Meet Cute and Meet Hard

Two Ways to Meet

In The Holiday, Kate Winslet’s character Iris comes upon an old man who’s hobbling about his own neighborhood, having forgotten where his house is.  (He’s a once-famous movie screenwriter, but she doesn’t know that yet.)  When she takes him home, he remarks, “Well, this was some meet-cute.”  And, having lampshaded the trope by name, he introduces Iris to one of the classic conventions of romantic comedy:  the main characters’ first meeting is awkward, confusing, adorable, or just plain cute.

On the other hand, the romantic couple in adventure stories is often thrown together by the adventure itself.  The meeting is not so much cute as conflict-driven:  let’s call it a “meet-hard.”  The two types of encounters are both unusual—not your average first date—and, though they are opposites in some sense, they have some features in common.

Bumping Into Each Other

The simplest case for the meet-cute, as TV Tropes notes, is for the characters literally to crash into each other by accident—coming around a corner, for instance.  This gives us physical contact, the resulting embarrassment, and a way to get the characters interacting at once.

Notting Hill movie posterIn Notting Hill (1999), Hugh Grant’s bookstore owner chats briefly with Julia Roberts’ movie star when she browses around his bookshop.  But he kicks off the relationship when he later collides with her outside and (naturally) spills his drink on her, necessitating a costume change.  In the Good Old Summertime, the musical version of the “Shop Around the Corner” story (1949), also has the main characters meet in a collision, causing them to take an instant dislike to each other (a sure sign of impending romance in a rom-com).  The embarrassment factor is amplified by the fact that he then accidentally shreds her skirt.

But of course a couple can also “bump into” each other less literally.  For my money, the most adorable meet ever may be in the Hollies’ 1966 song “Bus Stop” (hear it here).  The singer offers to share his umbrella with a cute girl at the bus stop.  They then continue using the umbrella throughout the summer, rain or shine, as a kind of running joke, not to mention a pretext for standing close together.  I’d love to see this played out onscreen.  P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It To Psmith (1923) has another umbrella scene, but even sillier:  Psmith sees an attractive girl stranded by the rain and, in classic insouciant Psmith manner, steals someone else’s umbrella to offer her gallantly.

Serendipity posterThe recent Netflix rom-com Set It Up (2018) has the main characters deliberately arranging a meet-cute in an elevator as part of a plot to get their bosses to fall for each other.  (It fails spectacularly.)  In Serendipity (2001), one of my holiday-season favorites, the pair meet fighting over the last pair of black cashmere gloves at a department store.

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (And Back Again)

Resisting the temptation to highlight innumerable other favorite examples, I’ll point out some more exotic cases.  The earnest trash-compactor robot in WALL-E (2008) meets the girl robot of his dreams, EVE, when she is dropped nearby to scout the long-defunct Earth for plant growth.  He spends the next several sequences frantically dodging the suspicious droid’s laser blasts, before they get more comfortable with each other.  Once EVE finds a sample and goes inert, we even see WALL-E gallantly shielding her from the rain with an ancient bumbershoot.  There’s just something about umbrellas; most likely it’s that they represent a very mild way of depicting a damsel in distress.

In the best of Heinlein’s juveniles, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel (1958), high-schooler Clifford Russell is trying out a working spacesuit he’s won in a contest when he gets a distress call from someone who’s escaped from hostile aliens in their flying saucer.  When he’s captured himself, he meets the caller, Peewee, a genius-level eleven-year-old.  Given the characters’ respective ages, there is no actual romance in the usual sense, though they become fast friends—and there’s no question but that they’ll fall for each other when they get old enough.  I’d classify this as a meet-cute on an intergalactic scale.

Arabella, coverVehicular breakdown is almost as good a way as umbrellas to create unexpected pairings.  In Georgete Heyer’s Arabella (1949), the eponymous Arabella’s carriage breaks down near the country “hunting box” of the (formerly) jaded Robert Beaumaris.  A recent romance in Wild Rose Press’s Deerbourne Inn series, Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace (2019), has Erica Timberly’s car break down, in the rain, no less, occasioning her rescue by her rock-group idol, Dylan Haynes.  (Unaccountably, he doesn’t offer an umbrella.)  Angela Quarles’ steampunk romance Steam Me Up, Rawley (2015) drops the hero into the heroine’s lap in a malfunctioning balloon, this being steampunk.

