Temporary Death

Back from the Dead

Bringing back the dead is a tricky business, story-wise.  For a major character to die adds gravitas.  It gains our sympathy; it makes us take the story more seriously.

But in adventure stories, characters who die have a pretty good chance of turning up again later.  This has become such a convention that we are often adjured not to assume someone’s dead unless you actually see the body.

There’s a strong temptation for a writer to save a beloved (and sometimes lucrative) character; yet the return undermines the impact of the death.  Are there ways to manage that dilemma?

The White Rider

Gandalf faces Balrog with sword and staffThe theme of one who was dead who turns up alive has a very long history—as we may note particularly in this Easter season.  For the literary trope, however, I think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings as the the ur-example.  Gandalf’s loss is appalling for the reader, and his reappearance is a classic example of the sudden turn beyond hope that Tolkien called “eucatastrophe.”

LotR comes early enough in the history of modern high fantasy that it may have been unexpected, at that time, for a character to really die and then come back.  Merely apparent death is much more common—even in LotR.  An article I read once observed how frequently someone is thought to be dead in the course of the story.  For example, Aragorn thinks Frodo has been killed by an orc-spear in the Mines of Moria (Book II, Ch. 5).  Sam assumes Shelob has killed Frodo, when in fact the spider has merely put him into a coma (Book IV, Ch. 10).  Éomer believes Éowyn is dead, but when she’s borne back to the city she is found to be alive (Book V, Ch. 6).  Et cetera.

Gandalf the WhiteGandalf, on the other hand, really does die at the end of his extensive combat with the Balrog.  But this isn’t as fatal as it seems.  Gandalf is a semi-divine spirit, one of the Maiar, and his mission in Middle-Earth is not yet complete.  He says:  “Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task is done” (Book III, ch. 5).  The “naked” is not simply a bodily description.  In passing “through fire and deep water,” he has given up his old self, Gandalf the Grey, and become an elevated version, Gandalf 2.0, the White Rider.

This is perhaps one clue as to what makes a return from death succeed, in a narrative sense.  It isn’t easy, and it isn’t trivial.  Gandalf’s being “sent back” is extraordinary, and it changes him in deep ways.  To my mind, this death-and-reversal add to the depth and power of the story.

The Descent into Routine

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.  If the return is taken for granted, then we aren’t moved or edified by the dying.  We don’t believe it in the first place.  In fact, reading or watching a death we know is reversible tends to make us cynical.  The writers are playing on our emotions, and we feel manipulated rather than moved.

Batman and Wonder Woman mourn SupermanIn the 2016 movie Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice, Superman dies at the end.  Did anyone believe for a minute this death would last?  No one is going to kill off such an iconic character.  If nothing else (here’s the cynical part), the future income stream from Superman stories is an irresistible lure.  Just as with the comic-book “Death of Superman” sequence from which the idea was taken, I suspect my reaction was shared by many:  here’s a cheap trick to get our attention.

To be sure, there are some affecting moments in the transition from BvS to Justice League (2017), in which Superman is revived—partly because reviving him is arduous and difficult, as further discussed below.  But those moments are not easily attained.  The artifice is too transparent.

Westley recovers from death with Inigo and FezzikI have somewhat the same reaction, for a different reason, to The Princess Bride—one of the flaws in that admirable tale.  Goldman’s narrator makes a great deal out of telling his son (in the movie, grandson) that Westley dies (ch. 6).  Really.  He’s not faking.  And naturally, the boy is outraged.  The hero isn’t supposed to die!  Yet he did.  —But no, the author has tricked us.  Westley isn’t really dead.  Miracle Max tells us, “there’s different kinds of dead:  there’s sort of dead, mostly dead, and all dead.  This fella here, he’s only sort of dead . . .” (ch. 7).

That’s cheating.  We may be willing to accept the trick in The Princess Bride because it’s already such a roaring stream of clichés, so enthusiastically devised and appreciated that we never do take the story quite seriously.  But we aren’t really moved.  Our appreciation is of a different order:  we’re laughing fondly at the author’s willingness to indulge with such unreserved gusto in the most absurd fairy-tale stereotypes and gimmicks.

