Generation Ship Short Story Review: A. E. van Vogt’s “Centaurus II” (1947)

Preliminary note: This is the sixth 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.

Next up: A far lesser known author and story! David Rome’s “Bliss” (1962) in Science Fiction Adventures, No. 24, ed. John Carnell (story link)

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

I’ve compiled a helpful list on the theme with links to all my reviews.

(Charles Schneeman’s cover for the June 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr.)

4/5 (Good)

A. E. van Vogt’s “Centaurus II” (1947)* (story link) first appeared in the June 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction edited by John W. Campbell, Jr. Together with two later stories—“Rogue Ship” (1950) and “The Expendables” (1963)—it was “completely rewritten” as the fix-up novel Rogue Ship (1965). I read the original magazine version.

As someone who tends to dislike and actively avoid A. E. van Vogt’s fiction, “Centaurus II” was the best of his visions I’ve read yet.* And yes, I am partial to generation ships….

“Centauri II” is an effective rumination on government and society in a spaceship increasingly distant from Earth.

Recommended for fans of generation ships.

Brief Plot Summary (*spoilers*)

A. E. van Vogt’s tale, loosely organized around the captains of the generation ship Centaurus II,  explores “man’s inability to rule himself” once “the connection with Earth grew too vague” (41). The Centaurus II sets off to learn the fate of the Centaurus I. The story starts with Lesbee II, the son of Captain Lesbee. Lesbee II witnesses the mutinous rumblings of the second generation (i.e. those born on the voyage) led by Ganarette who want to return to Earth. He too sympathizes with the siren call of Earth but sees himself “as a person set apart” destined to repeat “his father’s lonely existence” as captain (7). His father quells the mutiny by strategically replacing the standard motion picture shows (scenes of Earth) with historic court footage of the sentences dealt out to mutineers.

Arrival at Centauri brings a further crisis—the target planet is inhabited by an unknown alien species and dangerous planetary conditions. Ganarette plots again and is executed. The ship sets off for further systems. In the following vignettes the ship experiments with an elected captain, descends into authoritarianism, witnesses purges of the elderly, and the slow breakdown of traditional societal roles (Lesbee III murders his father and marries two women!)…. Goudry, a hydroponics worker, seizes power and is soon possessed by delusions of grandeur (he sees himself as the messiah of the machine). Lesbee IV attempts to right the ship but must fight Goudry’s paranoia that he wants to reinstall the divine right of kings (39).

As the generation ship’s extraneous materials (floors, walls, personal belongings, etc.) are fed into the converter to propel the vessel onward, a greater threat looms…

Final Thoughts 

While van Vogt tacks on a positive ending in the epilogue, there’s a relentless feel of fragmentation as the voyage limps on to planet after inhospitable planet. These sequences of fragmentation and generational strife are the highlight of the story. In the latter generations after experiments in democracy and aristocracy have failed, Goudry’s dictatorship based on force invents pseudo-religious mechanical obsessions to justify its existence:

“The realization came that the ship was indestructible. Nothing that men could do mattered to a machine that had been built to survive generations of human beings. He dreamed about the ship in his sleep hour. He had visions of it hurtling through blackness at thousands of miles a second now, and it seemed to him wonderful beyond all his previous emotions. The first conviction that came to him finally was a commonplace enough revelation: The ship was more important than the human beings in it” (87).

The ship itself becomes a sacred site. The actions of the previous captains to maintain the voyage—the dismantling of the ship’s interior—are transformed into acts of desecration rather than survival.

The story’s structure, told over the longue durée as a series of chronologically organized vignettes, allows van Vogt to trace a society’s evolution. Rather than using the common trope of a character placed smack-dab in the middle of a bizarre enclosed world (i.e. Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe) or alive at Trip’s End (John Brunner’s “Lungfish”), van Vogt focuses on the interactions between generations of the entire voyage.

Over the course of the story, generational strife, fragmentation of desire and law, and paranoia increasingly grip the crew. While the aim of the voyage remains in the minds of the leaders, they are more susceptible to the mass delusions produced by generations enclosed. Perhaps fitting for the immediate post-World War II environment, van Vogt suggests that the violence of the past perpetrated by authoritarian and maniacal men can be avoided by future generations.

