Religion in Sci-Fi

Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.

And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!

Alastair Reynolds:
Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.

Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.

In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.

Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.

While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.

In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.

Arthur C. Clarke:
At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”

However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.

Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.

In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.

So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.

Frank Herbert:
Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.

And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.

When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.

However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.

As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.

After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.

As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.

For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!

Gene Roddenberry:
For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!

Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.

However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.

In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.

These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.

George Lucas:
Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.

In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.

What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.

In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.

All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.

However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.

Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!

H.G. Wells:
Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.

These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work,  aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.

When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.

In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.

Isaac Asimov:
Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.

His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.

In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.

Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.

What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.

Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

Philip K. Dick:
Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.

Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.

In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.

All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.

Ray Bradbury:
Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.

For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.

As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.

In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.

Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”

In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.

Robert A. Heinlein:
As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.

These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.

In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.

What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”

But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.

Summary:
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉

Chasm City

Next up in my review of Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space universe is the prequel novel and setting piece known as Chasm City! Released in 2001, one year after Revelation Space and a year before Redemption Ark (I know, prolific, aint he?), the story takes place outside of the main trilogy, but details the setting and some of the characters who will play an important role in it.

As the name would suggest, the setting of this novel is the all-important location known as Chasm City itself. In Revelation Space, we got treated to an earful about this place since it is the undisputed hub of the known universe. Or at least it was before the Melding Plague, a terrible nanotechnological virus, turned the place into a twisted, gothic nightmare.

Background:
According to Reynold’s many descriptions of the place throughout the series, Chasm City was not only the capitol of Yellowstone (chief planet of the Epsilon Eridani system), it was also the center of the universe when it came to commerce, innovation and technological progress. It’s multi-tiered cities, contained within the “Mosquito Net” (i.e. habitation dome) were a marvel of nanotechnological achievement, living buildings that were capable of maintaining themselves.

The name itself referred to the fact that the city itself was built in a chasm which was open to the planet’s interior. From this chasm, large clouds of gas would erupt periodically, which the inhabitants used to fashion an atmosphere. In orbit, a huge array of satellites and orbital platforms had been installed, known as the “Glitter Band” due to their unrivaled beauty and the fact the wealthiest citizens maintained opulent homes in orbit.

And last, but not least, Chasm City was the home of the human faction known as the “Demarchists”, a name which is an amalgam of Democratic and Anarchy. These people were the most advanced factions in the universe, save for perhaps the Conjoiners, who used implant technology and wireless communications to create a society that needed no official offices or institutions. All decision making processes were run by direct democracy and the law maintained by police who enforced the public will. Sure, there were still offices and ranks, but the general trend was towards de-structurizing and an avoidance of hierarchy.

Plot Synopsis:
The first thread story opens on the planet known as Sky’s Edge, a planet in orbit of 61 Cygni A, where an enforcer named Tanner Mirabel is looking for a post-mortal noble named Argent Reivich. This man, we quickly learn, was responsible for the death of the wife of Tanner’s employer and is fleeing the planet for Yellowstone. Tanner and his friend pursue him, a chase which takes them into the depths of Chasm City and provides a first-hand look at the effects the Melding Plague has had and the illicit activities that have taken over the now fallen city.

In addition, two more threads open through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences. It is established early on that Tanner has been infected by an “indoctrination virus” – a sort of bio-engineered program which forces those who have it to experience religious visions. He interprets the dreams he has as a symptom, which are predictably concerned with the life of Sky Haussmann, the oft-revered and hated man who founded the colony of Sky’s Edge. This constitutes thread two of the story, where Tanner dreams of Sky’s childhood aboard the Flotilla that traveled to Sky’s Edge from Earth many centuries in the past, aboard generational ships where he was amongst the waking crew.

In the third thread, Tanner relives the traumatic events that led him to Yellowstone in pursuit of Reivich. Apparently, Tanner worked for a man named Cahuella, an arms dealer who is being pursued by Reivich because he sold arms to a rival family which used them to kill his parents. We also learn that Tanner loved Cahuella’s wife, a woman named Gritta. According to the flashbacks he experiences, it was while deploying to the jungles of Sky’s Edge, in an attempt to intercept Reivich, that the incident that led to Gitta’s death took place.