The Meeting of Adventure

By the time we get to carriage or automobile mishaps (not to mention flying saucers), we’re edging into the territory of the adventure romance.  (Which may where I should have classified Have Spacesuit, except that the incident, the setting, and the characters are just so darn cute.)  The “meet-hard” in an adventure story puts romantic interests together in exigent circumstances, defining their initial relationship in a different way.

There’s an entire subgenre of adventure romance stories.  Goodreads lists (at this writing) 1,344 entries in the category “Popular Adventure Romance Books.”  And that’s just the popular ones, apparently.  However, that’s not precisely what I’m referring to here.  In some cases—The Hunger Games is near the top of Goodreads’ list—the eventual lovers already know each other before the adventure begins.  Here, I’m classifying an “adventure romance” as a romance in which the characters meet on or because of the adventure.

Speed movie posterI think of the movie Speed (1994) as a classic example.  Most of the action takes place on a bus equipped with a bomb that’ll go off if the bus’s speedometer drops below 50 miles per hour.  Keanu Reeves’ character Jack Traven gets on the bus because he’s a police officer.  His opposite number, Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), is merely a passenger who ends up driving the bus.  They bond over the course of the incident and are ready for a real date by the finale.

The adventure romance may shade over into a rescue romance, in which one character saves the other from some unfortunate fate, minor or major.  But this doesn’t have to be the case; it’s just as likely the protagonists will end up cooperating in achieving their goal, becoming what TV Tropes calls a “Battle Couple.”

A Precarious Bond

Speed neatly illustrates (and lampshades) the great strength of the adventure romance:  the stress and camaraderie of the adventure brings the couple together as “Fire-Forged Friends.”  I’m especially fond of this trope (see The World Around the Corner and Rescue Redux).  At the end of Speed, Jack tells Annie he’s heard that relationships “based on intense experiences” don’t work out, although they go ahead anyway.  Interestingly, the sequel bears that out; Annie has a new boyfriend—though that seems to have been a function of actor issues (Reeves declined to appear).

National Treasure trailer sceneA similar issue about the stability of adventure romances comes up in the sequel to National Treasure (2004), in which characters played by Nicholas Cage and Diane Kruger came together over a plot to steal the original Declaration of Independence.  Their relationship has fallen apart by the time National Treasure 2 (1007) rolls around, but a new adventure gives them an opportunity to rekindle the spark.

Extraordinary Adventures

Since F&SF specializes in adventure, we see the meet-hard frequently in science fiction or fantasy works.  In the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, A Princess of Mars (1912), John Carter meets Dejah Thoris when she is captured by the green Martians among whom Carter is living, and he becomes her defender.

The principal couple in E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (first published 1928, revised book ed. 1946), Dick Seaton and Dorothy Vaneman, are already engaged when the story starts.  However, when Dorothy is kidnapped and Dick sets out in pursuit accompanied by his fast friend, Martin Crane, it turns out that Dorothy has a lovely fellow captive, Margaret Spencer.  Peggy and Martin form their own bond in the course of their epic space trip, and under these stressful conditions, it develops quickly enough that we get to see a double wedding on the planet Osnome.

The boy Shasta in The Horse and His Boy (1954), one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnian chronicles, meets an aristocratic Calormene girl, Aravis, on the road (ch. 2), and they share the adventures from then on.  These characters are also too young for an actual romance, but Lewis dryly tells us at the end that “years later, when they were grown up they were so used to quarrelling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently.”

Eilonwy and TaranAnother independent heroine, Eilonwy, has grown up living with a formidable witch, which is where Taran the young hero meets her in Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three (1964).  She engineers Taran’s escape, which in only the start of five novels’ worth of achievements and escapades, with a marriage at the end (once they’ve grown up).  Don’t even look at the Disney movie version of the story, but I do highly recommend Dawn Davidson’s graphic-novel adaptation, only partway through but very promising.

And, for an example that’s had a wider audience, in the Marvel movie Thor (2011) Jane Foster discovers the hero in the desert, where he’s just been dropped by an Einstein-Rosen wormhole.  Their adventures continue through two movies, although by the third episode, lamentably, they seem to have broken up.

Only Slightly Extraordinary Adventures

Not all stories of adventure need to have fantastic elements—although by definition an adventure takes us out of ordinary, mundane life.  The dangers and thrills of the real world are quite enough.

