Book Review: The Space-Born, E. C. Tubb (1955)

(Ed Valigursky’s cover for the 1956 edition)

2.5/5 (Bad)

Almost the surprise of the year! E. C. Tubb’s The Space-Born (variant title: Star Ship) (1955) first appeared as a serial in New Worlds (April, May, and June 1955 issues). For American audiences, Tubb’s novel was paired with Philip K. Dick’s The Man Who Japed (1956) as an Ace Double. My only previous exposure to the prolific British author’s SF was “The Seekers” (1965), a paranoid vision of spacemen possessed by delusions of grandeur after their captain’s death. The Space-Born is a fascinating generation ship novel with a catastrophic flaw.

While a routine adventure story at heart, The Space-Born presents a disturbing dystopic vision of life on a generation ship. The physical space of the vessel—enclosed, controlled, inescapable—creates a regime that enforces stability through diabolical means (eugenics, forced sterilization, assassination of all over 40). Unfortunately, in the last few pages of the novel Tubb seems content celebrating the dystopia as a necessary evil to achieve humanity’s ultimate dream—spreading its tentacles across new planets… Imagine if Orwell’s 1984 (1949) occurred on a spaceship—and in the last few pages an alternate ending was tacked on: “the dystopia was necessary to achieve humanity’s dreams!” Tubb doesn’t seem to realize the fascist ideology his story endorses. Considering his output, he probably cranked this novel out at breakneck speed.

This is a fast and engaging read with fascinating societal details. I recommend the novel for completest fans of generation ships as its the perfect theme to explore repressive regimes. However, in the last four pages Tubb loses control of his narrative and ends up endorsing the dystopia he so carefully explores. A forced happy ending with horrific implications!

Brief Plot Summary (*spoilers*)

The Ship heads to Pollux, thirty-two light years from Earth. Three hundred years into its voyage, a repressive regime controlled by a central computer dictates every detail of one’s life. Women are forced into marriages between 18-24 years of age. At 25, they are sterilized and able to engage in whatever sexual relationships they desire. The focus on childbirth indicates the entire voyage is a eugenics experiment. All the unfit are disposed of by the secret police:

“Unfit meaning any and everyone who was not wholly capable of doing their job; the ill; the diseased; the barren; the unfertile; the neurotic; those that ate too much, who had slow reflexes, who were physically below par, who were mentally unstable. The unnecessary, the unessential, the old. Especially the old. For someone had to make room for the new generation” (22).

The Space-Born shifts between multiple characters. Jay West, a member of the police force tasked with assassinating all crewmen over the age of 40, must confront his indoctrination when faced with the order to kill the father of his love interest, Susan. The hierarchy,  i.e. the leaders of the police, genetics, and other departments must confront their impending 40-year birthdays and plot to stay alive.

Meanwhile, a handful of “Barbs” (barbarians) have escaped into the No-Weight areas of the ship to avoid extermination. Jay and “Barbs” paths meet and the future of the ship is at stake!

Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)

Tubb successfully integrates a plethora of fascinating slice-of-life details while maintaining a fast-paced adventure story. While other authors imply the presence of indoctrination, Tubb explains the how: every person is required to fulfill an “educational film quota” or risk a downgrade in housing and status (35). At various points in the voyage, the ship’s computer will modulate the educational programs pipped into all crew quarters. Slight changes in the types of programs—from pastoral scenes of Earth life to images of the elderly the butchering of animals (76)–ramps up the tension as the novel unfolds.

Another common denominator of most generation ship stories is social stratification based on trade—authors assume a medieval guild-like structure will enable stability on long voyages.* In this dystopia, a mere glance at a crewmen indicates their position in society (see the multi-colored shorts in the Ace Double edition above) and success in duels. Identify cards contain all the genetic and psychological details collated by the central computer. Other brilliant slice-of-life details included by Tubb include vibrations that resonate throughout the ship:

“Against [Jay’s] shoulder he could feel the slight, never-ending vibrations of voices and musics, the susurration of engines and the countless sounds of everyday life, all caught and carried by the eternal metal, all mingling and travelling until damped out by fresher, newer sounds. A philosopher had once called the vibration the life-sound of the Ship; while it could be heard all was well, without it nothing could be right” (11)

Touches like these  create the feel that The Ship is a lived-in space rather than a bland series of hallways.

The last four pages drop the rating from “Good” to “Bad.” Rather than reflect on the moral implications of the indoctrinated who are subjected to the generational trauma of the 300-year voyage, Tubb’s all-too-simple ending ties up all the loose threads with a complete tonal shift that celebrates the carnage. In Tubb’s view a brutal dystopia based on eugenics and Stalinist purges of non-conformists and the “elderly” is a necessary evil in the quest to colonize the stars.


Note: I disagree with this common conclusion. Discontent in a small enclosed space would have serious consequences. Freedom to choose one’s path might yield the least resistance. Life on a generation ship should mimic life in a “free” society on Earth. The arts, philosophy, etc. should be encouraged—life should feel meaningful. If Journey’s End is the only goal then yes, the intermediary generations might feel as if they’re trapped in purgatory. If Journey’s End isn’t the sole purpose then the intermediary generations would find fulfillment in other ways. I’m still waiting for an author from this period to endorse such a position!

(Karl Stephan’s cover for the 1958 German edition)

(Ed Valigursky’s cover for the 1961 edition)

For more science fiction on generation ships consult the LIST

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

20 thoughts on “Book Review: The Space-Born, E. C. Tubb (1955)

    • Have you read this one?

      I wish he simply treated the novel as a dystopia and left it at that. Don’t insert a lame ending that justifies the fascism!

      I get the impression the Ballard story we just read in our read-through critiques visions such as Tubb’s — he wants us to think of the ethical ramifications of these worlds…. and the disturbing manipulation implicit in them.

      • I have not read it, and will not create an opportunity to do so.
        “…he wants us to think of the ethical ramifications of these worlds…”
        I think the point of Ballard’s story is exactly that. He was a man of determinedly independent mindset, to the point of being contrarian at times and in ways that would most épater les bourgeois. Think VERMILION SANDS…holidays in hell, from hell, but so kinked that the angle of repose is undetectable to those below the payload.

        • I’ve read a few of the Vermilion Sands stories here and there. Quite enjoyable!

          It was sheer luck that I read Ballard’s story right before I read Tubb’s — the entire time I was thinking, “this is the sort the generation ship story Ballard wants us to reflect on. This is the type of unethical manipulation — both of the reader and the individuals in the space ship–he lambasts.”

    • Thanks! That index is a helpful way to keep appraised if the participant posts in the read-through.

      If only the last 4 pages of this story didn’t exist….. I was having a blast until the end!

  1. Did you ever read, or see the film/tv series, of Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson (book 1967/film 1976)?
    Not set on a spaceship, but it does have a closed community and enforced death at 25 (30 in the film, iirc). Also ‘runners’ trying to escape the system somewhat like the ‘barbs’, although their freedom is seldom achieved before they can escape the cave system all the early action takes place in.

    • I watched the film but haven’t read the source material or seen the TV version.

      The thing about Tubb’s vision is that the deaths at 40 are all accidents — theoretically, no one knows that it is a policy to kill everyone who reaches that age. As in, the task of the secret police…. The “Barbs” aren’t large part of Tubb’s narrative — although, it would be logical that some would try to escape the system.

      • The novel isn’t good, neither I nor my Young Gentleman Caller could finish it, so we each read half. I got stuck with the ending. It is…it…words fail me. “Dreadful” is one word, “incomprehensible” is another, that fit the peyote-hazed dumbfuckery of it.

          • The movie had the virtue of being pretty to look at, and the changes between it and the book (older renewals, “the Carrousel,” Francis’s character redesign) took away some stupid problems the book had; the different ending was the final improvement.
            But no, not a particularly high-quality tale no matter the medium.

  2. Tubb is best known for the Dumarest saga. He was a good technician, but a lot of his books feel somewhat cliched these days. Some of thst is because he borrowed ideas, but some of it is because his ideas were borrowed. The Dumarest books are worth reading, I’d be cautious about the others.

    • Hello Ian. Quit the Dumarest Saga halfway through the first book — a decade ago. I remember little.

      Have you read this one? The problem wasn’t that it had borrowed ideas or that it felt cliched — the problem was that it endorsed fascism! Perhaps as he was cranking the out for a living he didn’t understand the import of his rushed “happy ending.”

      • The Dumarest books were pretty formulaic: Dumarest lands on new planet looking for clues to location of Earth, gets job to earn passage offworld, has violent encounters, beautiful woman falls at his feet, Dumarest fights for his life, and wins, but has to flee… Tubb was happy to crank them out as long as Donald Wollheim bought them. But then Wollheim died and his daughter took over, and she killed the series. The final book of the series was later published by a small press. They’re sf adventures with no pretensions, probably remarkable only for their consistency.

        Not read The Space Born. I don’t think Tubb was a fascist, although sf as a genre leans heavily to the right even if many of its practitioners lean the other way. Plus, being a Brit Tubb was likely to the left of 90% of US sf authors of the time. The SFE notes that his novels tended to “avoid examining their material very thoroughly”, so I suspect it’s like you say: he was banging them out for cash – around 130 novels in total! – and never reconsidered what he had written.

        • I don’t think he’s a fascist either — but in this particular case he loses control of his narrative and ends up celebrating (or having his characters celebrate) a system of eugenics, forced sterilization, and assassination of all over 40 as a necessary step in the colonization the stars. He does not understand the import of depicting the horrific characters he’s created as normal pulp heroes off to achieve great things…. There is no interior reflection on their actions. There is no suggestion that what they have participating in might have been a mistake.

          He should have left his dystopia as a dystopia rather than celebrate the dystopia as part of humankind’s great achievement.

          I might return to the Dumarest books at a later point — as of now, other than his short fiction which I have enjoyed, I’ll be avoiding him.

  3. “However, in the last four pages Tubb loses control of his narrative and ends up endorsing the dystopia he so carefully explores. A forced happy ending with horrific implications!”

    Perhaps E.C. Tubb had this ending imposed upon him? In a new collection of his work, “Secret Weapon and Other Stories” (2020, Bold Venture Press), Tubb’s agent Phil Harbottle writes that Tubb sometimes would tailor fiction to suit the editor’s preference. A working author sometimes didn’t have any choice …

    At one point he was editor for a British SF magazine, and could write stories that suited him …

    • Thanks for visiting.

      I wouldn’t doubt that editors had a lot of power. That said, I get the sense that he could have rewritten earlier sections if he had wanted to fit that required ending (if it was required) on in a more cohesive and less fascism endorsing way. I suspect he simply moved on to another project….

    • As discussed in another comment above, I too don’t get the sense it was deliberate. He cranked stuff out and this is definitely symptomatic of rushed/poorly thought out narrative with, as you indicate, perhaps editorial interference.

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