This is the 14th post in my series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. Today I return to the 1940s with a story that feels like the progenitor of so many later visions of the generation ship. Along with Robert A. Heinlein’s “Universe” (1941) and “Common Sense” (1941) (novelized in 1963 as Orphans of the Sky), Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage That Laster 600 Years” (1940) maps out a commonly followed path for the subgenre.
Next Up: TBD
Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” first appeared in the October 1940 issue of Amazing Stories, ed. Raymond A. Palmer. You can read it online here.
According to SF Encyclopedia, Don Wilcox (1905-2000) taught creative writing at Northwestern University and started writing pulp science fiction for Ray Palmer’s Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures in July 1939. He remains best known for his pioneering generation ship story “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” (1940).
As I’ve mentioned on the site in the past, I find SF produced after WWII far more historically interesting (i.e. the post-atomic “end of victory culture” to steal historian Tom Engelhardt’s phrase) than earlier visions. However, this story–while told in a distinctly 40s manner that I find frustrating–touches on the central themes of generational conflict, societal malaise, cultural stasis, and population pressure that crop up in many later stories from Samuel R. Delany’s The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965) to Frank M. Robinson’s “The Oceans Are Wide” (1954). The only ultra-common narrative element missing from Wilcox’s vision is the crew forgetting that they are even on a generation ship. Robert A. Heinlein’s “Universe” (1941) and “Common Sense” (1941) (novelized in 1963 as Orphans of the Sky) add that thread to the template.
Historian, The Most Important Profession in the World
The twenty-eight-year-old History Professor Gregory Grimstone gets a chance to make history! If everything goes according to the 600-year plan, he’ll live through the entire S. S. Flashaway‘s generational voyage by means of a refrigeration device. Grimstone will periodically awake and right the ship and provide history lessons if purpose and mission has been lost in the bleak emptiness of space. This is a mission to further the American Empire–an “American colony” will be planted on the Robinello planets (84). While Grimstone isn’t the best with time (he woke up late to his own wedding and thus didn’t get married), he’ll have the time of his life watching all manner of crises. He’ll discover the woman that was to be his wife snuck aboard and got married to another man after she discovered him turning to ice in the fridge. He’ll awake to too many babies! Too few babies! We need eugenics! He’ll get married to the descendant of his fiancé and they’ll awake to see their descendants entirely eradicated. He’ll discover the ship’s entire educational and historical materials destroyed by a mob. But he got to plant that flag, plant that flag, for the love of God, plant the flag of the good old USA.
If my tone seems a bit off, it’s deliberate. Wilcox’s way of telling does not match the sheer horror of the spaceship as petri dish for a nightmarish sequence of crises. Wilcox attempts to chart the carnage: “the instruments of knowledge and learning having been destroyed, beliefs gave way to superstitions [..] the survivors crawled into their shells, almost literally; the brutalities and treacheries of the past hung like storm clouds over their imaginations” (100). But shifts on a dime to lackadaisical proclamations of the heroic triumph of it all–“and so the two of us, plus firearms, plus Lora-Louise’s sense of humor, took over the running of the Flashaway” (104). The ending could be one of the most nihilistic of the pulps… but isn’t. America still did it! Just ignore all the dead bodies.
“Historian?” “No, I Need a Gunslinger!
Often Grimstone’s brutal acts of violence solve the most pressing crises. His training and profession as a historian rarely come into play. Grimstone laments that he “anticipated many a pleasant hour acquainting the oncoming generations with noble sentiments about George Washington” and “filling the souls of [his] listeners by reciting the Gettysburg address” (92).
There’s a slipshod feel to Wilcox’s treatment of the premise. Little thought is given to the mechanisms of how society will keep on the short and narrow. Ideas such as the use of a film memorized by the crew that presents the grand “picture of the Six-Hundred-Year Plan” (89) and boardgame events are mentioned in passing. In this stimuli-poor world, Wilcox suspects society will enter a static form where baser pleasures take hold. The workings and layout of the generation spaceship remain an enigma. The broad strokes of the spaceship’s societal decline and rebirth form the focus.
Raymond A. Palmer, the magazine’s editor, interjects in a footnote his interpretation of the story as an allegory of the evolution of a nation in transition. The generations on the vessel represent the slide into metaphoric old age with their immediate “physical wants […] taken care of, that was all they required to keep them healthy and contented” (101). According to Palmer, Grimstone does not take into account the lessons of history–that more is needed to propel humanity forward. Am I wrong in suggesting that Palmer might be making a dig at the New Deal and the anti-Roosevelt political talking points of the day?
Due to the historical importance of the story, I cannot help but give the story a solid endorsement. While I disliked the lackluster prose, misguided tone in telling considering the traumatic nightmare the colonists experience, and Grimstone’s silly “I missed my wedding and signed up to hurtle across the stars” mentality, “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” truly is a pioneering vision in its components. Later authors would refine the parts and craft more involving accounts of generational voyage and the lives of the crew caught up in the choices of their ancestors.
Recommended for fans of 1940s science fiction and the history of the generation ship.
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