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Bewildering Stories

Philip Knight and Mark Koerner discuss...

Generation Ships: Bore or Blast?

Mark Koerner’s “Generation Ships: a Neglected Issue”
appeared in issue 94.

[Philip Knight] I think you are quite wrong when you think that people will get bored on a generation ship. I find the idea highly unlikely. Large amounts of entertainment will be on the ship, I imagine every piece of knowledge that has ever been conceived by humanity will be on the ship. That is quite enough information to entertain people.

The ship will need constant maintenance, just like any other ship. Jobs keep people busy and not bored. Even if jobs are not plentiful, there will still be plenty of things to do. What will Earth have that a large generation ship does not?

The ship will be nothing more than a section of New York City in space. People live in NYC their entire lives and are not bored. Humans are social creatures, and I think that other people will provide plenty of entertainment for people.

Philip Knight

Copyright © 2006 by Philip Knight

[Mark Koerner] Your letter contains a valuable insight: the larger the community, the smaller the boredom problem. A generation ship with seven million inhabitants would presumably be less boring than one with 7,000 inhabitants.

But from both a cost and engineering standpoint, one can see why generation ships would be smaller rather than larger. Paolo Soleri once designed an orbiting habitat, Asteromo, for a population of about 70,000, but like Gerald K. O'Neill's later conceptions, the Asteromo relied on the sun's energy. A true generation ship would need to be completely self-sufficient, which makes a large population a great burden.

In any case, most generation-ship stories don't specify the exact number of inhabitants, but Heinlein's Vanguard, like it successors, has the feel of an isolated settlement of a few hundred souls.

As for keeping people occupied with their jobs, it remains to be seen whether full employment could exist in a generation ship. Some stories divide the inhabitants into “crew” and “passengers.” Presumably, the passengers have little to do. And designers who want to plan for a long slide into technological barbarism — or even an epidemic that wipes out much of the population — would see to it that the ship's functions could be completely automated.

But even if we could send the equivalent of a major metropolis on a one-way trip into the unknown (perhaps with James Blish's still uninvented “spindizzies” of Cities in Flight fame), and even if everyone had a job, boredom might still be a problem. Don't New Yorkers, for example, find their city interesting partly because new immigrants arrive daily? That would never happen on a generation ship. And don't New Yorkers use inventions, watch movies, listen to music, and read books that are produced outside their city? These things would disappear in a generation ship cut off from contact with the mother planet.

Even these considerations fail to address the psychological issue, which is that people may think differently about a place when they know they can never live anywhere else.

Mark Koerner

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Koerner

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