What’s the best Generation Ship science fiction book / film / song?

December 07, 2011

Max the Magnificent-December 07, 2011

In previous columns we’ve explored What’s the best time-travel book/film ever? (also What trade goods would you take if you were to travel through time) and What’s the best post-apocalyptic book / film / TV program? Your responses have been wonderful, because they’ve introduced me to a wealth of books and films I’d never heard of before…

Anyway, my mind just turned to ponder some of the Generation Ship books and films I’ve run across over the years, and this made me wonder what little gems were out there that I’ve missed…

Generally speaking you can’t beat the Wikipedia for a good definition. For example, it defines a Generation Ship as “A hypothetical type of interstellar ark starship that travels across great distances between stars at a speed much slower than the speed of light. Since such a ship might take thousands of years to reach even nearby stars, the original occupants of a generation ship will grow old and die, leaving their descendants to continue traveling.”

It goes on to say that “Such a ship would have to be almost entirely self-sustaining, providing energy, food, air, and water for everyone on board. It must also have extraordinarily reliable systems that could be maintained by the ship's inhabitants over long periods of time. Generation ships would also have to solve major biological, social, and moral problems.”

So what would you say was the best science fiction book, film, or song in this genre? The reason I even mention a song is that the tune to the haunting ’39 by Queen just popped into my head (Click Here to see the lyrics). Although this isn’t really about a Generation Ship per se, it is about an astronaut who travels to a distant place at near the speed of light. Because of the time dilation that takes place at these speeds, he and his crew return home 100 years later. He has aged only a year, but sadly finds that his wife has long passed on and that he is about the same age as his grandchildren.

But we digress… off the top of my head, the following are the books/films that I’ve personally read/seen that immediately pop into my mind … I’m sure that there are others I’m forgetting, and I’m also sure that there must be a bunch I’ve never heard of (as usual, I would love to hear your recommendations)…

Book: Captive Universe by Harry Harrison
I first ran across Harry Harrison as a teenager. I loved his Stainless Steel Rat series in which arch-criminal Slippery Jim diGriz cons and steals from humans, aliens, and robots (he’s an “equal opportunities” thief). In fact, Jim is so good at what he does that the only option for the inter-galactic police is to forcibly recruit him and make him one of their own.

I also loved Harrison’s book Bill the Galactic Hero. Terry Pratchett of Discworld fame (see also my Got Discworld? Blog) described Bill the Galactic Hero as “Simply the funniest science fiction book ever written,” and you don’t get a much better endorsement than that. A reviewer on Amazon.com summed things up nicely when he said: “Provides a hilarious commentary on war and government as it follows the adventures of an everyman named Bill as he is drafted, sent to war, lied to, cheated and abused by every institution and bureaucrat he comes in contact with.” (Does this sound strangely familiar to you?)

But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about. When I first ran across Captive Universe in the library circa the early 1970s (it was first published in 1969), I assumed it was going to be another Harry Harrison science fiction frolic. It turned out to be anything but…


The problem is that I don’t want to give anything away and spoil the book. You will just have to trust me when I say that I would rank this as one of the best Generation Ship books I ever read. Once again, a reviewer on Amazon.com summed things up nicely when he said: “It involves a troubled young Aztec boy, Chimal, who is alienated from his society. He has the terrible feeling something is wrong with life in the ancient Aztec world. Yes, it's ruled be despotic rulers, there are monsters and superstition, but something more insidious is amiss. Our hero attempts an escape from his valley to find answers and a better life – and what he discovers is mind-boggling.” I agree; it certainly boggled my mind… which remains boggled to this day…

Actually, now I come to think about it, this would make an absolutely brilliant film. In fact I just emailed Steven Spielberg to suggest it to him (seriously), so if this film comes out in a couple of years you will have me to thank for it.

Film/DVD: Pandorum
I don’t know why, but I completely missed Pandorum when it first came out in the movie theatres in 2009. When I did hear about it earlier this year, I was sort of expecting an Alien type theme and – truth to tell – I really didn’t have tremendously high hopes for it, but I thought “what the heck” and purchased the DVD anyway.


