Monday, August 1, 2011

Review - The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001 by Simone Caroti

Short review: An examination of the generation starship in science fiction, and by extension, the entire body of science fiction.

Generations ply
The dark to faraway stars
In a writer's mind

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Science fiction is full of stories of humans traveling to the stars by various means. To enable people to traverse the vast interstellar distances, science fiction writers have imagined various means of traveling faster than the speed of light - warp drives, hyper drives, inversion drives, and even the silly bloater drive. Or they have imagined means of extending human lifespans, or allowing humans to sleep in suspended animation for the duration of the long journey while traveling at less than the speed of light. But these stories all require the author to do violence to the known laws of physics or postulate as yet undiscovered technologies. Of all the methods imagined for going to the stars, the only one for which humans currently have is to imagine massive arks in space in which entire generations of people would be born, live their lives, and die while wandering the dark void between the stars: the generation starship.

As the only posited form of interstellar travel that amounts to nothing more than an engineering challenge coupled with a requirement of an investment of will and resources, the generation starship is a template upon which science fiction writers have imprinted the fears and aspirations of their era. And this template serves as the conduit by which Simone Caroti examines the history of science fiction, and as a result the popular thinking of the twentieth century. Starting with Bernal, Tsiolkovsky, and Goddard's proposals that were grounded in scientific speculation, and proceeding through the Gernsback era, the Campbell era, the Space Age, the New Wave, and the Information Age, detailing the science fiction stories produced by each period. The Generation Starship in Science Fiction is more or less an overgrown dissertation, but despite this, it offers a comprehensive look at how the generation starship story has evolved through the last seven decades. And as a result, it highlights how science fiction as a genre has evolved as well.

After explaining the roots of the idea of the generation starship, Caroti discusses how each successive generation imbued the idea with the ideas that were foremost in their minds. So in the Gernsback era the stories like The Living Galaxy imagined humanity perfected by technology and stories like The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years evince a bold optimism coupled with the growing fears of what might happen if the distinctly American values represented by the protagonist are allowed to fall out of favor. Then in the Campbell era, the stories reflect the distinctly Campbellian attitude that all problems are conquerable by the application of intelligence and effort - and the placement of the extraordinary man to at the heart of the narrative as in stories like Robert A. Heinlein's Universe and Common Sense (now compiled together under the title Orphans of the Sky). And as one can see, this mirrors the line of thought that dominated science fiction writing of those eras, merely transferring the thinking of the era to the generation starship setting.

And this pattern of transferring the main body of then-current science fiction thinking (which reflected the main body of then-current popular thinking) into the generation starship setting means that discussing the generation starship in science fiction is tantamount to discussing science fiction as a whole. So when popular culture began to be rife with the fears of a worldwide apocalypse followed by societies living in the ashes of a dead world, the generation starship stories reflected that and posited ship-wide disasters followed by bizarre post-apocalyptic societies picking through the remains. Or the stories posited the idea that an iron will could save humanity even after the disintegration of  society, such as in Frank M. Robinsion's novella The Oceans Are Wide. And as society moved on, so did the generation starship story. And Caroti traces these developments all the way to the most recent stories, ending with Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun that seems to encapsulate everything that went before into one enormous comprehensive exploration of the subgenre.

The Generation Starship in Science Fiction offers the serious science fiction aficionado a detailed look at this particular subgenre. Though the account can be a bit dry and technical at points, it is comprehensive and thorough. For anyone interested in understanding science fiction as a whole, this book is an excellent guide. If you love science fiction and everything that it represents, and you are interested in learning how it evolved from its roots to the present day, then this book should be on your to read list.

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