This is the first in a projected series of posts on the SF generation ship trope in TV and film.
Over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, Joachim has been hosting an occasional read through of stories focusing on the generation ship trope in SF. It began with Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” just over two years ago. His latest gen ship review, the thirteenth in the series, is of Vonda N. McIntyre’s “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn”. Joachim also has a comprehensive list of gen ship stories with more links to other reviews, here.
I find the gen ship trope perhaps the most compelling of all the ideas that SF has thrown up over the years—perhaps it is the most singularly science fictional of all? The ship as world operates as a thought experiment by which we can explore the peculiarities and extremes of human nature, considered in its social and animal guises.
So, and inspired by my participation in and comments upon Joachim’s read through, I have decided to offer up my own take. But rather than replicating Joachim’s efforts I’ve decided to offer an accompaniment: a look through of the gen ship trope in TV and film.
This post will be on the 1965 TV adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s short story “Thirteen to Centaurus”. As far as I can tell, “Thirteen to Centaurus” is the first appearance of the gen ship trope on television, and only the second appearance of the trope on a screen (being piped at the post by the 1961 film, Battle of the Worlds, which I will review in a later post). Considering that Ballard’s piece is not merely a contribution to the trope, but partly a critical interrogation of it, I feel it is a fitting place to start. In the review that follows I will refer, by turns, to both the original short story and its TV adaptation. There will be spoilers.
Thirteen to Centaurus (1962/65)
Originally appearing in Amazing Stories in April 1962, Ballard’s story was adapted by Stanley Miller only three years later for the first series of the British TV anthology series, Out of the Unknown.
The TV adaptation hews fairly closely to the original story. Abel, a teenage boy, lives on the Station. Beset by anxious dreams of a large bright disk, he is slowly awakening to the belief that things are not as they seem. Dr. Francis, the Station’s psychotherapist (a familiar character in Ballard’s stories), reveals to Abel something the boy seems to already suspect: the Station is in fact a ‘multi-generation space vehicle’ halfway to Alpha Centauri (conceptual breakthrough 1). Shortly thereafter Dr Francis leaves the ship via a secret passageway to further reveal (only to the reader this time) that he is a part of an Earthbound team that runs the Station as a living simulation (conceptual breakthrough 2). However, outside in the Earthbound control room of the experiment Dr. Francis discovers that the 50 years long experiment is to be shut down due to funding shortfalls and the failures of the real space program. Troubled by the disturbing ethics of the experiment and his commitment to the people within, Francis returns to the Station. Back on the ship, his relationship with Abel becomes progressively reversed as Abel subjects Dr. Francis to a series of experimental tests. Ultimately, we discover that Abel has known the truth all along, and yet thanks to the rigid social programming that Dr. Francis has overseen, Abel has no apparent desire to either leave the ship or expose the truth (conceptual breakthrough 3).
One of the great things about the generation ship trope, at least in what many consider its classic iterations—e.g., Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1963/1941) and Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958)—is the central importance of the conceptual breakthrough. In both these cases, the present inhabitants of the ships have forgotten the truth of their situation and have come to believe that the ship is simply the world or universe in which they are born, live and die. For the protagonist in both, the conceptual breakthrough is centred on the discovery that they are in fact the descendants of the crew of a spaceship. Indeed, this breakthrough is akin to the Copernican Revolution in science fictional garb, upending the way these people perceive themselves and their world. However, here we begin to also reach the limits of this trope. Once revealed, what more is left to say about the trope?
Ballard attacks the problem by complicating the conceptual breakthrough. The first conceptual breakthrough of the story is consistent with the classic iterations of the gen ship trope. But in Ballard’s rendition it is quickly shown to be a false one when the second conceptual breakthrough reveals the true nature of the gen ship. However, not content to leave it at that, Ballard further complicates the story by showing that even the second breakthrough is more complex than it first appears and is ‘false’ in its own way.
A circular narrative structure is central to Ballard’s original story. We go from knowing that ‘Abel knew’ (the first sentence of the short story) to finally knowing what he knows: ‘Abel knew!’ (the last sentence). However, and as outlined above, the conceptual breakthroughs are deceptive. With the first sentence in mind, we, the reader, at first think that Abel already knows that the Station is in fact a ‘multi generation space vehicle’. However, with the final conceptual breakthrough we now understand that what ‘Abel knew’ was in fact the truth that Dr. Francis and the Space Department believed was hidden from view. The horror of revelation: ‘Abel knew!’