If we’re commenting on Batman v. Superman, we really ought to say something about Avengers:  Infinity War/Endgame.  But it’s too soon—too many spoilers.  Maybe another time.

Variations

Incidentally, the routine return can apply to villains as well as heroes.  A hero’s recurring nemesis may also be an iconic character, and the fact that the nemesis keeps coming back is a convention we rather enjoy.  TV Tropes refers to it as “Joker Immunity.”  Superman’s Lex Luthor, Spider-Man’s Green Goblin, the Fantastic Four’s Doctor Doom:  if any of them appear to be dead in the comic books, we can be pretty sure they’ll be back.  On the other hand, movie series don’t run on forever in the same way that comics series do.  The screen adapters of Spider-Man can thus afford to “expend” the Goblin, or Dr. Octopus, because they’re only going to make three or four films in a given series.  There isn’t time for repeated recurrences of an arch-enemy.

Doctor Doom is rescued by the Ovoids

On the other hand, it’s notorious that we hear Emperor Palpatine’s sinister laughter at the end of the most recent Star Wars IX trailer (4/12/2019). immediately following Luke’s voiceover line, “No one’s ever really gone.”  Some movie series do go on that long . . .

Once revival has become routine, it’s a noteworthy exception when an author is willing to let a main character go permanently (Killed Off For Real; see a list of film examples, and also the trope Deader Than Dead).  J.K. Rowling, for example, killed off Albus Dumbledore for good, well before the end of the Harry Potter saga.  Veronica Roth’s Divergent series allows the heroine herself to die at the end, though this seems to have been omitted from the corresponding movie.

In Star Wars, the regular appearance of “Force ghosts” provides a sort of compromise.  The fallen heroes don’t come back to life, but they do hang around to provide advice, commentary, and snarky explanations.

The Search for Spock

Let’s return to an instance where a temporary death does work to see if we can determine what makes that possible.

Spock's death in Star Trek 2Along with LotR, my other go-to example is Star Trek II:  The Wrath of KhanWrath is generally considered to be among the best of the Trek movies (for example, here, here, and here), and a sizable part of its draw is the death of the beloved Spock.  Like Gandalf, Spock perishes heroically, subjecting himself to a fatal overdose of radiation to make a crucial repair that saves everyone else on the Enterprise.  And his loss is fully realized by his long-time friends, along with the new characters we’ve just gotten to know.  Maybe I’m sentimental, but Kirk’s eulogy at Spock’s funeral has always struck me as a genuinely moving moment.

At the same time, there was no doubt in my mind when I first saw the film that Spock would be back.  The whole atmosphere of the final scenes in Wrath—hopefulness so intense you can almost taste it—lent itself to anticipating eucatastrophe rather than a final end.  The shiny “casket,” nestled in the burgeoning growth of the Genesis planet, seemed to promise some kind of resurrection.  What made us feel Spock’s death so effectively, even though we were morally certain we’d see him again?

Part of it is that these characters had had such a long history together.  We’d seen their relationship grow over three TV seasons, and we’d been recently reminded of that history in the first Star Trek movie, flop though it was.  To the numerous loyal Trek fans, at least, these were truly iconic characters, and we were emotionally invested in them.  The history had built up a kind of emotional potential that the death sequence could draw upon.

Spock's funeralEven more important, the other characters were visibly affected.  They didn’t know Spock would be back.  We grieved for Spock through his friends.  The screenwriter and director wisely gave us enough time, in the final sequences, to absorb and appreciate that grief with the other characters.  I suspect this, more than anything, is what makes a provisional death effective:  a powerful portrayal of other people’s response to the loss.

Finally, the heroism of Spock’s final acts, and the overwhelming sense of something wonderful that’s been achieved on the Genesis planet at the end, lend depth and further feeling to the event.  We respect his sacrifice, and it means something.  The hope for new life doesn’t necessarily erode the gravity of the death.