The idea is that two astronauts awaken in a hyper-sleep chamber aboard a seemingly abandoned spacecraft. Everything is dark, the electronics systems are failing, they are disoriented, they can’t remember anything, they don’t know who they are, and they don’t know what they are supposed to do.

And then things start to go downhill…

The bottom line is that, although this isn’t the best science fiction film ever made, it’s still pretty darned good and it turned out to be a real sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat roller-coaster thrill ride from start to finish (after all of the horror, the very last scene is so beautiful it makes you want to be there).

Book: Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein
In many respects, although it’s not incredibly sophisticated, Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky has to be one of the all-time classics of the Generation Ship genre. The story takes place in an enormous star ship. A mutiny took place at some stage hundreds of years before we join the tale. The result is that the remaining regular folks live and farm the outer levels where spin on the ship gives them something close to earth-normal gravity, while the descendants of the mutineer’s live in the upper levels where the spin-based gravity is lower (falling to zero along the central axis). Over the generations, the mutineers have mutated (they have extra arms or legs or – in once case – heads, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes) and have come to be known collectively as “muties”.


Following the mutiny, for reasons I no longer recall, the last remaining member of the original crew decided to hide the ship’s log and bury the real history of the starship. As a result, the inhabitants of the ship have completely forgotten the reason for their voyage. In fact, they have come to believe that the ship is the entire universe and they have evolved a weird combination of science and religion to explain everything.

Our hero, a young man called Hugh Hoyland, is captured by the mutants when he makes an excursion to the upper levels. While a prisoner, Hugh discovers the true nature of the ship and decides that he must somehow unite everyone and complete the trip.

Although this is a rather short book, it really is well worth the read and an absolute “must have” for any serious science fiction collection.

Book: Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss
In some ways, Non-Stop, which was the first novel by Brian Aldiss, is similar to Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein (see above). Both involve a Generation Ship that is many hundreds of years into its mission and whose crews have forgotten their history to such an extent that they have no idea of a universe outside of the ship.

In this case, however, our hero, Roy Complain, is a member of a primitive tribe that roams nomadically through corridors overrun by vegetation. The days and nights are ruled by artificial lighting systems that come on and off automatically.

The tribal priest shares his belief with Roy that they are all living on a gigantic spacecraft, and that if they can find the control room they can take command of the ship. So Roy and a small band of companions set off into uncharted territory. Along the way they encounter other tribes, and Roy also runs across some legendary “Giants” who capture him and then release him without explanation.


Eventually we discover that when the ship arrived at its original destination, the inhabitants were affected by an alien amino acid. Over time, law and order broke down and knowledge of the ship and its purpose was lost. Also, the survivors and their descendants have mutated to be smaller than regular humans and to have a high metabolism that causes them to move quickly and to live four times faster than standard people.

Furthermore, Roy eventually discovers that the ship has in fact returned home on its automatic systems and is orbiting the Earth, but the voyage that should have taken only 6 generations has actually taken 23. We also learn that the “Giants” are regular humans who are working to keep the ship’s systems up and running and its inhabitants alive.

So what should Roy do with this knowledge…?

Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein
This is not a Generation Ship story in the classical sense; however, I include Time for the Stars here because it’s such a wonderful read. This is one of a series of Heinlein’s books that were originally intended for younger readers, but in fact it is a fantastic tale of interest to bookworms of all ages.


The idea behind the book is relatively simple. The earth has become too crowded, so a research corporation called the Long Range Foundation has invested in building a number of huge star ships to seek out new planets that are suitable for colonization by humans.

One of the most important facets of these voyages will be communication. Due to the risks involved, it is not certain whether any of the ships will survive to tell what they discover. However, the Long Range Foundation has realized that a very few people – especially identical twins – are telepathic. Furthermore, it appears that this telepathy is faster than the speed of light (it seems to be instantaneous).

