THE ARK IN SPACE:
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA AND OTHER SEED SHIPS
~ Nicole Tilford ~
If the world was coming to an end and you could only save one thing, what would it be?
Variations of this parlor game have been circulating for millennia. The biblical book of Genesis contains an early answer. Threatened with almost certain destruction by a great flood, a righteous man builds an ark and places his family and a few select animals on it. He chooses to save the best of humanity and enough animals to repopulate the earth and offer sacrifices to his god.
This narrative and those like it served a vital function in antiquity. They allowed their authors to speculate about the nature of humanity and its relationship to the world around it. Humanity, the biblical text declares, is inherently wicked, its heart “evil from its youth” (Gen 6:5, 8:21). God must intervene lest the human race destroy all life upon the earth. Yet, there is something about humanity worth saving: Noah. Noah is a righteous man; he is “blameless” and offers the appropriate sacrifices (Gen 6:9, 8:20). Because of this, God chooses to save him and promises to never flood the earth again (Gen 8:21–22).
Times may change, but the question remains the same: if the world was ending, what would be worth saving? Living in a world of advanced weaponry and degrading environmental conditions, contemporary science fiction authors in particular have wrestled with this question and have looked to the biblical ark narrative as a model for humanity’s survival. The scenarios they depict are remarkably similar: the fate of humanity or a race similar to it is threatened by an act of God or the ill-devised activities of human beings. An ark is built to safeguard humans, animals, and vegetation until disaster passes. Yet, while Noah’s boat floated on water and saved its occupants until they could repopulate this earth, the arks that these authors construct typically save their inhabitants from a world that is rendered permanently uninhabitable. As such, these modern arks no longer float on water; they fly through space. Still, like their ancient counterparts, such “space arks” enable their authors to reflect upon the nature of the human race and what, if anything, is worth saving from it.
It is not enough
One has to be worthy
Noah, of course, had it easy. There was only one righteous family in the whole land—his own. Naturally he would choose to save them. The space ark narratives present a more difficult choice. Billions of people living on a world. Only a handful of seats on an ark. Who would you choose? Within these science fiction narratives, the apocalyptic event itself resolves some of this tension. In Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie’s classic novel When World’s Collide (1933), the majority of Earth’s population is wiped out by earthquakes, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions before the arks are ready to be boarded and thousands more are killed in the riots that ensue as people fight to get on board the completed rockets. Similarly, in the popular Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series and its reboots, an attack by killer robots leaves billions dead before the series begins (Larson 1978–1979, 1980; Moore 2003, 2004–2009).
Still, people survive, and space on the ark is limited. A choice has to be made. The young frequently have an edge in the selection process. Children board the ark first or get the last seat on overfilled rockets fleeing disaster (e.g., Larson, BSG: “Saga of a Star World,” 1978; Moore, BSG Miniseries, 2003). The sole survivor of the planet Krypton is the young Kal-El who is sent to Earth in a pod where he will grow up to be the legendary Superman (Speigel et. al. 1938). Humanity is born innocent, and innocence is worth saving. Lotteries are also used. In Stargate SG-1: “Lifeboat,” the series’ protagonists encounter a ship occupied by three thousand cryogenically frozen people from the doomed planet of Ardana. Most of these people, it is revealed, do not have any particular skill or innate qualities to recommend them; they were selected at random (Wright and Glassner 2003). In such cases, simply being human is enough, which suggests that there is something innately redemptive in the human race.
Many arks, however, are planned well in advance of the apocalypse and their occupants are chosen with care. In such cases, the elite of society are frequently chosen: the world’s leading politicians, scientists, artists, and businessmen—the “best” of humanity, or at least the ones with enough money to pay for their survival (e.g., Balmer and Wylie 1930; Woods 1979; Wright and Glassner 2003; Baxter 2009). Yet, the selection of such individuals is also a matter of contention. Riots break out as desperate people attempt to claim the space reserved for their “betters” (e.g., Balmer and Wylie 1930; Baxter 2009). Tensions rise when the elite attempt to claim the best living spaces, food, and luxuries at the expense of those around them (e.g., Larson, BSG: “Saga of the Star World,” 1978). Not everyone agrees that the elite are more worthy of survival.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe parodies this situation, casting the undesirables of Golgafrincham society—hairdressers, television producers, insurance salesmen, management consultants, security guards, account executives, and so forth—out into space in the B-Ark so that the rest of society may live in relative peace. Ironically, the rest of the population is destroyed by a disease soon after, such that those deemed most useless in Golgafrincham society are left to perpetuate the species. They cannot even invent a wheel or make a fire without becoming bogged down in paperwork (Adams 1979, 1981, 2002). Such a tale, while humorous, provides a scathing critique of the bureaucratic system of contemporary England. It suggests that when individuals become too focused on rules and regulations and forget the purpose of their endeavors, the species is doomed.
