some mythologies are works of imagination:  the Greek or Norse gods, Superman, Star Wars.  Some may be built on elements of truth:  the fall of Troy, King Arthur.  Some may be literally true, though we can select parts of the overall story and express them in imaginative terms—for example, the tales of the American Revolution (Hamilton or 1776,) or what Lewis called the Christian myth (The Prince of Egypt, The Nativity Story).

Whatever their sources, all these tales make up a reservoir of plots, characters, themes, and locales on which authors draw—our cultural inheritance.  In his famous essay On Fairy-Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien described it this way:  “Speaking of the history of stories and especially of fairy-stories we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits . . .”  (Pp. 26-27 as reprinted in The Tolkien Reader (Ballantine, 1966); p. 10 in this online reproduction of the full text.)

A good storyteller does not simply repeat a story verbatim.  We give it our own spin or flavor.  In doing so, we draw from the Cauldron elements from all sorts of other tales.  As they say, “When you take stuff from one writer it’s plagiarism, but when you take from many writers it’s called research.”

This is true even when we purport to be retelling an existing story.  The great tales tend to be open to reshaping.  But how far can we go with this sort of adaptation, and still claim to be retelling the original tale?  How much stretching and twisting can a given story take before it becomes something else altogether?

 

The best example may be the Arthuriad, the mythology of the Arthurian tales.  But that’s so large a subject that it deserves a discussion of its own.  A more manageable example is the story of Robin Hood.

One thing that helps us feel free to adapt is the lack of a single, “canonical” original version of the story.  Any presentation of The Lord of the Rings—the movie, for example—will be judged against Tolkien’s book.  But there is no unique original source for Robin Hood.  The earliest sources are a variety of medieval ballads, according to Wikipedia’s extensive discussion.

Cover, Roger Lancelyn Green, Adventures of Robin HoodWhen I went in search of a standard version of the Robin Hood tale for my children’s library, there was no single obvious choice.  There is an influential Howard Pyle version, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood—I haven’t read it, but apparently it’s written in an invented antique English idiom that might not be ideally accessible to young people.  I ended up with Roger Lancelyn Green’s 1956 The Adventures of Robin Hood, which struck me as a good, middle-of-the-road retelling on which to start a young person.

 

There are enough different elements in the Robin Hood story to allow for a range of  interpretations.  On the surface, there’s the sheer romance of a band of rough but virtuous rogues living cheerfully in the forest:  the “Merry Men” theme. There is the legendary adept or quasi-superhero element:  Best Bowman Ever.  (At least, “best” until you get to Katniss Everdeen, Hawkeye, (Green) Arrow, and other successors — all of whom owe something to the Robin Hood archetype.)

There are also political themes.  The conflict between underdog Saxons and Norman aristocrats got tossed into the Cauldron in the nineteenth century, according to Wikipedia.  More specifically, Robin is often seen as defending the absent Richard the Lionhearted against Prince John’s machinations.  And of course one can focus on the economic aspect, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, and make Robin a hero of the 99% against the 1%.  The tale generally includes a strong romantic element as well.

We can see how these elements can be differently mixed in some of the movie versions, all of which are fairly successful.

 

Poster, Errol Flynn, Adventures of Robin HoodIn the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Robin is good-humored and high-spirited.  Merriment abounds; the dashing Robin treats much of the action almost frivolously—“Where’s your love of fights, risk, adventure?”  He fights with a smile, like John Carter.  Marian says:  “he’s brave and he’s reckless, and yet he’s gentle and kind.”  In keeping with this light touch, much of the soundtrack music has an antic air.  Robin is an expert bowman, of course; we see this especially in the tournament/trap sequence (which seems to have been too frivolous to be used in the later movies, below).

The plot gives us Saxons versus Normans, with Robin a Saxon nobleman (though he had traditionally been portrayed as a yeoman).  In this version, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a fat fool; the villains are Prince John and Guy of Gisborne.  Richard is a noble and honorable king, though he has to be reminded of his homeland duties by Robin.  His return is protracted, and the politics is internal.  Robin (and Marian) speak for one England, not Normans against Saxons, under the one true king.  The climactic battle scene is essentially a civil war—John’s supporters against Richard’s.