Moreover, the sequels navigated the difficulty pretty well.  Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock did unavoidably undercut the resolution of Wrath a bit.  The Genesis planet is unstable; it isn’t quite as wonderful as we thought.  The adversaries in Search are much more mundane than Khan (who had his own history with the Enterprise crew).  And the death isn’t permanent.

Yet the complex, gradual, effortful reconstitution of Spock manages to become something wonderful in itself, rather than just a reversal of the loss.  The notion that Spock’s katra or spirit survives adds an element of the mystical or sublime to the science-fiction texture of the series.  The notion that it survived in McCoy’s head gave the situation humor and irony.  The unconventional expedients the Enterprise crew must use to get McCoy back to Genesis provide both adventure and a maverick sense of, well, enterprise.  Meanwhile, the scenes of Spock’s body re-growing from childhood to adulthood as accelerated by the Genesis effect have their own sense of wonder.

Spock is rebornWhen the Vulcan ceremony of reintegration rejoins Spock’s spirit with his body, the impact of the result is heightened by the fact that Spock is clearly changed by his passage through death.  (The final film of the trilogy, Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, continues this theme by showing Spock visibly struggling to get used to life again.)  The return, which takes two whole movies to complete—a quest in itself—is far more than a handwave.  It’s an achievement.

Conclusions

From these examples I think we can pick out some factors that help a story to make good use of a temporary death, as opposed to a routine we-know-they’ll-be-back.

  • The death is heroic; it means something.
  • We care about the lost person—and so do the other people in the story.
  • The other characters experience the death fully, even if the reader or viewer knows that it won’t be permanent.
  • The deceased character is absent long enough to let the loss sink in.
  • The deceased character earns the return. It doesn’t come easy.
  • The returned character is transformed in some way by the experience.

When an author can incorporate these elements, we the audience can extend our “willing suspension of disbelief” to sympathize with the rest of the cast in their loss, even when we are aware in propria persona that the beloved dead aren’t gone for good.

Civilization and Chaos

Last time, we talked about Star Trek and Star Wars—but especially Star Trek—as expressing the ideal of a certain type of civilization.  Now we can broaden the range of examples.  Science fiction and fantasy make an excellent laboratory for thought-experiments here, as in so many things.

Staving Off the Fall

The threat that civilization will fail and collapse is a classic way to create a dramatic situation for a SF story.  The most common historical analogue, of course, is the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

Foundation's Edge cover artIsaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series (1942-1953) deliberately drew on that model; Asimov had been reading Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  In the Foundation universe, Hari Seldon has developed a science of “psychohistory” that predicts the Galactic Empire’s inevitable decline.  There’s no chance of preventing the fall.  But Seldon’s psychohistory offers a way to cut short the ensuing dark age from thirty thousand years to a single thousand.  The emotional charge of the original Foundation stories centers on the Seldon Plan’s bid to minimize the period of barbarism, with its chaos, violence, tyranny and suffering.  (Later developments of the series, too involved to discuss here, go off in somewhat different directions.)

I’ve mentioned H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History, which includes at least one such decline-and-fall.  The novel Space Viking (1963) gives us a whole culture of space-traveling barbarians, raiding the decadent worlds of the old Federation.  The events of the story suggest the hope of a return to lawfulness in the formation of a “League of Civilized Worlds.”  But given Piper’s cyclical theory of history, this initiative will yield no permanent resolution; the story has a happy ending, but the history does not.

Poul Anderson wrote a series of stories about Sir Dominic Flandry, a dashing secret agent of the Terran Empire reminiscent of a far-future James Bond (though Flandry first appeared in 1951, Bond in 1953).  When he can spare a moment from chasing women and loose living, Flandry devotes his efforts to shoring up the decaying Empire, though he realizes that in the end the “Long Night” is inevitable.

There’s a certain kind of romance, a mood of grandeur and doom, about these falling empires.  Naturally, they tend toward the somber and the tragic.

Defending Civilization

A more upbeat tone characterizes stories in which the fight to preserve civilization has a chance of succeeding.

