For the characters in Ursula Le Guin’s novella Paradises Lost, life on Earth is unimaginable. Life on any planet, for that matter, is beyond their comprehension. Five generations into the two-hundred year journey to reach a habitable planet, the story’s ship-born inhabitants have no concept of dirt, sky, or open space. This isn’t the first time the idea of a self-contained starship has appeared in science fiction. Le Guin herself labels Paradises Lost a generation-ship story, and adds that, “many short stories have used this theme” (Le Guin, xiii). Indeed, the first use of the term “generation ship” recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction was in the July, 1957 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & SF, which commented that, “

[t]here are few more stirringly imaginative themes in science fiction than that of the generations-ship”. Le Guin’s story is certainly imaginative, but more than that, it uses imagination to render our own world, our own lives, as the unimaginable ones.

Throughout the story, the reader is consistently prevented from falling back on assumptions based on the experience of planetary life. As we attempt to familiarize ourselves with life as these characters understand it, so too the inhabitants of the generation ship attempt to educate themselves about life on Earth. It is in these passages that the fundamental differences between these two modes of existence are made especially clear. When they try to understand trash: “receptacles were filled with ‘dirty’ ‘garbage’ that was poured into vehicles […] to ‘throw away.’ What does that mean? Where is ‘away’?” (Le Guin, 267). In pondering nature: “‘It’s perfectly natural,’ he said. It was a favorite phrase of his […] So, what was nature? […] on this ship, ‘nature’ was the human body” (276). The opening passage of the book illustrates these differences particularly well, as the young protagonist struggles vainly with the idea of sky:

“Sky was another ball that fit around the dirtball, Father said, but they couldn’t show it in the model globe, because you couldn’t see it. It was transparent, like air. It was air. But blue. A ball of air, and it looked blue from underneath, and it was outside the dirtball. Air outside. That was really strange. Was there air inside the dirtball? No, Father said, just earth. You lived on the outside of the dirtball, like evamen doing eva, only you didn’t have to wear a suit. You could breathe the blue air, just like you were inside” (249).

The description seems strange- not at all the way that someone who has seen sky would describe it- but through this defamiliarization the reader is able to appreciate that the idea of “sky” itself can seem strange. Le Guin continues this process of defamiliarization throughout the story, illustrating how words that we take for granted: “away,” “nature,” are not universal, but rather defined by the conditions of our existence on Earth.

Rather than simply placing a group of people whose perception of the world hardly seems to deviate from our own in a situation where they are trapped aboard a starship, as so many generation-ship stories seem to do, Le Guin takes the time to craft the world of that situation. She insists that when writing science fiction she is “not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing” (Le Guin, Intro.). In doing so she builds a world that we can fully visualize despite its dissimilarity to our reality, a world to which we are able to relate because it defamiliarizes our own experience.

While Paradises Lost does not attempt to predict the future, the real possibility of a generation ship isn’t that far-fetched. NASA has been investigating the feasibility of long-term space voyage for over a decade, including the idea of multigenerational space capsules bound for the nearest star system- still hundreds of years away (Barry, 7). The psychological welfare of those onboard has been the subject of much speculation, including a study conducted in 2011 and published in Acta Astronautica, an academic journal sponsored by the International Academy of Astronauts, on “the psychological impacts of [space] missions lasting for one or more decades” (Kanas, 576), which specifically addresses the idea of “self-contained generation ships of colonists who will not return to Earth” (577). While we may be a long way from realizing such a goal, the concept of a generation ship can no longer be said to dwell solely in the realms of science fiction.


Works Cited

Barry, Ellen. “Settling the galaxy: how humans can colonize space without killing each other.” Boston Globe, 19 March 2002, 7-8.

“Generation ship.” The Oxford dictionary of science fiction, 3 October, 2016,

Kanas, Nick. “From Earth’s orbit to the outer planets and beyond: psychological issues in space.” Acta Astronautica, 2011, 576-581.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Introduction. The left hand of darkness, by Le Guin. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Paradises Lost.” The birthday of the world and other stories. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.