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.
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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