Preliminary note: This is the fifth post in a series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. All of the stories I’ll review are available online (see links below). 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: John Brunner’s “Lungfish” (1957) appeared in the December 1957 issue of Science Fantasy, ed. John Cornell.
I’ve compiled a helpful list on the theme.
(Lloyd Birmingham’s cover for the April 1962 issue, ed. Cele Goldsmith)
J. G. Ballard’s “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1961) first appeared in the April 1962 issue of Amazing Stories, ed. Cele Goldsmith. Due to the twists in Ballard’s short story, I feel the need to indicate spoilers. My reviews are uninterested in avoiding spoilers as I am here to analyze and uncover secrets, and secretive commentaries, and metaphoric layers—and there are a lot of fascinating and unnerving elements in “Thirteen to Centaurus.”
I’m all for dark meta-commentaries and psychological experiments. Highly recommended.*
Does anyone know where I can watch or buy the 1965 BBC adaptation, dir. Peter Potter?
Narrative Secret 1
At first glance “Thirteen to Centaurus” explores a common pattern: multiple generations into a voyage a young boy, Abel, approaches a conceptual breakthrough as he discovers the “true” nature of his unusual enclosed world. Most of the fourteen members of the crew assume that they live on a space station. The station itself has rigorously delineated roles: The Peters control command, the Grangers the day-to-day running of the ship, and the Bakers clean. Generation ship stories often posit rigorous ship roles to maintain stability over the long haul. Abel, a member of the Grangers, poses increasingly penetrative questions to the ship’s psychiatrist Dr. Francis, “Why is the Station revolving?” (27). Up to this point, Ballard’s story fits into the pattern of countless others. Francis, who has an emotional attachment to the crew, removes parts of Abel’s conditioning and suggests that they are on a generation ship on a lengthy voyage to Alpha Centaurus.
Narrative Secret 2
At this point all pretenses at a standard story evaporate, as if we, the reader, are suddenly freed from psychological conditioning. But more mysteries emerge: “Sometimes Abel asked himself where Dr. Francis had come from, but his mind always fogged at a question like that, as the conditioning blocks fell like bulkheads across his thought trains” (28). Dr. Francis uses the sleeping-pod in his office, set on twelve-hour cycles, to exit the craft….
Narrative Secret 3
Dr. Francis, an outside plant, helps implement the simulation of the generation ship. The experiment seeks to identify feasible strategies and the psychological effects space travel for future exploration, in a vast domed-hanger rigged with advanced technology to simulate spaceflight. The crew are brainwashed into thinking they are on the a vessel. A crisis looms as a battle for the future of the experiment rages: “it’s 50 years since this project was started and a good number of influential people feel that it’s gone on for too long” (34). In part, as humankind’s attempts to established colonies on Mars and moon have failed souring the government on future exploration (34). Francis, due to his emotional connection to the crew, suggests the experiment continue until the spaceship “lands” (35).
Narrative Secret 4
As Francis loosens Abel’s psychological blocks, Abel attempts his own experiment and Francis increasingly considers that he is part of the crew.
Narrative Secret 5
And a wrench is thrown into everything…..
Secretive Commentary No. 1
In the standard generation ship story where society regresses and knowledge of the original mission is obscured by time or conditioning, the main character, usually male, starts to question the world around them. In Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations” (1952), Jon has the nagging feeling that the world is wrong. “The Mutter” leads him to uncover the purpose of his life. Even in stories where the voyage’s purpose hasn’t been forgotten, a conceptual breakthrough occurs illustrating the underlying conflict. For example, in John Brunner’s “Lungfish” (1957) Yerring finally understands the ramifications of the crew’s generational divide. J. G. Ballard’s central twist revolves around the moment of “conceptual breakthrough”—One conceptual breakthrough leads to another and another…. The true reality of the world is never firmly established. Early generation ship stories rely on a firm “truth” the characters can identify. Ballard delights in subverting this expectation.
Secretive Commentary No. 2
“Thirteen to Centaurus” functions as a meta-commentary on the idea of the generation ship. Not only does he play with the expectations of the reader, but by doing so he highlights the ethical ramifications of a multi-generational voyage. The following question sequence emerges: Is a real generation ship a perverse and cruel idea? Is it ethical to have children in such a restrictive environment? Is life on Earth some how more morally acceptable than life on a space ship? If life on a generation ship is ethical, is reproducing the societal conditions that encourage stability (a castes system, etc.) via psychological conditioning ethical? What types of people would such a life create? Will psychological conditioning be required to keep the crew sane in a restrictive environment?
A radical/narratalogical delight.
Note: Please join my read-through of vintage SF generation ship short stories. You can find this one here.
Note: I’m a fan of Ballard—especially his 60s works including The Drowned World (1962). I’ve reviewed the following on the site:
Other Reviews by Read-Through Participants
James Harris reviewed it here.
Expendable Mudge reviewed it here.
(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1st edition of Passport to Eternity (1963), J. G. Ballard)
(Bob Layzell’s cover for the 1st edition of The Best Science Fiction of J. G. Ballard (1977), J. G. Ballard)
(David Pelham’s cover for the 1977 edition of The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (1963), J. G. Ballard)
For additional book reviews consult the INDEX.