Inevitably, and due perhaps to the technical limitations of television, the story’s central structural conceit is lost in the adaptation. Stanley Miller, who wrote the dramatization, bookends his adaptation with scenes of the religious dimensions of the crew’s conditioning—something that is gestured at by Ballard, but not made explicit (for instance, in Abel’s dream of the god like ‘disc of burning light’). In doing so, Miller—perhaps inadvertently—draws a link between Ballard’s discussion of the methods of conditioning and programming used on the crew, and the way religion has served precisely such a role here on Earth.
Nonetheless, the adaptation is a faithful rendering of Ballard’s story, replete with a mid-60s British TV aesthetic. At times I was expecting the TARDIS to appear in a dark corner of the Station. Indeed, the uniforms worn by Abel, Dr Francis and other crew members would turn up in the Dr Who serial, The Ice Warriors, in 1967.
There are two earlier stories I feel that are important milestones on the way to Ballard’s final word on the trope: Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” and John Brunner’s “Lungfish”—both first published in 1957. Oliver briefly and effectively explores the mechanisms of social control and cohesion that would be required for a generation ship to function. However, Brunner’s story is almost certainly the last step before Ballard upended the trope. In “Lungfish”, Brunner poses an interesting quandary: what if the ship-born generations become more adapted to ship-born life? Certainly, such a result would undermine the aim of a generation ship. Ballard does not so much solve as develop Brunner’s proposition to its logical and terrifying absurd end: aren’t we all ship-born creatures, inescapably trapped by the conditions of our existence?
In “Thirteen to Centaurus” Ballard makes it clear that Abel’s ‘choice’ to stay, despite knowing that he is a part of an unspeakable experiment firmly located on Earth, is hardly chosen, but rather programmed from the outset. Abel cannot exist anywhere but the ship. But then neither can Dr. Francis in the end, doomed to be caught between the programmed reality of the fake ship and the inescapable reality of the world outside.
Like his contemporary, Philip K. Dick, Ballard seems to be saying that we are all living in a fake reality, whether we know this or not. That one is programmed—by society, one’s family, even “nature”—is proof that we are made, works of fiction as it were, even if the cosmic author is nothing but the physical and social laws of time, culture and history. Yet Ballard’s belief in the inevitability of structural determination is decidedly bleak, in which any ray of hope in the guise of conditional freedom is another ruse of the structure—a fact simultaneously horrible and mundane. It reminds me of Ballard’s understandable fear of the conformism of suburbia, a theme scattered throughout his work. Nonetheless he acquiesced to this suburbia, remaining ensconced in suburban Shepperton beyond his rise to fame and fortune, like some forgotten or abandoned anthropologist from one of his stories. For Ballard there simply is no escape from the Station, in his story or everyday life. Like Abel in “Thirteen to Centaurus”, not only do we know that we are caught in the grip of prison like laws of society and nature, we end up reproducing the very chains we despise so much.
I find Ballard’s grim lesson here more compelling as a fictional thought experiment than as a description of the deceptive truths of social reality. The proposition that social reality is a fiction is no longer the earth-shattering statement it once was. What’s more disturbing about Ballard’s presentation—and this he shares with his erstwhile fan Jean Baudrillard—is that despite the fictional nature of social reality it is nonetheless pointless to attempt a re-write. A miserable conclusion, surely. I will return to the question of the fictional nature of reality in a future blogpost, and why, despite the grim prognostications of Ballard and Baudrillard, we should press on to intensify the fictional nature of reality—which is to say a creative and consciously constructed reality. Only this can liberate us from the truly fake reality of capitalism.
A final word. The same year Ballard’s story was published, the French speleologist Michel Siffre spent two months alone living in cave in the Ligurian Alps. His solitary stay constitutes to my thinking an extreme (and ultimately unsustainable) manifestation of the ‘closed community’ that is posed in generation ship stories. Without any way of measuring time, Siffre’s experiment helped to further understand the nature of internal, ‘chronobiological’ mechanisms by which humans and other animals regulate their wake/sleep cycles. Perhaps most interesting was the extent of malleability that Siffre discovered. Certainly, he could not eliminate the need for sleep—like the unfortunate experimental subjects of Ballard’s story “Manhole 69”. Nonetheless, he and later other researchers, found that the wake/sleep cycle could be lengthened, and effectively doubled: e.g., 36 hours awake, 12 hours asleep. Whereas it may be true that there are real limits to the way life can be transformed, surely human history provides more than enough evidence that such limits can be shifted even if they can never be entirely eliminated.
Still want to read more about “Thirteen to Centaurus”? Check out these reviews of Ballard’s original story: Joachim Boaz’s, Classics of Science Fiction’s, and Galactic Journey’s. Galactic Journey also has a brief review of the TV adaptation here.
Up next in this occasional series? The two Star Trek: The Original Series takes on the gen ship.