It’s been a while since I did the weekly Trope Tuesday posts, but those were a lot of fun and they still get a lot of traffic, so I’m going to bring them back with a couple of changes. Instead of focusing on the trope itself, essentially rewriting the description on the tvtropes page, I’m going to pick apart what I like about it and focus instead on the trope’s appeal. I’m also going to pick tropes that are in my own books, so that I can talk about how I’m using them.To kick things off, this week’s trope is the Colony Ship. A staple of space opera, this trope is exactly what it says on the tin: a giant starship, often a worldship or a starship luxurious, taking a band of colonists to settle the final frontier. Essentially, this trope takes the wagon train to the stars concept to its logical conclusion, since what is a wagon train but a band of hopeful colonists? And since this is space, there’s no limit to where you can take it!
I love this trope because it’s so hopeful. Even in dark post-apocalyptic stories like A Canticle for Leibowitz, the possibility of taking humanity to the stars shines like a beacon of hope, an interstellar ark that can fling a light into the future. No matter how badly we screw up Earth, we can still atone for our sins by starting over with a clean slate out among the stars.
One of the other things that makes this trope appealing is that it’s not that far removed from reality. On that other wiki, there’s an article on Generation Ships with a link to this very interesting academic paper on the feasibility of building giant worldships. Just as Science Fiction conceptualized satellites, robots, and cloning before they were actually built, this may very well be the case with interstellar colony ships as well. I doubt that NASA or SpaceX are currently working on any prototypes, but we’re definitely on a path that will lead us there, if we have the courage and tenacity to follow it through.
If faster-than-light travel is in play, then the people who set off on the colony ship are usually the same people who build the colony. If FTL is not in play, though, things get really interesting. Sanderson’s second law of magic states that the limitations of a magic system are inherently more interesting than the powers, and since sufficiently advanced space travel is itself a kind of magic (see Clarke’s third law), then it makes sense that sublight colony ships are more interesting than FTL ones.
Sublight colony ships come in two basic types: generation ships and sleeper starships. In a generation ship, the colony ship itself becomes something of a miniature world, often like a city in a bottle (with all of the juicy story implications that come with it). In a sleeper starship, the colonists freeze themselves in stasis, opening the possibility for stuff like lightspeed leapfrog.
In my current WIP, Heart of the Nebula, I’ve combined both of these subtropes to create a hybrid generation sleeper ship. The ships are designed for sublight travel through a region of space where FTL is impossible, but there are too many colonists to fit in all the cryotanks. Subsequently, those who don’t go to sleep have to turn their tiny little ship into a self-enclosed home. When the sleepers wake up, they find that they’ve become living relics to the great-great grandchildren of their friends and relatives.
The main character in Heart of the Nebula is James McCoy, who you might remember from Bringing Stella Home. Just before he goes into cryo, he rescues his people from a terrible enemy, so that when he wakes up he’s a living legend. People have been watching movies about his exploits and doing grade school reports on him for generations. But the thing that made him a legend also put a lot of lives at risk, so that he’s also an extremely divisive figure. To make things worse, most of his friends didn’t go into cryo, so they’re all gone by now. But their great-great grandkids are still around …
As you can see, Colony Ships can be a lot of fun to play with. I’m definitely having fun with it now, and I plan to return to this trope often in the future!