Notes and Comments for Simak’s ‘Spacebred Generations’
Simak, C. (1953). Spacebred Generations. In Science-Fiction Plus. April, 1953. Accessed 11 May 2016 from <http://mreadz.com/read301868/>
- General observations on ‘Spacebred Generations’
- Links to the focus questions
- Comments on the story by Zachary Kendall
- Simon Caroti’s discussion of ‘Spacebred Generations’
- Resource list
- We learn from Jon, the protagonist, that in this world the death of the individual is the last repaying of a debt owed to society as everything, including human lives are used again and again
- Also at the start of the story the reader understands that for this couple, Jon and Mary, to have a child, an older man must die. Someone must go to make room for a new child. In this way we see the setting is a closed society that is held delicately in balance. In this case, a character named Joshua must die. Some readers here will hear echoes from older texts in the names of the characters introduced immediately, they are Biblical names.
- It is Jon that the reader follows in the story and he has an understanding that whatever has happened at the start of the story is something new, but foretold. It is an emergency and Job seeks understanding of this emergency because he has always questioned the society in which he has lived.
- Jon goes to a secret place, a compartment accessed by travelling down and away from his living quarters with his wife, Mark.
- There is something secret in the place he seeks, something wrong and to be hidden and these things are the Letter and the Reading. Many generations have passed on the letter and taught reading to those secret members who know of the Letter. The Letter is to be opened only in an emergency but Jon realises that this is an emergency as his world has changed.
- Importantly, Jon remembers the words of his father, who handed on the Letter and the skil to read the words on the letter to Jon, even though reading and books have been banned and just having books is a major offence in this society. Jon remembers his father telling him that reading is important because the written word stays the same, but the spoken word changes. Jon’s memory, ironically, links in well with his father’s advice, “the memory will forget a thing and twist it. But the written word will stay forever as it was written down. It does not forget and does not change its meaning.“
- Jon notices the logic of the ship now obeys rational laws. Jon is a rational man who can perceive the sense in engineering for order the stability. He sees that the ladders to doors were stupid and now the ladders can be converted into more energy for the closed system.
- Every cubible and major meeting place has a Holy Picture, but this is not a picture of a family, but of a tree, sky and field. In this society, these are holy and treasured. Holy Pictures show a past and future habitation for people in a cool and pleasant land.
- There is the usual Heinleinian sexism of the woman acting as a limited, scared and ignorant old wife while Jon is practical and can perceive events in context. He does not trust his wife with his heresy, “And once she had heard it, she like any of the others, would shrink from him and he’d see the loathing in her eyes.”
- Jon and the others in the society suddenly see the space outside their world as standing still. Before, the stars span around them and the reader can guess that this spinning produced centripetal force: “for now you could see that the stars were not simply spinning lights that seemed to move against the flatness of a dead-black curtain, but that they were hanging in an emptiness that took the pit out of your stomach and made you gasp and clutch the metal of the ports, fighting to keep your balance, fighting off the lightheadedness that came upon you as you stared into a gulf you could not understand.”
- Down in his secret room some floors downwards from Jon’s living cubicle he retrieves three relics: the book, the letter and the bulb. The bulb produces light and Job can read both the book and the letter handed down to him over countless generations.
- He learns the ship has a purpose, not “the perversion of the truth which by the time you read this may have reached the stature of religion.” By this the reader of the story understands that Jon and others live in a time of delusion, when religion clouds reason.
- Jon must gain knowledge or “the dream of Man may […] die somewhere far among the stars“.
- Joshua works in hydroponics and may be talked with, perhaps, but Joshua is the one who must die for Jon to have a child. Joshua tells Jon that a law must have reason behind it. The hydroponics survived because of the law to keep the track oiled, but there was now a clear reason for that, “it’s the reason and not the law that counts.” He learns from Joshua that, “And as well as truths there will be untruths and one must have certain knowledge to judge a thing, to say if it is true or not.”
