The Tuesday List: Generation Ships

This is one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction.  The generation ship, usually huge, designed to house a colony, a society, of people for hundreds of years, often part of a pilgrimage or evacuation.  Here are a few of my faves.

  1. Jacob’s Ladder (3-book series), by Elizabeth Bear

This series is feudalism meets genetic engineering.  The exalted, angels, have been genetically modified to pilot the ship, and over the generations have become the ruling class.  The unmodified are peasants, but not without their own knowledge of the huge ship that contains rivers, forests, and futuristic technology spaces.  Will the two factions reach agreement?  Will they find a new planet, and if they do, will they be able to live peacefully?

2. Revelation Space (3-book series), by Alastair Reynolds

I’ve written about this series before, and as I’ve said it was not only my first real introduction to the generation ship, but also to modern hard science fiction.  This series deals with modified humans, kilometer-long ships with their own AI, and an alien species that once wiped out the universe and threatens to do it again if a few scientists and adventurers can’t figure out the historical clues they keep running into.

3. Noumenon, by Marina J. Lostetter

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A generation ship full of clones whisks through dilated space towards a strange star cluster, there to gather research about it and then return within 300 years.  And by the time they get back to earth, more than 1000 years will have passed, and will there even be anyone there to remember or care about this scientific mission?

4. An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

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Humans board the great ship Matilda to escape a dying planet, but after a hundred years racial divisions have sprung up and what was once a utopic vision has turned into the enslaved and their nominal masters.  Aster must discover the secrets to the energy drains that continue to threaten lives among the lowerdecks, and in doing so, can she foment a revolution that will bring justice to the enslaved?

5. The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

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Generation ships with bonus: generation planets! They’re ships, with both bio and non-biological technology, and they’re the size of planets, and they contain layers and tiers of different cultures, all the way to the center where the giant garbage collectors live, waiting for any waste to come down the chute for recycling.  Zan, cursed with perpetual amnesia, wakes over and over to her lover, a secret plan she can’t remember, and knowledge that she has a mission.  She must get inside another planet, but she doesn’t know how, or why.

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An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

There are many kinds of escape.  Some stories tell of the escape from a dead planet, a dead end existence in which extinction is inevitable.  Some novels describe the escape from childhood ignorance, or the oppression of ideas that hold back the soul.  There are tales which pour into the imagination an escape from bondage or other force which dehumanizes, diminishes, plunders.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, as it happens is all of these stories, an more.  From a purely narrative level, it is the story of Aster, of Q Deck, on the generation ship Matilda, 300 years from earth and yet not so far as to escape its ghosts.  Just like the allegory The CaveAn Unkindness of Ghosts casts shadows of the past onto a future that is utterly unlike what we have known, and at the same time far too familiar.  Aster is clever, Aster is special, Aster is exemplary, and yet Aster cannot escape the barracks, the guards, the overseers, and the constant cold of a ship whose masters care only for their own comforts and live in constant fear of a lower-class uprising.

Solomon’s masterpiece debut flips the script on familiar science fiction hero tropes, in which power is a mutable thing, a thing that can be seized, wielded, transferred.  All Aster’s power lies in her mind, and in the tenuous connections she can forge between others on the margins of power.  There is no hero, in this novel, only people who do their best, and those who do their worst.

In Aster’s world, words have become something else, nearly unrecognizable from their origins.  Alchematics, botanarium, meema, surgeon general, these and more flow through a torrent of action and reaction, work, sleep, lockdowns, searches, doctoring, loving, living, and dying.  Dead already is Aster’s mother, Lune, once a genius and now a ghost, haunting Aster through her journals and the stories others tell about her, dead soon is the Sovereign, whose symptoms somehow mirror Lune’s, 25 years ago, before she went, and may hold the secret to freeing Matilda.

With hints of Snowpiercer, touches of The Underground Railroad, and kinship with Who Fears Death, this novel is a necessary addition to contemporary science fiction, a conflagration of things lost and found and maybe, just maybe, hope.

October Library Checkouts, 2017

The best part about October is not, as some would argue, getting to Halloween at the end, but getting to my birthday in November!

But first, let’s talk about what I checked out from my local library this October, 2017.

The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle.  I was very pleased to peruse my library’s  new books shelves and find this title.  I’d seen it fly by on Twitter multiple times, and there are many authors in it that I’ve either enjoyed in the past or am interested in.

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The Prey of  Gods, by Nicky Drayden.  A South African setting with AI and post-apocalyptic aspects made this novel intriguing.  Drayden is an author I’ve never encountered before, so I’m excited to get to know her work.

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An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon.  A generation ship, exploration, social issues! Of course I was going to pick this up.  It’s also highly recommended by publications like Publisher’s Weekly.

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Noumenon, by Marina J. Lostetter

The future is here and all the social progress we could ever have hoped for has arrived, nations are working together, and they are sending humanity to the stars.  PhD candidate Reggie Straifer has discovered an odd star, hundreds of light years away, and somehow managed to convince the powers that be to devote untold resources to sending humans out to study it, using a subdimensional drive that allows ships to travel much faster than the speed of light.  A hundred odd years of space travel for the convoy will be over 2,000 years for those back home, but that’s how progress happens–by slow leaps and bounds.

This book, though it’s been compared to Arthur C. Clarke (whom I’ve not read a scrap of) reminded me most of Emma Newman’s recent work in Planetfall and After Atlas, all three novels being confident enough in their storytelling to move beyond the how of interstellar travel to the who–who goes, who stays, and what happens to them in the meantime.  The sociological impact of putting a 10,000 clones on a nine-ship convoy heading to an abnormal star is what’s really at stake in Noumenon–an aptly titled novel in many ways, not least of which because it is a novel of speculation.  We’ll never know what could happen in a century ship until it does, but taking a look back at human history gives us a pretty good idea of what could.

Individually, Noumenon is told in a series of vignette chapters which skip forward in time, sometimes featuring different versions of the same clone, sometimes showing a different perspective altogether.  Each person was chosen for the mission based not only on intellectual capabilities, but their ability to pass a series of psychological checks that indicate they will have the necessary empathy and emotional stability to make the mission a success.  In many ways, Noumenon is the closed room of human development, a mystery that won’t be solved until the mission is over and their findings disseminated to the future owners of earth.

The stories told in Noumenon are by turns inspiring, comical, heartbreaking, and, in the end, cathartic.  Though I was occasionally unsure of some representations of injustice and racial or ethnic identities, this novel mostly lived up to its intentions, presenting a thoughtful look at what could be, and that which can never be fully understood about humanity.