It is a poor review that criticizes a book for doing something other than what it sets out to do, rather than discussing the book on its own merits. However, I would really have liked to have seen the works discussed in this book placed into a larger context. The author has set out to analyze a truly narrow subset of science fiction works, and that’s generally fine, as works focusing on life aboard generation starships certainly do share many common traits and tropes, but they also share a number of characteristics with other science fiction works that focus on life and societies in both space stations as well as those works looking at human colonies on other worlds, among many other sub-genres. This book sets out to provide a literary criticism of representative works of science fiction written from 1934-2001 detailing life aboard generation starships, and it certainly achieves that objective. In some ways, the book also functions as a kind of literary history of science fiction literature as a genre, adding to its appeal.

Caroti originally wrote this work as his doctoral dissertation (which is available electronically in the ProQuest dissertations and theses database). The book is organized around an introduction, which provides a brief overview of the genre, and six substantive chapters, plus a short conclusion. The first chapter briefly examines the influences of three men who might be termed “godfathers” of generation starship fiction: the scientists Robert Goddard, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and J. D. Bernal. While there potted biographies are interesting in their own right, at times I would actually like to seen these men connected a little more closely with the concept of the generation starship. The remaining chapters take a chronological approach, examining roughly a decade or two worth of relevant fiction per chapter it also lives a chronological bibliography of, essentially, all the major short stories and novels concerning generation starships.

The second chapter covers the 1920s and 30s, initially focusing on editor Hugo Gernsback, who, for better or for worse, more or less created science fiction as a coherent genre. Gernsback’s vision of what “proper” science fiction stories would be influenced the genre for decades. Literature-wise, Caroti focuses on two short stories: Laurence Manning’s “The Living Galaxy” (1934) and John Wilcox’s “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” (1940).

The third chapter covers the late 1930s and 1940s, characterizing this as the “Campbell Era,” after renowned editor John W. Campbell, who is largely credited with popularizing science fiction as a genre, emphasizing “hard” science fiction. Literature-wise, Caroti primarily discusses two linked generation ship short stories by Robert Heinlein: “Universe” and “Common Sense.”

The fourth chapter covers the “birth of the space age,” which Caroti describes as the second half of the 1940s and most of the 1950s. This is a short chapter and, to be honest, doesn’t really say much about new generation starship fiction, mainly adding to the discussion about Heinlein and a few other authors.

The fifth chapter covers the “New Wave and Beyond,” 1957-79, seemingly a long, disparate period of time to squeeze into a single chapter. The generation starship stories discussed in detail include John Brunner’s “Lungfish,” Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free,” J. G. Ballard’s “Thirteen to Centaurus,” and Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (published in the U.S. as Starship).

Caroti’s final chapter covers the Information Age from 1980 to 2001, emphasizing Frank M. Robinson’s The Dark Beyond the Stars, Bruce Sterling’s Taklamakan, and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun.

While I had read, or was otherwise familiar with, some of the stories and novels discussed in this book, there were still many I hadn’t read. That wasn’t a problem though, as Caroti describes each of the works that he discussed in detail well enough that a reader’s lack of familiarity with the work in question isn’t a problem, as long as one doesn’t mind being spoilered.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of five. At times I would’ve liked to seen Caroti place generation starship fiction into a broader context, and at other times, the text was a bit dry and I wanted to see him talk more specifically about individual works and do a deeper analysis of them. The book does exactly what it says it will, and no more. I’d also have liked to see Caroti include one final chapter that discusses the generation ship literature of the last decade – as he says in his brief conclusion, the first decade of the twenty-first century has produced a large number of new, relevant works. So why not tell us about those? I would recommend it for those interested in serious, literary criticism of science fiction works, as well as those science fiction fans who find themselves fascinated by the concept of a generation starship. If you just happen to be a science fiction fan who’s looking for some fun, interesting commentary on one type of science fiction, I’d probably recommend a different work, as this will tends toward the academic and lit crit side of things.

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers