Generation Ship Short Story Review: Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations” (variant title: “Target Generation”) (1953)

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!

Previously: Chad Oliver’s fantastic “The Wind Blows Free” (1957).

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).

I’ve compiled a helpful list on the theme.

(Tom O’Reilly’s interior art for the Science-Fiction Plus, August 1953)

3.5/5 (Good)

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.

Final Thoughts 

“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.

15 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations” (variant title: “Target Generation”) (1953)

  1. Presumably the ability to read and write would lead to diversity of thought and disobedience and conflict–Simak thinks that if the people on the ship knew the reality of their situation that they would despair, and any Earth book would provide clues that the ship was not their natural habitat.

    One of SImak’s mistakes in the story is that reading is forbidden, but Joe and Jon play chess, record their games, and study their old games, so they kinda-sorta do read and write.

    As for the hydroponics and computer and history of knowledge footnotes, I think they reflect the reality that SF readers before the New Wave loved science and many SF writers then thought the “point” of SF was to spread science knowledge and to propagate the ethic or ideology of science. Asimov specifically said as much, and bitterly complained about members of the Weird Tales crowd like Lovecraft and Howard who wrote stories with fancy verbiage that seemed to be skeptical of science and of the cognitive elite.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Are you going to read the Judith Merril story that’s up next?

      I’ll link your review to Simak’s story momentarily.

      What I found illogical about the prohibition against reading and writing isn’t the fact that it’s banned — that makes sense according to the logic you put forward. Rather, the entire outcome of the voyage is contingent on Jon’s family continuing the secret knowledge. That’s an outrageous IF…. if he has children, if his wife can have children, if he isn’t sick, if he isn’t intellectually disabled, etc each and every time the family has a male child over hundreds of years. There should be a redundancy plan in place that would draw more people to the learning machine at the correct time.
      I also blinked strangely at that observation that Jon and his friend record their chess games. How? In their minds? The exact way in which the Folk stayed entertained isn’t clear in the story — it can’t only be that they played chess… Oliver at least proposes an effective form of brainwashing and more jobs to keep people focused.
      I agree with you about the footnotes and the general pre-New Wave views towards technology. At least the science lessons were in the footnotes!

      • You are totally right that having only one person at a time able to read is ridiculously risky; a secret society of three or four peeps who would recruit a new member when somebody died, or a priesthood of 5% of the population or whatever who knew the truth, would have made more sense.

        The lack of something to do is also a problem, as you suggest. Real people with no work or no goals get into trouble that would destabilize a small society like on the Ship–sexual infidelity that leads to feuds, people starting fights over nothing or concocting risky sports in order to have some excitement, and that sort of thing. The standard response to the issue of no work in SF (and, it appears, in real life!) is drugs and virtual reality adventure games; Kuttner and Moore in “Two-Handed Engine” and Fury, both of which I strongly endorse, have such time-killing devices as minor story elements.

        I may or may not read the Merril–the pursuit of remuneration has diminished the time and energy I have to read and write, and I have all sorts of stuff I am eager to get to.

        • I understand the tendency to have a secret cabal of “CREW” or “PRIESTHOOD” in these tales considering how other means of knowledge preservation are risky if you’re planning on revealing it at a particular time.

          I struggle with another element of the story — if children are born on a generation ship I’m not convinced they would believe that their lives are wasted waiting for the their descendants to arrive at the target destination. It’s not like culture and scientific endeavors enters stasis (as Simak and Oliver imply) — there would still need to be scientists, musicians, writers, creators…. And the children would see the Ship as their world.

          I’ll revisit both of those reviews.

          No worries about the Merril — perhaps if I love it? hah.

          • I’m in agreement with most of the review, but I believe Jon and Joe both must’ve been able to read “…with their endless chess games and the careful records they kept of every move…and the hours they spent in analyzing their play from the record they made” (7) despite “reading was an evil art that came from the Beginning…and had said it must not be.” (6) Joe’s ability is confirmed after the Mutter, when Jon looks down at Joe, “the man who read the Ending..,” (13). But then Joe goes out of character when he confronts Jon: “Books! said Joe… The way Joe said it, it was an obscene word” (15)

            More aspects of the story I found totally unbelievable were that only light bulbs have burned out during the voyage? We’re talking about a thousand year voyage here and there’s been no other failures worth mentioning? We have a bunch of passengers who “In the span of forty generations the plan had been lost and purpose been forgotten… and that by some divine intervention the Ship and people in it had come into being and that their ordered lives were directed by a worked out plan in which everything that happened must be for the best.” (13) Really, so who is going to fix things or perform preventive maintenance? Besides working in hydroponics, nothing is mentioned about either crew or training. Hydroponics is a closed system. And so is what goes into the converter. There must’ve been some degradation to their diets because no process is going to function at 100% efficiency for that long.

            • I was tempted to include Joe and Jon recording their games as an internal logical problem with the story. I chalked it up to a mistake on the part of the author as he struggled to identify what would actually occupy the Folk for hundreds of years…. There are lots of these problems within the story.

              I think there was reference to animal pens as well? But yeah, other than caring for the animals and hydroponics there didn’t seem to be clear roles — Simak states explicitly that the ship itself is automated.

              However, the Folk clearly have other ship-related obligations — for example, they are required by law to lubricate the tracks in the ship to prepare for the Mutter.

              Hopefully you still thought it was worth the read?

  2. Coincidentally I reread Judith Merril’s “Wish Upon a Star” a few weeks ago, thanks to its republication in Galactic Journey’s “Rediscovery” collection. It’s a great vignette more than short story.
    Give me the weekend I’ll I have the Simak read and hopefully a few thoughts on the matter.

  3. Joachim,

    I did enjoy this story despite the flaws, and will probably read the remainder of the issue. I don’t usually analyze what I read, as I’ve stated on previous posts, because it’s too easy to find the tawdry beneath the glitz.

    I have to admit the Mutter puzzled me since I thought that typical of the era in which it was written, that ships typically swapped ends during approach for landing purposes, and that would’ve been 180 degrees instead of 90 as indicated by the “holy picture dangled from the ceiling, which a moment before had been the other wall” (5) . This is explained: “…when the ship neared the destination, it would automatically halt the spin and resume its normal flight, with things called gyroscopes taking over to provide the gravity.” (14)

    Ultimately some of the excessive explanations proved useful!

    • It isn’t clear from the Simak story the exact layout of the ship. Perhaps it’s not the rocket sort… who knows.

      Ehh, diving in is part of the fun! And yes, so many of these 50s stories are clunky in their logic, and that’s okay!

      Check the comments on my previous review of Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free.” You might find it interesting! (we’re discussing why people might not want to leave a generation ship after it’s arrived at its destination).

  4. I liked this story because, well, as I’ve said before, primarily I’m a sucker for the generation ship story. I found that it was adequately crafted, as compared to other Simak stories. What drove me on was to see how he would resolve the problem of the ship, and in what way it would differ or align with other versions of this trope.

    I agree that the idea of entrusting reading to one family seems pretty crazy–particularly if the “regression” in this case was planned by the makers of the ship.

    With regards to the keeping of chess records, I can almost imagine that some type of non-linguistic notation could have served here (let’s say an elaborate pictographic record). You would imagine, considering Jon’s later troubles, that he would not have shared the knowledge of writing with Joe.

    The question of labour and activity intrigued me quit a bit. MPorcius noted that the lack of purposeful activity was a real problem the story didn’t face up to. I agree that Simak’s solution is a bit strange (how much chess and loitering can a person take?). But Simak also points to a labour hierarchy upon the ship:

    “He tried to look as if he were doing nothing more than genteelly killing time. It was easy for him, for that was all he’d done his entire life, all that any of them had ever done. Except the few, the lucky or unlucky ones, whichever way you might look at it, who had the hereditary jobs–tending hydroponic gardens or the cattle pens or poultry flocks” (7)

    Perhaps most incredible to my thinking is that Simak disparages work here–or at least Jon does. The idea that the ship can be cohered through a religious ideology without it being anchored in a purposeful way of life (apart from the “lucky or unlucky ones”, which seem to make up a minority of the peeps on the ship) seems unlikely to me.

    “Church? No thanks, I’m genteelly killing time!”

    And, indeed, to have the thought that one “kills time” requires, to my thinking, the corollary that one should be productive with their time.

    Though the worker Joshua proved a pivotal role of sorts, and what’s more served as a more readily identifiable rustic character beloved of Simak.

    Finally, on the question of religion being/not being a scam raised by MPorcius. Why not a bit of both? What lead Christianity to being so successful was not that it was less of a scam than, say, Mithraism, but that it won out. Relatedly, I find the “utility” thesis of religions hard to take, simply because you could imagine the shipboard religion metamorphosing, despite the intentions of the authors of the original religion. So one could imagine that even if a religion was a scam–to begin with–you wouldn’t necessarily reduce all that emerged from this original scam to simply being also just scam like! Much like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, etc. etc.

  5. Pingback: Would Generation Ship Crews Ever Forget Their Mission? – Classics of Science Fiction

  6. I am working my way throuh these short stories though I preferred Simaks writing and the general plot this story seemed to lack something that Olivers had. I cannot put my finger on it though

Leave a Reply to Joachim Boaz Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.