Preliminary note: This is the second post in a series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. You are welcome to read and discuss along with me–all of the stories I’ll review will be available online–as I explore humanity’s visions of generational voyage!
Next up: Judith Merril’s “Wish Upon a Star” in the December 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Internet Archive link).
Previously: Chad Oliver’s fantastic “The Wind Blows Free” (1957).
I’ve compiled a helpful list on the theme.
(Tom O’Reilly’s interior art for the Science-Fiction Plus, August 1953)
Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations” (variant title: “Target Generation”) appeared in the August 1953 issue of Science-Fiction Plus, ed. Hugo Gernsback (Internet Archive link). The story is lavishly illustrated with evocative art by Tom O’Reilly. The story itself posits that religion is required to satiate the generation ship crew in order to reach its destination. While far from as concise and impactful as Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” (1957), Simak’s vision is a serious rumination, with sympathetic characters, on the nature of laws and the origin of religion.
Brief Plot Summary (*spoilers*)
Jon and Mary—Simak deliberately chooses Christian names—live as their ancestors have lived for hundreds and hundreds of years in a tiny cubicle, decked out with pastoral Holy Images, on the Ship. In pre-Copernican fashion, the Ship is conceived as the center of the universe. A crisis unfolds as a series of signs that physically realign the cubicles and cause the stars to stop moving—The Mutter–suggest that an End is neigh. The nature of the End isn’t entirely clear: “The end of Us? The end of the Ship? Or, perhaps, the end of everything, of the ship and stars and the great blackness in which the stars were spinning” (6). While the rest of the Folk retreat into Belief as a salve in a troubling time, Jon has the nagging feeling that many of the laws—for example against reading—are wrong, or rather, a lost logic guides them. Jon has a strange position on the ship, he appears to be the only one whose father told him to teach his son to Read….
I found this plot point odd and unbelievable. Why would only one family be tasked with such an important role? The chances of premature death etc. would permanently end any chance of survival?
Taking his father’s words to heart, he opens a drawer “and found three things that he knew were there—the Letter, Book, and bulb” (7). These items lead him to a learning machine that reveals his role in the guiding the ship to its End and the secret of the Ship. Of course, many on board defy his interpretation of the End and will use force to stop him.
“Spacebred Generations” is plagued by over-explanation. While Chad Oliver’s vision relied on implied and suggested information, Simak resorts to extensive footnotes and other information-dump strategies. Footnotes, signed “author,” add a layer of laborious scientific jargon unnecessary for the story—perhaps Hugo Gernsback thought it lacked hard-science content?
Here’s a snippet of one of his footnotes: “Hydroponics is the art of growing plants in water with added chemical nutrients instead of soil. The feasibility of hydroponics has been well demonstrated in any experiments, but so far as not proved in any case I know of to be economically successful. Chemicals necessary to plant growth are carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulphur, phosphorus, and iron. Small quantities of boron […]” (7). An entire science fact article is crammed into the footnotes–bah!
The story’s core ideas rather than its delivery garners the “Good” rating. Simak suggests that religion serves as necessary blinders for the Folk. The origin myth of the Ship is a required evil—it focuses the crew towards maintaining stability and sanity that will allow the Ship to automatically function–as they wait, generation after generation, for the End:
“There had been Chaos and out of the Chaos order had been born in the shape of the Ship and outside the Ship there was Chaos still. It was only within the Ship that there was order and efficiency and law—or the many laws, the waste not, want not law and the other laws. There would be an End, but the End was something that was still a mystery, although there was still hope, for with the Ship had been born the Holy Pictures and these, in themselves, were a symbol of that hope, for within the picture were the symbolism-values of other ordered places (bigger ships, perhaps) and all of these symbol-values had come equipped with names, with Tree and Book and Sky and Clouds and other things one could not see, but knew were there, like Wind and Sunshine” (9).
Simak also suggests that this religion is designed by elites who want to preserve the human species (why humans left Earth isn’t revealed). Of course in 1950s fashion, Jon’s scientific knowledge provides the real logic behind belief.
Note: Please join my read-through of vintage SF generation ship short stories. You can find this one here.
MPorcius reviewed, and enjoyed, the story as well—here.
(Frank R. Paul’s cover art for Science-Fiction Plus, August 1953)
(Richard Powers’ cover the 1957 ed. of Strangers in the Universe (1956), Clifford D. Simak)
(John Richards’ cover art for the 1962 ed. of Strangers in the Universe (1956), Clifford D. Simak)
For additional book reviews consult the INDEX.