Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Generation Ships

Christopher Beiting's article on The Book of the Long Sun (which I blogged about yesterday) has got me very interested in generation ships. A type of "interstellar ark", the generation ship is a hypothetical ship capable of sustaining a human population for a number of generations, traveling a great distance in this time.

The first fictional depictions of the generation ship are, so far as I can ascertain, Don Wilcox's "The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years" (Amazing Stories, October 1940), and Robert A. Heinlein's "Universe" and its sequel "Common Sense" (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1941 and October 1941 respectively, collected together as Orphans of the Sky in 1963). These were followed by many other science fiction stories centred around the 'trope' of the generation ship, including Brian W. Aldiss's Non-Stop (aka Starship) (1958), the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" (1968), Harry Harrison's Captive Universe (1969), and the short-lived 1973 Canadian science fiction series The Starlost. More recently, Elizabeth Bear has taken up the concept in her Jacob's Lader Trilogy (2007-ongoing).

The generation ship of Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, called the Whorl, is a hollowed out asteroid, outfitted with life-support systems and a propulsion system. According to this website, the "hollowed asteroid generation ship" has also been used in Greg Bear's Eon (1985), Gregory Benford and David Brin's Heart of the Comet (1986), and the Star Trek episode mentioned above.

 A hollowed asteroid generation ship.

Related to the generation ship is the sleeper ship, which transports people over great distances by placing them in a kind of cryogenic sleep or stasis. I think that these are a more common science fiction trope than the generation ship, since it allows authors to avoid their characters aging during interstellar travel (the alternative, of course, is to have faster than light travel). Wolfe's Whorl would also classify as a Sleeper Ship, since in addition to the human beings living within the hollowed asteroid (the "cargo" of the Whorl), there are also thousands of people being transported in stasis (called "sleepers").

It seems that a lot of thought has gone in to generation ships, and their feasibility as a form of interstellar transportation:
Such theorisation on generation ships is by no means limited to science fiction: in the 1970s Princeton physicist Gerard K. O'Neill designed the "O'Neill Cylinder" or "Island Three" as a hypothetical generational ship in which gravity was created from centrifugal forces. The US National Space Society has made a fascinating 1977 book called Colonies in Space by T. A. Heppenheimer, an aerospace engineer, available online - it is worth a look.
    Gene Wolfe's treatment of the generation ship trope seems more and more interesting the more I think about it. As Beiting notes in his article, Wolfe completely overturns the tendency to use the trope as a materialist or scientific empiricist allegory. Traditionally, the ship's inhabitants discover that their 'world' is actually a giant space ship, and must cast off the ignorant mythology or religion they have developed around the ship's builders or artificial intelligences (AI). In Long Sun, while Silk's faith in the 'gods' of his religion is destroyed when he finds out they are (mostly evil) AI, he comes to a stronger faith in the transcendent 'Outsider' (i.e. the God of Christianity). Long Sun as a whole can be read an allegory for of the coming of Christianity to the pagan, and the triumph of the religious worldview over more scientific and secular alternatives.

    I shall have to find a way to incorporate this into my thesis. Perhaps instead of writing on the role of the priest -protagonist in science fiction in general, and dedicating one chapter (of three) to Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, I will instead focus entirely on the relationship between empiricism and transcendence in the text, dedicating one chapter to Patera Silk as Wolfe's unique utilisation of the priestly character to affirm the existence of a transcendent God.

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