Maid Marian is a pampered Londoner, a royal ward, though she comes over to Robin’s side promptly when he shows her the sufferings of the poor.  As usual, there is a competitor for her hand—in this case, Guy.  This Marian is not an action heroine.  She arranges the plan to save Robin from hanging after his capture, but it’s his men who execute the rescue.  The love story is a central thread, and the film ends with Robin and Marian rushing off from the celebration together.

 

Poster, Kevin Costner, Robin Hood - Prince of ThievesRobin Hood:  Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner (1991), presents a more serious treatment.  Wikipedia describes it, accurately, as a “romantic action adventure.”  The Merry Men angle appears only vestigially, befitting Costner’s somewhat dour screen presence.  The Expert Archer trope certainly makes its appearance, as Robin makes progressively more unlikely bowshots to save the day.

Costner’s Robin is again an aristocrat, allying himself with the downtrodden when he returns from the Crusades.  (The notion that Robin had been on crusade with Richard is unusual:  he is usually seen as being driven to outlawry while Richard is away.)  We have the traditional Saxon-Norman conflict, complicated by throwing in a batch of wild-card Celts as well.  But the ethnic or class difference is not prominent; it is expressed primarily as a revolt against the weirdly evil and almost demented Sheriff of Nottingham.  Curiously, Prince John is not mentioned at all.  But King Richard does make an appearance at the very end, to bless the romance.  (In an entertaining nod to film history, Richard is played by Sean Connery, who had himself played Robin Hood in 1976’s Robin and Marian.)

Prince of Thieves leans heavily on the romance.  Marian, a local aristocrat, was acquainted with Robin when they were children—she despised him.  She takes a shine to him, however, after Robin returns to find the Sheriff has murdered Robin’s father.  Here it is the Sheriff who has designs on Marian’s virtue.  The romantic drama rides on Michael Kamen’s epic score for the music—with a main theme so good that Disney has come to use it as the generic musical cue for Disney’s logo.

 

Poster, Russell Crowe, Robin HoodThe most recent movie version is called simply Robin Hood, directed in 2010 by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe.

Crowe’s Robin is serious-to-grim; no frivolous japes here.  Like Costner’s version, Crowe’s is returning from the Crusades with Richard.  But this Robin is a common archer, not a nobleman.  He does some fancy shooting, but he spends more time swordfighting.  In the climactic battle, he leads a more traditional cavalry charge—and on a beach, not in a forest.  (He does, however, deliver the final coup de grace to Godfrey the villain with a bowshot.)

This film’s whole atmosphere is more cynical than in either of the two versions described above.  For example, where Errol Flynn’s Robin gives King Richard some home truths and is honored for it, Crowe’s Robin gets put in the stocks for giving Richard an honest evaluation, even though Richard specifically asked for honesty.  The movie makes a few more nods to actual history, in the relationships of John, Richard, and Walter Marshal—though with a few minor tweaks, such as an imaginary French invasion.  (The Wikipedia page lists several criticisms on the history.)  Richard is killed near the beginning, in France, rather than returning triumphantly to England.  The focus is more on international politics than in the two preceding versions:  the big final battle here is against the French.

For most of the story, this Robin doesn’t live in the forest.  Nor is he precisely an outlaw, though he and his friends do stop one shipment of grain as “men of the hood.”  Rather, his central role is as a somewhat anachronistic voice for democracy.  Robin’s father Thomas Longstride was a “visionary” who believed in raising up all people; the repeated slogan is “Rise, and rise again, until lambs become lions.”  Thomas wrote a charter of rights, signed even by barons.   In one of the few nods to the Merry Men, these rights include the right for each man “to be as merry as he can”—a livelier form of “the pursuit of happiness.”  There’s a reference to “liberty by law,” as opposed to the despotism of a “strongman” tyrant.  Marion too, though she’s a lady, is shown doing mundane chores alongside the farmers (Robin originally mistakes her for a farm girl).