Upon reaching Chasm City, Tanner sees first hand what has become of the city. A once technological marvel, it has now degenerated into a dark and ugly, the buildings appearing as twisted, diseased trees. The Glitter Band has fallen into disrepair, and is now known as the “Rust Belt”. There is also a lucrative trade in what is referred to as “Dream Fuel”, which appears to render users temporarily immune to the Melding Plague. And last, there is the “Game” which Tanner becomes trapped in, where residents of the Canopy (those few still-privileged people who live close to the Mosquito Net) hunt people who live down in “The Mulch” (aka. down below).

After escaping the “gamers”, Tanner takes a female resident of the Canopy hostage and learns that she is part of the lucrative “Dream Fuel” trade. With her help, they travel deep into Yellowstone’s underground network and tunnels and find the source of it, which appears to be a giant, sentient slug. This begins to line up with some of the vision’s Tanner has been having involving Sky and the Flotilla, which continue to haunt his dreams.

Basically, Tanner is now aware that Sky took over control of the Flotilla after his father was murdered by an embedded agent. In a twist, Sky allowed this to happen because he was outraged to learn that his parents had taken him from another family that had died while in cryosleep. While in command of the fleet, he learned that they were being pursued by a strange, phantom ship. When they investigated, they discovered that it was an alien vessel that had morphed to look like one of their own. Inside – drumroll please – was a giant slug living in a big pool of Dream Fuel!

Yes, it seems that the fuel is in fact the organic secretions of the Slug, and that they are a sentient race that has been living in hiding ever since the emergence of a terrible alien threat that has been destroying all space-faring life. For those who have read Revelation Space at this point, it is clear the slug is referring to the Inhibitors. Hence why the Slug ship was following the Flotilla, it had hoped to remain inconspicuous by mimicking other species and their ships. The one currently being used to provide Dream Fuel is another, one which chose to hide deep within Yellowstone to avoid detection.

At the same time, Tanner becomes aware of one horrid fact. After remembering everything from the night where Gitta died, Tanner comes to the realization that it was he that killed her. In the course of their advance through the jungle to intercept Reivich, he and his men ambushed their camp and took Gitta hostage. Rather than let them get away, Tanner opened fire and accidentally killed her. However, he is confused because his memories end with Cahuella taking his own revenge by feeding Tanner to one of his giant snakes.

Nevertheless, Tanner gets back on Reivich’s trail and finally corners him in orbit. There, he finds the ruined body of Reivich who has been hooked up to a machine that was supposed to recor*d his consciousness and create an “alpha” (i.e. a living computer construct) of him. However, the process was rushed, and now Reivich’s body has been irreparably damaged. Close to death, he reveals another twist. It seems that he is not Tanner after all, but Cahuella himself! Small hints are given throughout the novel tot his effect, but he realizes that it is true when Tanner himself walks in!

Yes, it seems that Cahuella couldn’t deal with the anguish of losing his wife and decided to switch memories and appearances with Tanner while he was busy torturing him. However, Tanner managed to escape after Cahuella left and made his way to Yellowstone to get some payback of his own. The two fight, but eventually Cahuella realizes his body contains all kinds of enhancements, such as poisonous snakes’ teeth, which he used to overpower Tanner. Reivich dies too, and Cahuella is left with his many painful revelations.

Another painful revelation is the fact that the dreams he’s having or not the result of the indoctrination virus, but his own memories coming to the surface. It seems that he, Caheulla, is in fact Sky Haussmann himself, and that after sacrificing several innocent lives to get his own ship to 61 Cygni A ahead of the rest of the Flotilla. Because of this, the world was named Sky’s Edge, a sly reference (and criticism) of all he did to make it there first. After he set down, he was set upon by other groups of colonists who wanted him brought to justice. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t crucified publicly, but substituted himself with a look0alike and then slipped into the jungle to live out his life in a new persona (Cahuella).

Seeking redemption now, he returns to Chasm City and teams up with his lady friend in the hopes of making some changes. For one, the Dream Fuel trade is to be regulated and humane now, no more torturous extraction from the poor Slug. Second, the “Game” is reformed so that the hunt is for volunteers only, with plenty of rules and chances for the “hunted” to save themselves after they are caught. With all this in place, Tanner Mirabel, aka. Caheulla, aka. Sky Haussmann, settles in for a life he can live with and says goodbye to a life of revenge and running.

Summary:
To begin with the good points, this book was once again an intriguing and exciting romp through the Revelation Space universe. After that first installment, this book cashed in on all the buzz and interest he had created for his fictitious backdrops, such as Sky’s Edge and Chasm City, both very interesting place in their own right. It also detailed a number of elements that were brought up but not developed too much in the first novel, such as the game “Shadowplay”, which Ana Khouri was a member of. At the same time, it also discussed and delved into the dynamics of life and the wars on Sky’s Edge, which also came up in relation to Khouri’s character.

