Science fiction, brought to reality. [Credit: Niko McCarty | CC BY-NC-ND]
When we think about interstellar travel, we often think of the warp drive from Star Trek or the Millennium Falcon coming out of hyperspace — exotic planets are just a cool sound effect away. The most obvious problem with these forms of sci-fi travel is that current technology is nowhere near replicating them (and nobody knows whether our fragile bodies could survive warp speed in the first place).
But there is more than one way to skin Schrödinger’s cat. Enter the generation ship, an idea that involves placing a whole self-sustaining society on a massive starship, so that the original crew’s distant descendants arrive at their destination. It is brought to brutal life in Rivers Solomon’s haunting 2017 novel An Unkindness of Ghosts.
An Unkindness of Ghosts takes place aboard the generation ship Matilda, named for the Clotilda, the last known U.S. schooner to carry slaves. We join the Matilda some three-and-a-quarter centuries into its voyage. It is an archetypal generation ship, complete with agricultural decks, carefully recycled resources and a mini fusion reactor at its core. It has also developed a strict racial hierarchy, with dark-skinned people confined to the lower decks while their light-skinned counterparts hoard wealth and power on the upper decks. Part of Solomon’s brilliance in creating this world is how they transpose the historical atrocities of plantation life onto this classic sci-fi setting in a way that feels both fresh and disturbingly realistic.
But how did the generation ship enter the public consciousness? And are they even possible to build?
The idea of the generation ship has been around a surprisingly long time. Rocket pioneer Robert Goddard first proposed a version way back in 1918, although his idea relied on Planet of the Apes-style hibernation rather than a conscious crew.
The first riff to gain real attention was molecular biologist J. D. Bernal’s essay “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil,” published in 1929. Part philosophical treatise, part scientific op-ed, it is a wildly optimistic text that, for some reason, throws shade at professional chefs (“With such a variety of combinations to work on, gastronomy will, for the first time, be able to rank with the other arts”*).
Bernal’s generation ship is “a spherical shell ten miles or so in diameter,” made of transparent material and constructed in space. His design quickly became a sci-fi template, influencing artists from Kim Stanley Robinson to Naoto Ohshima and Yuji Naka, the creators of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Of course, back in the 1920s, nobody had actually been to space. But generation ships garnered scientific consideration even after the advent of spaceflight. NASA investigated generational ships as part of its early sixties Project Orion (recently revived as part of Artemis). Today, the somewhat disconcertingly named Project Icarus, a program of Icarus Interstellar, aims to develop an interstellar spacecraft by the end of the 21st century.
Given advances in technology, it seems possible that generation ships could one day become a reality. But it’s dangerous to think that we can leave the problems of Earth behind completely.
Solomon reminds us that while space may be a vacuum, society isn’t. No matter where we go, we bring our ghosts — both personal and cultural — with us.
*Note: Bernal was Irish. Make of that what you will.