When You Hear the Wild Geese Calling
The Exiles Trilogy
By Ben Bova
1971’s Exiled From Earth, 1972’s Flight of Exiles, and 1975’s End of Exile form Ben Bova’s Exile Trilogy.
Cast out from overcrowded Earth, will our heroes be able to maintain a stable culture for the decades or centuries it will take to find a new Earth … or will they, like pretty much every other generation ship in the genre — last week’s excepted — end up recapitulating Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky?
Exiled From Earth
Faced with disruptive new genetic engineering technologies that could destabilize an Earth straining to feed and house twenty billion people, the most humane response the World Government can imagine is to exile the scientists responsible (and their families) to an orbiting space station. Computer engineer Lou Christopher would very much prefer not to be exiled. Unfortunately, while his escape skills are impressive, his timing isn’t; he ends up trapped in the nightmarish urban jungle that is New York of 2040! Or possibly 2030 to 2050, the text is unclear.
Recaptured, he does not examine an offer of safe haven too closely. It’s not until it is almost too late that he realizes his supposed saviour’s purpose in rescuing Lou is so that Lou and his associates can turn the World Government’s fears into grim reality. Worse, Lou’s host didn’t deliver Lou’s girlfriend to the island out of kindness, but because she had a certain hostage value.…
It’s not impossible this is in the same timeline as Bova’s Colony. At least, elements present in this series reappear in Colony.
You may be asking “where’s the generation ship?” It doesn’t come along until after Lou demonstrates his keen insight by nearly facilitating the conquest of Earth. Having confirmed the World Government’s worst fears, he then convinces his fellow exiles that it would better to turn the space station they are in into a generation ship than trust the WG with their futures. His companions are swayed, because if you cannot trust the naive idiot who nearly doomed the world thanks to his inability to notice he’s working for Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who can you trust?
All of the Earth’s major cities are dystopic hellscapes, at least according to the WG Chairman:
He thought about his native Sao Paulo, how it spread like a festering sore all the way from the river to the sea, flattening hills, carving away the forest, bursting with so many people that not even the Population Control Center’s computers could keep track of them. No sane man would willingly enter the heart of Sao Paulo, or any large city on Earth. No human being could live in the teeming guts of a city and keep his sanity.
I cannot help but suspect a large part of the problem is how the people in charge see cities. On the plus side, there’s a handful of operatives trying to debarbarize the cities from within; since the focus of the books is elsewhere the reader is free to imagine that these efforts worked. It’s probably best not to ask how it is the teeming billions of the inner cities manage to feed themselves, given the absence of a functioning economy in those inner cities.
Various elements hint at the time this was written. For example
Rolf Bernard, the Minister of Finance, shook his head. “I still disagree. Two thousand of the world’s leading scientists…”
“Plus their wives and families,” the Chairman added.
Women don’t do science, apparently. And the WG seems to consider it less inhumane to exile wives and families for something the husbands did than it is to make the guys live in their own. On the plus side, while Lou’s girlfriend is wrapped up and delivered to him like a pair of favourite slippers, it turns out that since she isn’t one of the science criminals, the WG is willing to let her leave.
Interestingly, the functionaries of the World Government aren’t portrayed as idiots or blinkered obstructionists. They’ve got their backs to the wall and they don’t think they can deal with any distractions. Given that Lou and pals nearly handed the bad guys the means to conquer the world, the World Government’s concerns seem well-founded.
Exiles in Flight
Fifty years after converting their space station to a starship, the twenty thousand exiles (the originals and their kids) arrive at the Earth-like world orbiting a star in the Alpha Centauri system. Just in time, because the ship’s vital systems are beginning to fail. Unfortunately, the exiles discover a planet can be startlingly Earth-like and still be completely uninhabitable to humans. The travelers must make an uncomfortable choice: use their genetic engineering skills to create neo-humans adapted to the conditions on the planet, or repair their ship as best they can before setting out for another star.
Complicating matters is the romantic triangle between Larry Belsen, Valery Loring, and Dan Christopher. The genetic algorithms have assigned Valery to Dan, but she prefers Larry. When a fire kills Dan’s father, the Chairman, Dan suffers a breakdown. Valery is quick to use Dan’s misfortune to wangle Larry into the chairmanship. Which just happens to remove the obstacles to their union, as persons of sufficiently high status can ignore the genetic protocols. Already convinced that the fire was deliberate and that to try for another star is suicide, Dan must face betrayal of a very personal kind.
The voyagers’ view of Earth has become somewhat harsher in the fifty years since the ship set out:
You can’t have people just flying off and marrying anybody they feel like marrying! That’s what happened to old Earth.
As it turns out, being cream of the ship’s genetic crop does not stop at least one senior member of staff from going lethally bonkers in a way that makes me wonder what Murder She Wrote set on a generation ship would be like.
The crew of the ship do not seem to have prepared well or even at all for the end of their journey. This is not a failing unique to this book. I can name other books in which the would-be colonists have idled away their long years of travelling rather than preparing to settle their new home.
One woman, at least, has some agency. Valery not only sets the plot in motion by choosing Larry over Dan, she takes a central role in exposing a dangerous madman by setting herself up as their next logical target. Unfortunately, while the people on the ship are unsure who the madman is, the reader won’t be.
End of Exile
The Living Wheel is all Linc and his fifty-six companions have ever known. To venture outside of the Wheel is to violate Jerlet’s laws and Jerlet’s laws are what stand between the dwindling population and final extinction. The laws may not be enough. Not only are there fewer and fewer people, and not only do more vital machines break down each year, but what was once a bright speck through a view port is now a growing burning sphere. The Living Wheel will certainly be consumed in fire! But any attempt to break the law will give the power-mad Monel the excuse he needs to execute potential rivals.
Convinced that mindless adherence to Jerlet’s laws will doom the Wheel and all in it, Linc takes the bold step of venturing out of the Living Wheel. If he can survive the rats, if he can find Jerlet, then perhaps he can discover the means to save the Wheel or at least its inhabitants.
Even if he succeeds, Linc will face his greatest challenge: getting his companions to break convention and embrace survival.
Jerlet was forced by a life-threatening heart condition to retreat to the low gravity part of the ship. Why he never bothered to check on the kids he left behind or send them updated instructions to replace the ones he gave the toddlers he was forced to abandon is unclear but it is probably some combination of “all the phone lines between the hub and wheel were broken,” “the rats and his heart condition make visiting too hazardous,” and “apparently, Jerlet is something of an idiot.” In his defense, Jerlet was the only adult to survive various calamities, including a kill that took out the whole bridge crew.
He noticed that a couple of the (frozen corpses) were staring up overhead. Linc looked up and saw that several pipes were split up there, hanging loosely from broken brackets. From the faded colors, Linc knew that the pipes at one time must have carried liquid oxygen and liquid helium.
They must have been frozen where they stood, when whatever tore the hole in the next room broke the pipes.
Running cryogen pipes through a vital part of the ship is a terrible design. I would like to say it’s unbelievably terrible, but in fact “let’s build this so if something goes wrong, it goes as wrong as possible” is an acceptable engineering philosophy. At least until the inevitable Crown Commission is convened.
The method by which the passengers are to be removed from the ship is purest handwavium. Ah well.
Bova resisted the urge to go full Orphans of the Sky for the first two books. Pity about the third one1. It may be Bova was still working the trauma of what must have been the staggeringly unrewarding role of science advisor to the incredibly dismal generation-ship saga The Starlost out of his system2 or it may be that the hand of Heinlein rested very heavily on the genre.
The ultimate result of the flight from the Solar System was to consign everyone to at least a century of living in an increasingly uninhabitable habitat. By the end of the series, twenty thousand have become less than sixty people, all cultural continuity has been lost, and it’s not at all clear the new world is habitable in the long run. In fact, Lou fails pretty comprehensively at everything: he confirms the World Government’s worst fears, he convinces his friends to embrace premature interstellar migration, and he abandons his own son as an infant so Lou can sleep away the decades to Alpha Centauri. The fundamental lesson of the series seems to be “Lou was an idiot.”
As I so often did, I encountered these books out of publication order. My junior high school had Flight of Exiles but not the other two. Of the three, the second is the most interesting, because it’s the only one to venture, however hesitantly, outside genre conventions when the life-bearing world proves uninhabitable to standard-model humans. The other two volumes were steadfast in their adherence to stock plots; good enough in the days when there wasn’t much to read, but probably of only historical interest now. Well, or as an inspiration to write a better gen-ship saga.
The Exiles Trilogy is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: I am being slightly unfair. Bova avoid the full Orphans in two ways: no cannibalism and the women have names.
2: Bova used his experience as the basis for the satirical The Starcrossed.