Saturday, 31 July 2010

Generation Starship Stories: Clifford D. Simak's "Spacebred Generations"

Clifford D. Simak's short story "Spacebred Generations" (1953), also known by the title "Target Generation" and collected in Simak's Strangers in the Universe (1956), is presented, in many ways, as a possible solution to the problems involved in a multi-generational voyage. In Wilcox's "The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years" (1940) and Heinlein's "Universe" and "Common Sense" (1941) something goes terribly wrong onboard the generation starship which causes a ship-wide "forgetting." This forgetting of the ship's purpose is, in many generation starship stories, accompanied by the development of a religious system that ritualises and mythologises the ship, its creators and its mission. In Wilcox, this forgetting seems to be caused partly by the bad planning of those who made the ship and set it on its journey and partly by the protagonist's bad judgement; in Heinlein, a catastrophic mutiny is the cause. This pattern is also followed in Aldiss's Non-Stop(1958), published after Simak's story, where a devastating virus wipes out most of the ship's population. In all these cases, the forgetting results in the potential failure of the mission, as the ship's inhabitants do not know how to fulfil the ship's purpose.

In "Spacebred Generations," Simak offers a clever solution to this problem: the builders of the generation starship intentionally created a shipboard culture of ignorance to keep the population peaceful, accompanied, of course, by a religious system which allows them to feel comforted. According to Simak, only by forgetting about Earth and human history could the ship's population survive the journey without terrible psychological trauma.

The story's protagonist, Jon, comes from a family which has been passing down a "heresy" from generation to generation. This heresy involves teaching the ability to read (considered taboo) and handing down the Letter and the Book, to be opened and read only in case of emergency. This emergency takes place at the beginning of the story when the cylindrical ship ceases its rotation, stopping the centripetal forces that emulated gravity and replacing them with an artificial gravity working in a different direction (thereby changing the direction of 'gravity' in every room in the ship). The ship's inhabitants also realise that instead of perpetually moving, like they used to, the stars not appear stationary.

Understanding the seriousness of the situation, Jon reads the mysterious Letter, which contains instructions to enter a locked room and use a learning machine. Once he has used this machine, Jon receives a vast amount of knowledge, coming to understand the true nature of the ship. He then realises that there was "No divine intervention. No myth. Just human planning" (15). He also realises that the ship's entire culture was planned by its creators:
It was planned on Earth. … Every step was planned. They planned the great forgetting as the only way that humans could carry out the flight. They planned the heresy that handed down the knowledge. They made the ship so simple that anyone could handle it—anyone at all.
     They looked ahead and saw what was bound to happen. Their planning has been just a jump ahead of us every moment. (21)
She ship's creators designed the entire religious system of the ship, including the heresy passed down through Jon's family, as a means of keeping the society ignorant and subservient. They put their faith in the blind observation of religious rituals and laws to see their mission completed successfully, and their faith turns out to be well placed. Religion, in this story, is not simply depicted as ignorant and unscientific, as it is in Heinlein's and Aldiss's, although it certainly does prove to be this too. Rather, religion becomes a useful tool for controlling the population through ignorance, superstition and ritual. It is also, however, acknowledged as a comforting and peaceful force—it is only when the religious system falls down that violence and murder begin to occur (apparently for the first time in generations).

A very positive aspect of this story, in my opinion, is its representation of women and marriage. In Heinlein's "Universe" and "Common Sense," the depiction of women is terrible (as I explained in my blog post on those stories). In Aldiss's Non-Stop, the protagonist argues with his wife throughout the first chapter and is completely unconcerned for his wife's wellbeing when she is kidnapped by a rival tribe (in fact, he soon forgets about her entirely, and develops a romance with another woman—we never find out what became of his wife!). In Simak's story, however, Jon and his wife Mary are very much happy and in love. When Jon has locked himself in the ship's control room in order to find a safe, habitable planet for the ship to land on, he is left without food, since everyone else on the ship has turned against him. Mary, however, risks her own life to bring him food and water, supporting and trusting him when no one else will. He is overjoyed when he sees her, relieved that she is safe and well. (I'm not even sure I've read the words "My darling wife" in a pulp sf story before). He teaches her about the ship and its true purpose and they spend the rest of the story together. I thought this was a much better portrayal of marriage than Heinlein's or Aldiss's.

