This is the seventh post in my newly resurrected series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. I have returned to the author and anthropologist Chad Oliver (1928-1993) whose “The Wind Blows Free” (1957) inspired me to start the series. All of the stories I’ll review in the series are available online and linked.
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. I also have compiled an extensive index of generation ship SF if you wish to track down my earlier reviews on the topic and any that you might want to read on your own.
As the last post was way back in January 2020, here’s a reminder of what I’ve covered so far:
- Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” (1957)
- Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations” (variant title: “Target Generation”) (1953)
- Judith Merril’s “Wish Upon A Star” (1958)
- John Brunner’s “Lungfish” (1957)
- J. G. Ballard’s “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962)
- A. E. van Vogt’s “Centaurus II” (1947)
I’ve also reviewed five additional generation ship works (two novels and one short story) since I started the series that I didn’t include:
- E. C. Tubb’s The Space-Born (variant title: Star Ship) (1955)
- Judith Merril’s “Survival Ship” (1951)
- Judith Merril’s “The Lonely” (1963)
- Samuel R. Delany’s Ballard of Beta-2 (1965)
- Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe (1969)
Chad Oliver’s “Stardust” first appeared in the July 1952 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. 3.5/5 (Good). You can read it online here.
In the 1974 paper “Two Horizons of Man” for the American Anthropological Association, Chad Oliver identified the “larger theoretical and social contexts” in which his two professions (SF and anthropology) were subsumed: “The problems of cultural contact and culture conflict, the discussions of cultural relativism, the idea of cultural evolution, the whole emphasis on looking at things from different perspectives, the questions about what it meant to be human–all of these were as characteristics if science fiction as they were of anthropology” (note). “Stardust” (1952) exemplifies this intersection of concerns. The new generation of explorers encounter the first generation, trapped for hundreds of years on sabotaged generation ship on their way to colonize Capella.
The premise: Spaceflight has entered a period of decadence. The opening of “the greatest frontier of them all” has come to pass (128). The most recent generation of explorers, like the officers of the Wilson Langford, are aging and no longer explore new worlds but shuttle wealthy tourist from world to world. A bit of the past thrill returns when they discover on a routine voyage the seemingly derelict hulk of the Viking, humanity’s first colonizing generation ship, unreported for over two hundred years. While its “sealed hydroponic tanks” and “air supply” continue to work, its gravity systems have long since turned off (136). What society exists in the darkness descended from the original two hundred crew? Does anyone remember the old knowledge? Is anyone alive at all? If there are survivors in the immense derelict craft Stan Owens, Wilson Langford‘s resident anthropologist, has a brilliant plan to orient the “four or five generations” living their entire lives in darkness without gravity (137)
On board the Viking, the young Collins tries to keep the flame of knowledge alive. His elderly father, and Captain of the ship, represents the possibility of survival. But the forces of the revolution, whose followers abandon themselves to the primitivist darkness and prowl the gangways picking off their enemies with knives, threaten to end it all. After a skirmish, Collins acquires a captive named Owens… and the plan is in motion.
This is not Oliver’s best SF story. This is not even his best generation ship story! For that, check out “The Wind Blows Free” (1957). There’s filler. Women are nowhere to be seen. It’s overly talky and filled with outrageous improbabilities (completely automated systems that will work without fail for generations, etc.). But, despite the story’s flaws (and there are many), I revel in tales where a simple technological gadget doesn’t solve every problem. Instead, one must approach a future crisis (even as outrageous as stumbling upon a ship in the vastness of space) as Oliver argues in “Two Horizons of Man” by charting the paths of cultural evolution, identifying (and understanding) differences in perspective, and uncover the human drives that animate our intellect and and future voyages across the heavens. And, in Oliver’s vision, the anthropologist who can ascertain these societal movements and qualities will surely save the day.
Note: Quoted in Samuel Gerald Collins’ “Scientifically Valid and Artistically True: Chad Oliver, Anthropology, and Anthropological SF.” Science Fiction Studies 31, no. 2 (2004), 243.
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