- Coming back into society Jon understands from Joshua’s arguments that there are good reasons for the religious beliefs held in the society. The society is static and relatively content. Jon comes back to a meeting to discuss the emergency of why the stars are standing still and he holds his wife’s hand as he listens to the religious texts read. The stability of the static ship is comforting and beguiling, “in the press of hand to hand he felt the comfort of a wife and of Belief and the security of the brotherhood of all the Folk.”
- Even though he tries to avoid it, Jon is compelled by his curiosity and his reason to continue with reading and with inquiry into the nature of the society in which he lives. He finds that he must do more for this time of emergency that the Folk he lives with call the ‘End times’. There is another list of three for the End Times: “the bed and machine and the great steel box”. The steel box is a player for information to be implanted in an individual’s consciousness while they sleep. This is hypnopedia, used in many SF stories. It is a literary device to give information both to the protagonist and to the reader of the story in a brief period of time.
- The machine gives Jon knowledge as hypnopedia. The knowledge shocks Jon because he sees his true place in the universe without the Holy Pictures’ comfort: ” A smear of wandering, random life lost amid the countless stars”. Jon has lost his faith in the old religion and now understands the very human purpose behind the Folk in their society, a vast Generation Starship travelling to a new solar system where they might start a new society on a new planet.
- Jon learns from the hypnopedia that he is the born in the fortieth generation of the ship’s travel and something has gone wrong. “He knew about the educational setup and the books that had been intended to keep knowledge intact” but something had gone wrong with the people on board “There was no loyalty to Earth to keep alive the memory of the Earth. There was no loyalty to the Ship, because the Ship had no need of it.”
- From his learning, Jon now knows that many, vast gyroscopes give the ship and the Folk an artificial gravity. Readers should note the role of gyroscope here as a sort of pseudo-technology and some may link this to the gyroscopes in ‘The Living Galaxy’ (Manning, 1934).
- Jon decides to follow his learnings from hypnopedia and he opens the metal box to find a hand-held weapon, like a revolver. He also finds keys labelled to open doors to the Enginer Room and the Control Room. Most importantly in Simak’s ‘The Spaceborn Generations’, Jon points the gun and he feels, “the ancient surge of vicious power surge through him—the power of Man, the killer—and he was ashamed.”
- Joe has followed Jon to his secret cubicle. Jow was Jon’s closest friend, with whom he played chess every day, but Joe is a strong believer in the Folk’s religion and now Jon does not believe the religious doctrines. Joe raises the alarm because Jon has been reading books and this is against the law and Jon shoots Joe dead. Thisis not an easy thing to do and Jon regrets it throughout the rest of the story and the reader believes this will continue for much longer than just this story.
- Jon realises he must keeping the killing secret as the Folk must arrive at the target planet without knowledge of violence and murder, to build the right future society. He feeds the body to the converter, another familiar idea in GS stories, as in Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1963).
- Jon uses the keys from the metal box and goes to the Control Room, supported by the older, wiser and supportive Joshua, Jon sits in the Navigator’s chair and remembers some science and maths. He saves the ship initially from falling into the local star where they have arrived at the end of the GS journey and Joshua goes for food.
- The Folk on the ship discover Jon in the Control Room and they want to try and convict Jon for heresy but he threatens them with his gun and they retreat. In this we see that Jon’s hope of keeping murder and violence hidden from the Folk can not occur. Jon finds a very clever technology left in the Control Room that lets a planet be held in a telescopes view and then a button to ‘land’ is pressed and the ship with all the Folk will land itself.
- Mary, Jon’s wife, comes to him and says the Folk killed Joshua in their religious fury. She is not as limited as Jon thought and she sides with Jon and wants to start a family on a new planet. Jon shows Mary Planet II and it looks through the telescope view just like the Holy Pictures.
- But the Folk will not leave the Ship. Jon understands he will have be a Leader and will have to do so by force, with the gun, but he is helped by more excellent planning by those who sent out the ship a thousand years before who planned for the coming of the religious and unquestioning Folk and their religion, as well as one leader prepared to break social laws to follow the directives of those who sent out the ship.
- Jon realises that Earth planned the Great Forgetting, “They planned the great forgetting as the only way that humans could carry out the flight. They planned the heresy that handed down the knowledge.”
- Jon now understands the purpose of the voyage and his role as an authoritarian and occasionally ruthless leader of the Folk on their new planet/colony. looks for the letter to be opened after arrival, ” For when the men of Earth had planned so well, they would not have failed in the final moment to have left a letter of instructions for the starting over”. The story ends with Jon looking for a letter that would tell the Folk and their leader what to do now that they have arrived at the destination.
“Clifford D. Simak’s short story “Spacebred Generations” (1953), also known by the title “Target Generation” and collected in Simak’s Strangers in the Universe (1956), is presented, in many ways, as a possible solution to the problems involved in a multi-generational voyage.
In “Spacebred Generations,” Simak offers a clever solution to this problem: the builders of the generation starship intentionally created a shipboard culture of ignorance to keep the population peaceful, accompanied, of course, by a religious system which allows them to feel comforted. According to Simak, only by forgetting about Earth and human history could the ship’s population survive the journey without terrible psychological trauma.” (Kendal, 2010)
The protagonist, Jon, realises that,
It was planned on Earth. … Every step was planned. They planned the great forgetting as the only way that humans could carry out the flight. They planned the heresy that handed down the knowledge. They made the ship so simple that anyone could handle it—anyone at all.
They looked ahead and saw what was bound to happen. Their planning has been just a jump ahead of us every moment. (Simak, 1953)
“The ship’s creators designed the entire religious system of the ship, including the heresy passed down through Jon’s family, as a means of keeping the society ignorant and subservient. They put their faith in the blind observation of religious rituals and laws to see their mission completed successfully, and their faith turns out to be well placed. Religion, in this story, is not simply depicted as ignorant and unscientific, […] although it certainly does prove to be this too. Rather, religion becomes a useful tool for controlling the population through ignorance, superstition and ritual. It is also, however, acknowledged as a comforting and peaceful force—it is only when the religious system falls down that violence and murder begin to occur (apparently for the first time in generations).
“A very positive aspect of this story, in my opinion, is its representation of women and marriage. In Heinlein’s “Universe” and “Common Sense,” the depiction of women is terrible. In Aldiss’s Non-Stop (1958), the protagonist argues with his wife throughout the first chapter and is completely unconcerned for his wife’s wellbeing when she is kidnapped by a rival tribe (in fact, he soon forgets about her entirely, and develops a romance with another woman—we never find out what became of his wife!). In Simak’s story, however, Jon and his wife Mary are very much happy and in love. When Jon has locked himself in the ship’s control room in order to find a safe, habitable planet for the ship to land on, he is left without food, since everyone else on the ship has turned against him. Mary, however, risks her own life to bring him food and water, supporting and trusting him when no one else will. He is overjoyed when he sees her, relieved that she is safe and well. (I’m not even sure I’ve read the words “My darling wife” in a pulp sf story before). He teaches her about the ship and its true purpose and they spend the rest of the story together. I thought this was a much better portrayal of marriage than Heinlein’s or Aldiss’s.” (Kendal, 2010)
Caroti points out the importance played by Shepherd’s article in Science-Fiction Plus on ‘Interstellar Flight’ (Shepherd, 1953). The arguments in this article for what was needed for these enormous voyages impacted Simak’s ‘Spacebred Generations’ (1953), as well as many others that come after this time. Caroti argues that the structure of Simak’s story is very like the Heinlein narratives in ‘Universe’ (1941) and ‘Common Sense’ (1941), with a questioning protagonist who asks the essential questions in a society of the Folk who have forgotten everything except their static religious and domestic lives.
