19 Best Generation Ship Books

Take a bunch of humans, put them in a large but limited space and keep them there for generations. Watch the chaos ensue.

Of course, you can also take the perspective that our entire planet is a generation ship.


The Ballad of Beta-2
by Samuel R. Delany – 1965

Centuries ago, the Star Folk left Earth on twelve spaceships on a generations-long mission to colonize the distant stars. Ten of the ships had reached their destinations, but two failed, and nobody, in the hundreds of years since the disaster, had the slightest inkling of what had happened.

Joneny, a student of galactic anthropology, was given the problem of the missing ships as a now-boring assignment. He discovered two wrecked ships, but he was ill prepared for what he found. One ship, the Sigma-9, was not subject to the laws of time-stasis (the only exception to a universal law), and it was covered entirely with a mysterious green fire. Joneny also discovers recordings from the passengers, which spell out the tragic history of the ships.

Rite of Passage
by Alexei Panshin – 1968

This Nebula Award-winning book takes place in 2198, one hundred and fifty years after the desperate wars that destroyed an overpopulated Earth. Humans now live on a hundred hastily-established colony worlds and inside the seven giant Ships that once ferried people to the stars. Young Mia Havero’s Ship is a small closed society that tests its children by casting them out to live or die in a month of Trial in the hostile wilds of a colony world. Mia Havero’s Trial is fast approaching, and in the meantime she must learn not only the skills that will keep her alive but the deeper courage to face herself and her world.

Dark Eden
by Chris Beckett – 2012

On the alien, sunless planet called Eden, the 532 members of the Family take shelter beneath the light and warmth of the Forest’s lantern trees. Beyond the Forest lie the mountains of the Snowy Dark and a cold so bitter and a night so profound that no one has ever crossed it.

The Oldest among the Family recount legends of a world where light came from the sky, where men and women made boats that could cross the stars. These ships brought us here, the Oldest say—and the Family must only wait for the travelers to return.

But young John Redlantern will break the laws of Eden, shatter the Family, and change history. He will abandon the old ways, venture into the Dark, and discover the truth about their world.

“A stunning novel and a beautiful evocation of a truly alien world.”
—Sunday Times (UK)

The Space-Born
by E.C. Tubb – 1956

Far from Earth, on a ship carrying the 13th and 14th generations of descendants from the original crew, life is short. You are born, learn the tasks needed to keep the ship running, help breed and train the next crew, and your death is ordered by the computer in charge. Gregson, chief of the psych-police, makes sure the computer’s death-sentences are carried out quickly and painlessly. His duty is a sacred trust. He knows the intricacies of the system, how it works, and how it can be subverted. He is growing old and knows his name will soon come up in the computer for elimination. But he has no intention of carrying out his own death-sentence.

by Brian W. Aldiss – 1958

In the savage world of the Greene tribe, losing a woman was unforgivable, and Roy had lost his while hunting in the jungle called “the ponics.” Disgraced and isolated, he joined the disreputable priest Marapper on a forbidden expedition through Deadways to find the legendary land of Forwards. They were to have met mutants, giants, regimented rats and telepathic rabbits, and the fabled Outsiders. Finally they confront a secret kept hidden for 23 generations—a secret whose discovery would reveal their origins and destiny even as it destroyed their world.

Captive Universe
by Harry Harrison – 1968

Chimal is a young Aztec tribesman living in an isolated valley which was sealed off from the rest of the world in ages past by a massive earthquake. Unlike the rest of his people, who are content with the way things are, he shows more interest in what lies outside the valley.

This book’s place on a Generation Ship list is a bit of a hint as to what happens next.

The Maiden Voyage of The Destiny Unknown
by Nicholas Ponticello – 2016

Like his earlier book Do Not Resuscitate, Ponticello’s prose reads like a less-angry Vonnegut. However, in The Maiden Voyage of the Destiny Unknown, he gets wilder and funnier.

Two hundred million years in the future, the sun is about to engulf the Earth, so a spaceship filled with people is sent out towards a likely star in order to save the species.

The outrageous situations and badly-behaving people on the spaceship are entertaining as hell, and are nicely balanced with an occasional thoughtful perspective from the narrator, a non-interfering alien observer.

The Maiden Voyage of the Destiny Unknown is bold and fun, and I found myself eagerly waiting for the next time I could get back to reading it.

The Dark Beyond the Stars
by Frank M. Robinson – 1991

For two thousand years, the starship Astron has search the galaxy for alien life—without success. Now, just as the ship is falling apart, the only direction left to explore is across the Dark, a one-hundred-generation journey through empty space.