Ray Bradbury makes a similar move in his more serious tales, “Way in the Middle of the Air” (1950) and its sequel, “The Other Foot” (1951). In the first story, a group of African Americans attempt to use rocket ships to flee the prejudices of a pre-civil rights South. Their white neighbors look on in consternation but are unable to stop the exodus. When the world is decimated by war at the beginning of the second story, that same African American community must decide whether to accept their former white neighbors into their new colony on Mars. Debate ensues, guns are readied, but ultimately the community chooses to forgive the sins of the past: “a new start for everyone.” Set in the era of Jim Crow laws and black separatist movements, these two stories critique the racial tensions of the early twentieth century. They force the reader to reconsider the assumption that some are more deserving of life than others simply because they are born into a certain class or have a certain skin color.
There are also times when the occupants of a space ark are not even human. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Inner Light," Captain Picard encounters an ark in which the memories and scientific knowledge of a long-dead race are preserved for posterity (Gendel 1992). The six young protagonists who occupy the ark in the teen drama Mission Genesis are clones (Catran 1997). Arks frequently hold the DNA of a doomed race so that the people may be recreated when a new home world is found (e.g., Byrne 1975; Vinge 1972; Hogan 1982; Wright and Glassen, Stargate SG-1: “Scorched Earth,” 2000; Bauer and McCormick 2000; Conran 2004). Arthur C. Clark’s seedships in The Songs of a Distant Earth (1986) contain not only the DNA needed to reinvent the human race on a distant planet, but ten percent of the world’s literature to help them do so. Ironically, the biblical text upon which so many of these space arks are based was not included in this archive, since religious texts and their derivative works were excluded lest they “reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatred, belief in the supernatural, and the pious gibberish with which countless billions of men and women had once comforted themselves at the cost of addling their minds” (ebook, n.p.). In such cases, that which is worth preserving about humanity is not the human itself, but the collective possibility of humanity.
However, as the commander of one of these space arks states, “it is not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of survival” (Moore, BSG: “Resurrection Ship: Part 2,” 2006). And the events that occur after these space arks launch often make one question if those selected were really worth saving. Space arks test the limits of humanity. People die. Arks explode. Stasis pods fail. Prolonged voyages, close quarters, inadequate food rations, limited water, rampant disease, technical difficulties, dwindling energy supplies…all conspire to reduce humanity to its most animalistic impulses. Deprived of the comforts of home, people go mad (Milloy 2009). They hoard goods (e.g., Moore, BSG: “Black Market” et passim, 2006). They attack peaceful worlds (Spiliotopoulos 2007) and enslave peaceful creatures (Moffat, Dr. Who: “The Beast Below,” 2010). They attack one another (e.g., Balmer and Wylie 1934; Baxter 2009). They resort to savagery and cannibalism (e.g., Byrne 1975; Milloy 2009). In multi-ship fleets, arks that are incapable of keeping up with the rest of the fleet are left behind (Moore, BSG Miniseries, 2003; BSG: “Resurrection Ship: Part II,” 2006). The weak are abandoned. Social order collapses. Freedoms are lost. Humanity disappears. Only animals survive. As the cylons in the Battlestar Galactica reboot claim, perhaps humanity really does deserve to die (e.g., Moore, “Resurrection Ship: Part II,” 2006).
Space arks are fictions. They represent what could be. And yet, they are more than simple stories. They reflect our darkest fears and our most ardent hopes. They are social commentaries on how humans treat one another, and the answer is not always pretty. And yet, there is something worth redeeming about the human race, some righteousness worth holding on to. These fictitious stories beg us to consider what that righteousness is and what we might do to help it survive in the world in which we live.
Our world is coming to an end. What will you save?
Clip from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe