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.
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.)
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…
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.