I don't remember much of this book and may misremember some of it but essentially the setting was a fully self sufficient ship that was out in space and at some point there were officers, scientists, mechanics, etc but something happened (maybe just lots of time passing?) that made the inhabitants forget what they were doing and view the ship essentially as their entire universe. They treated the books that survived as religious texts and there may have been mutated mechanics or something that they were fighting.

Anyone have any idea what I am talking about?

  • I'm like 90% sure the book this question is asking about has been asked about before and answered here, but I can't find it now...
    – Tacroy
    Apr 1, 2013 at 22:55
  • @Tacroy: You may be thinking of a question asking for a list of such books, which has been deleted.
    – Beta
    Jun 11, 2013 at 0:09
  • There was a game for Sega Genesis, Phantasy Star III Generations of Doom, that has similar story. I'll definitely read some of the books suggested here, maybe it's based on one of them.
    – ansgri
    Sep 13, 2013 at 5:43
  • 1
    I like this! I stumbled upon this page in searching for reference to "The Oceans Are Wide". The search in Wikipedia led me to "The Sentimentalists" and then here. Heinlein wrote something about that, there's a Doctor Who episode about a crashed ship that has factioned into the Teche and the Seveteem, among others. I'd like to lurk a while. Thanks!
    – user62460
    Feb 24, 2016 at 14:39
  • Just for completeness, there is a blog post listing stories about generation ships (sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/…). Feb 24, 2016 at 14:50

11 Answers 11


While the question doesn't provide a timeframe, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that it's Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky. The first part, Universe, appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in May 1941. Part II, Common Sense, appears in ASF in Oct 1941. The two were published together in 1963. Universe was also published separately in 1951.

It's the story of a generational ship (Vanguard).

  • A long ago mutiny killed most of the officers and, over time, the descendants of the surviving crew forget the purpose of the ship.
  • They come to believe the ship is the entire universe.
  • References to the ships 'voyage' are treated as religious metaphor. Scientists ritualistically do the tasks needed to maintain the ship but are ignorant of their true functions.
  • 'Muties' (an abbreviation of either mutants or mutineers) dwell on the upper decks.

Orphans of the Sky

  • You are correct sir. Recall reading it in the '70s.
    – Ihor Sypko
    Aug 23, 2013 at 19:24
  • OP's remembered detail about scientific texts being treated as religious dogma also appears in "Universe"
    – Spencer
    Oct 28, 2021 at 5:29

Generation ships where the passengers forget they're aboard a ship or where they're headed to is a fairly common theme. Your description matches one of the classics: Non-Stop by Brian Aldis (published in 1958).

The book opens on a primitive society. Fairly early on, we learn that they are living aboard a spaceship, and that fact is not known for sure and only believed by a minority. The main character explores the ship. He eventually reaches a more advanced society which has retained memory of being aboard a ship; it has been 23 generations since an epidemic decimated the population and made civilisation collapse.

Both societies are afraid of the Giants, a mysterious race sometimes glimpsed and accused of most anything mysterious. They conceivably may be mutated humans.

(See Wikipedia for a spoiler on the ending.)


I'm going to suggest Mayflies by Kevin O'Donnell Jr.

The protagonist of the story is a scientist who, through misadventure, ends up wired into the Earth's first interstellar ship as its central computer. The ship was conceived as a lifeboat, a way for at least some to escape a dying Earth, but the planned 15 year journey turned into a thousand year one when the scientist "wakes up" during launch and inadvertently shuts off the drive.

At first the scientist is restricted to observer status, as "The Program" that has been loaded into his brain to run the ship has control. Over time, he manages to take over the functions of The Program, one by one. Things also go from bad to worse with his passengers as subsequent generations forget their origins, and as aliens are encountered.

Towards the end of the story, he gains control over the drive - but realises his passengers aren't ready to survive without his oversight, and sets out to train the next generation to live independently.

Other things I remember ...

  • The scientist was doing research into emergency resuscitation, and ended up having his life "saved" by his device.
  • Overthrow of one on-ship society by the introduction of a labour based economy where a floor sweeper of average efficiency would earn 1 laitch (labour hour) per hour.
  • A hive mind alien shows up, and takes over the mind of one baby. Realizing too late that he's "killed" an individual, he sticks around as a replacement as long as he can.
  • Earth invents an FTL drive, but it can only be used for smaller vessels, but the ship works out how to synchronize multiple drives.
  • An encounter with some violent aliens who do some nasty things as a part of psychological experiments on the passengers

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

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A generation ship is launched from Saturn in 2545, consisting of twenty-four self-contained biomes and an average population of two thousand people. One hundred sixty years and approximately seven generations later it is beginning its approach to the Tau Ceti system to begin colonization of a planet's moon, an Earth analog, which has been named Aurora.