And of course, there was plenty more of the same interesting stuff that set’s Reynold’s universe apart. The concept of time dilation, post-mortality, alpha-level simulations, the Inhibitors, the Melding Plague, nanotechnology, cybernetic implants, and the “indoctrination virus”. All of these elements were brought up in Revelation Space or the subsequent novels to one degree or another, and it was good that Reynold’s side-stepped the trilogy in order to provide some more deep background and development for these concepts.

But above all, the primary focus of the novel, which was on Chasm City itself, was indispensable to this series. A once powerhouse of technology and civility, the Gothic, steampunk-themed environment is just so interesting and rich that it really had to have it’s own book. After reading about it in the first novel and seeing subsequent references to it later in the series, I just knew that Reynold’s would have to come back to it at some point. There was simply too much there for it to a passing mention, not to mention too much in the way of implied significance.

In addition to being an richly detailed environment that inspires so much mental imagery, Chasm City is a fitting metaphor for how technological progress can so easily go from being the stuff of dreams to the stuff of nightmares. It only makes sense that the urban center where all the greatest technological leaps of the future were developed – brain implants, man-machine interface, alpha-level constructs, clinical immortality, nanotech, biotech – that it is also be the place where it all came crashing down. And what did it was especially appropriate – a nano-virus which hit them where they were most vulnerable by perverting the very technology they were so dependent on.

As for the weaknesses, well, they are something that comes up a lot in Reynold’s works. For one, there are too many twists! Why, for example, was it necessary for Cahuella to take on Tanner Mirabel’s identity? Wasn’t it enough that the man who failed to save the woman he loved, who also had a bit of an elicit thing going with her, was out for revenge? And why for that matter did he also need to be Sky Haussmann. One hidden identity was enough, and given its importance to the storyline, it would have been enough for him to be Sky.

Think about it, the reviled and worshiped founded of the colony runs into the jungle and takes on the identity of a simple bounty hunter. Wouldn’t that have been better than assuming the identity of a high-profile arms dealer? And since he settled down to become a professional hunter in Chasm City anyway, wouldn’t him being Tanner all along provide more symmetry? And to explain the whole memory wipe thing, just say that he assumed the identity of Tanner completely to avoid any slip ups, or because he genuinely wanted a new lease on life. Playing it the other way was just plain weird.

Also, there are some other odd elements in the book, stuff that seemed less creative and more far-fetched than his usual story elements. For example, we see that in Chasm City, people rely on more than just “Dream Fuel” to protect themselves from the Melding Plague and prolong their lives now that they can no longer depend on nanotechnology. One of them is a genetic enhancement using Koi fish DNA. Seeing as how the Koi is quasi-immortal and will continue to grow so long as they have new environments to grow into, the residents of Chasm City decided to harness their genetic material in order to prolong their lives indefinitely.

In fact, Tanner/Cahuella/Sky is shown to a sort of shrine in one of the city’s thoroughfares where a massive, centuries-old  Koi is being kept in a tank and revered. And it struck me as just plain strange. Sure, this scene provides a sort of commentary on the vagaries of clinical immortality, but it still felt oddly out of place. So, for that matter, did the descriptions of the various people of the city who have used genetic enhancements to elongate their faces and skulls in unnatural shapes, as well as grow wings and other appendages. I get that in this universe, people can do some rather odd things with their biology, but why the hell would they want to? Much like hypercats, superchimps, the winged unicorns and other such creations from the series, it felt like Reynold’s is getting off-kilter and being weird for the sake of weird.

But other than that, the book is a worthy read and kind of required if you want to be able to make sense of the series. Like I said before, there were aspects of Redemption Ark that I didn’t get until well after I read this book, and since it’s placement in the series comes before the other books, it behooves the reader to tackle this one before moving on to the later books in the series.

Coming up next, Absolution Gap and the conclusion to Alastair Reynold’s lineup!

Redemption Ark

Continuing with the Alastair Reynold’s series is the second book in the Revelation Space universe, otherwise known as Redemption Ark. Released in 2002, just two years after the debut novel in the series, this book picked up where the previous story left off, continuing the story of the known universe, the Inhibitors, and the coming crisis where they would attempt to wipe out humanity.

