Imagine a generation spaceship, flying through the cosmos with little recollection of the original world and no destination in sight. Of course on this ship, there will be those in charge of ruling the ship and those that are not. This ship is heavily reliant on drones and other machines, so only specialized jobs exist for people.

What can cause the non-ruling class to revolt against those in charge?

I considered a division of wealth could be a cause, but I remember watching a movie about a train that houses all of humanity, where the front of the train is prosperous and the back eats roaches. I'd rather not have too similar of a concept.

Maybe the ruling class treats the lower class as slaves and servants? This too seems like a common theme in dystopian stories like these.

Basically, I am trying to think of a non-cliche theme that would cause a lower class to revolt against its rulers.

  • $\begingroup$ You should check out the Silo series by Hugh Howey. It seems the dynamic you have here is similar. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Mar 14, 2015 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ Also check out the Rendezvous With Rama series, where these issues arise. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 14, 2015 at 21:50
  • $\begingroup$ wanting to return to earth is good reason $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Mar 14, 2015 at 22:26

8 Answers 8


@erdekhayser, I think you have already answered your own question, though you aren't realizing it yet:

This ship is heavily reliant on drones and other machines, so only specialized jobs exist for people.

Our species is hard-wired for a lot of things; but one of them, which seems to be irreducible, is the need to be useful. Take that away from people, and you get all sorts of social pathologies:

  • Those who do not feel useful often lose any sense of civic place. They become antisocial and have no sense of the web of mutual obligation that is really the glue that holds a society together. How does this play out?

    • Sociopathic attitudes, in which other individuals, and society in general, are all considered to be potential resources to exploit. Other people - and the material resources of the ship itself - are reduced to targets of theft, abuse, duplicity, and coercion. Does this mean that true sociopaths would sabotage their own ship? Why yes, it does. The verdict of history is clear on this.

    • Less alienated personalities than the full-on sociopaths will tend to coalesce into gangs. A gang is a group whose members do not treat each other sociopathically. (They may, and often do, treat each other with savage competitiveness and extreme violence; but they obey the gang's rules. That is the difference.) "Gangs" in this sense does not just mean the powerless: a gang can be a group of comparatively privileged individuals who cooperate to improve their aggregate influence and prestige.

    • The least alienated - and perhaps most hopeful of securing a privileged social position - will tend to assume the role of antibodies against the disorderly, whether as sanctioned agents of society (cops) or as individuals exhibiting vigilante behavior. They will generally be at risk of adopting extremely violent behaviors and tactics. This highly violent attitude will often become anticipatory, provoking exactly the lower-class violence it claims to fear. Very much a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Those who do not feel useful will often fall apart personally and psychologically. Suicide, domestic abuse, and drug addiction are frequently observed in humans; it gets much worse when you take away any context of meaning. (Research on addiction, in particular, indicates that it's a situational pattern rather than inescapable chemical predestination, or a "moral fault" in the addict.)

    You might, in fact have some good dramatic opportunities in self-destruction of the Walter White sort: delusional bad behavior; the transgression that keeps worsening.

So, adding up all of the above observations: the question is not how you could explain widespread revolt, sabotage, bad behavior; it's how you could explain such things not taking place in an isolated environment "heavily reliant on drones and other machines"; in which "only specialized jobs exist for people".


Population Controls

Generation Ships, by necessity, have extremely limited resources. People want to have kids - have too many and the ship's systems will fail, so the ruling class strictly enforces and punishes having more than two children. Presumably the first generation was ok with this, but get far enough in, or have someone discover the right (wrong?) religion, and suddenly they're no longer cool with it.

There are a couple of possibilities for more Draconian tactics here, if you want to make things more dystopian:

  1. The Rulers are taking more of the pot for themselves. They have more kids, forcing the lower classes to only have 1 each. To keep the Ruling class from growing, they'd have to throwing some of those kids to the wolves and having them be raised by the lower class. Alternatively you could have a Patriarchal ruling class where the men take advantage of the lower class women and steal breeding rights, never acknowledging their bastard children.
  2. The Ruling Class is extreme about genetics - they will select your spouse for you as part of a program to ensure maximum genetic diversity on the ship and to keep the gene pool as large as possible. Extra-marital relations are harshly punished. Add to this rumors that the Ruling Class gets to cheat the system since they control the genetic selection computers...
  • $\begingroup$ A very good reason, indeed. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Mar 15, 2015 at 8:09

Maybe there are rumours among the non-rulers that the world they are heading to is not as great as they are told it is. The rumours say that the rulers actually know it, but don't tell the others. Maybe the umours say that the destination world only has enough resources for the rulers, and that all others will get killed after arrival, because now they are no longer needed.

Of course nothing of those rumours is true, but a growing number of people start believing it (conspiracy theories are attractive to many people, probably more so in the relative event-less world of a generation ship). And of course those people believing it will want to get rid of the rulers, because, after all, they sincerely believe those would kill them. Probably they will also want to return to earth because they believe it's the only way all of the ship (possibly with the exception of the ruling class, which they need to eliminate in order to ban the danger) will survive.

As soon as a critical mass of people believes the rumours, a revolt is inevitable.

  • $\begingroup$ I like this idea, very interesting. I don't want to accept it yet (in case another, even better answer comes in), but I still give a +1. $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2015 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ @erdekhayaser I don't have time to craft a proper full answer, but I'll add to this one: paranoia over the automatons. The lower class thinks they are secretly gaining sentience and have the ruling class in their sway. They decided to revolt to protect humanity from being ruled by machines! Hat tip to Wall-e for inspiration on this one. $\endgroup$ Mar 15, 2015 at 1:24

There is an infinity of reasons, honestly, most of them dealing with simple human nature.

If you put a human population in a forcibly static environment (like a generation ship, or an isolationist country) then you'll usually an almost glacial stasis of society, followed by deep conflict the second a new element is introduced.

So let's say your generational ship has been plugging away for a couple generations already, and that the population, while divided in ruling/non-ruling classes, doesn't actually experience that much disparity in their living conditions (to avoid the dystopian feeling).

What if someone came up with a cult idea for the younger generation? The ones who were born and raised in the ship, and did not experience the planet they left? What if, to make it even worse, they know they won't reach the planet in their own lifetime, reducing their entire lives to being caretakers for the ship and sardines in a box so that their descendants can enjoy a new planet? Not everyone would be selfless enough to spend their entire lives just making sure that the next generation would have its chance.

Now imagine if a particularly charismatic leader came up and capitalized on that sentiment, and decided against all scientific process to search for a closer planet or try and speed up the voyage. How would that be handled?


What can cause the non-ruling class to revolt against those in charge?

Not being the ruling class.

Maintaining a class system naturally requires oppression. In a meritocracy you can do anything provided you can prove yourself. In a class system you're held back by accident of birth. An ambitious charismatic individual born into the non-ruling class will certainly challenge the system using any excuse, symbol, story, religion, or philosophy they can.

It actually happens all the time. The young do this to the old every generation. It's when actual power is not recognized power that violence inevitably happens.

Using that as a backdrop, the impetus could be a new invention that makes the technology of the generation ship obsolete. One that would allow people to make the journey on their own in their own ships, thus decentralizing power. Progress doesn't stop just because you're on a long road trip. :)


On a multi-generation journey, the people currently on the ship did never get to make any descisions about their participation in the project and never experienced the circumstances that made the journey necessary. At the same time they will never see the destination or benefit from the project in every way. Yet still they are forced to live on this ship and to obey all the rules that some dead people in the past have set up, all for the benefit of other people who havn't even been born yet.

In that environment there is lots of reason why people might refuse to perform their duties. Their existance is meaningless and they toil for no visible gain and never make any progress. Plenty of reasons for dissatisfaction. They would most likely want to change things so they can have a life with some degree of control over themselves.


The generation ship will probably consume a mix of recycled biomass/goods, extra raw materials for the recycling system, and non-recycled goods.

  • Water is a typical example for recycled goods. Much of the water will be held in hydroponics systems, sewage, etc. The recycling process will never be perfectly effective, so every year they have to add some water from their long-term stores. There is also the possiblity of accident/contamination, so there must be extra water beyond the theoretical inefficiency of the recycling.
  • Shuttles are an example for non-recycled goods. The ship carries just a few shuttles, with no facilities to build more from the existing ressources. The same applies to other supplies for the colonization, from medical kits to fertilizer.

The schedule for consumption is precalculated. Say they have 1,000 years of flight, 1,000 tons of water in the biosphere, and a loss of 0.1% per year. Then they need another 1,000 tons of water reserves even if everything goes right. Now assume they have emergency protocols to vent a waste water storage tank if there is a certain contamination. That dumps 10 tons every time. The mission planners assumed that this happens, on average, every 10 years, so they included another 1,000 tons. And so on.

Water is an easy example for calculations, but there could be similar issues for plastic 3D printing feedstock. Can this plastic be recycled and if so, how well?

This schedule could be cause for strife.

  • Consumption during the first centuries is higher than calculated. The comnmand staff wants to reduce consumption to get back into line with the calculations. The workers demand their precalculated rations, because they are not to blame for previous wastage.
  • Consumption during the first centuries is lower than calculated. The command staff wants to add the saved ressources to the colonization reserve, the workers demand to increase their rations.
  • The workers believe that the colonization reserve is excessive, and that there should be more for consumption en route.
  • The command staff believe/recalculate that the colonization reserve is insufficient, and that there should be less consumption en route. Perhaps they're pulling numbers out of thin air, or they have received transmissions from an interstellar probe.

Inbreeding aka Blue Bloods

If rule is passed on via heredity you could easily have a situation where the children of the first generation of rulers are not as charismatic or competent as the 1st generation rulers where. This could easily lead to abuse of power, changes to the rules, and loss of sight of the original mission all of which could cause unrest and revolt.

Rulers Rig Elections

If rule is supposed to be based on merit, but the system is gamed and nepotism begins to take effect, even if it's not obviously it could lead to a situation as above, but even if the newly instituted rulers are competent, the shadow of the rigged (or perceived as rigged) election could cause unrest.

Poor Losers

If rule is democratic, a poor loser could easily sow discontent by suggesting that the winner cheated in some way. With enough followers a revolution could result.

You could even combine some of these in a variety of interesting ways... For example:

  • If the 2nd gen election is thought to have been rigged, the "new" office changes some of the rules to make rigging the elections harder, but the 3rd gen finds a loophole to basically force their child(ren) into leadership roles, and maybe it's not until the 4th or 5th generation that things start to sour and the masses decide "enough is enough."

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