Generation Ship Short Story Review: John Brunner’s “Lungfish” (1957)

Preliminary note: This is the fourth post in a series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. All of the stories I’ll review are available online. You are welcome to read and discuss along with me as I explore humanity’s visions of generational voyage. And thanks go out to all who have joined already!

Previously: Judith Merril’s “Wish Upon a Star” in the December 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Robert P. Mills

Next up: J. G. Ballard’s “Thirteen to Centaurus” in the April 1962 issue of Amazing Stories, ed. Cele Goldsmith (link).

I’ve compiled a helpful list on the theme.

(Brian Lewis’ cover for the December 1957 issue of Science Fantasy, ed. John Cornell)

4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece)

Our generation ship short story series continues with a gem! John Brunner’s “Lungfish” (1957) appeared in the December 1957 issue of Science Fantasy, ed. John Cornell. It also appeared in the 1972 collection Entry to Elsewhen which I reviewed back in 2010. “Lungfish” was the only worthwhile story in the collection and I was eager to give it a reread!

John Brunner wrote thought-provoking SF short stories long before his first mature novel.* “Lungfish” (1957) fits the pattern.

Highly recommended. I look forward to your discussion.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

First, metaphoric bookends: a primordial fish (the “Lungfish” replete with primitive structures) cannot comprehend the immensity of the Earth’s vast skies when stranded on a muddy beach…. Yet, many epoch later, a fish walks on the same muddy shores.

Brunner posits a similar, highly compressed, evolutionary vista (evolution via psychological rather than biological processes) with humankind. A generation ship, designed for two generations, sets off for an alien planet. As Trip’s End approaches, the population includes 2,149 people where only 250 are from the original crew. Brunner includes lots of small details about life and the mechanics of survival (bacterial cultures, hydroponics, etc.) that add a sheen of “manufactured realism” to the story. The story follows the Head of Ecology, Yerring, as he detects a growing antagonism between generations:

“What made it that way? The tripborn’s knowledge that it was with them that the future lay? That the earthborn in the ship were condemned to spend their lives in space, perhaps living long enough to see Earth again before they died—perhaps not—while they, the tripborn, would go on to plant the first human colony under an alien sun? (5)”

The earthborn have projected all their hopes and dreams on the tripborn yet resentment and a disturbing transformation simmers below the surface. While the “old idealism” bubbles up within the earthborn at the approaching Trip’s End (19), the tripborn remain taciturn and passive. Tsien, the ship psychologist, and his predecessor had implemented a plan to focus the tripborn on their goals:

“Every mass entertainment we’ve put out during the voyage, every programme of tuition in the school, every talk ad every briefing—they’ve all been slanted towards the resumption of planetside life. That’s why we’ve refused to permit the germination of any culture with a shipside background; we’ve take n special note of people with originality and qualities of leadership and diverted their aims, in case they made too great an impression on their fellows” (21).

Despite the psychological program (perhaps a product of the program), the tripborn resent their elders. Like the primordial fish stranded on the beach, they do not comprehend the immensity of their position—the ocean and its warm bubbling womb-like waters seductively beckons.

Final Thoughts

“Lungfish” and Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (variant: Starship) (1958) spurred my love of the generation ship story. While I had previously read Heinlein’s influential Orphans of the Sky (fix-up 1963), Aldiss and Brunner suggested far more complex psychological and tonal variations on the theme. The choked vegetation in Non-Stop serves as a metaphoric manifestation of the obfuscation and loss of knowledge of the outside world—a return to the primitive. Brunner suggests a less sinister but equally unsettling vision of generational transformation—the second generation has always known the goal of the mission, they have been psychologically propelled via their education and position on the ship to think only of their purpose to conquer an alien planet, yet at Trip’s End all the work and planning appears to be for naught–they refuse to leave the ship.

Why does Brunner dwell on the gulf between the generations? By the late 1950s the Cold War was an increasingly terrifying reality. I suspect the old generation, those who had fought and won WWII, imagined a future far different. It’s hard not to read the story as a parable of the dissolution and fragmentation of post-WWII/50s idealism. However, I find it fascinating that Brunner’s resolution of the story benefits both generations and suggests future transformations of the Tripborn will occur.

In distinctly non-50s fashion, Brunner posits a future where women and minorities are in positions of power: Captain Magda Gomez leads the expedition, Philippa Vautra heads the medical department, and Lola Kathodos heads engineering. This would pass the Bechdel test as female characters talk to female characters about the problems on the ship rather than romantic entanglements.

John Brunner’s psychological complex vision with its metaphoric concision is my favorite of the read-through so far—and remains in the top tier of generation ship short stories I’ve consumed. I wish he turned this premise into a novel!


* Most of my exploration of John Brunner’s extensive selection of novels (especially his masterpieces) occurred pre-blog.  The Whole Man (1964) is often considered the turning point in Brunner’s novels (although he churned out plenty of complete crud afterwards)—I thought it was solid although the specifics have faded from memory. Since 2010 I’ve read and enjoyed The Jagged Orbit (1969) (never reviewed) and reviewed the following lesser works:

Note: Please join my read-through of vintage SF generation ship short stories. You can find this one here.

Other Reviews:

Jim Harris reviewed the story here.

Expendable Mudge reviewed the story here.

(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1st edition of Entry to Elsewhen (1972), John Brunner)

(Josh Kirby’s cover for the 1975 edition of Entry to Elsewhen (1972), John Brunner)

For additional book reviews consult the INDEX.

29 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: John Brunner’s “Lungfish” (1957)

    • It’s a well-constructed story as well — he introduces the metaphor at the beginning (which gives away the ending but in a metaphoric sense) and then reintroduces it at the end — bookends. I love the idea that the planners couldn’t plan for everything (distinct from others in our read-through). And, even if they did plan for reluctance to leave the ship, it would be insufficient to convince the shipborn to leave…. I think two generations is far too brief a time for this to occur.

      I WISH that Brunner wrote a novel, or a series of stories within this world that he could have published as a fix-up. I want to know what happens next!

  1. Joachim,

    I have to agree this was the best written story in the generation ship series so far. It was engaging from the beginning with the drama being supplied by the overt conflict between the tripborn and the elders against a well realized background and solid characterization. In addition there was the stress caused by the diminishing supplies of food and oxygen. However, after trips end was announced, the tripborn “were sitting stony and impassive, wearing expressions of contempt? Nausea? Disappointment?”(11). Brunner’s crystal ball clearly anticipated what became known as the generation gap of the 1960s, but his attempt to incorporate this sociological theory into his story just rang false to me.

    The Signet edition of Starship with the Paul Lehr cover I first read in the early 1960s, and then three more times, most recently in 2016, will probably always be the benchmark for me in generation ship stories.

    I look forward to rereading Thirteen to Centaurus with a more critical eye! I have it as part of Passport to Eternity with the Powers cover.

    • Why did the generational strife ring false? I find it very believable that a generation of individuals, primed for a mission, might resent their position in society and also, consider the ship their true home….

      Thirteen to Centaurus is enjoyable so far — especially more as a meta-commentary on the subgenre.

      • I thought the behavior of the tripborn was more the unreasoning of teenaged mentalities ruled by their raging hormones as opposed to the mature consideration of responsible mature individuals, of which there must’ve been many by the time the story takes place.

        • I dunno what we can say about mature/reasonable adults in the age of Trump/Brexit…..

          I find the underlying concept of not leaving the ship as the ship has been one’s only home compelling — and not the product of raging hormones.

          • I’m not entirely convinced, but think your assessment is just as valid as my inability to suspend my disbelief. The tripborn lacked intestinal fortitude and preferred to remain in what is commonly termed a “safe space.”

            • All snark aside, I find the reaction of the crewman who went down to the planet believable — can you imagine the agoraphobia you’d have if you’ve never experienced a space larger than a hallway or small meeting room?

              As a kid I’d plan out how the ships would be organized and planned and never considered the sheer space you’d require for hydroponics bays, materials for your new colony, etc.

  2. This is such a cool series. I’m a new reader of your site, so I need to go back and read all of your previous entries in this series. 🙂

  3. I liked Lungfish, and for all of the reasons you outlined Joachim. Certainly Brunner effectively evokes the existential angst that one encounters when pondering the whys and wherefores of being thrown into this life. Down here in Australia at this very moment our country is literally burning amidst climate change, and I can’t help but sympathize and identify with the anger of all those contemplating the harsh reality of the global society we’ve inherited.
    On the question of the “generation gap” that Brunner toys with here I wonder to what extent that it was emphasised, or at least glossed in a more “up to date” post-1968 vocabulary when he re-published it in 1972. I have the 1972 DAW copy of Entry to Elsewhen with the Jack Gaughan cover. On the copyright page there appears the following text: “All three stories have been completely revised by the author for the present book.”
    Certainly Brunner refreshingly addresses the question of more equal gender roles in the operations of the ship, but again I wonder if this is a result of the re-write.
    Additionally, I think that that the Judith Merril story has a more interesting take on the question of gender and family “fluidity”. In the Brunner piece, and despite his take on gender, the changes in family structure are implicit rather than explicitly stated as in the Merril story.
    Still, like you, I’d love to hear more about this trip, and the consequences of the split between the tripborn and the Earthers.

    • I read the 1957 edition for this review! (in case others read the link I provided and wanted to provide page numbers in their comments). The gender roles I lay out in my review are in the original…. Which is shocking for a 50s story.

      I had no idea that it was rewritten later. I’m not sure what elements were changed. I read the 1972 edition back in 2010 for my first review.

      • Joachim, that’s very interesting regarding the gender roles. Though Brunner was down the more progressive end of sf from early on. For instance, it’s great to think that he wrote the lyrics of a protest song for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
        James, I haven’t compared the two versions. Perhaps a project for the near future…?

  4. I just read Lungfish, and thanks for the link. I liked it very much, even though I’m not a fan of generation ships, and I think that is because it works as a vision of the bosses vs. the guys in the trenches, in any environment. I could have read it as officers vs. enlisted in Viet Nam, or any other situation where overconvinced elders lead skeptical youngsters. As Pineo pointed out, it was a bit of the 60s before the 60s.

    The environ-tech aspects of the story were well conceived. They had to be or the whole story wouldn’t have worked. The psychological aspects, not so much. The implied telepathy/group mind/whatever among the shipborn that let them know without talking was a weak point, and the subconscious compulsion among the earthborn didn’t work at all for me. It seemed like an unnecessary zinger tacked on for a surprise ending. The story didn’t need it, but that is a quibble. I’ll buy 4.5 out of 5.

    • Generation ships definitely pull, in many ways, from the tradition of naval or military fiction — rigorous roles, captains and their lieutenants, etc.

      While we don’t have much insight into the nature of the psychological elements, you have to remember that psychology was a “hard science” of the 50s…. and it’s not surprising that the designers of a generation ship would be fearful that the voyage wouldn’t be created. As I’ve argued in the past, I find the enclosed space a generation ship the perfect vehicle for psychological control.

      Glad you enjoyed it! Brunner is a favorite. And this is one of his best pre-late 60s works.

  5. My ongoing read continues. This clearly the best of the 4 stories so far. There is something about Brunners writing which is timeless in this story. I could easily imagine this story being written today with few if no amendments. Nice twists and turns. No tquite understanding the ending but thats no doubt due to me rather than Brunner

Comment! Join the discussion!

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.