I want to build a world populated by humans descended from colonists from Earth who have traveled a long distance and time to arrive (say, 80 years.) They come to this new Earth-like planet in dozens of different ships from different parts of Earth, but they all took more or less the same time to travel the distance. What I'm wondering is what kinds of changes human society might undergo if it's confined in a transport ship for such a long time that the generations that remember Earth die off, and that generations that only know life on a confined ship traveling through space colonize said planet.

Here are two ideas I had:

  • Hedonism. Maybe this one is a little obvious, but traveling through space for decades, people would get bored. I'm also assuming here that the ships launched from the parts of Earth that were already relatively well off, and that the prospective colonists were people who had the means to escape a potentially disastrous situation on Earth. In the course of traveling to the new world, and knowing they wouldn't make it themselves, I imagine many of the first members of these colonist ships would indulge all kinds of hedonism. Since the whole point of the trip is transplanting humanity onto a new Earth, most of the inhabitants of these ships would be reasonably cared for and presumably encouraged to breed. The resulting system of values would probably be pretty different the one we follow on Earth today.

  • Relative loss of privacy. Assuming a trip to a habitable planet would take a long time, the guys in charge would probably want to make sure conditions in the transport ship remained stable (i.e. people wouldn't be flipping out and killing each other) long enough that humanity would make it to the new Earth to settle it. I imagine this would involve a loss of privacy as a result of a perceived need for more surveillance and security.

What do you think? I'm not interested in the technical aspects of the question, just the probable effects on a society that's firmly established on a new Earth-like planet.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Please clarify the size of the crew and the number of generations. In your comment to @colmde, you seem to assume something like a cruise liner with plenty of idle passengers. In the real world, such ships are not self-sufficient. What percentage of the population works in food production? Will it be 'hydroponic kitchen gardens' or vast fields? How many are in the health sector? Do they wear durable synthetic clothing, handed down from generation to generation, or do they grow cotton which gets back into the biomass if it is worn out? Who spins and weaves? Is breaking a dinner plate a tragedy? $\endgroup$ – o.m. Mar 11 '15 at 6:31
  • $\begingroup$ Also worth noting is that 80 years might not be quite long enough for a generation ship to undergo extreme cultural change. In fact, there would be a decent chance that some of the original crew would still be alive after 80 years. $\endgroup$ – aslum Mar 11 '15 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. I haven't nailed that down. Maybe 20,000 passengers with 5,000 crew? Any configuration that makes sense and would work is best. In fact, it's probably better if many of the passengers also have some kind of part-time job or volunteer function they have to perform to keep things going. $\endgroup$ – akaddoura Mar 13 '15 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ I should add here that my main concern is with how a new civilization composed of a bunch of crew/passengers and descendants of the crew/passengers of said transport ships would look after such a dramatic change in circumstances. Since I'm thinking of a future civilization on this new Earth that resembles a city in the first world, maybe it's better if the colonists don't face extreme hardships on the way over. $\endgroup$ – akaddoura Mar 13 '15 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ Have you read the grandaddy of all generation ship stories, "Universe"? $\endgroup$ – Spencer Apr 10 '17 at 2:24

10 Answers 10

  • Conformity. There was an enormous effort to raise somebody on a generation ship, not just in time but also in limited ressources. Every child must contribute to the mission success, and that means every child must be educated to the best of the ability of the entire crew.
  • The Mission. It is unlikely that they mission is to establish a two-way trade loop. What does that leave? Preservation of the culture of the original crew. "You are the last (or backup) representatives of our culture. Preserve the ideology/the faith/the language/the dynasty/the only proper way to brew beer..." This clashes with Genetics, below, once they're dirtside.
  • Patience. They have to deal with the same faces, day after day. Even if they exasperate each other. Accept the quirks of the other guy, and he accepts yours. A blowup or clash between personalities could be disastrous.
  • Respect for Privacy. If you have only a cubicle to call your own, others have to leave you that little space.
  • Genetics. They had a limited gene pool. A date must be cleared with the medical department first, never mind the parents.