While this alone was certainly a basis for an exciting novel, this second installment also included a lot of additional elements, such as a protracted war between the Demarchists and the Conjoiners, the inner workings of these and other factions, what life is like in the “Rust Belt” – the ring of satellites and orbital stations around Yellowstone – and some added secrets and twists that make it all more interesting.

Out of the three books that make up this trilogy – Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap – this one is definitely my favorite. While it was certainly no less interesting and detailed than the first, it was far less convoluted in terms of plot and expanded on some key elements. And ultimately, I found it more entertaining in terms of its pacing and action, and its characters were indeed more relatable than in the first.

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens in 2605 with a major discovery being made. After generations of being unheard from, Galiana (the woman who founded the Conjoiners) returns from deep space. Her vessel was apparently set upon by a mysterious force, square-sized segments of the ship are missing, and all aboard appear to be dead. All save for Galiana herself who is in cryosleep and appears to be suffering from the intrusion of an alien mind. After investigating the ship, Skade, a special operative for the Conjoiner faction, contact is made with Galiana herself.

It is then revealed that the alien force which attacked their ship, and now controls Galiana herself, was none other than the Inhibitors. They now are able to speak through her, and Galiana asks to be killed. Skade however puts her in suspended animation in the hopes that she can he helped, and so they can get more information out of the Inhibitor influence later… Skade herself appears to be communing with hidden voices, which belong to the Night Council, a super secret organization within the Conjoiner leadership that runs spec ops.

Fast forward to ten years later around Yellowstone, where a war is taking place between the Conjoiner faction and the Demarchists. After many generations of cooperation to restore Chasm City from the terrible effects of the Melding Plague, tensions have reached a crisis point and a constant state of war has been in effect ever since. Here we see Neville Clavain, a high-ranking military officer who defected to the Conjoiners centuries back.

In the course of a battle, Clavain comes into contact with a Yellowstone cosmonaut named Antoinette Bax, who nearly loses her ship while attempting to bury her father in the system’s gas giant, Tangerine Dream. After saving her ship, Clavain lets her know that if he sees her again, she’s dead, thus establishing that they most surely will! After taking down the Demarchist ship, he also finds a Hyperpig (a race of human-pig hybrids) who was apparently their prisoner. He also meets with Felka, Galiana’s gifted daughter whom he believes might be his as well.

Clavain is then brought to the Mother’s Nest, the Conjoiner hive, where he is asked to join the Conjoiners leadership, a decision he has been resisting until now. Skade informs him about the Inhibitors, and how there presence necessitates that they undertake a mission to reclaim the lost Conjoiner doomsday weapons. These weapons just happen to be the ones that appeared in the first novel, which are the current property of Volyova and the Nostalgia for Infinity.

The first step in the mission involves taking Clavain to see the fleet of advanced starships that the Conjoiners have been building in secret. Skade claims that the weapons and ships will be used to defend humanity against the Inhibitors, but Clavain is convinced that they will actually be used simply to evacuate the Conjoiners and abandon the rest of humanity. She confirms this when he begins a daring escape, saying only that “It’s a Darwinian universe, Clavain.” Clavain then travels to Yellowstone to defects to the Demarchists and spread the news of the Inhibitors, enlisting Antoinette Bax’s help to escape the pursuing Conjoiners under Skade. Told ya they’d see each other again!

Remontoire, a member of the Conjoiner leadership and old friend of Clavain’s pursues him to Yellowstone with Scorpio. However, once they reach Yellowstone, they are captured, along with Clavain and Antoinette, by a mysterious figure known as “H”. He takes them into his compound, which happens to the be the Mademoiselle old hangout, and tells them the truth of their situation. H reveals that many years previous, Skade participated in a raid into Chasm City to capture secrets that would lead to the development of inertia suppression technology.

He believes that at that time, she was subverted by the Mademoiselle herself, who happens to be the voice that’s inside her head. Clavain reveals Skade’s plans for the Conjoiner fleet and the cache weapons, and H agrees to help him beat Skade to them. H supplies ships and his own version of the inertial suppression technology, while Scorpio supplies an army of hyper-pigs for the pursuit. They name the ship the Zodiacal Light, in honor of a ship that holds significance to Scorpio.

Meanwhile, on Resurgam in 2665, Ilya Volyova and Ana Khouri have adopted aliases and are working on the planet. They have learned the Inhibitors have arrived and are busy dismantling several rocky moons and are moving the components towards the system’s gas giant, Roc. They begin collaborating with the local resistance leader, Thorn, who has been attempting to evacuate the planet by communicating with the Nostalgia, which is now under Captain Brannigan’s direct control. Thanks to the Melding Plague, he has now merged with the ship.

They begin the evacuation while the Inhibitors continue building their mysterious weapon, which appears to be a large gravitational device which they use to sheer the system’s sun to pieces. Unfortunately, their limited resources are only moving a few thousand people at a time. Volyova decides to deploy the Nostalgia’s cache weapons against the Inhibitor’s weapon to buy more time.

However, her efforts are upset a little when the Captain, in control of the ship and the weapons, attempts to use one to “commit suicide” by blowing the Nostalgia apart. Overwrought by guilt over everything he’s done to survive, he tries to end it all, but Volyova’s quick intervention stops him. By positioning her shuttle between the Nostalgia and the cache weapon, her shuttle is sliced in half and she is nearly killed. However, she is successful in getting the Captain to stop and he agrees to abide by her decisions.

Skade and Clavain then race to the Resurgam system employing various creative long-distance strategies against each other and pushing their vessels to higher and higher speeds. Eventually, Skade’s vessel is damaged in an attempt to exceed the speed of light. Clavain and crew arrive in the Zodiacal Light ready to recover the cache weapons. They begin communicating with the Nostalgia via a beta-level simulation of Clavain, but the efforts prove futile. Volyova refuses to hand them over and Clavain and friends are not willing to leave without them.

A shooting fight begins between the two sides when both ships come together. Clavain’s superior forces capture Nostalgia for Infinity, although Volyova is able to damage Zodiacal Light with one of the cache weapons. At a bit of a stalemate, Negotiations resume and the two sides come to terms. The evacuation is completed with the help of Clavain’s forces and the Nostalgia while Volyova, who is dying of her injuries, takes half of the cache weapons and attacks the Inhibitors in the Storm Bird, to no effect. Remontoire and Khouri remain in the system in the Zodiacal Light to try and contact Dan Sylveste in the Hades Matrix in hope that he will be able to supply information that can be used to fight the Inhibitors.

The Nostalgia then crosses paths with Skade’s ship again, which they rig to explode. But before this happens, Skade reveals the true plan and how they knew about the Inhibitors in advance. It seems that the Conjoiners began a project many centuries back known as Exordium, which involved the use of quantum computers to communicate across time and universes. This led them to the creation of the Conjoiner drives, but also to the Inhibitors impending attack. As a result, they began developing the cache weapons for the day when they showed up, but knew that even these wouldn’t be enough. This prompted them to develop the special fleet to escape to deep space.

In the end, Clavain and his team are unable to convince Skade that she’s being manipulated and learn that Galiana’s body is on Skade’s ship. But since she wants to die, he decides to detonate it once they are at a safe distance. Clavain mourns her death, since they were lovers, and the ship finds its way to a Pattern Juggler planet where they set down and begin building a tentative colony. Things seem bleak, until Felka reveals that she’s seen the planet before. Before dying, her mother showed her things, which included a vision of this place. She knows then that they are exactly where they need to be and takes heart from that. From this planet, they await the arrival of Khouri, Remontoire and the Zodiacal Light to catch up so they can continue the fight against the Inhibitors.

Good Points:
Like I said before, this book had a lot going for it that was new and interesting. One of the most important was the asides made by the Inhibitors themselves, which revealed their deeper intentions. Not only are they trying to inhibit the growth of space faring intelligence to prevent another Dawn War, but the inevitability of Andromeda’s Galactic Collision with the Milky Way is another reason. When this happens, the disturbance will cause untold destruction, especially to any civilizations inhabiting either galaxy. The only way to prevent trillions of deaths is to ensure that either no space-faring species are around at the time, or that one super-advanced one was in place to control the entire galaxy. Since the latter is so unlikely, they chose to opt for the former.

Also, the war between the Conjoiners and the Demarchists was an interesting touch. It provided some added excitement to the early chapters and some intrigue to the evolving story. Not that much was needed, given the plot involving the Inhibitors and the mounting crisis with them. Still, it was a nice addition. The glimpse inside Conjoiner society and the way they brought back characters from the earlier short stories, crossing them with this main plot line, also provided a lot of meat and consistency to the larger universe.

And last, there is the consistent theme of this novel. Whereas the first focused on revelation, this one was all about redemption. It was a fitting theme for the second book after everything that had taken place in the first. The misdeeds of Sylveste in his long search for answers, the crimes of Captain Brannigan in his quest for immortality, and even of Volyova in her drive to see his plans through. In the end, all things come together in this story with a drive to do something right in the midst of all the fear and chaos being wrought.

