The first ‘generation ship’ science fiction story

A “generation ship” is one of those mind-bending ideas you see in good science fiction, the kind that maybe wear thin when they’ve been around a while but were white-hot paradigm busting inspirations when they first came about. In the hands of a good writer, they can still be amazing. The idea is a starship traveling to an inhabitable planet thousands of years from Earth, so generations live and die throughout the journey. Awesome.

And I get it. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky probably invented the idea. Which isn’t really cool to dwell on because he invented everything (like space elevators and airlocks, multi-stage booster rockets and closed-loop biological systems to feed passengers). So let’s leave that for now. I’m talking about the very first generation ship story in science fiction, where the concept was front and center and entirely the point of the story. Who wrote that? Was it good?

Welcome back to the Pulp Gem series.

Follow this link to download the entire Oct 1940 issue of Amazing Stories for free, the issue where you’ll find this tiny masterpiece. And a mighty thank-you to the folks at Comic Book Plus for providing these public domain works of art at no cost. Go do something nice for those guys and donate or something. At least comment somewhere.

Or just download a pdf of the story we’re talking about here:

It’s called Journey That Lasted 600 Years, written by Don Wilcox. The first generation ship science fiction story. And it’s fantastic.

Let’s keep in mind when this was written, the innocent and wide-eyed optimism of 1940 America…the exploding interest in space and technology, and the down-home focus on heart and warmth in storytelling. These things are timeless to me, and incredibly inspiring. But if they feel old or naïve to you, then this one might not be for you.

The idea is a guy named Grimstone has volunteered to go into hibernation for 100 years at a time to shepherd a handful of couples who will repopulate the species on a faraway planet 600 years hence upon their destination. Generations will come and go throughout the journey on the Starship Flashaway, but Grimstone will awake for short bursts to keep the flame of civilization alive. That bit reminded me just a hair of Asimov’s conceit in the Foundation series wherein a group of people sustain the wisdom and culture like smoking kindling while everything else falls to crap in deteriorating barbarism. In this case, he’s just supposed to remind them of what was good about America, what was right and true, and help ensure they stayed on course both literally and figuratively.

And things go wonky. Almost immediately. Like before they even leave Earth.

And if you ever read (or watched) H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, you remember how the time traveler would push his little lever and blast into the future in bursts, step out and take a look around a bit, then blast ahead again. Right? That’s generally the flow of Wilcox’s story, and it keeps things moving and fresh, driving your curiosity to see how things that seem pretty dire are going to clean up or deteriorate when he steps back into the hibernation chamber. It’s a wonderful narrative structure to tell this fast-moving and fun tale. I read it on a plane in less than a half hour, and I mused over its genius looking out over the clouds.

He missed out on true love back on Earth…one reason why he left, in fact. But it’s a heartwarming twist how Wilcox resolves that little problem for Grimstone. Just smile and go with it, man.

As for the generations, they’re a mess. Increasingly, a mess. But the fire of civilization will hopefully live on as one crisis after another befalls the hapless Flashaway. Hopefully, they make it. Surely you’d like to know.

Well go read it then! And let me know what you think.

Till next time.

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