Many of those would work well in the newly settled world, unless it is extremely earthlike.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Reminds me of the movie Pandorum.....Your all that's left of us. Good luck, god bless, and god speed. $\endgroup$ – the_OTHER_DJMethaneMan Mar 10 '15 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ These qualities would probably also be needed on a colonised planet, which has the interesting outcome of producing a patient, respectful, hardworking society who might well be horrified by the way that people behave back home if any of them found their way back there. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Mar 11 '15 at 10:04

Behavioral Changes. Since these humans will no longer be on earth and in a confined ship, their will be a significant behavioral change. Their worries will shift from college fees, salaries, wars and luxuries to only survival. Their only worry would be to reach the destination planet safely.

Physical Changes. Since they won't have to do any more hard work or labor, their will be physical changes as well. Luxuries will replace the hard work and they will grow fat over the time with weak bones. This will be the time for the human beings to go through evolution once again and by the time they reach the planet, there will be a lot of physical changes in them.

Thinking Changes. I am sure that there will be a huge difference in the thinking pattern of humans. There will not be any discoveries,inventions or anything like that. They will only learn to obey. They will no longer have the same thoughts as we have now. Their thinking patterns will be limited to their environment and that will only be the ship.Soon, they will forget most of the things about earth and their thinking patterns will resemble as those of programmed machines. To think of certain things.

Privacy Issues. As for the privacy issues, Yes, you are right. But, these issues won't trouble anyone after a certain time when they get used to it. Even now, privacy means different things to different people around the world. You might consider "knocking on the door" before your parents enter into your room as privacy but to me (a Pakistani Kid), that means nothing. They can come in whenever they want without knocking. Same will be the case on the ship. People will forget the true meanings of privacy and they will not be bothered by someone keeping an eye on them via security camera or other means.

Ship to Ship differences. This is something I am not sure about but I think the changes will vary from ship to ship. Every ship will have a different environment. For example, at the end of the ride, people from one ship might not even know what English language is because their ship was crowded with Italian people speaking Italian. People on one ship might have a war in the ship and by the time they land, others will find nothing but dead skeletons. One ship might have one colored species by the end and the other ship might have another color. It will all depend on the surrounding environment.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I don't think that getting fat would be a natural consequence of being cooped on on a ship -- having lots of spare time might make you more likely to exercise and keep yourself fit. My job has few physical demands, yet I'm a regular cyclist and runner even though it's sometimes hard to find time in my schedule to do such things. I have a friend that took 6 months off between jobs and he's in the best shape he's ever been because he stays active, and has lots of time to do things like go for a 4 hour hike on a weekday. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Mar 10 '15 at 18:11

I have to disagree on the Hedonism thing.

First of all you say they are well off. But what does this mean? Their money became worthless with the economic collapse that came with everyone finding out the world was coming to an end.

This could work if they were approached by a private company of space enthusiasts or something who secretly let them know in advance, in the hope that they would fund these great spacecraft - then in exchange for funding them they got passage.

But even that goes out the window the moment they set foot on the spacecraft. Far from hedonism, they are now working hard with highly limited resources. Take a look at the moon landing for instance, tens of thousands of people working with the biggest, most expensive and most energy-consuming machinery ever built just to get three guys in a tiny module to the moon and back.

Granted technology has moved on by the time your setting comes around, but I still think the vast majority of resources and work will be in just keeping each spacecraft going, not to mention society. People are going to have to become multi-skilled in order to provide all the needs of the mini-society with a limited pool of services, and be constantly working.

The fact that they were well off on Earth will mean nothing. Their personal masseuses are no longer going to be interested in their Earth euros. Unless you consider hedonism something like an extra lemon with your daily salted biscuit and rum...

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The whole Earth crisis thing doesn't have to affect everyone in the same way. It could be more of a slow, "we know X is going to happen in 100 years and we need to get the hell out of here" deal that doesn't immediately have any effect on living standards. Thus, the rich countries can afford to build these transport ships. As far as the need for experts and workers to run the ship - I was thinking that the crew, while massive, would also compose a small percentage of the ship's inhabitants. The primary purpose would be moving tens of thousands of people. $\endgroup$ – akaddoura Mar 11 '15 at 1:37
  • $\begingroup$ Obviously the logistics of moving this many people to another star system are insane, but I'm not really concerned with that. Though the point you raise about the many people needed to actually build and launch these things (or build them in orbit, I imagine) is interesting. $\endgroup$ – akaddoura Mar 11 '15 at 1:41

Considering the high cost of propelling mass to another star system, there would be nothing extra being carried. Period. The ship would carry the minimum population needed to guarantee the success of the mission. And they would have the minimum facilities and supplies needed to guarantee the success of the mission. While there would have to be considerable margin over what is actually needed to guarantee success in unknown circumstances with no chance of additional support, apart maybe from moral support, from home, those people and resources would be a reserve, not something useless or available for luxury.

Everyone and everything on the ship would have a proper place and a proper purpose, a part to play in the mission plan. While there would be redundancy, possibly a high degree of it, it would be distributed equally, there would be no redundant people or supplies. This would guarantee a smoother transition, if portion of resources is lost and when the ship arrives at its destination and expansion of resources and population becomes possible and necessary for the mission. And yes people would be considered resources, not because people are not valued, but because even supplies such as air and water would be as irreplaceable as we'd like to think we think people to be. Waste and carelessness would be anathema to these people.

Every resource, human or otherwise, would be utilized in the most efficient available way. This might not be the one most efficient for the individual resource, rather effort would be made to see the big picture. The effects on other resources would considered, as well as the resources used on planning.

An entire population with a shared purpose that is provably true, precisely defined, and concretely present every moment for generations would be quite different from anything we are familiar with. Elite military units maybe get closest, but they have life before, outside, and after the mission. The shipfolk would have no outside to go, only the first generation would have life before, and only the last would have life after. Some religious fanatics may have that kind of pervasiveness, but they have the issues of faith to deal with. The shipfolk would know what their purpose is with precision and certainty that even the most dogmatic fanatic would have to fake.

The shipfolk would have no need to convince either themselves or each other of what they are doing and why, everybody present could just read the large scale detail from the mission plan whenever they want. And while there would be uncertainty and even disputes about the details, resolving such issues would itself be part of the mission plan with resources allocated and procedures established to prevent any serious risk to the mission plan.

Unless this failed, in which case there would be a real chance of everyone dying, the shipfolk might end up having no real concept of unresolved personal conflict and no concept of personal grudges, or decisions motivated by personal reasons. They'd still be human and feel all the personal stuff and act on it, but it would have no space to grow into anything significant. It would be just something to compensate for while doing business in a quiet efficient manner.

Pressure to be efficient and to have active redundancy would presumably make for relatively relaxed pace of work. Fast and efficient, but never rushed, apart from drills maybe. Combined with everything having a proper, well defined, place, I'd assume people would end up being polite, respectful, even formal, but in a direct and relaxed manner. Formalities would be observed, but little time would be wasted on them and a failure to observe formalities would be noted, pointed out, and forgotten. Protocols exist to make work smoother, they do not have any value of their own.

Still there would be considerable social pressure to act proper and given the "from birth" nature of the shipfolk society, it would be very deeply ingrained on people. Any lapses would be rare signs of stress or slightly more common attempts at humor and would be understood as such. Fortunately, the almost compulsive pragmatism of a society that actually has a clear specific purpose for everything would guarantee that acting proper would not be difficult enough to cause stress and distract people from work.

With a relatively high degree of planned redundancy and presumably high degree of automation, the routine work would only be a relatively small part of the lives. Much time would be spent in training since it would be much easier to have high degree of redundancy if everyone is competent in several different duties. People would also change duties relatively often, to keep that competence fresh and avoid boredom.

Drills would be frequent. The shipfolk society does not have much space for competition, so drill performance would the major outlet for competitive pressures and personal initiative and ambition. While periods for relaxation and leisure would be scheduled, drills and training might also be the dominant form of entertainment. As such considerable effort would be spent on making the drills varied and interesting.

The people would also have specific training for efficient relaxation, probably meditation of some sort, which would add by contamination a contemplative and spiritual side to the culture. The disciplined lifestyle would support this by making the shipfolk naturally relate well to monastic traditions.

If you add together the need to minimize the population on the ship and maximize the genetic diversity at destination, you end up with the ship carrying huge sperm banks containing genetic diversity equal to fairly large nation. Unless artificial wombs have been developed, the ship population should then be entirely female to allow for rapid population growth at the destination.

During the trip the population would be stable. Births would equal deaths. Families would presumably be built around mothers, daughters and sisters.


Likely everyone will have responsibilities that will need to be taken care of during the voyage. If you have too many people that are just 'passengers' with no responsibilities, then you are definitely going to get a lot of hedonistic behaviors, if for no other reason than shear boredom.

Because of the limited gene pool, likely there will need to be a bit of genetic planning while on the trip, since it is unlikely they can expand their population by much until they are getting close just for the logistical reasons. So, one path I could see would be a Victorian type suppression. Everyone has a 'proper' public persona, with a large counter culture of reasonably hedonistic pursuits behind closed doors.

Over that much time, those in charge could change quite dramatically, though some kind of tyrant is certainly a possibility. Even to the point that when they arrive, the tyrant won't want to give up their power and keep everyone on the ship, maybe making up a reason that they 'can't' go down to the surface.


Consider time to learn new habits and time to forget old habits/knowledge.

Time to Forget: Most people on Earth know their grandparents fairly well. Grandparents help out when the parents try to balance work and family and they teach how to care for an infant. As a simplification, assume that each couple has two children at age 30, that everybody lives to the age of 75, and that the entire crew are 30 years or 60 years at takeoff.

Year 0: Takeoff. Babies born in this year have no memory of Earth. They are raised by earthborn, possibly without their biological grandparents but there will be elders around.

Year 30: The second-gen babies are born. They are raised by first-gen parents, but their grandparents were born on Earth.

Year 45: Many/most earthborn are dead.

Year 60: The third-gen babies are born.

Year 90: The fourth-gen babies are born.

Year 105: Many/most second-generation shipborn are dead. They are the last people who were directly influenced by earthborn caregivers.

Time to Learn: New habits can form much more quickly if there are environmental pressures (cf @VilleNiemi). Recall how mobile phones and the internet changed communications culture in just 20 years. There used to be a time when everybody watched the same handful of news channels.

Summarized, you need well over 100 years to make Earth a dim, forgotten memory.

  • $\begingroup$ We have plenty of media, and Earth would be a major obsession for anybody born in space and any system designed to arrive with capable colonists. It's actually somewhat easier to remember the realities of a place and time if your separation from it is sharp, as opposed to it 'evolving' as normal into a new time in the same place and memories get fudged. They'd no doubt be sent along with videos detailing a 'a month in the life of jane doe,' etc, precisely because the change in environment & immersion effects in this regard are so predictable. $\endgroup$ – mensenisevirem Apr 10 '17 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ "We have plenty of media, and Earth would be a major obsession for anybody born in space" — I wouldn't be so sure. It would be a major obsession for some of them. But consider: Most Americans have ancestors from other continents. But I don't think most Americans are obsessed with the continent of their ancestors. Also constant exposure might backfire, as at puberty, the next generation might already be fed up with all that historic earth stuff that's entirely irrelevant for their own life on the space ship. After a few generations, it might be that nobody cares much about life back on earth. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Apr 15 '17 at 13:57

I prefer to work backwards and see how different it would be for people to arrive to a planet after a lifetime in a ship. I personally think the little things are the ones that collectively will have the largest effect. Depending on how the ship is actually set up, I would see describing the little things as the most interesting. Here's just a few:

  • Seeing grass, bushes, and trees for the first time (if the planet has those anyway)
  • Seeing a sky, with a sun, for the first time, For some, sky might be wonderful but maybe others would be afraid with no stars watching over them.
  • Being able to see in one direction for so far. (I would expect some, if not all, to feel vulnerable in the large open space of "outside")
  • Feeling dirt beneath your feet
  • Feeling actual wind
  • Life on the planet would seem so wasteful resource-wise. (I just go pee behind that bush? who's going to recycle it?)
  • Ability to "get lost" and not have guidance to get back might be a hard lesson for some
  • Ability to be alone might be new.
  • If they were always being watched before, not being watched may make people feel extremely unsafe.
  • Gravity may or may not be different. I would want similar simulated gravity on the ship to what's expected for the planet if it were me.
  • If the ship always had certain noises - the pumping of water, the sound of conversation, the "whir" of machinery - the ambient noises of the planet will seem very different. (could seem louder, or extremely quiet, depending on wildlife and how loud the ship was)

Altogether, I think these little things would have interesting societal implications. Do they continue trying to recycle aggressively or do they enjoy their new freedom and waste? Do they prefer the night because the stars are familiar to them? Do they experience the new sensations of sunlight and wind and apply them to their beliefs? Do they create very small houses, disliking the feel of wasted space? Do they trust machinery and technology over nature, maybe even creating parks out of metals and plastics with little natural elements?

  • $\begingroup$ "Being able to see in one direction for so far" - and probably have shortsightness as stay-at-home domestic cats are. $\endgroup$ – Maciej Piechotka Apr 10 '17 at 8:19

Weird Social Stratification Over many generations, new and weird social groups might emerge and gain prominence. Maybe the Hydroponics folks begin to enjoy increased status because of their ability to provide supplies and over time this lead to them being regarded more highly then other service groups. This could even lead to cult-like behavior.

Science Becomes Religion Taught only the "how" and not the why, many tasks might be performed by rote, and attain a religious or traditional stature. Things might be done a way not because they need to but because that's how it was passed down. This could cause a crisis if something breaks and no one knows how to deal with it.

Forgotten Password(s) leads to Disaster If command/teaching staff forgot vital passwords, or worse how to reset them, there could be a situation where the information necessary for later stages of the mission is missing or partially unavailable.

Cave Adaptation To steal from Dwarf Fortress, after generations of living inside the spaceship, living out side could become perilously terrifying for many, and an exciting, rebellious draw for others. The mere sight of the sky (especially if it is markedly different from simulations presented by the generation ship) could cause Nausea and Panic.

Put it all together, and maybe after the semi-crash landing, the colonists almost all choose to keep living in the ship, only sending out those daring few weirdos who are excited by the Ravening Open Sky and uncontrolled Air Conditioning (wind) and occasional sprinkler malfunctions (rain) of the new planet, to hunt for supplies.


I think the result would likely be very similar to the society described in Asimov's The Caves of Steel. There, humanity lives in very large, sealed cities and never voluntarily leaves them. Over centuries, severe agoraphobia developed to the point where most people were physically unable to leave the cities (and considered the idea that one would want to to be insane. Due to the overcrowding in the cities, privacy was both very rare and very zealously guarded.


Any colony mission would be designed and prepared with all of humanity's combined thought on the topic, don't go assuming they go off into the dark as ignorants with no preparation and a devil may care attitude.

Particularly the regime on any mission would needs-be enforce an awareness of person responsibility. Resources and skills are finite, people who cause more wear and tear and use more than necessary just wouldn't exist, the first generation because they were heavily screened, the second because they can see what just a fraction of the time flight-time has done to the environment they live in.

People imagine the generations would 'lose touch' with their roots, but I think that'd be much less likely in such a controlled and limited environment. Normal people 'lose touch' with past generations because the environment changes.. because the paradigm they live under has shifted, because all of a thousand variables in their lives vie for attention. Shipboard life would be totally different in these and other relevant areas.

Knowing that you're going to settle somewhere and that settling a world involves hard work, any regime will seek to maintain an environment that encourages and rewards learning and hard work and not just hope and pray that whoever is around when the ship arrives is up to the job. They won't rely on chance..they're giving their lives for this venture.

Put simply, society will not be allowed to evolve naturally.

'Hedonism' would be absolutely encouraged, depending upon what one means by hedonism anyway. On board a space ship sensory deprivation is an ongoing thing, there's no wind, no birds calling in the morning, no one of a million different sensory inputs that we barely (or don't) notice on a day to day basis.. and as such people would be encouraged to fill their time with as much activity of any sort possible that isn't destructive...the easiest way to have people not descend into ennui is to make available things that they enjoy..a regime would make use of any tool available to stop the society descending into uselessness, madness and grief.

If you were really planning to do something like this, it'd probably be sensible to setup camps of people generations before (when you start building your ship) in closed environments to see how different systems work out.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.