Talkin' Bout My Generation Ship

In Toby Litt's Journey Into Space, a generation ship gives rise to two generations of idiots. It's not really about space travel, so much as people who forget history and are doomed to distort it.

Litt is a literary darling in England, and this book is being held up as the latest example of literary writers dipping their shining pens into the lagoon of science fiction (just like Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, Philip Roth and Jeanette Winterson.) Litt is a quirky, slightly gimmicky wunderkind, whose books have been issued in alphabetical order, Sue Grafton-style. His previous books are Adventures in Capitalism, Beatniks, Corpsing, deadkidsongs, Exhibitionism, Finding Myself, Ghost Story, Hospital and I Play The Drums In A Band Called Okay.

But in fact, Journey Into Space is scarcely about space - until the end, most of the story could be told about any group of people cut off from the rest of the human race, in an enclosed setting.

In a nutshell, Journey takes place on the spaceship Armenia, speeding away from a dying Earth just as its last original crewmember dies off. The people living on the ship now have never been to Earth, and will never live to reach the planet they're on their way to colonize. Their whole world is the ship, and their whole community is just around 100 people. The book follows this claustrophobic, conformist society through a number of fads and crazes, and in many ways the main character of the novel is the ship's crew as a whole. The closed-off society of space travelers proves, again and again, that people are sheep (and, eventually, lemmings) and that we'll buy into any idiotic idea as long as everyone else does.

That's not to say the novel doesn't have a few major characters, of course. When the novel begins, the ship is on course for a new homeworld, and the crew are tidy and organized, with everything including reproduction being tightly controlled. Two beautiful cousins, August and Celeste, rebel against this sterile world by going off together and trying to imagine life on Earth - especially weather patterns, and the differing vistas they create in the same location. Their meteorological imagination leads them to have sex, and (because for some reason this ship has no birth control) they wind up having a mentally defective baby named Orphan. Orphan is a total hedonist, who only cares about having fun, and somehow he gets installed as the captain of the ship, where he enforces a regime of absolute fun and total pleasure. The whole ship is given over to orgies and crazy revels, while the crew abandons its mission to colonize another planet. Finally, Orphan's third daughter, named Three, becomes the unwilling founder of a new religion, based around her painstaking efforts to create paper and ink so she can write a letter back to Earth. This religion rapidly becomes so fanatical that unbelievers are put to death, and its fate becomes bound up with the fate of the entire human race.

In a nutshell, the ship becomes a microcosm for humanity as a whole. Because there are only about 100 people on the ship at any given time, huge social changes can sweep through the ship in no time at all. (As he remarks, late in the book, "From subversive cult to established religion was only a matter of twenty-five or thirty new converts.")

If it sounds like you'll get whiplash from the social changes in this book, that's not far off. The enclosed shipboard society goes from regimented order to total barbaric hedonism to religious fanaticism in literally a couple hundred pages, or two generations. Litt seems to be trying to dramatize (or satirize, although it's not funny) how feeble-minded we humans are, and how easily we'll buy into any worldview that we're offered, until it becomes the only possible worldview and we stop recognizing that other points of view even exist. It's quite heavy-handed, and yet possibly quite accurate if you look at how many people on Earth hold absolutist worldviews as if they were the Truth.

But Litt isn't just showing up our susceptibility to groupthink: he's also showing what happens to people when we're cut off from a sense of history. Because the people on the ship only have the sterile corridors, plus the computer records of life on Earth, they have no real sense of place, and that means that history isn't real to them in the same way it is to us, who can visit historical locations. Litt very carefully sets up how August and Celeste's rebellion springs from their attempts to visualize weather, in various places on Earth. (But especially the Lakes District.) Later, Three's attempts to create paper and ink necessitate growing oak trees and cultivating galls, which leads to the creation of a mini-orchard on the ship's tennis courts. People yearn for a sense of place, and they turn to fanaticism and craziness when they can't find it.

And all around them is the maddening vastness of space:

For Celeste, space had never been merely space, merely empty; it was something else altogether - space was full, but full of emptiness. This wasn't merely semantic play: every point of it, of space, was inflected by the lack of human presence, by the effect or effects that humankind hadn't had on it. The realization of this made it seem quite differently poignant - especially at a time when the presence of human absence was so overwhelming.

Journey Into Space is a fascinating, thought-provoking novel, and it has many moments of poetry and intense insight, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it as a novel, per se. In a sense, it's a great novel but not a good novel. You'll find yourself clutching your head and wondering how these people could be such morons. (The on-board inbreeding and incest that the ship's original regime failed to prevent may be partly at fault.) Science fiction readers, in particular, who are used to reading books about preternaturally smart characters may find it somewhat painful to read about such mentally challenged spacegoers.

But like I said, in many ways, Journey is a great novel. If you make it through the whole thing, you'll find yourself pondering all of the crazy philosophical tangles the characters tie themselves up into (I was reminded of Stanislaw Lem at times) and you'll be left with an overwhelming sense of poignancy at the ways people try to bring transitory beauty into their tiny world, only to get swept up, again and again, in relentless waves of conformity. [Amazon.Co.UK]