Throughout the story we are introduced to a number of these telepaths; however, the focus of the tale is two young boys, Pat and Tom Bartlett. One will have to stay on Earth while the other will travel to the stars. The result is classic Heinlein as he explains science to the reader as part of the story – as the ship gains speed and approaches the speed of light; time appears to pass more slowly for the people on the spaceship. The result (after several legs of the journey) is that the twin on the ship has aged by only a few years while the twin remaining on Earth has grown to be an old man.

All of this is really brought home (in more ways than one) when, toward the end of the tale, a new form of spaceship is developed. Based on technologies that use new physics discovered as a by-product of investigating telepathy, these new ships can travel almost instantaneously. So one is sent out to pick up the crew of our ship and return them to Earth in just a few hours.

Now we are faced with a new problem. Our young hero arrives on Earth to discover that fashions have changed, he can barely understand the way people talk, and his identical brother is an old man. And you think you’re having a bad day…

Film/DVD: WALL-E
When it comes to Generation Ships, another film that immediately pops into my head is the computer-animated offering WALL-E from Pixar Animation Studios.


I’m sure you’ve seen this little beauty (if not, why not?). The idea is that the Earth becomes so covered in trash that in 2105 the entire population is evacuated on automated Generation Ships. We enter the scene in 2805, when the last surviving robot left behind to clean up the Earth discovers a seedling plant living amongst the trash.

Since this is so recent and so well-known, we really don’t need to go further into the story here – suffice it to say that when we eventually find ourselves on one of the Generation Ships, we discover that the ship's human passengers have become morbidly obese after centuries of living in microgravity and relying on the ship's automated systems (this part sent shivers down my spine and prompted me to quickly start exercising again [grin]).

Book: Eon by Greg Bear
The amazing thing about Eon is that it falls into so many categories. For example there’s a Time-Travelling element and an a Post-Apocalyptic element and a Generation Ship element and…


The core idea is that – sometime around the present time – a huge (300 kilometer) asteroid comes flying towards the Earth. This little rascal is obviously under some form of power because it decelerates and assumes an Earth orbit. When we go to explore it, we discover that the inside is divided into seven man-made, hollowed-out chambers, indicating that it had been inhabited.

Scientists discover that it was built by Earth people, but in the far distant future, and that a nuclear war is imminent in our own time, which means that it's crucial that theoretical mathematician Patricia Vasquez discover why the former habitants left and where they went.

Some people find Eon to contain too many diverse ideas and to be over-complex. For myself, each new chamber was a revelation. In fact, I found this to be so exciting that I could only handle one new chamber a day, after which I had to put the book down and wrap my brain around all of the new developments.

Book: Titan by John Varley
I personally love John Varley’s work, including the Gaea Trilogy of which Titan is the first in the series, so I was quite surprised to discover that this is such a polarizing work – some reviewers on Amazon love it, while others really don’t seem to like it at all.


The story starts aboard a spaceship on a mission to explore the moons of Saturn. As we approach Saturn, we discover that Titan is not a moon per se, but what appears to be a gigantic space station in the shape of a wheel.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away here – suffice it to say that the crew ends up inside this space ship, which turns out to be an ancient, artificially-designed living creature, whose seat of consciousness resides in the hub. Furthermore, the inside of the wheel is hollow and supports many other types of creatures. This is the reason I’ve included Titan as a Generation Ship, because many of the races in Titan have evolved over countless generations.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clark
Like Titan (see above), Rendezvous with Rama is different from the majority of Generation Ship stories in that the main ship – which is called Rama for reasons I can no longer recall – is created by aliens.


The idea is that we discover Rama as it zips across our solar system. In addition to being huge, Rama is perfectly cylindrical, which means it’s an artificial construct, so we send an expedition up to explore it.

When we get there we work our way through the equivalent of an airlock to discover that Rama is hollow. At first it doesn’t appear as though anything is alive (which would rule Rama out as being a Generation Ship)… but then things start to wake up…


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