The ship’s captain, immortal and obsessed, refuses to abandon the quest. He will cross the Dark, or destroy the ship trying.

Only Sparrow, a young crewman uncertain of his own past, can stand against the captain and against the lure and challenge of the Dark beyond the stars.

“A generation-ship masterpiece… Do not miss this novel.”
―Los Angeles Times

Across the Universe
by Beth Revis – 2000

Amy is a cryogenically frozen passenger aboard the spaceship Godspeed. She has behind left her boyfriend, friends, and planet behind to join her parents as a member of Project Ark Ship. Amy and her parents believe they will wake on a new planet, Centauri-Earth, three hundred years in the future. But fifty years before Godspeed’s scheduled landing, cryo chamber 42 is mysteriously unplugged, and Amy is violently woken from her frozen slumber.

Someone tried to murder her.

Now Amy is caught inside an enclosed world where nothing makes sense. Godspeed‘s 2,312 passengers have forfeited all control to Eldest, a tyrannical and frightening leader. And Elder, Eldest’s rebellious teenage heir, is both fascinated with Amy and eager to discover whether he has what it takes to lead. Amy desperately wants to trust Elder. But should she put her faith in a boy who has never seen life outside the ship’s cold metal walls? All Amy knows is that she and Elder must race to unlock Godspeed‘s hidden secrets before whoever woke her tries to kill again.

“Entirely original, deeply compelling, and totally unputdownable — I’ve found a new favorite!”
—Carrie Ryan, New York Times bestselling author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth

The Forever Watch
by David Ramirez – 2014

All that is left of humanity is on a thousand-year journey to a new planet aboard one ship, the Noah, which is also carrying a dangerous serial killer…

As a City Planner on the Noah, Hana Dempsey is a gifted psychic, economist, hacker, and bureaucrat and is considered “mission critical.” She is non-replaceable, important, essential, but after serving her mandatory Breeding Duty, the impregnation and birthing that all women are obligated to undergo, her life loses purpose as she privately mourns the child she will never be permitted to know.

When Policeman Leonard Barrens enlists her and her hacking skills in the unofficial investigation of his mentor’s violent death, Dempsey finds herself increasingly captivated by both the case and Barrens himself. According to Information Security, the missing man has simply “Retired,” nothing unusual. Together they follow the trail left by the mutilated remains. Their investigation takes them deep into the uninhabited regions of the ship, where they discover that the answer may not be as simple as a serial killer after all.

“Fans of hard SF will find this well-conceived and well-constructed debut a pleasure. Superior, psychologically plausible characterizations are combined with sophisticated world-building, clever trope inversion, and original plotting to create a powerful story that will amply reward re-reading.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Hull Zero Three
by Greg Bear – 2010

A starship hurtles through the emptiness of space. Its destination unknown, and its purpose a mystery.

A man wakes up. Ripped from a dream of a new home—a new planet and the woman he was meant to love in his arms—he finds himself wet, naked, and freezing to death. The dark halls are full of monsters but trusting the other survivors he meets might be the greater danger.

All he has are questions: Who is he? Where are they going? What happened to the dream of a new life? What happened to Hull 03?

All will be answered, if he can survive the ship.

“Not for those who prefer their space opera simpleminded, this beautifully written tale where nothing is as it seems will please readers with a well-developed sense of wonder.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

by Phoebe North – 2013

Terra has never known anything but life aboard the Asherah, a city-within-a-spaceship that left Earth five hundred years ago in search of refuge. At sixteen, working a job that doesn’t interest her, and living with a grieving father who only notices her when he’s yelling, Terra is sure that there has to be more to life than what she’s got.

With its onion-skin layers of plots and subterfuge around issues of trust and loyalty—not to mention a very strong writing style—this stellar debut should have strong interest from dystopian fans.

by John Varley – 1979

Nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. This book’s sitting on my shelf right now. It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a generation ship book, but it’s close enough and a fun read.

When Cirrocco Jones, captain of the spaceship Ringmaster, and his crew are captured by Gaea, a planet-sized creature that orbits around Saturn, they find themselves inside a bizarre world inhabited by centaurs, harpies, and constantly shifting environments.

by Stephen Baxter – 2009

Ark is the follow-up to the bestselling Flood, but can be read on its own.

It’s the year 2030. The oceans have risen rapidly, and soon the entire planet will be submerged. But the discovery of another life-sustaining planet light years away gives hope to those who remain alive. Only a few will be able to make the journey—Holle Groundwater is one of the candidates. If she makes the cut, she will live. If not, she will be left to face a watery death.