Note: Early in the history of the site I reviewed the following van Vogt novels:

~

Other Reviews by Read-Through Participants

James Harris reviewed it here.

(Peter Jones’ cover for the 1975 edition)

(Greg Theakstob’s cover for the 1980 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1966 edition)

For additional book reviews consult the INDEX.

17 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: A. E. van Vogt’s “Centaurus II” (1947)”

          1. Yeah I am. I just bought a collection of van Vogt – 1963 Panther edition of Away and Beyond but it doesn’t contain this story. I always like the idea of van Vogt’s novels – “vintage”, interesting – but Null-A left me unenthusiastic for more. I wanted to try some shorter stories instead.

    1. No worries! Let me know what you think.

      As I mentioned in the review, I am generally not a fan of van Vogt’s labyrinthine machination-type stories — this one is not characterized by endless illogical twists.

  1. I finally read Centaurus II. Like you, I am hesitant to give Van Vogt the time to rot my mind with his convoluted stupidities, having read various novels and shorts over the years (The World of Null-A I’m looking at you!). I agree that this story is more straightforward. But still… There is little that is critical in Van Vogt’s depiction of the evolution of the rule of the ship.I find the casual misogyny and complete absence of any significant female characters increasingly hard to take in the fiction of this time (which, I might add, is not always the case in male writers of sf in the 1940s, for instance in hte work of Theodore Sturgeon). Additionally, I found the concentration on those at the top of the food chain (with at least one aside about the righteousness of those destined to command… blurgh) meant that we got little insight into the social structure of the ship (apart from the ready availability of women for the men!). A definite thumbs down from me.

    1. Sorry for the anti-Van Vogt spray. It’s been a hard week and maybe I just took it out on him. I don’t think the Van Vogt is a great writer–maybe not even a good one. But I can see how he had a big effect upon writers in the 1940s and after (particularly the much much better Van Vogtian, Philip K Dick). And the problem of misogyny is a structural one that goes beyond any personal culpability (which is not to excuse individual instances of such). Looking over some of my notes I found that even Van Vogt has impressed me at times. His space vampire story “Asylum” (1942), isn’t bad, even if its overly long and has a stupid ending. I found “Dormant” (1948) a much better story, both compact and with a neat end. “Far Centaurus” (1944) and “The Weapons Shop” (1942) I apparently liked, though I remember nothing of the former and precious little of the latter (apart from the cool doorway to the weapon’s shop). Without a doubt, my general antipathy toward Van Vogt colours my approach and appreciation of his work.

      1. I’m usually the one who rants about how unreadable van Vogt is! I’m in the Damon Knight camp of criticism most of the time… i.e. he creates labyrinthine plots with little point or logic. As my standard complaints about his work didn’t crop up in this story, I perhaps felt relief when I should have been more critical. hah.

        No worries!

    2. Thanks for the great comment.

      “I found the concentration on those at the top of the food chain [..]”

      Yes, van Vogt’s primary interests in this story are those in command. We have no clear understanding of what the ship looks like, how it functions, basic sections of the ship (other than the bridge and hydroponics), etc. Many of the stories that focus on a rebel who understands finally understands his world are so powerful because they aren’t about those in charge…. I found this to be a distinct but inherently problematic structural choice. As for those who rant about their destiny to command, is this surprising for a class groomed to command? I thought there was enough difference between the Lesbee characters—Lesbee IV doesn’t want to usurp power despite knowing that the ship is in a crisis and Lesbee III, who in a fit of authoritarian desire murdered his father—to suggests that there are distinct modes of ruling. Perhaps it could have been more pronounced.

      I do not have high hopes for 40s SF when it comes to women characters. That’s why John Brunner’s “Lungfish” (1957) and the works of Judith Merril feel SOOOO radical. This is what they are responding to!

    1. Thank you! There were better stories in this series on generation ship stories — for example, John Brunner’s “Lungfish.” I’d browse some of the earlier ones in this series of reviews — I enjoyed some of them more than the van Vogt.

    1. I am probably not. While I enjoyed this particular van Vogt, I’m not a big fan of his–at all. The story came in second (after the Ballard) in a popular vote I held on twitter — in an attempt to get more of my followers there involved in the site.

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