Lensman imageIn the Lensman series, E.E. Smith actually refers to the heroes’ multispecies galactic community simply as “Civilization.”  That polity reflects the cooperative, yet freedom-loving, nature of the beneficent Arisians, who have nurtured it in secret over millions of years.  The Lensmen’s opponent is “Boskone,” which originally appears to be a mere conspiracy of space pirates or drug dealers.  When Boskone eventually turns out to be a whole independent culture of its own, based in another galaxy, the conflict becomes one of diametrically opposed cultures, rather than simply of order vs. disorder.

But the Boskonian culture is one of thoroughgoing tyranny, from top to bottom.  At every level, those in power scheme against each other.  Lacking any honor or ethical code, they engage in assassination and undermine each other’s plans.  Those at the bottom are essentially slaves.  The Civilization led by humans, on the contrary, respects human dignity and freedom—although the fact that these cultures have been essentially on a war footing throughout their entire history renders that freedom a little less far-ranging than we might imagine.

The Lensman example reminds us that the defenders of civilization are not always fighting against barbarians.  Autocracy and regimentation bring their own kind of chaos, as lawless warlords battle among themselves, not caring what common folk are trampled in the process.  It’s a particular kind of civilization that’s worth preserving.

This is true whether we’re in the future or the past.  We’ve seen that the power of the Arthurian legend stems partly from the theme of defending order and decency against the chaos that lies in wait.  (We may also mention Arthur’s more historically-based successor, King Alfred, who defended England against the real (not Space) Vikings.)

The embattled Arthurian Camelot is frequently connected with Rome itself, the ur-example.  The Last Legion (book and movie) provides a good example.  The waning Roman presence in Britain, as the Dark Ages set in, is a natural setting for the ideal of the lonely, valiant defender.  One example is brought up indirectly by a character’s name.  As Wikipedia puts it,  “Legio XX Valeria Victrix lends its name to the character Valeria Matuchek in Poul Anderson‘s Operation Chaos and its sequel Operation Luna; her mother is said to describe this legion as the last to leave Britain—‘the last that stood against Chaos.’”

To Valeria’s mother Virginia, “the last that stood against Chaos” is a phrase to conjure with.  That’s true for me, too.

The Right Kind of Order

If civilization represents a certain kind of order—that of the Lensmen, not Boskone—what kind are we talking about?  It’s not always easy to explain.

Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly around at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.”  The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex.  It has done so many things.  But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.  (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY:  Image Books, 1959), ch. 6, p. 83)

Chesterton’s random examples do cast some light on the question.  A community that has bookcases has books—implying a continuity of knowledge and literature, as well as the leisure to read them.  Coals to keep one warm in winter suggest both the satisfaction of basic human needs, and the whole machinery of society and technology that brings the fuel from the mine to the fireside.  Pianos reflect art and a developed culture.  And policemen indicate a society in which there is at least some attempt to defend the ordinary citizen against the depredations of the powerful and unscrupulous—the rule of law, of which more anon.

In the particular culture to which I belong, when we hold up a certain sort of civilization as an ideal worth defending, what we have in mind is a good order in which spontaneity and creativity can flourish, and people can live their lives without constant fear or privation.  There’s an order that protects the weak against the strong, but there is also enough looseness for individual variation, experiment, and adaptation.  In the “alignment” terms we discussed last time, you might say the position I’m taking is neutral good, tending to lawful.

Greco-Roman sceneThe classical roots of this ideal are found in the Greek notion of the polis and the Roman notion of civitas.  But it’s been shaped by the whole history of Western thought into what’s sometimes called the “liberal” ideal of a free society—“liberal” not in the political sense, but the root sense of “free.”

There’s one particular aspect of this ideal, though, that science fiction is peculiarly suited to address.  We’ll talk next time about civilization and science.

Star Trek vs. Star Wars

Hatfields and McCoys, Marvel and DC, Star Trek and Star Wars.  One never knows how seriously to take these deadly rivalries.  Personally, I like both of the science-fiction series, so I see the Trek-Wars wars more as a difference in tastes.  Sometimes you feel like a hamburger, sometimes a pizza.

The particular difference I see in SW and ST has to do with their atmospheres or sensibilities.

Good Order

Star Trek TOS bridge crewThe Star Trek universe—I’m focusing especially on the original series (“TOS”) and movies here—is civilized.  There are plenty of things that go wrong, and going where no one has gone before frequently brings us into situations of conflict.  But the Federation itself is organized and mostly decent.  There’s an actual chain of command.  Authority figures are typically respected.

That’s the first approximation.  To be sure, Captain Kirk and his successors don’t mind defying Starfleet orders now and then.  But when Our Heroes turn out to be right, they’re back on amicable terms with their superiors in short order.  At the end of Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, Admiral Kirk, after stealing and destroying the Enterprise (among other things), is demoted to Captain again as his “punishment.”  But everyone understands this as simply restoring him to the role he prefers and serves so well.

There’s enough divergence among Starfleet personnel to make the stories interesting, but actual villains in the corps are relatively rare.  Starfleet and the Federation are the orderly defenders of liberty and individual (in our parochial world we say “human”) rights.  That Gene Roddenberry optimism is embedded in the show’s DNA.

Fruitful Disorder

In Star Wars, it’s the villainous Vader who wants to “bring order to the galaxy” (as he says around 1:38 in this clip), and it’s the motley, disorganized rebels who fight for freedom.  Our Heroes are rebels who defy the authorities.  Their chain of command is informal, and pretty much anyone, even the carefree Han Solo, can become a general.

Though the swashbuckling, colorful Star Wars universe may seem lighthearted, it’s actually a rather distressing place.  The nearest outpost of civilization to Luke’s uncle and aunt’s farm is Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”  Slavery has flourished on Tatooine from a generation ago (little Anakin) to Luke’s era (Jabba’s servitors)—and apparently neither the Empire nor the old Republic did anything to stop it.  Intelligent droids are second-class citizens.  In the latter days of the Republic, trade combines were permitted to conduct outright warfare against whole planets (Phantom Menace), with no more than tardy, ineffective intervention by the Jedi Knights.  It seems a much less comfortable universe to live in than Star Trek’s Federation.  Both have their flaws, but the Star Wars ’verse seems much more unstable—if colorfully so.

Star Trek composite posterThere’s nothing wrong with this as a story setting.  A varied world full of dangers makes for more exciting stories than a placid utopia.  But the Star Wars setting calls out to a different kind of fan than that of the Trekkies.

Vader’s desire for order actually has good character-based reasons—one of the things the prequel trilogy got right.  In a world where you’ve been held as a slave, your mother has been tortured to death by barbarians, and your beloved is menaced by assassins at every turn, a desire for law and order is extremely understandable.  But it’s the lively Rebels with whom the viewer’s sympathies lie.  In this democratic milieu, quirky individuals and inspired improvisation flourish.

Both the SW and ST approaches represent ’60s sensibilities, but one is slightly later than the other.  Roddenberry’s Star Trek expresses the firm American optimism of the Kennedy era (1960-1963); it isn’t accidental that in the follow-up movies, Roddenberry kept wanting to tell a story about time-traveling to meet JFK.  Star Wars, on the other hand, evokes the counterculture of the late ’60s, which distrusted authority and prized rebellion—not to mention colorful chaos.

The Abrams Factor

It’s instructive to see how J.J. Abrams handled the two, since he has had the opportunity to reboot both Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.  My sense is that he’s handled SW much better than ST.  Abrams’ Star Trek movies show us a distinctly grittier, more chaotic world than Roddenberry’s.  It is, in fact, more like the Star Wars universe.  And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that, entertaining as Abrams’ ST movies may be, he doesn’t quite “get” what Star Trek is about.  His Star Wars continuation, The Force Awakens, however, is to my mind an excellent (if not flawless) extension of the SW universe.

