Generation Ship Short Story Review: Vonda N. McIntyre’s “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn” (1974)

This is the 13th post in my series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. Today I have a story that I’ve not seen described as generation ship take yet firmly fits the theme. That standard plot points are transposed to an alien society with captivating effect.

As a reminder for anyone stopping by, all of the stories I’ll review in the series are available online via the link below in the review.

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.

Previously: Michael G. Coney’s “The Mind Prison” in New Writings in SF 19, ed. John Carnell (1971). You can read it online here

Next Up: Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” in Amazing Stories, ed. Raymond A. Palmer (October 1940). You can read it online here.

Vonda N. McIntyre’s “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (February 1974), ed. Edward L. Ferman. 4/5 (Good). You can read it online here. I read it in Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Fourth Annual Collection (1974), ed. Lester del Rey.

“The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” adeptly transposes the common tropes of generation ship stories–strife between those born on the ship and those who remember an earlier world and societal crises at arrival–into a profoundly alien milieu. Instead of humans trekking to a new world, McIntyre imagines winged denizens of the skies leaving their planet. On the ship, the bird-like predators experience societal evolution and some no longer even fly. The story follows the old one, the only survivor of the first generation, and her interactions with a young member of the third generation who feels drawn to her. The old one is “tired of sailing” and “want[s] to fly again” (59). She yearns to hunt and share her kill with a mate. The ship arrives at one of what I assume are a series of possible planets.

This alien species practice “eldermating”–ritualized intergenerational sex that somehow trigger a biological and psychological shift from “youth to adult” (53). The young one, who on the original planet would have been killed for physical abnormality, yearns to eldermate with the old one. Their discussions lay out the differences between generations. The old one argues that her people “came onto this ship to test ourselves” and leaving the ship for a new world is part of the test (59). She cannot understand the young people’s “implicit trust in the ship” (61). At odds with the rest of the crew, the old one journeys down to the planet. The young one follows.

Two elements elevate this story above others of its ilk. By imaging aliens–whose wings represent ultimate freedom to soar from place to place–giving up that physical freedom for their offspring to arrive on new world somehow more starkly defines the immensity of the undertaking. McIntyre’s calculated use of small details–a bridge across the flying zone of the ship as so many choose not to fly, the old one’s quarters close to the spinning vessel’s gravity well, the careful words spoken between her and the young one–accentuate the profound changes within the old one’s people. This is a deeply emotional story and a unique twist on the generation ship formula.


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18 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: Vonda N. McIntyre’s “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn” (1974)

  1. Such a great expansion of the concept! I think the idea of winged people giving up flight for their People to gain new worlds & horizons fits the generation-ship inspiration better than almost any other motivation.

    Great find, Dr. B.

    • The entire thing works very well. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first story I’ve found where it’s an alien generation ship. In James White’s The Watch Below (1966) the generation ship part is a sunken ship in the water that has many generations… the aliens coming to earth are on a sleeper ship if I’m not mistaken.

      I’ve never found this on a list of the theme. It’s not directly described as a “generation ship” but rather a “sailship” that you soon realize has multiple generations on board with all the facilities a predatory alien species might need to survive (animal breeding programs).


  2. For only entertainment purposes, is Mcintyre worth reading? I ask because my only acquaintance with her is through her one Star Wars book that she wrote for the now defunct Star War Extended Universe. To be honest, it was horrible. But I don’t know if it was the material she was given to work with or how own workmanship.

  3. I remember liking this story (and the title!) but not much else — your review, however, makes it clear that it’s an original and intriguing take on the Generation Ship story.

    There are a few stories tugging at my memory of alien generation ships arriving at Earth — no titles have surfaced as yet — though I think they tend to focus more on the impact on Earth than on the generation ship aspect.

    • I’m not super curious if any other authors (even contemporary ones) have imagined alien societies on a generation ship. You could have endless permutations of distinct cultural shift, rituals that can no longer be enacted, landscapes that must be recreated on board, etc.

  4. I read the story last night. I loved its sparseness and minimal framing, relying as it does on shifting around the furniture of what was by then a relatively well know/worn trope. Where it shone was in the marvellous conceit of presenting alien travellers. And the focus on the relationship between the old one and her younger acolyte/lover I found very effective, quickly getting to the heart of what is most interesting about the generation ship trope—which is to say, generational change. Indeed, the melancholy and loss of the old one was beautifully handled.

    Excellent find Joachim!

    • I had a weird amount of trouble writing this short review. I think it’s because where McIntyre succeeds is how delicately the premise is treated — and how it highlights, as you say, generational change in such a concise and powerful way.

      I feel the story would have been ruined by more framing. Imagine how much power would have been lost if she started with — “The year is 3021, and the ___ aliens have set off for a new planet.” Rather, we are plunged right in. Rather than a hydroponics bay, there’s a bay of cages filled with sedate animals read to be clawed to death….

      • I agree, the set-up is great. McIntyre’s deft use of “show don’t tell” is so good. The old one hesitating over the “tasteless” cage grown meat speaks volumes. Of course, as a lover of the infodump, I believe that the “show don’t tell” principle is a secondary, derivative mode of the infodump, rather than opposed to it as such… 😉

        • I am re-reminded of your comment in light of the recent Aldiss story I reviewed — “Panel Game” (1955). In that story I did think that some of the momentum was lost when the history of the TV was expounded upon about 2/3rds of the way through. I’m not sure it was needed. But yes, one can convey LOTS of information by “show don’t tell” if it’s done in a strategic manner.

          • I didn’t mind the exposition in this story. In fact, one of the things I liked about the revelation about the “telly” was that it was possibly all a lie in any case, considering that we later find out that “Black Jack” was a TV star rather than “the last Prime Minister” as he claimed. Or have I got that wrong?

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

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