Romancing the Stone posterOne of my favorite comedy-romance-adventures is the 1984 movie Romancing the Stone, in which romance novelist Joan Wilder ventures out of her quiet writer’s world to come to the aid of her sister, captured by smugglers in South America.  The bus she’s riding in Colombia crashes into a jeep driven by an exotic-bird smuggler, Jack T. Colton.  (I will leave to the reader the task of deciding whether this should count as a bump-into-each-other encounter, or a vehicular failure.)  Jack and Joan end up as unlikely partners in a progressively (sorry, I can’t avoid it) wilder series of escapades that end in a romance—although this couple, too, will have to wait for a sequel to fully seal the deal.

As noted above, there are lots of romance novels in this category as well.  Many of them start with the mundane and develop complications as they go; for example, Jennifer Crusie & Bob Mayer’s Don’t Look Down (2006), which starts out filming a movie and ends up with (as Goodreads puts it) “trying to find out who’s taking ‘shooting a movie’ much too literally.”

There is a sort of degenerate form of the adventure romance (in the mathematical, not the moral, sense) in which characters that are thrown together in a thriller automatically pair up, whether there’s a reason for it or not.  A writer can lean on the “forged in fire” trope without doing the work of showing how the characters are actually drawn together by the excitement.  For example, I have on my shelf Gardner F. Fox’s The Hunter Out of Time (1965), which made an impression on me as a kid but which, in retrospect, I have to think of as a potboiler.  When the time agent from the future who meets “adventurer” Kevin Cord turns out to be a beautiful girl, one is hardly surprised they end up falling for each other, basically because they’re there.

The Wedding Planner posterSome of these examples illustrate the gray area between the meet-cute and the meet-hard.  Whether cuteness or crisis predominates depends on the context of the story.  For example, the leads in The Wedding Planner (2001) meet when Mary (Jennifer Lopez) gets her high-heeled shoe stuck in a manhole cover and “Eddie” Edison pulls her out of the way of a speeding dumpster.  It’s a genuine danger, but it doesn’t lead to a series of adventures; the overall setting is comic (as is the danger).  On the other hand, the leads in Ready Player One (2011) meet in a gaming context, but their developing relationship is action-driven.

Where the Meets Meet

The meet-cute and the meet-hard share some features with respect to how they function in a story.

Ready Player One posterThe style of the meeting can help set the tone for the story:  comic, adventurous, or something else.  This is true even in the mixed cases.  Mary’s predicament in The Wedding Planner is slightly silly:  she’s pinned down by getting her heel stuck, and the onrushing menace is not a Mack truck but a mundane dumpster.  Similarly, Wade and Samantha in Ready Player One meet via action games; that tone is maintained when the action spills over into real life and real danger.

Both meet-cute and meet-hard have the effect of accelerating a relationship.  They put the characters in contact with each other in a distinctive and memorable way.  The quirkiness of the encounter, something the characters have in common, cuts short the process of “getting to know you” with which ordinary relationships begin.  This is especially useful in movies, or short stories, where a limited time is available for a “slow burn” relationship to form.  In that respect, these devices are similar to the love-at-first-sight convention (the “stroke of lightning”).

Finally, these non-ordinary meetings reveal something about the characters:  how they deal with unusual situations.  Are they self-conscious or self-confident?  Do they come up with quick solutions to problems (whether or not involving umbrellas)?  Do they know how to take action in a crisis?  And, not least, do they have a sense of humor?  The exceptional nature of the first meeting shows us more about the participants than we’d see if they simply met at work, say, or introduced themselves in a bar.

Either the meet-cute or the meet-hard, then, can kick off a romance with style—though very different types of romance may develop.

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The Stroke of Lightning

Love at First Sight

In French it’s “le coup de foudre,” “the stroke of lightning.”  Love at first sight—if we’re going to be talking about it so much, let’s call it LAFS for short (an especially good term if we’re doing romantic comedy)—is one of the most ancient, familiar, and infamous romance tropes.  But contemporary genre romance has its own spin on the matter.

Scene from It Only Takes A MomentThere are, of course, innumerable songs that memorialize this phenomenon, from the classic “Some Enchanted Evening” (from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific)—“you may see a stranger, across a crowded room”—to a more recent Colbie Caillat song, Brighter Than the Sun, which actually uses the phrase “lightning strikes the heart.”  Or simply consider the title of “It Only Takes a Moment,” which originated in Hello Dolly (1964) and was used to poignant effect in WALL-E (2008).

