Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Generation Starship Stories: Harry Harrison's Captive Universe

In his book on Harry Harrison, Leon Stover praises Captive Universe (1969) as "Harrison's literary masterpiece", and it certainly is an engaging and quite well written novel. It is only a short novel (under 200 pages) but it provides a very interesting treatment of the generation starship trope.

As I discussed in my post on Clifford D. Simak's "Spacebred Generations", most generation starship stories address the problem of keeping the mission of the multi-generational voyage on track for centuries or millenia of travel. In most of these stories, after many generations have passed the current inhabitants are left with no conception of the ship's original mission or purpose. This "forgetting" results in the ship drifting aimlessly through space, with the mission incomplete.

Harrison's solution to this problem is a lot like Simak's, although Stover incorrectly claims that Harrison was the first to use it. In order to keep the mission on track, the creators of the generation starship in Captive Universe keep the ship's inhabitants enslaved by religion. As in Simak's story, the ship's inhabitants are kept ignorant and subservient by the artificial religions constructed by the ship's designers. Harrison, however, is much stronger in his message and his condemnation of the unethicalness of controlling a population through theocracy and of the generation starship idea in general.

There are two populations on board Harrison's generation starship: the Aztecs of the valley, who live within the main body of the ship, which is designed to look like Earth, with a fake sun and painted sky; and the Observers, who live in the corridors of the ship, observing the Aztecs and ensuring that their artificial world is running properly. The Aztecs and Observers both operate as theocracies, with the Aztecs fearfully worshipping a pantheon of terrifying gods and the Observers worshipping "the Great Designer".

The Great Designer, we discover, was a powerful ruler on Earth who ordered the construction of the starship as a testament to his great legacy. In order to keep the ship's main inhabitants ignorant of the ship's true mission he indoctrinated them in Aztec religion, establishing a powerful theocracy run by the priests of the village. By his decree, the Observers, themselves enslaved in a religion which worships him as "God", maintain the artificial valley and ensure the operation of a two-headed vengeful (mechanical) god called Coatlicue, who kills any villagers attempting to leave the Valley. Furthermore, to ensure the Aztecs retain unquestioning loyalty to their fabricated religion and false gods, the Great Creator genetically engineers the inhabitants of the two Aztec villages to be stupid (apparently there is a 'stupid gene' and a 'genius gene'). When the ship reaches its destination, however, the inhabitants of the two villages are to intermarry and procreate (otherwise taboo), thereby activating the dormant genius genes which otherwise stay suppressed within each village. Thus, a new generation of genius children would be born, ready to learn about Earth and the Great Creator and his empire and carry this knowledge to the planet they colonise.

The novel's protagonist, Chimal, is a child born out of wedlock from an inter-village couple and is therefore very intelligent and inquisitive, questioning things that everyone else takes for granted. He eventually discovers the true nature of the ship, the Aztec religion, and the Observers that go about their rituals unseen by the villagers. He learns from the Observers that none of the gods worshiped by the Aztecs exist, and that their entire religious system is only a tool to keep them ignorant of the true nature of the ship and its mission. He soon, however, questions the Observers' unrelenting belief in the Great Designer, such that, later in the book, when one of the Observers declares that the Great Designer was "God," Chimal responds:
Not God, or even a black god of evil, though he deserves that name. Just a man. A frightful man. The books talk of the wonders of the Aztecs he created to carry out his mission, their artificially induced weakness of mind and docility. There is no wonder—but a crime. Children were born, from the finest people in the land, and they were stunted before birth. They were taught superstitious nonsense and bundled off into this prison of rock to die without hope. (148)
Thus, the evilness of the Great Designer is emphasised through his enslavement of the Aztec people to an oppressive religious system. Chimal continues his tirade against the Great Designer, criticising his indoctrination of the Observers:
this monster looked for a group to do the necessary housekeeping for the centuries-long voyage. He found it in the mysticism and monasticism that has always been a nasty side path taken by the human race. Hermits wallowing in filth in caves, others staring into the sun for a lifetime of holy blindness, orders that withdrew from the world and sealed themselves away for lives of sacred misery. Faith replacing thinking and ritual replacing intelligence. (149)
In his essay on Aldiss's Non-Stop (aka Starship), Fredric Jameson stressed that in stories such as Aldiss's, the elements of the shipboard culture presented in the story "always come before us as signs: they ask us to take them as equivalents for the cultural habits of our own daily lives, they beg to be judged on their intention rather than by what they actually realize, to be read with complicity rather than for the impoverished literal content." One has to wonder, therefore, whether Harrison is not only criticising religion for being oppressive and unenlightened, but also criticising religious education (that is, the raising of children to believe "superstitious nonsense") as inherently unethical.