Which brings me to a part of the story which I am now kind of mixed on, meaning it was something I didn’t like about the story until after I realized the significance. The character of H, who appears on Yellowstone and provides some serious motivation to the plot. Initially, I had no idea who he was and saw his introduction as a total contrivance to the story. Not only did he know too much and have all the answers, he seemed to come out of nowhere. As plot twists go, this seemed like just another unnecessary one.

However, it was in reading Chasm City, a prequel to which was released between books one and two, that I realized who he was. Sky Haussmann, who is an important background character, was detailed in that novel and wound up on Yellowstone becoming an influential figure. It was he who killed the Mademoiselle and ended up inheriting her secrets and her empire, thereafter becoming known only as “H” to hide his identity. And it was fitting, since he too wanted redemption and found it by helping Clavain and his friends, and even attempted to commit suicide himself when it was all done.

Ah, which brings me to the weakness of this book, which bear some resemblance to all of Reynold’s other works.

Bad Points:
Once again, there are the excessive plot twists that just seem to keep coming and seem unnecessary. After all that is revealed in the early chapters, the book seemed perfectly packed with enough plot twists and revelations to keep the reader interested. However, in the later chapters, there are more which just seem to convolute things. For instance, Bax learns that her ship, Storm Bird, contains the AI of a man who was her father’s friend, and also a infamous because of an accident which apparently claimed his life. Facing death, and hoping to find a dignified end for his friend, he programmed the ship with his beta-level simulation to look after her. A nice story, a touching one even, but including it at that point in the story seemed too much and happened too late in the story.

Another is Exordium. While it was a very interesting concept and did provide some synthesis and some added background to the story, it was yet another 11th hour revelation that felt unnecessary. It was enough to know that Galiana had come back from deep space with a warning ten years previous, they really didn’t need to know about this generations back. That discovery alone would have been enough to motivate the creation of the secret fleet, the cache weapons and all the rest. And if time frames were an issue, Reynolds could have just made it happen sooner.

Last, but certainly not least, was the twist where it is revealed that the Night Council is in fact the Mademoiselle. What purpose did this twist serve, other than to involve the Mademoiselle from the first story? In that book, her agenda was clear. She was a Demarchist of great wealth and power who wanted Sylveste dead because of what he did to her. But now, what motivation did she have for infiltrating the Conjoiners or possessing the inertia suppressing technology? And, more importantly, what’s her agenda vis a vis the Inhibitors? Learning about them is understandable, but the agenda involving escaping into deep space and all, how’s that serve her interests? If anything, she would be trying to get her to help protect Yellowstone, where she presumably still is, not abandon it.

Really, it would have been much more plausible to actually have had a Night Council and have them being the motivating force behind Skade’s actions regarding the Inhibitors. It would have been a plausible angle involving covert conspiracies versus democratic considerations, like how the tiny executive council wants to save the Conjoiners and is keeping it a secret because they know the Council will object to such a selfish, Darwinian plan. These same people could become a problem later after Clavain and his friends defected, even coming after them later.

But like I said, this book was a worthy read, even more so than the first. It’s hard sci-fi and classic elements, and consistent themes of ancient aliens and worthy deeds in the face of impending doom – these all added up to a good story. And of course, Reynold’s usual stylistic touch, involving lots of cool technology, rich worlds, and his gothic, cyberpunk feel. It’s just cool! In keeping with why I picked it up in the first place, I highly recommend this book for those looking to learn more about current science fiction trends and what makes them popular.

Generational Ships

systems___cryogenics_1Ever since my writing group and I got on the subject of space and colonization, some recurring themes have come up. For starters, there’s the concept of interstellar space travel, the kind that doesn’t involve fictitious Faster-Than-Light drive systems and therefore cannot exceed the speed of light. In those situations, which are far more likely to happen in this and the next century, the question of how to keep crews alive until your arrival keeps popping up.

One way is to utilize some kind of cryogenic procedure, where passengers are put into “reefersleep” for the duration of the journey and awakened upon arrival. Though it might sound a bit crude, it’s actually a very practical solution to the problems of how to keep a crew preserved and provided for during the incredibly long voyages that space travel entails. This procedure has come up repeatedly in the realm of science fiction, particularly H.P. Lovecraft’s Cool Air, Robert A Heinlein’s The Door into Summer, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, PKD’s Ubik, the Alien franchise, and the Revelation Space universe, just to name a few.