“Characteristic of Baxter’s writing, the novel can be depressing at times but still serves as a study of humanity’s ability to adapt and make painful decisions for the greater good.”
—Publishers Weekly

by Elizabeth Bear – 2007

On a broken ship orbiting a doomed sun, dwellers have grown complacent with their aging metal world. But when a serving girl frees a captive noblewoman, the old order is about to change.

Ariane, Princess of the House of Rule, was known to be fiercely cold-blooded. But severing an angel’s wings on the battlefield — even after she had surrendered—proved her completely without honor. Captive, the angel Perceval waits for Ariane not only to finish her off, but to devour her very memories and mind. Surely her gruesome death will cause war between the houses — exactly as Ariane desires. But Ariane’s plan may yet be opposed, for Perceval at once recognizes the young servant charged with her care.

Rien is the lost child: her sister. Soon they will escape, hoping to stop the impending war and save both their houses. But it is a perilous journey through the crumbling hulk of a dying ship, and they do not pass unnoticed. Because at the hub of their turning world waits Jacob Dust, all that remains of God, following the vapor wisp of the angel. And he knows they will meet very soon.

“[A] complex coming-of-age tale… Bear breaks sexual taboos matter-of-factly: love in varied forms drives the characters without offering easy redemption.”
—Publishers Weekly

Orphans of the Sky
by Robert A. Heinlein – 1963

Born and raised aboard a lost starship, Hugh and his companions know nothing beyond the metal walls of their home, until Hugh is captured by the muties, grotesquely deformed human parodies who lurk in the upper reaches of the ship and who reveal the true nature of the ship and its mission.

by Kim Stanley Robinson – 2015

Narrated by a generation ship’s AI, Aurora tells the story of Freya, the captain’s daughter, as the humans on the ship deal with technical and biological problems on the ship. Things get much more complicated when they actually reach their destination.

“This ambitious hard SF epic shows Robinson at the top of his game… [A] poignant story, which admirably stretches the limits of human imagination.”
―Publishers Weekly

Nightside the Long Sun
by Gene Wolfe – 1993

Nightside the Long Sun takes place after the events in author Wolfe’s extremely well-regarded Book of the New Sun, and is the first book in a four-volume series.

Inside the giant spaceship known as the Whorl, the gods speak to their worshipers through a complex system of augury and technology until one man discovers the existence of a new god and unwittingly begins a revolution.

“The atmosphere of Wolfe’s spacecraft seduces and amazes, details and mystery piling upon each other to yield a sense of palpable otherworldliness.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Wolfe’s stylistic genius allows him to infuse standard elements of mystery and adventure with multiple layers of nuance and symbolism to create a transcendent and mysterious whole.”
—Library Journal

Rendezvous with Rama
by Arthur C. Clarke – 1973

An uncontested sci-fi classic, Rendezvous with Rama is also one of Clarke’s best novels, winning the Campbell, Hugo, Jupiter, and Nebula Awards.

A huge, mysterious, cylindrical object appears in space, swooping in toward the sun. The citizens of the solar system send a ship to investigate before the enigmatic craft, called Rama, disappears. The astronauts given the task of exploring the hollow cylindrical ship are able to decipher some, but definitely not all, of the extraterrestrial vehicle’s puzzles. From the ubiquitous trilateral symmetry of its structures to its cylindrical sea and machine-island, Rama’s secrets are strange evidence of an advanced civilization. But who, and where, are the Ramans, and what do they want with humans? Perhaps the answer lies with the busily working biots, or the sealed-off buildings, or the inaccessible “southern” half of the enormous cylinder. Rama’s unsolved mysteries are tantalizing indeed. Rendezvous with Rama is a fast-moving, fascinating must-read for science fiction fans.

Bonus Book

Cities in Flight
by James Blish – 1955

Originally published in four volumes nearly fifty years ago, Cities in Flight brings together the famed “Okie novels.” Named after the migrant workers of America’s Dust Bowl, these novels are a bleak look at a world where cities roam the galaxy looking for work and a sustainable way of life. In the first novel, They Shall Have Stars, humanity has thoroughly explored the Solar System, yet the dream of going even further seems to have died in all but one man. His battle to realize his dream results in two momentous discoveries. In A Life for the Stars, it is centuries later and this is where the generation ships appear. To describe the other two books would reveal too much.

“A compelling future history, a tale of thistledown cities blown by the winds of time… [A]n exciting tale deepened and made utterly plausible by Blish’s craft and his mature understanding of people and history. If you haven’t read this yet, I envy you. Blish s cities will fly through your dreams.”
—Stephen Baxter

(Thanks to reader Michael B. for bringing this book to my attention.)