Whatever his motivations, religion certainly does not come off well in Captive Universe. It is regarded as "a nasty side path" that keeps people from properly understanding the world through rational and scientific means. Faith is presented as the opposite of thinking and ritual the opposite of intelligence. Chimal could almost be breaking through the fourth wall and speaking directly to religious readers when he shouts:
Don’t you realize the ritualized waste of your empty lives? Don’t you understand that your intelligence has been dimmed and diminished so that none of you will question the things you have to do? (149)

On a lighter note: above is the cover of my paperback copy of Captive Universe, and I just have to say that the picture on the cover is absurd. I'm quite sure the artist didn't read the story and was just told to go with an "Aztecs in space" motif. Okay, the ship does like kind of cool and the artist did get the cylindrical shape right, but, leaving aside the ridiculousness of crafting an intricate solid gold starship, we are specifically told in the novel that the ship was made from a hollowed-out asteroid. I am fairly certain that there are no golden Aztec-themed asteroids hurtling through space.

While the cover for the first paperback edition (top) features the sandy feel of the Aztec valley and the vultures mentioned occasionally in the story, I'm not quite sure what is going on in the other cover (middle, and here). It looks like a scene from a completely different novel. The covers below, taken from Harrison's website and a fan blog, feature the two-headed serpent god Coatlicue, an automatic heat-seeking sentry robot. The German cover (right) is particularly dreadful.

Page numbers refer to the following edition:
Harrison, Harry. Captive Universe. 1969. New York: Ace-Berkley, 1984.


  1. You're doing a great job digging up and commenting on all these generational starship stories! I'm really amazed at how many of them use religious tropes. I knew Gene Wolfe drew on and recontextualized many pulp ideas but I wasn't aware of this history you've unearthed. The bitter hostility to religion in the Harry Harrison story is not surprising; he seemed to view religion in the harshest light and in a rather simplistic manner, like most of the contemporary New Atheists. The Simak and Aldiss approaches sound a bit more sophisticated. The last time I check the Adherents website had Simak listed as some sort of Christian but that could be mistaken. I haven't read any Aldiss myself but I had a friend who really liked Hothouse, so you might check that one out. I'm going to have to look up Non-Stop myself when I get a chance.

  2. Thanks Elliot! I'm really glad you're enjoying my posts! They'll probably stop getting so review-like and serious soon, since I've pretty much exhausted the generation starship stories I've been reading. It's been a helpful way to think through the books and their ideas and portrayals of religion though!

    I'll be doing another post shortly on how Wolfe inverts the generation starship trope in many ways. He keeps the same basic archetype — Silk is raised in a false religion but comes to recognise its falsehood and tell others of its lies — but it is used for a completely different reason: the reaffirmation of monotheistic faith in a truly transcendent God.

    Simak could well be Christian, since his approach seems to cast religion in a more positive light. The negative representations inherent in the story, such as religion being based on lies and misunderstandings and being used to manipulate the docile masses, may not have been intended by him, and could owe more to the generation starship trope and its history than Simak's personal views.

  3. I'm fascinated by the similarities here. The hollowed asteroid. The false religion. A genetically-enhanced hero that sees through it. The twice-headed tyrant behind it all. A class of crew members that know the nature of the ship but retain their idolization. I'm really at a loss.