Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441
The so-called generation ship novels are a subgenre of the space opera. Whereas the scope of the space opera is concerned with the vastness of the universe, galactic empires, and interstellar wars, the generation ship novels have their main focus on the social structures and human interaction in the limited...
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- Critical Essays
The so-called generation ship novels are a subgenre of the space opera. Whereas the scope of the space opera is concerned with the vastness of the universe, galactic empires, and interstellar wars, the generation ship novels have their main focus on the social structures and human interaction in the limited confines of the ship. The vastness of space is contradicted by the relatively limited space on board the ship, which, for its inhabitants, represents the universe because they usually have forgotten earlier technical knowledge and are on a voyage between planets. They are unaware of any reality outside the ship.
This type of book offers an interesting perspective on the human condition and possible circumstances for devolution. The spaceship can be viewed as an allegory of the spaceship Earth, which could have a similar fate. Aldiss uses all the typical characteristics of a generation ship novel: The inhabitants of his ship have only partial knowledge about where they are and have been subject to significant devolution. The interesting twists in this book are the fact that the so-called Outsiders seem to control everything and that these people are actually humans from Earth. Another imaginative plot twist is revealed at the very end, when the savages find out that their expedition actually reached its destination of Earth three generations ago.
The first archetypical generation ship story was Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage that lasted 600 Years” (1940). The subgenre became popular with Robert A. Heinlein’s two short stories “Universe” (1941) and “Common Sense” (1941), in which a mutiny on board a generation ship causes the death of all navigators and sets the descendants of the passengers adrift in space. Another important work in the subgenre is E. C. Tubb’s The Space-Born (1956). Aldiss’ book is part of this movement in the field, which lasted from about 1940 to 1960. The decline in popularity of the generation ship book followed the decline of the space opera in general in the early 1960’s.
Non-Stop was Aldiss’ first science-fiction novel. His first book was The Brightfount Diaries (1955), but the generation ship story brought him his first critical acclaim. The book is a serious discussion of the character of humanity, showing ultimate destruction of the world of the spaceship. Aldiss often points out in interviews that he regards the human race as essentially flawed. The senseless destruction of the spaceship at the end of Non-Stop is nothing less than a warning not to do the same with spaceship Earth. Aldiss continued his vision of a dark future for humanity in many of his later works. Greybeard (1964) and Earthworks (1965) are two other grim visions of the sterility of humanity and Earth itself.