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!


  1. Actually, he was born Cleo Eldon Wilcox, but shortened it to Don Wilcox for most of his life.
    He used various combinations in publishing his fiction, and also published as a ghost writer under other authors' names. His wife was Helen Miles Shelton Wilcox. They were my grandparents.

  2. I assumed that was the case, and that Don was a nickname adopted as a pen name. Thanks for your comments, they are much appreciated.

    Since the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is in the works, you might like to contact its editors to make sure that Don Wilcox's entry is correct:

  3. My mother is mostly in charge of his works-- I'll let her know! Thanks