Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: humanity has lost hope in a dying earth. As a last-ditch effort, or perhaps in a concerted attempt at hope, they pile a number of people into a giant spaceship in the hopes that the craft will reach a planet it can inhabit someday — perhaps one they know about, perhaps one they simply hope will exist beyond the solar system we know. Fast forward a few generations, and we have a protagonist. And something is going wrong, has gone wrong, or is about to go disastrously wrong.
The generation ship is now a classic trope of science fiction. Starting from around the time Robert Heinlein first published the short story “Universe” in 1941, we’ve seen countless books, TV shows, and films featuring these ships. Generation ships have appeared on Doctor Who, Star Trek, and even, iconically, WALL-E.
In this list, I’ve gathered nine excellent books that take place on generation ships—whether they’re still in transit, nearing arrival, or just heading out. (I hope it won’t surprise you that in most of these books, the generation ship thing doesn’t really work out.)
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Aster has always been strange. She has been on the HMS Matilda her whole life, and she knows its toxic, violent ins and outs, and all the ways that its people try to punish her for her strangeness. In an environment of strict racial and class hierarchies, she tries to learn what she can and keep her friends safe — both Surgeon Theo and paranoid Giselle. But when she finds her mother’s old journals, she begins to believe they have a coded message hidden in their pages. A coded message that might help her escape the ship for good.
Litany Of The Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
This iconic science fiction trilogy that followed Wolfe’s SFF classic, Book of the New Sun, takes place on the Whorl, a generation ship that’s been traveling for longer than anyone can remember — a ship that’s slowly falling into disrepair and ruin. In this ruin, a priest named Patera Silk gets a religious epiphany and is thrown into a wild adventure. The book has twists and turns and unexpected swings, but ultimately, Silk ends up leading a rebellion against a cruel, corrupt leader.
Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden
Seske grew up in the belly of a great, grand beast, one of the Zenzee, a race that her clan has been harvesting and using to host their colony for centuries. But how long can that exploitative cycle continue? And when Seske meets Adalla, a worker who has a much different perspective, will she be able to confront the messy truth of their civilization? This book is Afrofuturist and queer as all heck (with polyamorous representation to boot) and includes fascinating bio-technological world-building that is compelling and fresh.
The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei
The Earth is dying, so they send out a ship meant to carry on humanity. All of them are graduates of an elite, competitive program, and Asuka has a heavy dose of imposter syndrome from the very start when she’s picked as the 80th and final choice for the ship. Halfway to the planet that’s going to save them all, an explosion threatens to ruin everything — their trajectory and their future as a sustainable colony. Since Asuka was there when it happened, naturally, she becomes the number one suspect.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Technically, only one section of the multi-narrative story told in Doerr’s epic novel takes place on a generation ship: Argos is a ship on its way from Earth to a new planet. It’s a generation ship in theory, but it might be just a one-person ship now. Konstance was quarantined a long time ago, and now she’s wandering a virtual library, looking for clues about her father’s life and wondering what happened on the ship and when she’ll be set free. This vivid, ambitious book tangles her story with stories from the 15th century and an imagined 2020 to create a really excellent book about utopias, libraries, and books as resistance.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
This ship left Earth in 2545 and is headed to Aurora, a planet in the Tau Ceti system that should be habitable. It will arrive seven generations after it left. Devi, chief engineer; Badim, her husband and a doctor; and their daughter Freya are all at the center of this book where, naturally, everything ends up going wrong. The ship makes it to Aurora, but that’s all that proceeds according to plan — on arrival, they discover all kinds of complicating factors, and they start to sow dissension and division among the people on board.
The Ballad of Beta-2 by Samuel R. Delany
A long time ago, a series of generation ships left Earth with plans to form new colonies far, far away from our solar system. Two never arrived at their planned destinations, and no one ever knew what happened to them — until a galactic anthropology student decided to go study the wrecks and try to figure out a mystery that’s gone unsolved for years. He picks apart what happened through language and myths that have scattered outwards from the wreckage. It’s a short novel by a well-known sci-fi master.
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
The Exodus Fleet is the remnants of the generation ship that left Earth. Humans still live in this quiet community — the thing is that everyone leaves it, heading out into the distant stars to find new homes. But what about the people who remain? What if they want to stay or are scared to lose what they already have? The novel by Chambers — which is much cozier and more introspective than most on this list — features five different characters trying to figure out what they want and where they’re destined to belong.
Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh
The last true humans live on Gaea Station, fighting to bring an end to the unstoppable Wisdom, a technology that brainwashes entire planets and that destroyed the Earth just a few generations back. Kyr has worked her entire life to become Gaia’s perfect soldier — but when her brother disappears and her assignment goes wrong, Kyr goes rogue. Kyr gives big Adora (from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power) energy: a super-soldier who has to unlearn everything she’s been taught about how the world works — and who the good guys really are.
If you want to follow another classic SFF trope, check out eight incredible magical libraries in fiction.
On the other hand, if you’re tired of the same-old, check out five authors who have coined their own subgenres — leaving the known behind and striking out for something new.