Thinking Generationally

I’m working — slowly — on a book that includes a generation ship. (The way I’m going it may take a few generations to write it.) The other day on social media, a friend observed that the extended lockdown made it clear to him that he wouldn’t be happy on a generation ship.

I think I would be. Being stuck on a space station with just a few other people – which I find more similar to lockdown – wouldn’t make me happy, but a well-set-up generation ship with a thousand or so other people has the potential to provide one of the things I value most in life: community.

I’m talking way more community than we get in our modern lives. I mean, I live in an apartment building with thirteen households, and while we’re mostly friendly and cooperative (except for one asshole), we never have each other over for dinner. We do things for each other in a pinch, pet each other’s dogs, chat in the lobby or in the back yard, but we’re not a community.

When I was at Clarion West all those years back, living in a dorm with sixteen other students up and down the hall, I was happy most of the time, because I was surrounded by people with common purpose. I’ve felt that way in Aikido dojo, though I didn’t live there and have as much community as I would have wanted.

But our modern lives are not well set up for community. Also, since I grew up in a small town where the ways in which I was different would have made me more and more miserable as I got older if I’d been stuck there, I know that communities are not always good.

But the generation ship that I’m developing for my book could be a very happy place for me.

I want casual conversations, to get together over meals, to work together on projects, to keep building and improving the community. I want classes, intense discussions, performances, lectures.

And I want these things in person. The only advantage I find in virtual gatherings is that I can communicate with people who live far away. Otherwise, I find them much less satisfying and much more exhausting.

I also want private space. On a generation ship such spaces would of necessity be pretty small, but doable.

The biggest problem I see with a generation ship is the fact that you can never go outside. While a well-designed ship would have green spaces (at least in my version), that wouldn’t be the same as hiking a trail in the Los Padres National Forest or walking along a beach.

Given that human beings evolved in concert with Earth, it’s possible that we would not be able to adapt to living in a ship or to living on another planet. That might affect us in ways both physical and mental.

It’s also possible that the people born on the generation ship, those who never set foot on Earth, might just take it as given and not have difficulty. But they could develop illnesses that were never conceived of or just be miserable.

For purposes of my book, I’m assuming that most people will do fine. But that’s because the book is about other parts of human lives and the generation ship is a device to set up a larger story. Real life on such a ship could be very different than the way I imagine it.

My main problems with the lockdown are the incredible incompetence shown by not just the people who should never have been put in charge, but also the people who I thought would do a good job. A badly planned generation ship could be equally horrible, but the problems would be different.

Isolation is the biggest problem of our shelter-in-place. We have a lot of other problems caused by the pandemic, including the number of people risking their lives everyday to provide us with necessities like food and mail and garbage pickup.

But think about a generation ship dealing with the level of political conflict we have in the U.S. right now.

Somebody should probably write that story. Given how hard I find it to read the news, I don’t think I’m going to.

4 thoughts on “Thinking Generationally

  1. If it’s a good community–and a generation ship would, of necessity, start with a group of people who believed in a common goal, which makes an excellent place to start–it might work very well indeed. There are physical issues (creating adequate gravity or “night” and “day” cycles, because human bodies seem to require them). I find myself wondering about the need for nature or something like it. I am not a person who seeks refreshment from hiking–I like it if I do it, but my idea of a perfect vacation is walking on the streets of a city I don’t know, making it my own. I love compaction and bustle (and being able to retreat to my own space when I get enough of it) to an extent that I don’t think a generation would provide. And I don’t know how a ship would be able to provide for that for me, and wilderness for the majority of folks who need contact with nature. Unless it’s something like the Star Trek holodeck–but I’m not sure that walking in to an empty room that suddenly becomes The Arches National Park would convince that part of the hind brain that needs that open space.

    I suppose we won’t know until we try.

    1. I also like spending time in new places and fantasizing about what it would be like to live there. And after six months of zooms, I’m pretty sure that even the best designed holodeck is not going to do anything for me. The trouble with a generation ship is that, as with a small town, you will soon know all the places and nothing will be new. That might be a deal-breaker.

      I think it’s probably most important to figure out how to build better communities on Earth as part of living sustainably here. But that urge to find out what’s in the rest of the universe still moves me, so I hope we’re going to do that as well.

  2. Nancy, I liked this: “When I was at Clarion West all those years back, living in a dorm with sixteen other students up and down the hall, I was happy most of the time, because I was surrounded by people with common purpose.”

    I hadn’t thought about Clarion in that way, but now that you mention it I realize that one of the things that was delightful about that intense and sometimes difficult experience is that it was a close community with a common purpose. I miss that enormously, and have seldom found that. What all our Zoom get togethers have taught me is that there is something we get–call it an energy, a feel, smell, chemical or whatever–that we get from being in each other’s presence. You can’t get that on Zoom, and I suspect that it would be hard for a holo deck to do that. Would a holo deck be able to reproduce the feel of the air at a beach or in a redwood forest? I suspect not.

    1. I used to say about Clarion West that it was the happiest I had ever been in my adult life, and I think it was that community aspect that did it. I was happy there even when I was reduced to tears of exhaustion.

      Zoom doesn’t do it and I agree: the holodeck isn’t going to do it either. We need to acknowledge those things for their own values, but not think of them as substitutes for other parts of life that matter.

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