An Unlucky 13 Ill-Fated Voyages in Science Fiction

To quote Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” Considering we already routinely get lost just driving to a new city—even with the benefit of a tiny AI giving us directions—there’s no questioning that once humans have reached the point that we’re actually traveling through space on the regular, we’re going to get lost. A lot. And epically so. There’s a reason Lost in Space resonates enough that it is getting a Netflix reboot more than 50 years after it first debuted: there’s something primal about the fear of spinning out into the void and seeing everything go disastrously wrong. (Also: cool robot.)

Still, Sci-fi writers are always down for some existential terror. The 10 books listed here make the Robinsons’ ill-fated voyage look like a trip to the corner store.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
With millions of computers around the world running SETI@home, it’s obvious that mankind would love to find another intelligent race to argue (and possibly go to war) with. The assumption is that such a discovery would be kind of awesome, if only for the Military Industrial Complex. Russell’s book, in which the Vatican finds itself the only nation on Earth capable of organizing a spaceship to go investigate beautiful singing picked up from a distant star, starts off on the optimistic side of the SETI scale, with its emissaries discovering an advanced, apparently peaceable alien civilization that welcomes them. Then it drops off a cliff so sheer, it’s the literary equivalent of an amusement park ride that leaves your stomach in your throat. Cultural miscommunication and the law of unintended consequences leads to a slaughter of the human crew, leaving just one priest to return home to Earth, but not before he is broken physically and mentally, having endured torture beyond imagining.

Nightflyers, by George R.R. Martin
Credited with resurrecting Martin’s moribund writing career in the 1980s, this novella (which is currently being developed into a series on Syfy) is enjoying a resurgence in the wake of his heightened post-Game of Thrones profile. And good thing, because it’s awesome—a tense hybrid of sci-fi and horror. A team of nine academics are recruited for a mission to study a mysterious alien race and put on board the only ship available: The Nightflyer, an autonomous craft that requires just a single crewmember. The mysterious captain shuts himself off from the scientists, communicating exclusively through holograms and voice messages. Then someone—or something—begins murdering the crew, and the mission devolves into a gruesome fight for survival in the darkness of space.

Orphans of the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein
Originally published in two parts in 1941, and collected into novel form in 1963, this one is slighted dated but still presents one of the best “generation ship” concepts ever developed: long ago, there was a mutiny on the Vanguard, a generation ship destined for Alpha Centauri, which killed most of the officers and scientists. Over the course of generations, the remaining crew slowly forgets their origins and devolves into a primitive civilization that believes the interior of the ship to be the entire universe. To say that this represents a critical mission failure is an understatement, but the idea that humanity is always thisclose to screwing up a space mission and going primitive is compelling, and probably accurate.

The Forever Watch, by David Ramirez
Most generation ship narratives trade in hope—the hope of discovering new and amazing things and increasing mankind’s knowledge, or the hope of saving humanity from extinction. At first, the latter seems to be what’s going on in Ramirez’s horrifying story, set on the Noah, a ship halfway through a centuries-long journey to a new planet. In a simulated city, people work to keep the ship in good shape, are rendered unconscious when it comes time to breed, and live in a tightly regimented but relatively free existence. When a city planner gets involved in the investigation into what appear to be horrific serial murders, the truth behind the mission becomes clear. Let’s just say that no one on board the ship is ever going to step foot on humanity’s new home, the identity of the killer is…complicated, the secrets behind it all might be better left hidden.

Planetfall, by Emma Newman
Following a prophet is always going to involve some element of risk, but the faithful who picked up and headed out across the stars with brilliant scientist Lee Suh-Mi—who believed she’d discovered a beacon drawing humanity to a new Eden on a distant planet—probably weren’t expecting anything quite like what they encounter on their mission. Two decades have passed since they fled a war-torn, environmentally ravaged Earth, and though they have indeed found a habitable planet, it’s hardly been the cradle of life they were expecting. Many of their members were killed almost instantly upon landing, for one thing; for another, they’ve been camped outside of a strange alien structure for years, waiting for Suh-Mi to emerge from inside, presumably filled with the knowledge of the race that built (and, ultimately, attracted them to the planet in the first place). And that’s all before a stranger suddenly, inexplicably appears in their midst, and things go very bad indeed.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
It’s nice to think that a species-threatening disaster would bring humanity together, but history has proven how unlikely a scneario that is, and indeed, Rivers Solomon’s searing debut posits that the future is much more likely to reflect the worst of the past than anything else. After generations in space, life onboard the colony ship Matilda, which is carrying the last remnants of humanity to a new home, society has devolved from anything resembling egalitarian into something akin to the antebellum South, with the ship’s light-skinned inhabitants taking control and confining those with dark skin or physical or mental disabilities to the lower decks, where they live out a cruel existence akin to slavery. It make take a civil war to prove humanity even deserves to make it to the new Promised Land.