Something I found very amusing about this story, published in Hugo Gernsback's Science-Fiction Plus (August 1953), was the story's scientific footnotes. Gernsback was always very concerned about the scientific plausibility of stories published in his magazines, frequently rejecting stories for containing too much fantasy (or "fairy tale" as he liked to call it). Simak seems to be pandering to this glorification of science and fascination with technology by the inclusion of these footnotes, offering scientific explanations for things such as "hydroponic gardens" and the automatic operation of the spaceship.

Particularly painful is a footnote on "educational devices" which praises Gernsback's 1925 novel Ralph 124C 41+, apparently the first story to suggest such a learning machine, as a "science-fiction classic" (14). For a more accurate description of this novel, read this review by Steven H. Silver.

To anyone that has this story in its solo publication or in Strangers in the Universe, I would be interested to know: are any of these footnotes are preserved? Please leave a comment on this post if you know.

Page numbers refer to the original Science-Fiction Plus printing.

Friday, 23 July 2010

New Gene Wolfe Forum

Just a quick note to let you know that is a new web forum up and running for the discussion of Gene Wolfe and his amazing writing. You can find the forum at:

This forum was created to fill the void left by The Solar Cycle Book Club, which was a fantastic forum for the discussion of Wolfe's Solar Cycle that recently went inactive.

So, Wolfe fans, please pop over to the new forum and introduce yourselves!

For those that prefer the email-style forum, check out the mailing list.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Hugo Gernsback's Science-Fiction Plus discovered in the Rare Books Collection

I was very excited to discover that my library's Rare Books Collection, which I don't shut up about, has the complete run of Hugo Gernsback's Science-Fiction Plus (or Science-Fiction +, as it appears on the cover). Granted, it only ran for seven issues in 1953, but I'm still impressed we have it.

One story, published in the August issue (no. 5), is of particular interest to me: Clifford D. Simak's "Spacebred Generations," a short story set aboard a generation starship. This story was kindly recommended to me by someone following this blog, so now I can read it and comment on it in my thesis and upcoming conference paper. Also of interest is an article in the April issue (no. 2) by Leslie R. Shepherd on "Interstellar Flight," which contains a discussion about the feisability of multi-generational interstellar travel. Below is the cover for this issue, featuring a large (generation?) spaceship, apparently carved out of an asteroid.

I did some searching through Google Books, which I love, and found a few sources which discuss this short-lived magazine, including Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction by Gary Westfahl, Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970 by Michael Ashley, and Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years by Everett F. Bleiler and Richard J. Bleiler. From what I can gather, Science-Fiction Plus was an attempt to resurrect the "bedsheet" size magazine, with older and more established sf authors, in a less pulp-ish publication. However, this resulted in the magazine appearing anachronistic, with the old names and old style no longer holding the weight they used to. Furthermore, Gernsback kept the magazine firmly grounded in his rather restrictive idea of science fiction, which had not changed in some thirty years. As sales declined, the magazine was changed from the classier glossy format to the old pulp paper format. Finding that Science-Fiction Plus wasn't as profitable as he'd hoped, Gernsback cancelled it.

On the topic of my library's Rare Books collection: they have just opened a new exhibition on "lewd and scandalous books." You can view the virtual exhibition online, or come in and see it at the Rare Books Exhibition Room at the Matheson Library. The opening of the exhibition was integrated into the recent Bibliographic Society of Australia and New Zealand 2010 conference, which was titled To Deprave and Corrupt: Forbidden, Hidden and Censored Books. A friend of mine, Patrick Spedding, has been writing about the conference and exhibition on his blog.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Generation Starship Stories: Brian Aldiss's Non-Stop

Brian Aldiss's Non-Stop (1958), published under the title Starship in the US, brings some imaginative new material to Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky and serves as an important milestone in the development of the generation starship trope in science fiction.

Non-Stop was Aldiss's first novel and from it we can see some of the ways in which he will challenge genre definitions in his fiction. In his essay "Generic Discontinuities in SF: Brian Aldiss' Starship," Fredric Jameson studies the ways Non-Stop plays with the reader's expectations of genre: the novel shifts from adventure, to romance, to political fable, subverting our expectations of each. Narrative techniques such as this has led to Aldiss being considered a "New Wave" sf author; David Wingrove, co-author of Apertures: A Study of the Writings of Brian Aldiss, has attributed Aldiss with bridging "old" and "new" sf.

