Generation Ships and the Founding Fathers of Sci-Fi

Generation Ships and the Founding Fathers of Sci-Fi

When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the American colonies didn’t physically move, yet everything was changed. Now that humanity has exhausted its manifest destiny to all reaches of the globe, science fiction details voyages through space to settle new planets.

You can’t talk about colonization in sci-fi without acknowledging generation ships. So many top-notch coming-of-age tales, mysteries and thrillers share one central characteristic: The action takes place on a massive spaceship headed to some unknown planet. Because the voyage will take centuries, there have to be humans to man the mission—people who know nothing beyond the walls of their ship, and who likely won’t live to see the new homeworld. Sci-fi greats ( Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin) and newbies ( Beth Revis, Phoebe North) alike have dabbled in this subgenre, presenting tales that are, like the ships, both limitless and constrained. AMC is even developing a generation ship TV show!

For Independence Day, we focused on some of sci-fi’s own Founding Fathers, who tried to usher their communities into new eras of prosperity—even if some fell short of that lofty goal.

  1. Book

    1. Macrolife by George Zebrowski

    Richard Bulero

    Advancement takes perhaps the most unexpected form in Zebrowski’s novel, as humanity flees a dying Earth in mobile, self-replicating spaceship habitats called Macrolife. On top of that, the hero for the latter two-thirds of the book is not one of Richard Bulero’s descendants, but his clone. Yet, despite humanity’s abandonment of traditional reproductive patterns, the Macrolife habitats still manage to survive for a hundred billion years and eventually outnumber the stars.

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    2. Across the Universe by Beth Revis

    Eldest

    Told from the perspectives of cryogenically unfrozen Earthling Amy and Godspeed’s leader-in-training Elder, Revis’ novel tackles the thorny class and race issues that arise when one population creates another solely for the purpose of bringing them safely to their new home. Over the course of the novel, we learn to what lengths Elder’s mentor Eldest will go to keep his ship on course for its destination. For all that “Across the Universe’s” ending is a game changer, even more twists await in the sequels A Million Suns and Shades of Earth.

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    3. Earthseed by Pamela Sargent

    Ship

    Usually the generation ship is merely a neutral vessel carrying humanity’s last hope to a new planet. But in certain novels, the ship becomes self-aware and questions the fortitude of its passengers. Similar to the character of Mother in K.A. Applegate’s Remnants series—while also channeling HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010—Ship decides to test its inhabitants’ mettle with obstacles that tap into long-dormant instincts. However, what makes this survival-of-the-fittest test even more cold-hearted is that Ship created the people from its own genetic banks. Even more so than Mother, who adopted her young charges when they fled Earth, Ship is these kids’ mother and father. Then again, every parent knows that eventually the young will have to fly the nest.

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    4. Nightside The Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

    Patera Silk

    While Silk begins Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun tetralogy as a mere priest, the reader recognizing him as an allegorical character for Moses clearly suggests his fate as a founding father. Aided by a minor god called The Outsider, Silk denounces the polytheistic pantheon that has ruled over his generation ship, the Whorl, and leads his fellow passengers in revolution.

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    5. Ark by Stephen Baxter

    Holle Groundwater

    When a ship called Ark One takes off from a rapidly flooding Earth, young Holle is one of the Candidates selected by Project Nimrod for their genetic diversity and specialization in various fields of space travel or Earth history. But, as their voyage forces them to split the ship up to attempt landfall on various planets, Holle must reluctantly become dictator of her own mini-generation ship. Worse, she takes control when her former best friend Zane inspires the younger crewmembers to mutiny. She keeps him alive only to continue manning their warp drive, which further stokes the younger generation’s resentment.

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    6. Starglass by Phoebe North

    Terra

    While on other generation ships the population might eventually become monoethnic, the Asherah has a clear agenda from the start: Funded by the Jewish Preservation Society, its intent is to carry Jewish culture to the next world. Like Holle and Amy, 16-year-old Terra is wise beyond her years; unlike them, she’s only ever known life on the Asherah. After she accidentally witnesses a murder, she’s thrust into the ship’s secret rebellion, with the people looking to take power back. Terra’s dilemma mirrors that of the original Founding Fathers: Does she cling to her idyllic but flawed system, or inspire an entirely new, self-governing society?

    This piece originally ran in ​July 2013.

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Natalie Zutter
Seeing as Natalie spent her childhood reading Star Wars and Tamora Pierce novels, she’s used to being the token geek at anything from celebrity websites to book websites. (Though she’s also a recent romance convert!) A graduate of NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, she stages plays about superheroes, sex robots, and Internet fandom in her spare time. As a pop culture blogger, she has written for Tor.com, Crushable, Quirk Books, BlackBook, and other outlets.

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