Shakespeare goes so far as to say “Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?” (As You Like It, III.5.81), an homage to Christopher Marlowe, who’d said it before in his 1598 poem Hero and Leander (according to Wikipedia).  I need not mention Romeo and Juliet.

Aside from romance strictly speaking, LAFS can be useful in an adventure story, by way of what TV Tropes calls The Dulcinea Effect:  “the compulsion many male heroes have to champion, quest for, or die for girls they met five minutes ago.”  This can be contrasted with, or may lead to, a romance “forged in fire”—the notion that a couple may bond through having an adventure together.  I’m fond of this one myself, perhaps applied with one spin or another.

For the moment, let’s note that the instant-love convention is fun, but often seems implausible, not to mention clichéd.  One can see LAFS simply as a dramatic convention, like the Shakespearean soliloquy—but perhaps that’s not all there is to it.

Lust at First Sight

Shanna, book cover

The contemporary romance, more preoccupied with eros.

In modern genre romances, a great deal more emphasis is placed on physical desire than was the case in earlier tales.  As a result, LAFS takes a slightly different form.

In a “Some Enchanted Evening” or Romeo and Juliet scenario, the lovers’ beguilement may be almost spiritual, a sort of epiphany.  They are attracted to each other’s beauty, but there may be an element of reverence mixed in.  In the contemporary romance, on the other hand, the first impression is decidedly physical.  Once the main characters meet, they can hardly keep their hands off each other.

This sort of LAFS is both more plausible and less substantial than the more general sort.  It’s plausible because physical desirability can be evident at first sight.  It can be intensified by further acquaintance—getting to know the voice, actions, words, varied aspects of the beloved.  But the sexual attraction, at least, can be immediate.  This is traditionally true for males, but contemporary romance makes it abundantly clear that in at least some cases women react the same way.  Examples are so omnipresent as to make it unnecessary to cite them.

To do these stories justice, they recognize that insta-lust isn’t enough.  The main characters typically take an entire novel’s worth of events to really fall in love.  Lust (or, less tendentiously, sexual desire) is just the initial driver.  There’s a lot of “getting to know you” to be done before the story is over.  And a good deal of that usually happens through meeting obstacles or countervailing forces that need to be overcome.

Tension and Obstacle

If the romantic leads fall in love immediately, there have to be obstacles that prevent them from getting together at once.  Otherwise, the story will be very short.  I believe it’s from an entertaining opus entitled Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies that I recall the sage advice:  “If your story is ‘they came, they saw, they dated,’ then you don’t have a story yet.”  With intense attraction pulling the lovers together, they’ll collapse into each other at once unless there’s also something to push them apart.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t precisely true.  One could simply depict a couple gradually growing more interested in each other.  At first the romantic interest is just somebody they know or meet.  Then a greater interest awakens, attraction strengthens, and they reach that obsessive fascination that marks the “falling in love” stage.  This type of relationship might be the most common and realistic of all.  But it’s the hardest to manage for an author:  it requires depicting a whole series of attitudes developing at just the right pace.

I would love to see such a story.  But it would be much subtler and more gradual than the tempestuous narratives audiences tend to prefer.  Your average handbook on fiction writing will dwell at length on the importance of conflict in holding a reader’s interest—and for good reason.

Count to a Trillion coverThe obstacles that keep the lovers apart, then, may be external or internal.  The simplest external problem is physical separation.  In John C. Wright’s “Count to the Eschaton” series (it begins with Count to a Trillion, 2011), the star-crossed lovers connect in volume one.  However, the female lead, Rania, must embark on a slower-than-light interstellar voyage that will last twelve thousand years.  She will survive due to time dilation.  But it’s a good thing her earthbound partner, Menelaus Illation Montrose (there’s a name for you!), has ways of prolonging his life over the intervening millennia.  In the meantime, their relationship is on hold.

A more conventional separation can be seen in tales from the Age of Sail, when sea travel around the world might take years—shorter than millennia, but long enough in a human life.  Captain Jack Aubrey, for example, the perennial hero of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, frequently spends months at a time apart from his beloved Sophie.

External obstacles may also include dangers that keep the characters otherwise occupied—from immediate peril in an action-adventure story to blackmail or other threats—as well as social or cultural barriers like those faced by Romeo and Juliet.

In a less action-oriented tale, the obstacles are more character-based or internal.  The love affair may be interrupted by disputes (You’ve Got Mail), misunderstandings, antipathy for one reason or another (Pride and Prejudice), or by one or the other person’s inner character issues, such as previous bad experiences or trust issues (where the Big Lie often plays a role).  External and internal problems can be combined in romantic thrillers like Don’t Look Down (Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, 2007).