Non-Stop follows the adventures of Roy Complain, a member of the semi-nomadic Greene tribe. Complain's tribe moves between the corridors of the rear section of a generation starship, surviving off animals hunted in the (artificial) forests and the "ponics" (plants) which grow out of control down the corridors of the ship. As in many generation starship stories, Complain's society has developed a religion, the "Teaching," that mythologises aspects of the ship's past. The priests tell stories of their world being a ship, travelling through space, but they are not always believed; the image of the stars have become a story parents tell their children. It also turns out that much of the shipboard religion was adapted from psychology textbooks aboard the ship, with "Froyd, Yung and Bassit" becoming "the holy trinity," "Conscious" becoming God, and "Subconscious" standing in for the devil. The priests frequently perform psychoanalysis, as well as more "normal" religious rituals, such as a twisted version of the last rites, although they don't hold quite the same level of power and respect as they do in Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky.

When Complain's adventures take him into "Forwards" territory, the front part of the ship, he finds a more civilised society, which has cast off the religious Teachings followed by the tribes at the rear of the ship. Over the course of the novel, Complain discovers the truth about the ship, with lots of twists and turns along the way, many of which are just as surprising to the reader as they are to the novel's protagonist. He realises the falseness of the Teachings and he has "outgrown" such superstition and ritual.

The characterisation of religion as the indicator of a backward or primitive society is something common in sf, and was often used in the pulps to demonstrate the uncivilised state of an alien society. As in Heinlein's story, religion in Non-Stop comes off as a thoroughly unscientific and superstitious force that society must be liberated from. However, Aldiss does extend a slight courtesy at the end of the novel [spoiler alert!] when it is revealed that religion still exists on Earth, and continued to exist on the ship until the virus devastated its population. Furthermore, we are told that "holy men"were sent from Earth to the ship to "counter the vile irreligion of the Teaching" (although there is no evidence of this in the novel, and no competing religious beliefs) and that the Teaching, false though it was, probably assisted the survival of the ship's inhabitants to some degree.

Overall I found Non-Stop to be quite enjoyable, and I really liked that it managed to pull out surprises that I didn't guess beforehand. Nevertheless, some things still annoyed me. At the start of the novel, for instance, Complain is married, but when his wife is kidnapped during a hunting expedition, he only cares that he will probably be punished for it. We never do find out what happened to his wife, nor are we meant to care, because he soon falls madly in love with Laur Vyann. Vyann, however, is quite a good character – she is strong and smart, which is much more than can be said about any of the female characters of Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky. Maybe this was all done to establish Complain as an antihero, but it still ground me the wrong way – I much prefer reading about good protagonists, such as Patera Silk from Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun. I also thought the novel's talking rats and telepathic rabbits were a little absurd, but they didn't ruin the story. Non-Stop has certainly encouraged me to read more by Aldiss, so I will have to get my hands on some more of his work – Hothouse perhaps? Any suggestions?

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Generation Starship Stories: Robert A. Heinlein's "Universe" and "Common Sense"

Soon after Don Wilcox's "The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years" came Robert A. Heinlein's "Universe" and its sequel "Common Sense" (both 1941). These two stories are perhaps the most significant generation starship stories ever written, since they brought many new elements to the generation starship trope and offered an archetype for how future stories would play out. Future sf that used the generation starship, and particularly those which dealt with mythologisation and ritualisation of history, would draw from Heinlein's work and respond to it in some way, all attempting to offer a new twist on his story.

One of the most important developments of Heinlein's is that he brings to his generation starship story a strong religious theme. His story takes place hundreds of years into a starship's journey, and the inhabitants have long since forgotten what the purpose of the ship was. Since there are no windows on the ship, they have come to believe that the ship is their entire universe, and they have no comprehension of an "outside", yet alone that the ship is actually moving through the vastness of space. A complex religion has developed on the ship which posits "Jordan" as God, the Creator of the Ship. "Scientists" are the ship's priests, and they preach from the ship's technical manuals, which they interpret metaphorically. The ship's voyage has become the "Trip" that everyone takes upon death before arriving at the "heavenly home" of "Far Centaurus" (the ship's original destination). The work required to keep the ship operational has become thoroughly ritualised, with a reenactment of "manning landing stations" becoming a "religious ceremony".

"Universe" opens with the protagonist, Hugh Hoyland, exploring the more dangerous regions of the ship in which he lives. These regions, being closer the the centre of the cylindrical, rotating starship, are almost weightless (due to lower centrifugal forces). They are also the home of the mutants, who attack (and eat) other members of the crew. Hoyland's world is turned upside down when he is abducted by a short mutant, Bobo, and brought to one of the mutant's leaders, the two-headed Joe-Jim. Joe-Jim educates Hoyland on the true nature of the ship, taking him to the Main Control Room where he shows him the stars.

Hoyland discovers, of course, that Jordan was the name of the foundation which created the ship, and that the ship is moving through space on a journey to Centaurus. Returning to his own people to enlighten them about the true nature of the ship, and the falseness of their religion, Hoyland is accused of heresy and imprisoned, facing imminent execution. Joe-Jim, however, breaks him out of jail and takes him to safety, while at the same time abducting one of the ship's chief scientists. "Universe" ends with this scientist, Ertz, being shown the stars himself, and coming to believe, as Hoyland does, that they should attempt to steer the ship to its destination.

"Common Sense" was, in my opinion, a rather weak follow up to "Universe". The interesting themes of the ship's inhabitants mythologising and ritualising the ship and its history in order to create a complex religion is not really developed, although it certainly does still remain, primarily in the opposition between the conservative scientists (religious fundamentalists) and the modern, free-thinking scientists who accept the truth about the ship. "Common Sense" tracks the attempts of Hoyland and his companions to liberate the non-mutants from religion, while attempting to stop a bloody war between the "normal" humans and the mutants and steer the ship to a nearby star system.

What I found almost unbearable about this story was not the reductive and simplistic presentation of religion as the ignorant and backwards mythologisation of science—I was expecting that when I picked up the book—it was the absolutely terrible treatment of women in the book. According to D. A. Houdek at The Heinlein Society (surely not an unbiased source) and M. G. Lord writing for the New York Times (slightly more credible), Heinlein often created strong female characters and "terrific women", although the latter source does admit that he has "been attacked for being misogynist." After reading "Common Sense", however, I am certainly inclined to tend towards the Heinlein-as-misogynist viewpoint. There are no strong female characters in "Universe" or "Common Sense", and I'm not sure there is a female character that isn't savagely beaten by one of our "heroes" at some point in the story. During the story, Hoyland takes two wives, and attractive young wife (purely for sex) and an older wife (for domestic duties). Towards the end of the story, when Hoyland must feed matter into a "converter" in order to power his landing shuttle, he is tempted to chop up and feed in one of his wives, though his friend convinces him to feed in some of his precious books instead. I admit that I haven't read anything else by Heinlein, although I certainly intend to (Stranger in a Strange Land is on my shelf, glaring at me), and the gender politics in his later work may be much better. That said, I was far from impressed with this aspect of "Universe" and "Common Sense", which pretty much ruined the stories for me.

"Universe" and "Common Sense" were collected as Orphans of the Sky in 1963, even though they only provided enough substance for a short novel due to large font sizes and wide margins. Nevertheless, the the book has been very popular and remains in print after almost 70 years (available via BookDepository or

Oh, also, the woman shown on the right of the book's most recent cover (above right) is only in one scene of the book. She is the mutant's knife maker, and Joe-Jim asks her to make him several long knives (swords). When she refuses, Joe-Jim beats her into submission — problem solved! Grr... So irritating! And I have absolutely no idea why the Astounding cover shown above has "Universe"'s two main characters walking around in their underwear. Very disturbing.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Generation Starship Stories: Don Wilcox's “The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years”

I thought I'd go through and blog about some of the generation starship stories I've been reading lately, in preparation for the third chapter of my thesis and my upcoming conference paper. I've been going through the stories in more or less chronological order, and the first story that dealt directly with the concept of the generation starship was Don Wilcox's "The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years" (1940). This story has been collected in Skylife: Space Habitats in Story and Science, edited by Gregory Benford and George Zebrowski (2000). Wilcox had numerous short stories in pulp sf magazines in the 1940s, and, according to AuthorWars, studied sociology at the University of Kansas.

Wilcox's is probably one of the best generations starship stories I've read so far—it was thoroughly enjoyable and quite humorous. The protagonist and narrator, Dr. Gregory Grimstone, is the sole user of a cryogenic "refrigerator" aboard the S. S. Flashaway, a generation starship created for the colonisation of a distant star system. Grimstone, a young history professor, is meant to wake up every hundred years of the 600 year journey in order to ensure the mission is still on track; he is the "Keeper of the Traditions," who will ensure that American culture survives through to colonisation. But, predictably, things don't go entirely according to plan: after 100 years the population is growing too quickly, and after 200 the ship is far above its maximum capacity. After resolving a drastic situation in which 200 of the ship's elite have been attempting to starve the other 600 people to death, Grimstone enforces drastic measures of forced sterilisation, which 100 years later result in a population of a mere 50 people. Things continue to go awry as feuds between the more powerful families lead to bloody conflicts.