RAMAThe other solution, which is the subject of this post, is to construct generational ships. These are basically “interstellar arks” where people and even entire biospheres are transported from one location to another. Crews are kept in waking conditions, experience subjective time, and entertain themselves in interactive, simulated or virtual environments in order to stay sane until they complete their voyage. Though much more expensive to build, these ships are an equally elegant solution of what to do about non-FTL space travel and colonization.

These two have made many appearances in science fiction, and I’ve compiled a list of all the Generation Ships, Space Arks, and O’Neil Cylinders I could find.

Firefly:
At the beginning of each episode, it was explained how Earth was used up, prompting humanity to seek out a new home. This is what eventually led them to 34 Tauri  in the 22nd century where they began the process of terraforming and settling its the many worlds and moons. Though it was never explained in detail, mainly because the show was cancelled before they could (screw you Fox!), indications are given in the movie Serenity and the expanded universe that this involved Generation Ships.

In the movie, this was done mainly through visuals, where a large of flotilla dusts off from Earth and eventually finds its way to the system of the White Sun. It was also said that the process of terraforming took decades, which would require that the crews had somewhere to stay while the terraformers did their work. Also, speculative point here, but it would stand to reason that the fleet would have to have some pretty large ships to accommodate both settlers and the kind of equipment they would need.

Chasm City:
This novel, set in Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space universe, involves a large thread that follows the settlement of the world known as Sky’s Edge. This took place early in the universe’s backstory, before the development of lighthuggers and therefore required that the ships used be able to support crews for long periods of time.

From Reynold’s descriptions, these ships were large, cylindrical vessels that boasted vast bays to hold their many cryogenically-frozen passengers. At the same time, the waking crew needed vast facilities to provide for their needs. These included mess halls, sleeping quarters, medical bays, and recreational facilities. Sky Haussmann, one of the children amongst the crew, had a nursery with a robotic clown and virtual backgrounds.

This divide, between a waking crew and frozen settlers, represents a sort of compromise between the cryoship design and the generation ship. On the one hand, you’ve got the majority of your crew at near-frozen temperatures and perfectly preserved for the voyage. On the other, you’ve got a crew walking about and looking for food, rest and entertainment. However, it still qualifies, and even inspired my group in our quest to design the perfect story for colonization!

Orphans of the Sky:
One of the earliest known examples of the use of generation ships in sci-fi, this two-novella set was also one of Heinlein’s first works. Like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, it features a massive cylindrical ship that is drifting through space. But unlike Rama, Heinlein’s ship, known as the Vanguard, has become a derelict that is permanently adrift in space.

As the story goes on, we learn that this was due to a mutiny which killed all the piloting officers many generations back. Since that time, the descendants of the surviving loyal crew have forgotten the purpose and nature of their ship and lapsed into a pre-technological culture marked by superstition. In fact, they now view their ship as the cosmos itself, and interpret its “voyage” as a metaphor.

The crew are also ruled by an oligarchy of “Officers” and “Scientists”, at the head of which is the descendent of the original captain. Much like pre-industrial times, most crew members are dedicated to a simple life where they tend to agriculture and are illiterate. Seldom does anyone ever venture to the “upper decks” where the “muties” (aka. “mutants” or “mutineers”) are kept. These individuals, it is learned, know the truth of the ship’s purpose, another reason why they are ostracized from the rest of the crew.

As you can plainly see, this book not only featured a generation ship and some rather hard science when it came to colonization, it also raised some valid and interesting questions about how space travel and confining environments could effect subsequent generations of people. Those who were born into an enclosed environment would come to know it as their whole world. And in the absence of external, verifiable facts (such as messages from Earth or historical records), they could even be led to believe there was nothing beyond their walls.

Paradises Lost:
Similar in tone and setting to Heinlein’s Orphans, this story by Ursula K. LeGuin focuses instead on the psychological impact that generational travel would have on a human crew. Adapted into a musical, this story explores the basic question of what happens when you spend your whole life (and entire generations) traveling toward a goal, only to find that the endpoint has become otherworldly and unattainable?

The story takes place aboard a generation ship known as the Discovery, where people are born and die on a trip to colonize a distant planet. Much like the Orphans, the ship becomes their entire universe and begins to seem more tangible to them than Earth or their mission to colonize a new world. The reason for this quite simple; as the journey goes on, those who knew a life on Earth are slowly dying off, and subsequent generations know about these things only through tales and lore.

As a result, a new religion is borne which teaches that the ship is “spaceship heaven” and that it is bound for eternity. This religion is known as Bliss, and the younger generation are embracing it against the wishes of the older. The story is told through the eyes of two elder characters – Hsing and Luis. They know their lives will end on board the ship and that their mission lies in the hands of future generations. Naturally, they worry since said generations are convinced that they should never leave the ship they call heaven.

Rendevouz with Rama:
One of the best examples of a generational ship, which extra-terrestrial in origin! Known as Rama, this massive space cylinder was basically a self-contained world that was carrying the Raman civilization from one corner of the galaxy to another. When a crew from Earth arrive and begin to survey the interior, they begin to notice several tell-tale features.

For one, the interior contains several structures which appear to be arranged in “cities” – odd blocky shapes that look like buildings, and streets with shallow trenches in them, looking like trolley car tracks. In addition, there is a sea that stretches in a band around Rama dubbed the Cylindrical Sea, and trenches cut into the sides that appear to be windows.

In time, all the machinery comes to light, thanks in part to the admission of light through the ship’s long windows. Small creatures that appear to be biological machines (aka. “biots”) begin to come out as well and conducting routine maintenance. In time, they come to the conclusion that the buildings constitute factories, that the cylindrical sea contains trace elements and bio-matter which they will begin to convert into “Ramans” as soon they get in range of their destination.

In the end, it seemed that the Ramans determined that the best way to spread their species was to break them down into their component parts, place them aboard ships that would float for generations through space, and begin recompiling them once they got to where they wanted to go. Ultimately, Sol was just a stopover on their long journey, and more ships were coming in subsequent novels. Still, this first exposure to the alien generation ship was an educational experience!

Ringworld:
Written by Larry Niven, the Ringworld series is considered one of the greatest examples of exploratory sci-fi. Set in the Known Space universe of the distant future, the story revolves around the discovery and exploration of the Ringworlds, an artificial habitation ring built by an extinct civilization. With the makers of these rings long dead, the rings themselves are adrift and their engineered inhabitants degenerated into a primitive state.

These artificial rings are roughly one million kilometers wide and one thousand kilometers across, approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit. Each one encircles a Sol-type star which provides both life sustaining energy and light. And of course, they rotate, thus providing artificial gravity that is 99.2% as strong as Earth’s through the action of centrifugal force. And night is provided by an inner ring of shadow squares which are connected to each other by thin ultra strong shadow square wire.

The ringworld has a habitable flat inner surface that is equivalent in area to approximately three million Earth-sized planets. Hence, it is able to sustain extensive ecosystems and all forms of life. This appears to be purpose of the rings in the end, the creation of habitable areas in space that were removed from terrestrial environments. And added bonus was the ability to transport said life over vast distances through space without having to stick them in an enclosed environment.

So really, these things were like a gigantic version of a generation ship, capable of moving an entire species or civilization through space.

Stargate Atlantis:

The series Stargate Atlantis contained a few mentions of vessels which fit the profile of generation ships. For starters, there was the Ancients City Ship, a self-contained city that was also a spaceship. Though it was capable of FTL travel, the vessel was capable of sustaining a city-sized population for extended periods of time as it traveled through space.

In addition, in the third season episode entitle “The Ark”, Colonel Sheppard’s team discovers a facility inside a hollowed-out moon that turns out to be an ark created by the people of the planet around which the moon is in orbit. The ark was built to preserve the existence of the people from the planet so that they could reemerge and rebuild their civilization. Generations prior, these people had fought a disastrous war with the Wraith in which they were almost exterminated.

Though not a vessel per se, the moon base served the same purpose as a generation ship. Though the moon orbited their original homeworld and the people really weren’t traveling through space (except in orbit around their planet), the principle was essentially the same. People were kept in stasis until the day came when they could awaken to transplant themselves on the intended world, thus ensuring the survival and expansion of their civilization.

Yes, the examples abound! In fact, the concept of the generation ship and related ideas are so fertile that I’m kind of surprised that it took me so long to really appreciate it. But then again, I came to a lot of the classics a little late in life. Ah well, it doesn’t really matter when you get to the destination, provided that you get there and enjoy the journey. Which is kind of the concept behind a generation ship isn’t it? If you can’t just warp your way across the universe – if you got to take your time and drift slow – you might as well travel in style!