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.


  1. Zachary, I'm glad you enjoyed Simak's story; this is very nice discussion. There are only two footnotes with the story in Strangers in the Universe, one on hydroponics and another on "the importance of written records." With no way to determine this, I suspect Gernsback inserted the footnote to his own novel himself and Simak had it removed for the reprint.

  2. Fascinating! And very suspicious! In the original magazine publication, there were four footnotes: the two you mentioned on hydroponics and the importance of written records, as well as notes on the automatic operation of the ship and contemporary autopilot systems and Gernsback's educational device in RALPH 124C 41+. The autopilot one may have been removed due to specific references to the technology of 1953. All four footnotes are attributed to Simak, though whether or not the Gernsback note was entirely his doing is certainly a valid question!