Generation Ships and an Unfortunate “Ascension” into Mediocrity

For my latest post, I’m taking a bit of turn from my usual Magic- and RPG-related writings to share my thoughts on “Ascension,” a recent science-fiction mini-series that aired on the Syfy channel in December of last year.

Ascension

In the previews and promotions leading up to the three-night event, Syfy teased up several trailers that set up the show’s premise: back in the 1960s, when mutually-assured nuclear annihilation seemed imminent, the U.S. government built, in complete secrecy, an interstellar spacecraft (the “U.S.S. Ascension”) that would take 600 volunteers to our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. The goal was to ensure the survival of humanity when all seemed on the verge of worldwide destruction. With the technology of that time period, it would require a travel time of 100 years, far too long for the original crew to survive the journey. It would be up to their descendants to land the ship and colonize whatever habitable or potentially habitable worlds they would find there.

The U.S.S. Ascension is what is known as a “generation ship.” Wikipedia’s entry on generation ships defines them as “a hypothetical type of interstellar ark starship that travels across great distances between stars at a speed much slower than the speed of light.” What fascinates me about generation ships is the tension and forced destiny that the descendants undergo throughout their journey. All of the talents of the original crew must be taught and passed along to their kin. Those born on the ship have absolutely no say over where they can go or what they can do with their lives; their options are exceedingly limited from the moment they’re birthed. Perhaps the most dismal experiences are those who live their lives in the middle: those who were not around to see Earth or the ship’s launch, but will not live to see their new home. The battle to remain faithful to something so long-term and distant, something humanity as a whole is not all that great at doing, is an amazing concept that’s rich in ideas.

The opening of “Ascension” begins with the crew of the ship in year 51 of their 100-year journey, at the “point of no return,” which is their last chance to turn around and head back to Earth, if they so chose. The fight against the futility of being mid-voyage shows in the crew’s constant jockeying for political and reputational leverage, as well as a caste system of sorts between the upper and lower decks of the ship. The outdated and somewhat backward culture of the ship represents what a contained society would look like based strictly on American morals and customs from the 1960s. There are those who see the big picture and want to preserve the mission’s integrity no matter what, but, as we learn throughout the show, very few of them have an unblemished record or backstory.

I enjoy this kind of “gray area” morality play, but the way “Ascension” was told never truly brought that tension to life for me. After setting up the main characters on the ship and their current status, the first part of the series culminates in a “big reveal” that, while unexpected, breaks apart what could have been a captivating piece of television.

For those of you who haven’t seen “Ascension,” but still intend to, allow me to present you with this warning:

Spoiler-Alert

The turn of events is this: “Ascension” is not in space at all; it never left Earth. Instead, it’s an immense laboratory to put together 600 of the best minds in a contained environment for generations in order to cultivate inventions ahead of their time (such as the MRI) and, more absurdly, to develop latent psychic powers in its crew. One of the teenage descendants shows increasing abilities in clairvoyance, precognition, and energy projection, which leads to chaos within the government team when things in the ship start to reach a breaking point. At the end of the third part of the series, the girl’s magnified powers transport the ship’s first officer to another planet entirely, bringing some reality to their fabricated adventure.

Unexpected? Sure. But what a let-down for where this story could have gone.

I’m so completely exhausted with tales of intrigue and cover-up making their way into science fiction. The devolution of the show’s original premise into a government conspiracy conceit made “Ascension” little more than a tired X-Files retread of characters running through wet-sheened, fluorescent-lit concrete bunkers while chased by black-suited government agents. The nineties called and want their “black ops” storylines back. There was, I feel, so much potential to take the “high road” of fiction writing and explore the complex natures of what folks would be like in a preordained journey within a generation ship.

If the generation ship concept is one you find intriguing as well, I’d strongly recommend reading “Chasm City” by writer Alastair Reynolds. One of the main characters in his novel, Sky Haussmann, is among the final generation of his ship and details the years leading up to their landing on a far-away planet and how the crew has changed during their time aboard. It’s certainly a whole lot wealthier in imagination than what “Ascension” attempted.