Generation Ships and Stories

If curiosity drives human exploration, then stories are the both the spark and the fuel of curiosity. Stories are a method of exploration all on their own. They allow us to remember the past but also to extrapolate the future. In the genre of science fiction, stories allow us to postulate a future while commenting on the present. In the main stream, science fiction is often associated with large ships and epic battles, but SF can and does look at humanity. Themes from what makes us human to how we treat the Other are all over science fiction. From a sufficient vantage point one can see that SF tales range from Hard SF, i.e. strictly adhering to physics, to the so-called softer SF of studying and commenting on society.1 Generation ships are a form of physics-adhering SF that can interrogate the psychological and sociological aspects of humanity.

So far, this series has introduced the concept of generation ships and attempted to describe some of the challenges associated with them. With all of these steep challenges, why do storytellers return again and again to this concept? Because generation ships provide interesting opportunities for sociological commentary. What better way to explore civilization than by creating a small, self-contained community? In parts one and two of the last essay, a few of the human problems were hinted at or even discussed outright that will occur in just the planning stage of the project. This essay will continue to look at the opportunities for social disconnect.

As intellectual exercises, stories are exploration. Generation ships provide authors an opportunity to explore different ways to organize a civilization. Political theories such as communism or free market libertarianism can be explored thoroughly in generation ship narratives. The writer has the freedom to impose any organization and interrogate that. Or the author can impose a political system simply as backdrop. Think about the socialist utopias that are Iain M. Banks Culture ships.2 Mr. Banks didn’t write philosophical treatises on how the ships societies worked; instead, he used the Culture society to contrast against other civilizations.

Whether through heredity or just economic ladder climbing, once human societies get large enough, class layers form. Societal structure via economic class is a constant throughout human history. As the ship’s internal society develops, classes will take shape. They may not equate to our current examples, but they will form. One possibility would be a ship society that stratifies into an elite class of programmers and engineers, a middle class of mechanics, and a working class of support services. With more time and imagination, a complex class system could be invented. Babylon 5 dealt with two classes aboard the station as represented by downbelow and every other sector.3 The tension between the classes is easily recognizable, which makes for narrative opportunities. In Leviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey created a society with clear class demarcations. Ceres Station is a good example of how future societies might organize. Both of these examples are space stations, but the only difference between them and a generation ship is that a generation ship moves. Well, okay, and a space station can be resupplied. But, I maintain, that the class distinctions would be present on generation ships as well.

These vehicles are long term projects for humanity, and the passengers will develop their own culture over the ship’s lifetime. That culture may be recognizable to us, and it may not. It might be a blend of the cultures that start the trip with slight modifications, or it might follow paths that we don’t expect. Any changes will be countered by some who want to maintain cultural identity. We are seeing this in our current society. This clash of past and future make for excellent storytelling ideas.

Language on the ship will evolve as well. Once again, James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series does a great job of distinguishing the belters from Earthers and Martians by language alone. Whether it’s a pidgin mixture of the original passengers’ languages, jargon heavy technical talk, or body language common to space suits, the language will evolve. How it evolves indicates the state of the ship. For example, the belter’s brilliant because it’s inclusive of earth languages while being its own entity, but it also acts as a barrier between the belters and others. Their language is a marker of their class.

Gender is a factor in our society, and since gen ships are just extrapolations, it’s safe to expect similar problems aboard the ship. What happens if the society evolves into a matriarchy? Based on reactions to Ann Leckie’s excellent Ancilliary Justice, it’s easy to see that this subject is one SF should explore.4 There are a number of excellent authors doing just this, and while I haven’t read it yet, Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion definitely explores the ideas of women aboard world-ships with Hurley’s very creative imagination. (yes, it’s on the TBR pile.)

We touched on reproduction at the start of the journey, but what about during? A number of opportunities for thought projects begin and end here. If reproduction is so highly valued on the ship, would women become rulers or slaves? I’m sure many have automatic answers to that question, but the easy answer doesn’t always make the best story. One of the interesting routes of exploration would be to determine what it means to be infertile on a journey dependent on continuing genetic lines. It might be that these people become outcasts or are assigned to the most dangerous jobs; or something beyond my ten seconds of thinking about this problem.

Not all the passengers on the ships will be human. Some will be animals, but others will be microorganisms. That’s right; what about the bacteria and the viruses? Outbreaks and sabotage are tame compared to the truly frightful evolution of these organisms. To deal with the illness, quarantines may be needed. What if the ship gets to its destination, but none of the passengers do? These organisms can evolve in ways that are dramatic without being directly harmful to humans, like, for example, a pathogen that kills off plants suddenly, which would endanger the air supply. Or these organisms could evolve in ways that beneficial to humans. After all, there’s no need to thing negatively all the time.

Last but not least, what about a society that slides back down the civilization scale? Imagine a society where the ships engineers and technicians come be to treated as gods. Some THING happens, and the passengers don’t understand how the ship works or this magic called technology. This idea shows up in SF as the Big Dumb Object showing up and humans boarding it.5 Instead of an alien device, it’s human in origin.

These are just the options that I came up with; creative individuals will and have come up with better ideas and/or better takes on what I listed above. These are some of the why’s that keep generation ships relevant for the SF genre. While the technical problems of the generation ship are interesting, it’s the human questions that keep this idea alive in stories.

What is your favorite generation ship story? Please, comment and let me know.
Click here for more essays about generation ships!


1. Personally, I think these are artificial distinctions, but they continue to exist because they are useful. I make no value judgment as to which is greater. For me, SF is SF. A better method of categorization needs to be devised but is beyond the scope of this article.

2. The ships in the culture don’t count as generation ships due to their faster than light capability and godlike AI. But the ships contain self-sufficient societies that belong to a larger civilization. So, they’re close to generation ships, and if in some freak accident where the ship’s Mind somehow failed, the ship could approximate a generation ship.

3. Arguments can be made for class distinctions with the station personnel, civilians, and diplomatic envoys, but they are subtle variations. The difference between these individuals and downbelow is vast, which makes the illustration easier for this level of scrutiny.

4. Strangely, SF can imagine faster than light ships but some people are unable to imagine a society where the feminine is the default pronoun.

5. See Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

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