Notes on Manning’s ‘The Living Galaxy’
- Manning’s ‘The Living Galaxy’ (1934) imagines a far distant future where a student sits at a desk and learns about the “physical limits of the human race”
- Standing in the centre of the auditorium is the teacher, known as History Zeta Nine. His name describes his function as a history teacher and apparently a sort of rank. The Zeta Nine part of his name seems to indicate he is a low grade teacher but he is over 100,000,000 years old and has piercing, burning eyes.
- The teaching style seems pretty dreary as he just reads aloud from a text book and the students are also reading. Mind you, the students are six years old but clearly much more advanced in intellect and understanding than current humanity. This dreary ‘book and voice’ teaching style is far too familiar for SF texts. Why doesn’t the educational technology advance at the same rate as human understanding and sciences?
- There are three reasons why humanity has spread “throughout all the universes and galaxies in space” and these are: (a) the use of atomic energy, (b) the discovery of atomic synthesis to create any matter from any atomic structure, and (c) rejuvenation processes that mean people can live for unlimited periods.
- It should be noted here that nuclear energy and its results have freed humankind from toil and woe and allowed colonisation indefinitely. This process is painful and many humans die in the discoveries, but humans emerge as supreme beings in the universe equipped with unlimited power and longevity. What’s more, scientific research into the very nature of the universe and solving planetary-scale problems has abolished boredom. This allows humans to live fruitfully and happily on a rocketship of a worldship for thousands of years – enough time to multiply their numbers and solve scientific puzzles.
- The “most important character in history” Bzonn is met in the lecture by the narrator/protagonist, the six year old student. Bzonn is a tireless adventurer and scientist. Yes, this is a story that sees scientists as the great galactic heroes.
- Bzonn is confronted by the greatest problem of their time, the approach of the great Nothing, an annihilation of all that is made to complete vacancy and it is heading straight for humans. He wastes no time!
- Bzonn creates a Worldship. Although not central to the Generation Spaceship (GS) Project, Worldships occur as a solution to the need for vast resources to travel for millennia to another region of space, or around the Great Circuit of the Milky Way, as in Reed’s The Gtreatship (2013), the most complete view of a largish, planet-sized world that is itself an powered craft able to set and alter a course, and discovered (latterly) by humans.
- Bzonn’s worldship started as a small planetoid it is called the Humanity. The ship with its vast atomic motors travels for millions of years and then another and larger and better Humanity is built. The older version is left behind with a colony of humans and the newer Humanioty goes on to discover and cure the problem of the approach of the Great Nothing.
- Eventually, after four and a bit million years, Bzonn (still alive and kicking and accepted as leader of the expedition) finds a central cluster of galaxies and realises through time-lapse photography (500,000 years) that this is a living organism, the ‘Living Galaxy’ of the title.
- A long tentacle of the Living Galaxy is causing the extinction of star systems. It is like a maggot with a feeler, or perhaps a sperm moving backwards, wiping out matter to fuel the creature whose atomic structure are the very stars themselves.
- Luckily, Bzonn and the generational crews have discovered a star-killer, a vortex bomb effect that is fed into a star and causes a chain-reaction.
- Even though the current-day narrator of this story disapproves of the killing as the Living Galaxy seems to be unique, Bzonn and his intrepid crew kill the creature and lose eight-tenths of their flotilla of craft attacking the starry maggot.
- Bzonn does seem to have found the limits of all universes in his travels and quest to say the Living Galaxy. However, it is speculated by the narrator that perhaps the edges are just billions of lightyears of nothingness but beyond that lies even more.
- ‘The Living Galaxy’ is a story that stuns the reader with its scale. Of course, the distances and times are not able to be visualised and there are elements of the science in the story that do not know hold true, but this is a major GS early narrative.
- Please note: this story does not propose humans held in stasis or on ice for the incredible periods of travel. Everyone is alive, learning and solving problems, living as long as they like (barring accidents) and reproducing to seed humankind into an otherwise barren and lifeless universe. Also, and just as importantly, there is no Faster Than Light (FTL) travel, no wormholes to reduce travelling time and very limited computational power. In fact, real and living humans have to do just about all of the hard work in this story.
- Finally, the saviour for mankind is a device used for decades to solve major problems for humans in space – a gyroscope. Is this the first use of a gyroscope to save humanity? Interested to see how Manning’s gyroscope navigating will be used for future navigation in space?