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Non-Stop, by Brain Aldiss
Aldiss’ twisty generation-ship mystery has a similar premise as Orphans of the Sky: on board an unnamed generation ship, humanity has been reduced to a primitive state, living in the vegetation-choked corridors of the ship. There are legendary Giants roaming the ship, as well as tribes on the upper levels that are more sophisticated, as well as human-seeming Outsiders who are believed to infiltrate human society for mysterious reasons. Slowly, Aldiss reveals that the ship departed an alien world centuries before, suffered some sort of catastrophe that destroyed the civilization on board, and should have arrived at Earth long before—and might now be drifting into the vastness of empty space. But the reveals don’t end there, and even sixty years on the story is gripping and surprising.

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson
It’s tough to say too much about Robinson’s mic drop on the generation ship novel without spoiling it, but the fact that the centuries-long mission to a hoped-for new home for humanity is an ill-fated one is obvious from the opening scenes, as the engineers responsible for maintaining the delicate ecosystem onboard are already dealing with unanticipated equipment failures and resource shortages with decades of space left to traverse. Problems with the environmental systems mean that growing food has become a challenge, and as shortages lead to reduced rations and entire areas of the ship must be closed off, a violent mutiny begins brewing—and things only get worse once the Aurora actually gets where it is going, and finds the alien world more alien and far less hospitable than anticipated. That all of this unfolds via the curiously dispassionate narration of the onboard AI does little to damped the impact of these cascading disasters. If this book can be summed up in a sentence, it’s this one: stay home.

One Way, by S.J. Morden
If there’s a class of people who might jump at the ultimate chance on a one-way trip to Mars, it’s convicts serving life sentences in harsh prisons—which says something depressing about the state of our justice system. But as Frank Kittridge and his fellow criminals discover once they agree to build a habitat on Mars ahead of an official mission crewed by scientists and astronauts, getting out of prison isn’t always such a great thing, especially when you put yourself at the mercy of a ruthless corporation determined to cut any corner and expend any resource—including the human ones—in order to come in radically under budget.

Barbary Station, by R.E. Stearns
When brainy engineering students/lovers Adda and Iridian graduate from school with few job prospects, they come to the conclusion that life as inner-solar system pirates will prove far more fruitful than scraping for a paycheck—plus, they already have an in with the pirate crew that has taken over the remote Barbary Station, turning it into an outpost from which they can plunder anyone who dares to come near. Except the legends of riches onboard the station turn out to be just that, and when Adda and Iridian cruise in in a hijacked colony ship, expecting a warm welcome, they are instead quickly conscripted into a war between Barbary’s human population and the malevolent AI that controls it. It seems the computer system responsible for keeping everyone alive has decided that people are a virus that need to be wiped out, and thus far, it has been doing a damn good job of things. Maybe selling out and working for the man doesn’t sound too bad after all.

The Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn
Combining a study of deteriorating group dynamics and a closed loop of disaster, this book is a claustrophobic horror story wherein the monster is simple bad luck in a universe in which entropy is the natural state of things. The River of Stars is already an aging rust-bucket when Captain Hand and his squabbling crew steer it into the middle solar system. When Hand is killed, order breaks down as quickly as the ship itself. The crew attempts repairs, cannibalizing other parts of the ship, but every fix results in unexpected, usually disastrous complications, and the crew’s inability to work together effectively begins to cause serious chaos, and The River of Stars begins to slide out into the void.

Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson
A tough book to find these days, which is a shame, because it’s an amazing story, although its physics are a little outdated. A crew of 50 departs on the Leonora Christine, a ship capable of achieving partial light speed using a Bussard Ramjet, which the crew understands will result in time dilation—their mission will last 5 years, but more than three decades will have passed back on Earth. The plan is to accelerate for the first half of the journey, then decelerate. When the Ramjet is damaged, however, the ship can no longer decelerate without repairs, and repairs can’t be attempted until they reach a specific set of conditions. The end result is that the Leonora Christine must keep accelerating until they come across the right conditions—and it simply keeps doing so as their situation gets more and more desperate, increasing the time dilation to the point thate billions of years are passing for every moment of ship-time. Things don’t get more ill-fated than that.

Gateway, by Frederik Pohl
And then there’s this award-winner, which encompasses not a single ill-fated voyage, but a large number of them. In the future, humanity discovers Gateway, a space station built into a near-Earth asteroid by a long-gone alien species known as the Heechee. Gateway is filled with ancient Heechee spaceships, all pre-programmed with the coordinates of mystery locations across the universe. The controls and coordinate system are inscrutable, but people figure out how to activate the ships, and risk death—or, sometimes, worse—in order to see where the ships take them. If they make it back alive, they can bring back Heechee technology or information that can make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Or, they’ll find nothing useful at all, assuming returning is even an option. Most of the trips wind up being doomed in one way or another—sometimes your ship appears in the middle of a sun, sometimes it’s a one-way trip to empty space and you’re left to drift forever. Care to press your luck?

What’s your pick for the most unlucky voyage in SF history?

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