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.