Simon Caroti argued that ‘The Living Galaxy’ (Manning, 1934) was the first “fully-fledged generation starship narrative” (2011) hailed by the story’s publisher, Hugo Gernsback, as an extraordinary feat of imagination. Collected into a later anthology, ‘The Living Galaxy’ (Manning, 1934) uses incredible spans of time as well as distance to “increase our sense of wonder” as well as to lay out information, in this case as a lecture. This was a well-known means of bringing the reader up to speed with the new, fictional universe, though it is rather clumsy.
The voice of the author of the story who invites the reader to enter the life of a six year old boy in a future 500,000,000 years in the future, morphs into the history teacher Zeta Nine with ageless, dark and glittering eyes to wave “the thread of a world of wonders” (Caroti, 2011).
Caroti notes that the reader is now immersed in the “generational pattern here, the stumbling block that constitutes the basic premise for every generation starship story: our best speeds are not sufficient to take us to another star within a human-functional framework.” (2011) The solution in this story is “an antiaging procedure”, allowing us to “undertake multi-million-year trips without trouble”.
Another great advantage of the infinitely protracted lifespan “is that the crew of a starship will never have to face the task of transmitting knowledge, purpose, and cultural values from one generation to the next until the end of the trip, thereby defeating the key problem inherent in generational space travel and freeing the author from the necessity of dealing with it” (Caroti, 2011)
As was noted above, the Manning story was published by Hugo Gernsback and many of the fictions in his magazines and collected novles showed an unshakeable belief in the role of science and scientific enquiry to solve human problems. As a result, Caroti notes, Because the people onboard Bzonn’s generation starship are children of the Gernsback age to the last man and woman, the problems that might conceivably face less driven immortals on a four-million-year voyage to the end of the universe – loneliness and the strangeness of outer space preying on the mind; alienation and psychoses; political rivalries; romantic jealousies; depression and loss of purpose; despair; aimlessness – do not exist for them.” (2011)
Caroti (2011) points out that,
Manning’s choice to shape his story as a chapter from a history book helps. First of all, presenting information about the future as if it were long-established fact gives the narrative a more authoritative voice and prevents most of the awkwardness usually associated with a forward thrusting approach to prediction.
Manning’s story ‘The Living Galaxy’ (1934) made the concept of a generational ship a fundamental participant in the world of the narrative. Caroti (2011) notes that,
Without generational space flight there would have been no story. But even so, the planet-ship itself had not yet had a story of its own. Every narrative and form of advocacy presented about it had given it no more than the role of co-participant in a larger endeavor, without addressing the specific issues inherent in its makeup; Manning’s narrative had merely hinted at the various elements that would influence the lives of its inhabitants, and then only from a multimillion-year historical distance as one of the many threads in a tale traveling in a different direction.
While the passages of time, the millions of years of travel, seeding new colonies and creating new and improved Humanity craft, is part of the sense of wonder given by the story, the spaceships themselves and the living conditions of their human controllers are given very little attention. It seems that the only thing you need to know about a growing society of research scientists within a craft for millions of years is that their endless curiosity made it all possible. Together with the ability to transmute energy into matter (like the Star Trek: Next Generation replicator) and endless, clean atomic energy, humanity’s destiny is bright and positive, free of religious belief, despair, war or power-struggles. This story then is a starting point for GS narratives where the focus is very different – on less perfected humans in their craft travelling through the vast blackness, as is hinted at just a little in Binder’s (1940) ‘Son of the Stars’.
Relevance to the GS Project Focus Questions
The focus questions for the GS Project 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 here are:
- School education seems to have been held onto. It is hard to see why in this example, but even hundreds of millions of years into the future, students will be reading books and listening to teachers. What a thought …
- Many might argue that also kept over the countless years was the role of adventurous or learned men, as distinct from women, in this story. Is this sexism or coincidental?
- Probably the most important human characteristics portrayed in the narrative are most prominent; scientific curiosity and perserverance – are these universal traits? and
- Life is definitely sustained in this narrative. In fact, it has blossomed and spread through the three inventions. Life can be sustained, it seems, but is it a curiously rigid and blinkered human life that is envisaged?
Caroti, S. (2011). The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001. Mcfarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-6067-0.
Manning, L. (1934) The Living Galaxy. In Wonder Stories. September, 1934, Volume 6, Number 4, pps 436-444. Accessed 20 April 2016 from https://ia601303.us.archive.org/7/items/Wonder_Stories_v06n04_1934-09/Wonder_Stories_v06n04_1934-09.pdf
Reed, R. (2013) The Greatship. USA: Argo-Narvis.