I hoping for some help here, as Google isn't being useful... In my early teens I read a novel about a young man who is quite adventurous in his society and in climbing and adventuring into the off-limit areas of his world, discovers his "world" is actually a giant spaceship (possibly an asteroid ship) transporting a colony to a new world and it is very near it's destination after hundred or thousands of years. Problem is that it has been so many generations now that no one even knows this is a ship any more, so he has to finish the journey himself, possibly with the help of an AI in the ship (sorry, memory is really foggy).

Biggest problem is that is about all the details I can remember... This would have been about the mid-1980's and in paperback.

This image by Roy Scarfo is what brought back my memory of the book, I am guessing the cover art of the novel was similar in some way.

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    This is a pretty common trope, and we’ll need a bit more information to have any chance of an unambiguous identification.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 18:03
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    I was kind afraid this was too vague to get a definitive answer, guess I hoped a few comments or possible memories would jar something in my mind.
    – acejavelin
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 18:13
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    Different yet similar to For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 1:43
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    This is the plot to the television series: "The Orville Episode 4 : If the Stars Should Appear"
    – Pieter B
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 12:23
  • @PieterB Really? Well, I only saw through episode 3 since we just got Hulu over the weekend, I will try to get caught up this week I guess.
    – acejavelin
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 14:34

7 Answers 7


It's not an uncommon concept, and there are many stories that may fit it, but the simplest possibility that leaps to mind (being one of the earliest depictions of a generation ship) is Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky.

  • Main Character (Hugh) does go exploring the ship and finds many things, including the control deck.
  • They have been traveling so long that they have forgotten their origins, and their myths involve past occurrences on the ship, such as a long past mutiny.
  • No AI to help him, but a two-headed mutant does.
  • He eventually manages to land a small group (basically his family) on a planet, by only by virtue of incredible luck and the fact that the ship was designed to be incredibly fail-safe.

It was written in 1964, but it was a fairly common paperback in the 80s; that's when I first read it.

  • Actually, this might be it... I read quite a bit of Heinlein at time (it was often in the bargain book bins at mall book stores). I am going mark it as correct after following your link and reading the overview on Wikipedia, many of the elements of the story seem to be familiar, so if it isn't the one I am thinking of it is definitely one I have read at some time.
    – acejavelin
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 18:16
  • This was my thought as soon as I saw the question. This one definitely has the loss of knowledge, the drive to explore on the part of the protagonist, and the "off-limits" area being above the protagonist's home (the protagonist lives in the hydroponic farm districts of the lower decks, and his people consider the upper decks to be wild and dangerous and warn him against going there). Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 11:51
  • Orphans is a 1963 fixup of two 1951 stories: "Universe" and "Common Sense". "Universe" should be the caninical answer.
    – Spencer
    Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 15:24

It could also be Phoenix Without Ashes by Harlan Ellison and Edward Bryant, the basis for the ill-fated TV show The Starlost. It was published in 1975.

They had banished Devon from the world of Cypress Corners because he dared to challenge the Elders. And when he defied them again, they hunted him like an animal. Then Devon stumbled on a secret passage in the hills. His whole life changed in that moment. For Devon had accidentally discovered the giant ark that was ferrying not only Cypress Corners but all other Earth cultures to another planet. What Devon did not know was that there had been a terrible accident aboard the spaceship. The gear hat been damaged, the crew dead. And the ark and all its worlds were now headed straight for destruction.

  • Hmm... I grabbed a sample of this from Amazon, it seems to be a graphic novel?
    – acejavelin
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 19:35
  • Never mind, that was just the Kindle version... I looked at a sample of the print version and it is a standard novel, not the story I remember at all from the bits I could see, but actually looks like an interesting read... I will have to keep an eye out for it.
    – acejavelin
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 19:36

While you've already accepted an answer, Damon Knight's The World and Thorinn also fits (and is an obscure favorite of mine).

The World and Thorinn - Book Cover

It follows a young boy named Thorinn, raised by what are essentially ogres in a world where the horizon curves up into the sky. After something happens to make their well go dry, they seal Thorinn (whose name means "flea" because his leg injury makes a hopping gait easiest for him) into the well both to try to solve the problem and as a sacrifice to the gods. Thorinn finds new and bizarre worlds as he descends deeper, and eventually learns that, as indicated, he's on a planet-sized space-ship being used to preserve the last vestiges of humanity. There is an A.I. in control of the planet, and they're actually rather keen on Thorinn because he's a descendant of the original programmers and therefore can give them orders.

