Generation Ship Short Story Review: J. G. Ballard’s “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962)

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.

Next up: We’re stepping back almost two decades! A. E. van Vogt’s “Centaurus II”in the June 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (story link).

I’ve compiled a helpful list on the theme.

(Lloyd Birmingham’s cover for the April 1962 issue, ed. Cele Goldsmith)

5/5 (Masterpiece)

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.

34 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: J. G. Ballard’s “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962)

  1. Awhile back I bought the Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard on audiobook. It’s over 50 hours long. I haven’t tried to listen to it all, but I do like finding the story I’m reading and listening to it. However, I haven’t taken the time to find “Lungfish” among it’s five long audio files. I do hope to do so. I am finding myself admiring Ballard more and more, so I might eventually start at the beginning and work my way through the whole set.

    • I’ve been a fan of Ballard’s from the second I my first work on his — High-Rise (1975). His position in my upper pantheon was solidified with The Drowned World (1962) which remains my favorite of his novels–I’ve since read but never reviewed The Drought (1964) and The Crystal World (1966).

      The first short story of his I read was Billenium (1961) — an utterly brilliant story on overpopulation. Which can be found in his collection by the same name:

      While I adore almost everything he has written, I lose a bit of interest in his mid-70s short fiction. I too have his collected fictions on the shelf—but the old paperback editions still beckon when I see them in used book stores….

  2. This is a good one, proving that Ballard could hew pretty near the standard SF tropes when he wanted to and still do something novel and Ballardian with them.

    As for your not liking his mid-70s and after short stories, keep an open mind. IMO, while he wrote a fair amount of avant-garde squibs from that time on, there are also good Ballard short stories all the way through to the mid-1990s, usually first published in INTERZONE, right up to a least a couple in his last collection, WAR FEVER. (Last collection before the massive COLLECTED STORIES, that is.)

    Finally, as for seeing the BBC adaptation of this one, you might be out of luck.

    I was a young schoolboy in London at the time, actually did see it, and vaguely remember it, as well as versions of Pohl’s ‘The Tunnel Under the World,’ Asimov’s ‘The Dead Past,’ and Nourse’s ‘The Counterfeit Man’ in the OUT OF THE UNKNOWN series. Unfortunately, this was the era when the BBC was infamously still recycling video film-tape (or whatever the hell they were using back then) to save on costs. Seriously.

    Far more notable cultural artifacts were lost to that stupidity, including most of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s NOT ONLY BUT ALSO series (which was brilliant and has folks like John Lennon wandering through), much early DOCTOR WHO and, IIRC, some of the classic QUATERMASS series, as well as an adaptation of Asimov’s THE CAVES OF STEEL with Peter Cushing as Elijah Bailey.

  3. Ballard perhaps slumps a bit in the 1970s … but he gets much better in the early 1980s. News From the Sun … Memories of the Space Age … Myths of the Near Future … they’ll put your mind “elsewhere” in the best possible way. Unforgettable stuff, tragically underrated,

    As for 13C, Out of the Unknown did a good job of it. It’s maybe 90% faithful to the story. About as close as could be hoped for commercial TV on a low budget. The ending is a different—but Ballard’s ending was cerebral, and the show opted for a dramatic variation. Still works though, and has a very Ballardian feel.

    • Thanks for commenting. I just snagged a copy of Myths of the Near Future. Look forward to reading it! (To be clear, I only said “I lose a bit of interest” in his 70s short fiction).

      I look forward to watching it — I’m very curious about the differences!

  4. Report on an Unidentified Space Station from the ’80s is also a devastating little classic. From the 70s … indeed, he’s hit & miss. But 2 stories from that era stand out for me: The Index and Answers on a Questionnaire. They are literally done as an index and questionnaire answers. So, they’re gimmicky. But … hugely recommended. (Those 2 could easily slot into a place like McSweeney’s today. Waaaay ahead of their time in form … w/ content that’s pure JGB.)

    • Thanks for stopping by and the rec. To be clear, I only stated that I “lose a bit of interest” in his 70s short fiction — I still enjoy it.

      Have you read the story under discussion here (“Thirteen to Centaurus”)?

      • Yeah, I’d call 13C a classic Ballardian exploration. JGB was all about inner space, as opposed to outer space. This story drives that obsession home, w/ the generation ship never leaving Earth, but being the real thing for its inhabitants, even if/when some of them discover its true nature. The altered reality of life on the ship serves as a kind of womb for rebirth. Ditto the lagoons of The Drowned World and diamond landscapes of The Crystal World. In each story, the characters are reborn into a new form of existence — to varying degrees thrust upon them and of their own creation. It’s a theme Ballard hits again and again.

        • Good summation of the story. I also read the story as a critique of other generation ship stories — for example, Tubb’s The Space-Born (1955) which I just reviewed. Ballard’s version highlights the ethical ramifications of forced enclosure etc. Many other authors use the generation ship to indirectly endorse harsh and manipulative forms of government for the sake of colonization…. Ballard’s formulation of the premise highlights the ethical issues in a way other authors up this point hadn’t.

  5. Dug out my copy of The Four Dimensional Nightmare (pictured above) to read it, but found that this story was only added to later editions and ours is too old to have it included!
    Oh, well…

    • Alas, I should have put the later edition cover in the post. Sounds like you need the Ballard omnibus edition so this isn’t a problem!

      I provided an online link to the story is in the post.

        • Quite right, the one I have is the previous cover by Giorgio Gordoni, not the Pelham cover. But it looked so familiar when I finally commented here I got confused…
          And I did see that all these stories you’re reading/reviewing are online, but I tend not to read fiction online at all, I’m afraid. I guess I could acquire a print edition easily enough but I tend to think I have about enough Ballard already… 😉
          Some Books by & about J. G. Ballard

          • The Ballard short fiction omnibus is worth the purchase! (and perhaps a shop item as well)

            Some nice editions there! (missing a few of his earliest collections though! i.e. all the more reason to own the omnibus).

            • Not sure when I’d ever get round to reading them. Work persuades me towards usually reading much more current fiction. I stocked the short story collection in h/c when it came out, and then the 2 volumes in paperback but it’s a small shop and I’m afraid sales didn’t justify their shelf space… I’ve read more than pictured haven’t kept the more recent novels.

            • But you were moments from reading “Thirteen to Centaurus” — it’s a short story….

              I’m not trying to force anything on you! You seemed like you wanted to participate in the read-through.

            • Had I owned a physical copy, I probably would have read it but I discovered I didn’t, and as someone who makes their livelihood selling physical copies of books, I choose to carry this through to my own reading habits.

          • That’s an impressive collection. I have most of the Penguin and Panther Ballards, and I also have the Re:Search collection. Have you seen/do you have the Re:Search Atrocity Exhibition?

            • Thanks. I’ve seen (and sold) copies of all the RE:Search titles, I think. Maybe not some of their digest sized ones, but all their full sized ones. I still have a couple but never did pick up the Atrocity Archive issue. Still got one of their (very faded) original t-shirts stashed away somewhere, too! And, until I moved recently, I used to own this one too!
              Re-Search's Mr. Death Tee Shirt

  6. I find many of Ballard’s stories successfully conjure a sense of constraint that is deeply oppressive. His vision of human nature is fairly dim–which is not necessarily a mark against his storytelling. Though I find it hard to read Ballard these days precisely because this vision is so unrelenting.
    Alongside of Thirteen to Centaurus, early stories like Manhole 69 and Concentration City both effectively evoke this suffocating sense of oppression. They are both exemplary instances of the “Ballardian”, and can be found in the collection “The Disaster Area”–a collection that I had the good fortune to be gifted as an impressionable teenager some decades ago.

  7. I pulled down my omnibus and read 13C before reading your review. I expected you to like it better than I did, but 5/5?

    It lacked the atmospherics and overheated language that normally endear Ballard to me, and the concept of a fake starship just seemed ordinary. It felt like a story that hadn’t been well thought out. No one did anything that was convincingly right for that character’s situation.

    Actually, in a blind reading I don’t think I would have recognized this as being by Ballard at all.

    I still love the couple of dozen of his stories I read when they were being published, even though they depress me, but this one goes to the bottom of my Ballard ranking.

    • The concept of a fake generation ship is absolutely original! He is the first author (to my knowledge) to come up with that idea. And, as I point out, definitely the first to suggest the ethical ramifications of the generation ship (the read-through has been really helpful in understanding the evolution of the genre). This is absolutely a radical step…. that no one else really was making.

      It definitely feels like early Ballard. The interest in the psychological elements of the story, the focus in inferiority, etc.

      Also, which “early” Ballard stories are you comparing it to? Early 60s/late 50s Ballard is quite different than the late 60s-mid-70s Ballard.

      • Looks like I’ll have to do some re-reading and check the publishing dates before I can answer that. This will be fun.
        I didn’t say he wasn’t the first to do a fake generation ship, I called it ordinary, meaning an obvious schtick. Once he had established that the ‘crew’ didn’t know they were on a ship, one could easily anticipate that the first lie hid further lies.
        I make no comments on the history of G ships, just this one story.

        • I’ll continue to push back on the “ordinary, meaning an obvious schtick” claim you’re making (and yes, I got your drift the first time). Considering I’ve read quite a few of these generation ship stories I don’t think it was obvious — perhaps retrospectively, and from our modern perspective, it comes off that way now. The reason is simple: he uses all the standard tropes of a generation ship story with a radically different outcome. And as this was not a twist in any of the previous generation ship stories, this would be a huge surprise to most readers at the time! Other than the fact that I know what to expect in a Ballard vision, I too was lulled into thinking it was a standard story — at least for the first five pages or so.

          • I buy your argument, but I didn’t read this from the viewpoint of the nature of GenShip stories. I don’t care for GenShip stories generally, so I read it in view of Ballard’s oeuvre, and found it wanting.

  8. Pingback: The Generation Ship in TV & film: J. G. Ballard’s Thirteen to Centaurus (1962/65) | the sinister science

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