24 thoughts on “19 Best Generation Ship Books

  1. Another interesting list – thanks for your work. I already had the Greg Bear and KSR waiting to be read.

    It might’ve had a fancy respray, but the cover art for #16 clearly shows a Twin-Pod Cloud Car (from The Empire Strikes Back)! The details are instantly familiar to me as I had a toy one and my long-suffering parents had to buy me not one but two Twin-Pod Cloud Car Pilot figures. 🙂

  2. Trying to remember which books were about a girl kidnapped by Wisps and taken to a spaceship that battle different alien species to sell that species as soldiers to other aliens.The girl was put on a maintenance crew on the ship.

  3. Love your top three picks. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora is a masterpiece, a wonderful ecological parable/statement, and fun in the way it critiques the generation ship genre. A very lean and thrilling book too (from an author who generally tilts toward a deliberately slow/banal style).

    Nightside the Long Sun, in contrast, is completely different. This is a sprawling, ambitious epic, very playful, and tilts often into the fantasy/sword-and-sorcery genre.

    And of course Rendevous With Rama is an outright classic. Dated in some respects, it’s nevertheless a fun, weird adventure, and often engenders feelings of being in the presence of something truly big and alien.

    As a fan of the genre, who tries to consume every generation ship novel out there, I’d have these three in my top three as well, though I’d probably reverse the order and put Clarke’s book third.

    Here’s an offbeat generation ship recommendation for you: The Dazzle of Day.

  4. I remember a TV show, probably in the BBC’s ‘Out of the Unknown’ series, perhaps based on a short story, of a multi-generation space mission where the travellers no longer knew they were on a spaceship, and worshipped a tree, I think. Anyone know what this was? Thanks.

  5. I think the Generations trilogy by Scott Sigler belong there. Alive, Alone and Alight are good books.

  6. You should really check out John Thornton’s vast writings about colony ships. His 30 plus books are amazing! Colony Ship Eschaton, Colony Ship Vanguard, Colony Ship Conestoga, Colony Ship Trailblazer, and Colony Ship Warren.

  7. The two novellas that comprise “Orphans of the Sky” were originally published in 1941. So, while the combined volume was published in 1963, the works were written in 1941 or earlier.

    Knowing the actual date of publication changes the nature of the work from derivative to ground breaking.

  8. Trying to remember a generation ship book written before the early 60’s. My most vivid memory is of the main character exploring his world and seeing marks on walls that he didn’t understand was writing but us readers could see it was DECK 53 etc.
    Unknown to him, the ship was circling the Earth (I think) and being maintained by people from Earth because the people on the ship were regarded as a sort of primitive race who would not be able to coexist on Earth!
    I’d love to read that story again! Does anyone know the book? Thanks.

      1. Thanks for your reply but I’m actually reading Starship at the moment. It’s similar to what I remember but the main characters are much more advanced than the primitive ones in the story I’m looking for, I think! When I get to the end of Starship maybe I’ll change my mind/memory:)

  9. A couple of noted exceptions, Footfall, Larry Niven and Jerry Puornelle, and also by Niven and Pournelle is Legacy of Hebron and its follow up novels. Both explore the dichotomy between earth born and space born. Just suggestions.

  10. Noumenon Series by Marina J. Lostetter should be on that list, and my personal favorite, The Freeze Frame Revolution by Peter Watts.

  11. Hello everyone, Thanks for compiling this list of very interesting reads. I am trying to remember the title of a short story or novella I read quite a long time ago. It detailed a young male teenager’s experience on a space ship. He is awoken every year or so to interact with infants conceived on the ship.
    The children grow from toddlers to advanced old age in what is 6 weeks or so of his existence but some 60 or 70 years of the former children. All of these children are sterile so they can not reproduce.
    The children experience despair and possibly madness as they age. They try to escape the ship or at least find out what else exists in the ship but to no avail. In the end, they have all died and it turns the Master AI is training the teenagers in how to be a leader.
    If anyone has information on this item, it would be much appreciated. Many thanks, Best regards,

  12. What was the short story/ novella where the first starship to a nearby (?) star system to Earth, taking years, is met at the destination by a colony set up from later generation ships which had overtaken the original long ago? (read decades ago and lousy memory!)

  13. I think that we should add The stars Are Ours by Ander Norton to this list. The first part of the book is about preparations for take-off and the second half takes place after the landing. Still, the concept of the generation ship is part of the story. Written in the early 50’s and followed by Star Born, theses YA books are early classics.

  14. Two wonderfully written character driven generational ship novels:
    Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers—How societal structure could work to sustain 100 generations until it finally got somewhere. A cozier read.
    The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien— Not so cozy. An imbalanced society and a phenomenal ship with more than one big flaw.

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