Caroti notes the importance of the shipboard life with Jon Hoff, the protagonist, living with his wife in a family unit comprised of a unit in a long corridor with its own Holy Picture of a field under blue sky. Jon lives in a closed biosphere where,
the only way to maintain a functional relationship between production and loss of resources is to recycle and reuse as much raw material as possible – in the case of Simak’s shipboard ecology, by once again feeding it to the ubiquitous converter, whose functioning still remains unexplained because even today nobody knows how such a mechanism is supposed to work (Caroti, 2011)
The converter is left as a vague mechanism but the hydroponics section of the ship is much more important, giving conclusive evidence to the careful planning of those who sent out the ship to the stars. The caretaker of the hydroponics farm is also important ads Joshua’s position is hereditary and his character is vital to the choices made by Jon. Caroti believes the characters onboard Simak’s GS are more rounded and likely than Heinlein’s characters with Jon Hoff, his wife, and the rest of the people onboard who, “play, enjoy themselves, and worry about having children for the sake of the personal fulfilment these activities bring them” (Caroti, 2011).
This change to the essential GS narrative meant that,
The generation starship narratives to follow would start negotiating their way through a balancing act between the necessities of the mission -a function of the desires of people who did not necessarily take the trip themselves – and the necessities of the individual – a function of personal desires born out of the contingent situation of the crew once the voyage is under way. (Caroti, 2011)
Many GS narratives to follow Simak’s ‘Spacebred Generations’ (1953) looked more closely at the interplay of characters on their vast journeys and many argued that the only possible reason for such a journey would be the threat of annihilation of the human species, making the journey the only possible hope for the future of humankind.
The focus questions for the GS Project texts presented are –
- What is worth holding onto over the generations?
- What should be discarded for the voyage? and
- Can life be sustained in the GS …or on Earth?
Only a few comments are made here related to the three questions, above, mostly because the narrative itself will be interpreted differently by different readers. But what might be noted are the following:
- The story shows us that friendship should be held onto. Friendship and love are vital for the story with the protagonist, Jon, making difficult choices about long-term friends in the light of his love for the Folk and particularly his wife, Mary. Marriage, then, is another of society’s current conventions that should be maintained and is good and true in itself, as depicted by Mary and Jon’s relationship. Could other couples or even other family cells have existed on Simak’s GS, such as same sex couples or arrangements where a small group nurtured children?
- Rationality is clearly seen as worthy of preservation in the story. The movement of the hydroponics fields proved planning. In the same way, Jon turns to scientific explanation for solutions to the ship’s problems and away from the comfortable religion of the Folk.
- Does Simak argue that all religious belief, such as following the Law for the Folk, should be discarded? Is there anything of value to be preserved in their beliefs and practices, such as their hope for a future of trees, sky and living on a planet?
- Through the rather dubious role of the converter in the story, Simak seems to imagine that human life could be sustained on the ship indefinitiely, if it had not been heading into a star. But it is the lack of scientific knowledge and curiosity that means the ship would be doomed without Jon and his archaic belief in texts. Does this mean that for life to be sustained in the ship (and on Earth) religious belief must always be countered by scientific knowledge?
Caroti, S. (2011). The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001. USA: Mcfarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-6067-0.
Heinlein, R. (1941). Universe. In Astounding Science Fiction. May, 1941.
Heinlein, R. (1941). Common Sense. In Astounding Science Fiction. Ocotber, 1941.
Kendal, Z. (2010). Generation Starship Stories: Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations”. In Silk for Calde: Musings of a science fiction obsessed literature student. Posted 31 July 2010. Retrieved 11 May from http://silk4calde.blogspot.com.au/2010/07/generation-starship-stories-clifford-d.html
Shepherd, L.R. (1953) Interstellar Flight. In Science-Fiction Plus. April, 1953. Accessed 11 May 2016 from https://archive.org/details/Science_Fiction_Plus_v01n02_1953-04_
Simak, C.D. (1953) Spacebred Generations. In Science Fiction Plus. Accessed 11 May 2016 from http://mreadz.com/read301868