Throughout the story, Wilcox explores ideas of the loss of cultural history that become common to future generation starship stories The people of the Flashaway begin to think of guns as magical weapons, having only seen them in movies, and when Grimstone is forced to use one to suppress an uprising, 100 years later stories are told about him as a terrifying bogeyman, responsible for the uprising he tried to prevent:
As year after year dropped away, the people told and retold the stories of destruction to their children. Gradually the legend twisted into a strange form in which all the guilt of the carnage was placed upon me!
     I was the one who had started the killing! I, the ogre, who slept in a cave somewhere in the rear of the ship, came out once upon a time and started all the trouble.
     I, the Traditions man, dealt death with a magic weapon; I cast the spell of killing upon the Smiths and the Dickinsons that kept them fighting until there was nothing left to fight for. …
     I was the traditions man: or rather the ‘Traddy Man’—the bane of every child’s life.
Upon awakening 500 years into the journey, he finds that the people of the Flashaway have lost all sense of the ship's mission and the very notion of a "stranger", someone unknown, is completely alien to them. Without giving anything more away, I will just say that the end of the story is quite satisfying, and adds a twist of dark humour to the tale.

Although the tendency for society to mythologise past events (or forget them altogether) is well presented, religion, which is central to many later generation starship stories, is barely mentioned. The mysterious beliefs that come to surround guns are called "superstitious" and therefore irrational, but beyond that there is very little sign of the religious themes that will become so important in later stories, including Heinlein's "Universe", published a year after Wilcox's.

"The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years" is definitely worth reading, and I highly recommend the Skylife anthology, which contains many great stories and essays by sf writers. I got my copy from Better World Books, which has a number of second-hand copies (and mine just happened to be signed by Benford!).

Extra tidbit: According to Eric Leif Davin's Partners in Wonder (via Google books), there have been debates over Wilcox's real name, since he wrote under numerous pseudonyms. These included "Miles Shelton," "Max Overton," "Buzz-Bolt Atomcracker," and the female "Cleo Eldon". Strangely, one of Wilcox's pseudonyms seems to have been taken from his wife's name, Helen Miles Shelton (this from her obituary and these cemetery records—a bit of a morbid source of information, I admit). Davin is quite certain that "Don Wilcox" was his real name, although most sources give it as the pen name of Cleo Eldon Wilcox (in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Clute and Nicholls incorrectly claim his real name is "Cleo Eldon Knox"). Quite a puzzle to put together!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Aussiecon 4 and the 4th Utopias Conference

I'm getting more and more excited about Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, to be held in Melbourne between 2nd and 6th of September this year. I've never been to a convention before, so it will be a new experience!

Also, my abstract proposal has been accepted for the Aussiecon 4 World Science Fiction Convention Academic Program. The title of my paper is: "Adrift: The Generation Starship in Science Fiction." The paper will go for around 20 minutes, with an additional 10 minutes of question time—eep! I plan to look, very briefly, at the development of the generation starship trope and the role that religion plays in such stories. As I have written previously, this trope is usually used to explore a closed society whose loss of a sense of historicity has led to the ritualisation and mythologisation of the ship and its technology. The protagonist usually comes to realise the true nature of the ship and loses faith in the religion in which he or she was raised. Such stories often preach a rigid materialism, and seek to establish scientific enlightenment over religious superstition. Gene Wolfe, of course, puts a twist on this usual formula in The Book of the Long Sun. I'm going to have to figure out how to say a lot in only 20 minutes!

I have also received a provisional letter of acceptance for an abstract I submitted for Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe, the 4th Utopias Conference, to be held at Monash University from 30 August to 1 September (immediately before Aussiecon 4). There will be some great keynote speakers at the conference, including Kim Stanley Robinson and John Clute. My paper will be titled: "The Victorian Crisis of Faith in Australian Utopian Literature, 1870–1900."

I will post abstracts and programs here when I have more details. I also plan to blog about the events, so expect to see lots of blog activity in late August and early September!