In this version, the Sheriff is practically a nonentity.  John and the character representing Guy, who has mutated into “Godfrey,” are the villains.  Here John is a much more ambiguous character, rising to an almost heroic role at the climax.  But he then throws that role away by refusing to sign the Magna Carta—a historically dubious twist—and condemning Robin.

The romance element is also strong here, though to some extent it takes a back seat to politics (Wikipedia describes the movie as an “epic historical war film”).  Robin finds himself pretending to be the deceased Sir Robert of “Loxley” on his return to England.  At the real Robert’s father’s insistence, he steps into Robert’s shoes—including becoming (for public relations purposes) “husband” to Robert’s wife Marion.  This puts us somewhere in the region of the “Marriage Before Romance” trope, and allows for some endearing scenes as the two begin to fall for each other.

Marion herself is stronger and more assertive here than either of her film predecessors above (harking back to Green’s description of Marian as an “expert fighter,” p. 222).  She’s competent with sword and bow work; she frees her villagers; she even joins the final battle, in an Eowyn-style armor disguise.  At the same time, she still needs to be rescued occasionally, and is again pursued by unwanted romantic attention from the Sheriff.

In place of the usual happy ending, Robin is finally declared an outlaw at the very end—riding off into the sunset, as it were, as a perennial spirit of rebellion.  “And so the legend begins,” a title tells us.

 

As noted above, my view is that all of these movie treatments work, despite their varied treatments of Robin’s character, his martial prowess, the political angles, the villains, and the romance.  They all seem to be acceptable ways of telling the Robin Hood story.  One can appreciate the same tale rendered in a number of different ways, mutually inconsistent in their details, but able to coexist in the viewer’s mind.

On the other hand, there are limits to this variability.

The Robin Hood subgenre also offers an example of distorting the underlying myth too far — stretching the rubber band till it breaks.  Robin McKinley’s novel The Outlaws of Sherwood tries so hard to avoid the usual tropes that, in my estimation, it fails as a Robin Hood story.

 

Cover, Robin McKinley, Outlaws of SherwoodMcKinley’s Robin is anything but merry—he’s a gloomy, plodding yeoman forest ranger.  The Norman-Saxon conflict is active, but Robin has no political awareness at all; he has to be chivvied into revolt by Marian and Much the miller’s son, who handle most of the overall strategy.  Adding insult to injury, he can’t hit the broad side of the barn with an arrow.  All the fancy shooting is done by others, including Marian.  This is a pleasant nod to female action-hero equality, but leaves our image of Robin himself sadly lacking.

About the only thing McKinley’s Robin is good at is provisioning a comfortable forest home for his followers and their families.  You might say he makes a fine quartermaster, but he’s hardly a leader.

The political themes are muted.  Guy and the Sheriff are the villains, and larger national or international issues are not prominent.  Richard the Lionheart does appear, to receive the main characters’ fealty and thus end their outlawry, though he then takes them to the Crusades as a sort of penance.

The Robin-and-Marian romance is integral to the story, but it proceeds in slower and more complex ways than in the movies.  Robin is hesitant and tongue-tied, the opposite of the dashing Errol Flynn.  Only when Marian is injured, after taking Robin’s place in the famous tournament, does he admit to loving her.

McKinley is aware of the way in which authors construct tales in different shapes as they draw their preferred elements from the Cauldron of Story.  She notes in an afterword that “[m]any people have strong ideas about who Robin was and what he was like; and a lot of our ideas are as incompatible with each other as they are with history” (p. 277).  Her version has its points; but to my mind, it stretches the main themes and tropes too far to be a satisfactory iteration of the Robin Hood legend.

 

We can adapt a myth in any number of ways, but not infinitely many.  There are boundaries that must be observed if the story is to remain recognizable at all.  A story seems to have an “essence,” and violating that essence makes it into something different.  The something different may be valuable in itself; it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to adapt familiar bits from the Cauldron of Story into a new tale.  But that—of course—is another story.