In each case, the characters’ initial attraction, the LAFS moment, keeps pulling them together in spite of the difficulties, ad astra per aspera.  They just can’t resist each other, no matter what plausible reasons might be given for trying.  The combination of opposing drives creates the fruitful tension that keeps the reader’s interest.

White Smoke coverIt’s worth noting that Andrew Greeley counterposes desire in a similar way to the more mundane obstacles of daily life.  In White Smoke (1996), Blackie Ryan, a frequent Greeley spokesperson character, observes:  “human sexuality is distinct from the sex of other primates in that it is for bonding as well as for procreation.  The bond between husband and wife stretches like a rubber band. . . . Then, when it is at the breaking point, the force of passionate love draws them together again.”  This is a constant theme in Greeley’s novels.  In other words, lust or desire isn’t just for beginnings, for LAFS.  It continues to play a vital role throughout a love affair and into marriage.

But I digress.

Retrospective Love

One of my brothers once asked the other two of us whether we believed in LAFS.  The three of us ultimately came to the same conclusion.  You can fall for someone at first sight, yes; but you won’t know if it’s love until much later.

The instant attraction is a good starting point.  But it can’t ripen into love unless the participants come to know more about each other’s personality, character, interests, and so on.  We have to see someone in a variety of circumstances:  what they’re like with family, friends, enemies; when they’re mad, happy, sleepy; over the long run.  (The plausibility of the “forged in fire” adventure-romance is that strenuous situations reveal more about someone’s character than more ordinary casual interactions.)  As an old Orleans song puts it, “love takes time.”

Later on, when the couple has grown closer enough to know that they really do love each other, they can look back at their first meeting and say, that was when we began to fall in love.  And they won’t be wrong.  Chances are they felt that initial attraction right then, and now they know that was the beginning of a love story.

But that couldn’t have been predicted from the moment of LAFS.  Some such moments sputter out:  they prove to be mere temporary infatuation, or the admired individual turns out to be unavailable (already married, for instance), or on getting to know them better they find that they aren’t as good a fit as they thought.  We can’t know, from the initial thunderbolt alone, that it’s going to lead to a true love story.

So we can fall in love at first sight; but we can only say that retrospectively, after the fact.

Emma, coverThis points up an important difference between stories and real life.  If we’re reading a story—particularly a genre romance—we can generally be confident that LAFS will lead to a deeper relationship between the characters.  We predict that not from LAFS itself, but from genre and narrative expectations.  This isn’t always borne out:  some tales will start by introducing a romantic interest who doesn’t turn out to be The One, later to be displaced by the real article.  Jane Austen’s Emma is a brilliant example of this twist:  among other comic errors, the heroine thinks she’s in love with Frank Churchill, but it takes the entire novel for her to realize that it’s her longtime friend George Knightley that she really loves.  But as a rule, if the heroine is devastated by the attractions of someone in Chapter the First, that’s who she will end up with in Chapter the Last.

In real life, we have no such guarantee.  Life is a story, but it’s not always constructed according to our narrative rules—at least in the short run.  We cannot know in advance whether the object of desire who’s just swum into our ken is really our destiny.

Conclusion

As the famous sage Wikipedia observes, LAFS fits in neatly with the notion, put forth as far back as Plato, that the beloved is our “other half,” the one who makes us complete—what we might call the theory of complementarity.  In Plato’s dialogue, Aristophanes suggests that meeting our other half leads directly to an intoxicating attachment to the other person.

Would that it were so simple.  If our whole selves were evident at first glance—if our appearance fully expressed our selves—that might work:  who you really are would be “written all over your face.”  But in fact a given moment or aspect expresses something about who we are, but not everything.  Even in the best case, we can’t possibly absorb everything about a person at first sight—which may be a good thing, as it allows us some privacy and reserve.  In worse cases, though, the other may deliberately deceive us or conceal things that would compromise our love.  That’s why love takes time.

Lois McMaster Bujold once said, “The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not ‘Do these two people get together?’ but rather ‘Can I trust you?’  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.”  The answer to that question we can only learn by extensive experience—though perhaps that experience can be compressed to some degree by experiences that show our true natures in condensed fashion (the “forged in fire” trope).  Only at length can we really know love at first sight.

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.