The part that does not match is that, as far as I remember, they were not near any destination (and indeed, I'm not certain if the A.I. was still searching).

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    Thanks, sounds like an interesting story, but no familiarity at all to it. I am pretty sure the correct answer is Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky.
    – acejavelin
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 21:02

Another possibility is Harry Harrison's Captive Universe Where the passengers have an Aztec culture and live in a valley unaware they are on a ship, while the crew are behind the scenes, but they also have an imposed culture.

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    This was the first one I thought of, too. Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 0:13

This sounds exactly, and I mean EXACTLY like Clifford Simak's short story "Target Generation" (also released as "Spacebred Generations").

The story's protagonist, Jon, comes from a family which has been passing down a "heresy" from generation to generation. This heresy involves teaching the ability to read (considered taboo) and handing down the Letter and the Book, to be opened and read only in case of emergency. This emergency takes place at the beginning of the story when the cylindrical ship ceases its rotation, stopping the centripetal forces that emulated gravity and replacing them with an artificial gravity working in a different direction (thereby changing the direction of 'gravity' in every room in the ship). The ship's inhabitants also realise that instead of perpetually moving, like they used to, the stars not appear stationary.


In Simak's story, however, Jon and his wife Mary are very much happy and in love. When Jon has locked himself in the ship's control room in order to find a safe, habitable planet for the ship to land on, he is left without food, since everyone else on the ship has turned against him. Mary, however, risks her own life to bring him food and water, supporting and trusting him when no one else will. He is overjoyed when he sees her, relieved that she is safe and well. (I'm not even sure I've read the words "My darling wife" in a pulp sf story before). He teaches her about the ship and its true purpose and they spend the rest of the story together. I thought this was a much better portrayal of marriage than Heinlein's or Aldiss's.


It also could be "Non-Stop" by Brian W. Aldiss. The only difference from original question is that in "Non-Stop" the ship with colonizers was transporting from a destination back to earth.

On their journey, the group encounters other tribes of varying levels of sophistication. Complain is also briefly captured by humanoid 'Giants' of legend, who release him with no explanation. Complain's party eventually join the more sophisticated society of the 'Forwards'. Here, they learn that the space-craft is a multi-generational starship returning from the newly colonised planet of Procyon. In a previous generation, the ship's inhabitants had suffered from a pandemic because of an alien amino acid found in the waters of Procyon. Law and order began to collapse and knowledge of the ship and its purpose was eventually almost entirely lost throughout the vessel. It is now 23 generations that have passed since this 'Catastrophe'.


This also sounds a bit like Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, and your image really looks a lot like that Whorl: a cylindrical "world" where distant lands wrap around the sky, with a laser-like light source running down the middle. The "book" is actually a tetralogy; from a review of the final installment, Exodus from the Long Sun (emphasis mine):

The series is set in a generation starship, the Whorl, which has reached its destination, and is reaching the end of its ability to sustain life. The ship is a huge, hollowed out asteroid, which rotates to provide gravity. Down the axis of the ship runs the long sun, a kind of huge strip light with a rotating shade that provides night and day. At one end of the ship is Mainframe, the vast computer that controls the ship, and stores the personalities of its maker and his family.

The main character is a young man who does explore his world beyond his home neighborhood, and eventually has adventures that lead to the revelation that the Whorl is a ship and the rescue of the populace of the Whorl. He gets help from a friendly robot ("chem") as well as encountering the intelligence running the whole shebang in the city of Mainframe.

The cover of the two-book collection covering the first half of tetralogy, Litany of the Long Sun, looks a lot like your image:

*Litany of the Long Sun* cover image from Amazon, showing a man in the foreground on a balcony looking out at a cylindrical world, with buildings and boats in the lower mid-ground and more cityscape wrapping around the top of the image in the far distance, with a laser-like light shooting down the middle of the cylinder.

An image of the original artwork, without the title text and left-right reversed, looks even more like your "inspiration" painting.

Despite these similarities there are several caveats. First, of course, it's four books, not just one. Also, Long Sun was written in the 1990s, so later than you remember reading your book. Finally, there is a huge religious element to the story, plus a gang war, which are important elements that don't match your description. I therefore don't think it's exactly the same book you remember, but perhaps you read it (or just saw a cover/blurb) and it reminded you of the other book and you connected the two somewhat?

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