The ship arrives in the Tau Ceti system and begins to settle Aurora, a moon of Tau Ceti e. It soon becomes apparent that extraterrestrial life is present in the form of primitive prions, which infect and kill most of the landing party. The surviving settlers attempt to return to the ship, and some of those remaining onboard kill them in the airlock to maintain quarantine, leading to a violent political schism throughout the ship. The ship itself, which has been moving towards self-awareness, takes physical control of the situation by lowering oxygen levels and separating warring factions, referring to itself as "the rule of law." It then reveals to the crew that there were in fact two ships originally launched for the Tau Ceti expedition, but the other was destroyed during a period of severe civil unrest, and the collective memory of that event was erased from the history records. Under Ship's moderation, a more peaceful debate takes place between the inhabitants about what to do now that Aurora is known to be inhospitable. Unable to reach consensus, the factions agree to part ways, with those who wish to stay retaining as many resources as can be spared to pursue an unlikely attempt at terraforming the Mars-like planet Iris while the other group, led by Freya, opt to try and return to Earth.

  • Welcome to SFF:SE. Care to elaborate on why you think this is the answer? As written, this doesn't meet the standards we look for in answers, and may be deleted. Please have a look at the tour for more information.
    – Politank-Z
    Jan 25, 2017 at 5:45
  • This doesn't seem like it actually matches the description in the question, although it is clearly an answer.
    – DCShannon
    Jan 25, 2017 at 21:48

Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun series. Ship so big all inside know nothing till a priest get a epiphany.

Book cover

A young priest Patera Silk tries to save his manteion (neighborhood church and school) from destruction by a ruthless crime lord. As he learns more about his world, a vast generation ship called the Whorl, he learns to distrust the gods he has worshiped and to revere the supposedly minor god known as The Outsider who has enlightened him. He becomes a revolutionary leader and prophet.

  • Why do you think this is the book the OP is looking for? Do you have a plot summary or something you can edit into this answer? Jul 27, 2015 at 1:23

In addition to the answers above (all of which do fit the bill), the third book in Ben Bova's Young Adult Exiles Trilogy, End of Exile, also fits. It depicts the last months of a long-haul starship that began as a space station, was converted to allow a group of exiled scientists to escape Earth's oppressive government, and has been in service far longer than anyone expected or intended. As a result of both mechanical and political breakdowns, the only survivors at this point are a single old scientist holed up in the ship's low-gravity hub, and a cadre of children who have made a religion out of the scientist's last videotaped instructions...

Also of potential interest, although it deliberately breaks the mold, may be the novella "The Oceans are Wide" by Frank Robinson. This story involves a starship that never forgets it's a starship, and focuses instead on the sociology of a long-haul colonization effort where nearly everything has actually gone according to plan; but that doesn't mean everything goes smoothly...


The book is Earthseed by Pamela Sargent. There are two sequels that show what happened in the next generations.

  • 1
    Haven't read the book but did read the synopsis from the link you provided. Appear to be some major missing elements. I see no reference to the religious motif nor any to mutants. Can you elaborate on why you think this is the book that's being asked about ?
    – Stan
    Jun 16, 2013 at 1:03

You could be talking about the No-Ship Ithica in the Dune Series, specifically in Sandworms of Dune. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandworms_of_Dune

Also Gene Wolfe has written a continuation of his 4 volume Book of the New Sun series https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Urth_of_the_New_Sun that includes a ship that I think they simply call "ship"


This might corresponds to "The Butterfly of the Stars" (Le Papillon des étoiles in French), a 2006 novel by French author Bernard Werber:

It describes a generation ship under the form of a long rotating cylinder, with central lightning tube. This ship is said to be privately constructed. Aboard the vessel, 144,000 people leave Earth to travel to an exoplanet. The voyage takes 1,000 years.

From this review, the ending:

After 1000 years, the spaceship reach the final destination, a new planet, but there are only 4 humans alive, a girl and 3 boys and the only little spaceship which helps them to land on the new planet can only containt two persons, the girl is naturally chosen. A choice was made between 3 boys, and the couple leave the spaceship to the new planet...

  • 1
    As per the spoiler text, the only way this matches is that it's a generation ship traveling a far distance.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Jan 25, 2017 at 12:23

You might be thinking about "The Jesus Incident". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jesus_Incident


Another along these lines -- The Starlost. Has been produced as a graphic novel (really good) and a TV series (bad but lovable in its own way; no worse than early Doctor Who IMHO).

  • 1
    Are you suggesting that The Starlost is the book being searched for? If so, what makes you think so? If not, then this isn't an answer and should be a comment.
    – phantom42
    Feb 7, 2014 at 14:29
  • Does a graphic novel qualify as a book? Feb 7, 2014 at 14:34
  • If it matches what the OP is looking for. I don't see anything in the question that indicates it is. You might wish to ask for clarification if you think this may be the match.
    – phantom42
    Feb 7, 2014 at 14:37

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