In other words, making Star Wars more like Star Wars is a good thing, right up to the point where it begins to get slightly repetitious.  Making Star Trek more like Star Wars runs the risk of losing the very things that makes Roddenberry’s creation distinctive.  Both are good things; but they’re not good in quite the same way.

Alignment

One of the interesting things about the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game system is the notion of alignment.  D&D is built on ideas from a whole range of fantasy stories.  Many of those stories involve a conflict between good and evil.  Some, however, make the central conflict one of law vs. chaos.  D&D’s creators took the surprising step of adopting both oppositions, but keeping them distinct.  The result is a three-by-three, nine-cell matrix.  A character’s personality and ethical stance can be lawful good or chaotic good, or straddle the two as neutral good.  The being can also be lawful or chaotic evil—the evil of 1984 or of Beowulf, let’s say—or an intermediate neutral evil.  Finally, someone can be lawful neutral (think an OCD personality), chaotic neutral (low impulse control), or “true neutral” double-neutral (an unprincipled pragmatist, perhaps).  The range of combinations allows for shorthand expression of quite an array of character types.Nine alignments example, F&SF

I wouldn’t necessarily buy into this particular classification of famous fictional characters . . . but it gives us an idea how the alignment scheme works in practice.

The alignment chart also yields a neat way to encapsulate the ST/SW difference we’re examining.  Star Trek honors the lawful good:  the interstellar police force, the scientific explorer, the careful defender.  Star Wars admires the chaotic good:  the lovable rogue, the solitary guru, the loosely organized band of allies.

Political theory

Pournelle political axes chartHere’s yet another way to put it.  Science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, whose doctorate is in political science, laid out in 1963 a map of political “alignments” with two axes, producing a far more useful classification of positions than the usual left-right continuum.  (Pournelle’s 1986 essay provides a detailed explanation.)  The two dimensions in Pournelle’s scheme are “attitude toward the state” (from state as evil to state worship), and “attitude toward planned social progress” (from rationalism to irrationalism).

If we think of these axes as applying to the character of a culture, not necessarily to politics per se, we can express the ST/SW divide in Pournellean terms.  I’d put TOS-era Star Trek somewhere around 3/4’ or 3.5/4’ on the chart, believing pretty strongly in reason and ambivalent about state power.  Star Wars, by contrast, seems to live in the 2/2’ region, not far from the “American ‘Counter Culture’” to which I compared its ambiance above.  Each milieu will tend to attract viewers who are sympathetic to the points of view expressed in its neighborhood on the grid.

Civilization

What it comes down to, I think, is whether we see the best conditions for free and fruitful lives primarily in order or in disorder.  Both are arguably necessary.  But is what’s best for people a basically orderly society with a healthy modicum of chaos; or a wild-and-crazy culture with just enough organization to hang together?

The Star Trek/Star Wars contrast thus leads us up to the question of what makes for a good society, a true civilization.  There’s a good deal more to be said about this, and I’ll take another crack at it next time.

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.

Star Trek: Raiders of the Lost Arcs

I’m a Star Trek fan from way back.  I enjoyed “Star Trek:  Beyond.”  Why am I not more enthusiastic?

Star Trek Beyond posterStar Trek:  The Original Series (“TOS”) was almost purely episodic.  Each week, another new world or new civilization, a unique problem, a nonrepeating set of guest stars.  Each episode stood pretty much alone.  You could miss one and not be at a loss when you saw the next one, because nothing had changed.  The original “setup” was restored at the end of every show.

This wasn’t unique to Trek; it was the norm on television back in the 1960s.  “Situation comedies” were defined by a permanent “situation” that formed the basis of each week’s program.  Dramatic shows like “Bonanza” or “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” used the same method.  No matter what happened in the course of one episode, things were back to normal by the opening of the next.  The reductio ad absurdum is “Gilligan’s Island.”  There was a melancholy certainty that no matter how hopeful things seemed, they were never getting off that island.

Of course this was never entirely true.  One of the Cartwright sons on “Bonanza” was Cartwritten out of the script and disappeared.  Chekhov joined the Enterprise crew in the second season of Star Trek and stayed on thereafter.  But mostly, the “initial conditions” for each episode remained the same.

What we did not see was long-running plot arcs or character development.  Each plot had to wrap up neatly in a single episode.  Characters and relationships were static.

It’s instructive to look back and realize how much this has changed.  TV series these days are expected to have long-term plot arcs, often spanning a season or more.  A series like “Chuck” might change the plot premise significantly from one season to the next.  And viewers today are addicted to mini-series (maxi-series?) with extremely long and complex plots, as in “Game of Thrones.”

 

As the Star Trek movies came out, it presently began to seem that we were essentially seeing series episodes, but stretched out to two hours rather than one.  It left a vague feeling of being cheated.

In a typical two-hour movie, there’s time for more leisurely plot development, and one expects things to happen.  Sure, there are long-running series like the James Bond movies that cycle back to the same scenario just as the old TV series did.  But that isn’t true of most movies.  Even sequels frequently find themselves starting at a new point in narrative or character development—which was a challenge for moviemakers who merely wanted to reprise the success of the original film.

If we pass in merciful silence over Star Trek I (“The Motion Picture”), the striking thing is that the next three movies did have a continuing plot arc.  I’ve heard that they were plotted as a coherent trilogy by Harve Bennett, and that does seem to be borne out by the movies themselves.

While Star Trek II, III, and IV represented remarkably different types of films, there was a continuous thread of action.  The Enterprise crew created the Genesis planet in II, returned to that planet and saw its collapse in III, and made their own return to Earth in IV.  With side trips, of course.

And there were character changes.  One of the things that makes Star Trek II the best of the Trek films is the impact of Spock’s death, around which the entire story is carefully constructed.  Of course fans were pretty sure even then that his death wouldn’t be permanent.  But the characters didn’t know that, and we got to see how this loss affected them.  And Kirk’s son David Marcus did die for good in III—though this new character’s death didn’t have the impact of Spock’s.

Star Trek V and VI, however, were unconnected stories riffing on the same traditional characters, and momentous as the writers tried to make them, there was a distinct sense of “back to the old grind.”  VII was somewhat unique, as the intersection of the TOS crowd with “The Next Generation” (TNG) characters.  But the following movies, VIII through X, were very like individual episodes of the TNG series.

The three films beginning with the 2009 reboot also strike me as standalone episodes.  The occasional attempt to tie them back to other storylines, as with the appearance of Khan and Carol Marcus in “Into Darkness,” is offset by the disconnection from all earlier stories stemming from the timeline change in the 2009 movie.

So this year’s Star Trek entry strikes me as okay, but it lacks the cumulative force of a long-term plotline—unless perhaps you take a strong interest in the desultory Spock-Uhura romance, which so far hasn’t gripped me.

By contrast, series that do have long-term plotlines and character developments, as in Star Wars and Harry Potter, can build up quite a head of steam—and corresponding viewer loyalty—through the accumulating drama of an extended story.

 

The fact that we now expect long-form plot arcs makes for an interesting countercurrent to some of the standard assumptions about today’s audience.

It sometimes seems that we have all been seized by a collective attention deficit disorder.  Writers are warned to “hook” their readers, not in the first page or even paragraph, but in the first sentence.  Communication packets have been reduced to 140 characters.  It’s easy to bemoan how rushed we all are, and how short our attention spans.

But at the same time, modern viewers take in stride a series of six or seven movies.  Harry Potter brought a generation of viewers through eight lengthy parts without blunting their appetite for more Potteriana.  TV series routinely carry on long-drawn-out developments.  Novel readers happily consume endless serials like the Honor Harrington tales, or the fourteen massive volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.  By today’s standards, the 1800-page Lord of the Rings, touted as a huge work in the 1960s, seems positively concise.

To my mind, this says something favorable about today’s readers and viewers.  We’re fond of the sound bite and tweet, yes—but we also seem willing to tackle much longer stories than in the olden days.  There may be hope for coherence and continuity yet.