Appendix N: Metamorphosis Alpha Redux

Metamorphosis Alpha has enough recurring tropes that there are several good sources for inspiration; science-fiction RPGs have less of a “seminal work” motif, so it’s hard to tie everything to a single novel/series (The Lord of the Rings) or character (Conan). Non-Stop by Aldiss is the best (at least, in my opinion) because of how much it influenced Metamorphosis Alpha creator James Ward, but there are many other sources.

It’s a wonder anybody builds generation ships… haven’t they read, seen, or played any science fiction? Like utopian enclaves and underwater cities patrolled by diving-suit monsters, it will only end in tears. Similarly—I’m expecting you to realize that “generation ship” = “main plot twist is zOMG We’re In SPAAACE!!!” every goddamn time, so no complaints about spoilers.

Texts:

  • Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1941, revised 1963) was the original generation starship. Pre-technological civilization forms after a revolt on said starship, along with mutants and the need to develop swords as the main armament. A bit simpler, more straightforward, less weird and grim vision than Aldiss’ story. Then again, it came from a simpler and more straightforward time, when mutants were men with two heads and not hideous abominations or psychic rats.
  • Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe (1969) is another generation starship with primitive humans tale; the difference here is that the inhabitants are Aztecs who discover their society was constructed to maintain order over the course of their generation starship’s flight. From what I can gather, it’s more into the cultural immersion of an Aztec valley constrained by the ship rather than people running amok in overgrown corridors, where the “generation ship” is meant to be this huge reveal that I just spoiled.
  • Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996) consists of four novels set on an ancient generation starship its inhabitants refer to as the Whorl (world/whirl); they have created a Renaissance-ish civilization, along with bits of scattered future technology, having been stuck on it for time immemorial. This decadent but decaying society has lost all knowledge of its past. Wolfe is well-known for baroque jargon rivaling Jack Vance and a love of magical realism and supernatural elements, and these come forth in such forms as ancient cybernetic (and otherwise partly modified/artificial) humans differentiated primarily by Wolfe’s lexicon, and a series of rogue Artificial Intelligences that the Whorl’s inhabitants worship ala Greek gods. (That these AIs are capricious, vague, and scheming—and that the protagonist is a priest who uses haruspicy—gives an ancient fantasy feel to some dense science fiction.) Wolfe’s work is not always accessible, being complex and cerebral, but if you can get over those hurdles there’s a lot to be gained from this brilliant series. Long Sun happens to be my favorite, though I’d say Wolfe’s done better works.
  • Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three (2010) is the closest I’ve seen to Metamorphosis Alpha in book form that’s not Non-Stop. A man wakes up expecting to see his port-of-call and sweetheart; instead, he’s freezing to death and half-naked, on his transport starship filled with monsters. Even his other survivors are paranoid and dangerous. It’s also close to the underrated Pandorum, which came out the year before, though Bear strikes with more complexity and thoughtfulness. A middling effort from Bear from its adherence to genre tropes—generation starship + amnesiac protagonist recovering memories and language + space monsters—but it’s still an interesting read.

Film:

  • The Starlost (1973-74) was a failed Canadian science-fiction series devised by Harlan Ellison; thanks to budget cuts and shoddy execution, he invoked a contractual clause that removed his name entirely from the project. Science adviser (and fellow SF writer) Ben Bova was not so lucky. Not an ideal candidate, but it has some interesting ideas. The generation starship is this time a generation starship with bio-spheres; its inhabitants aren’t mutants but the Amish. Its protagonists get branded as heretics and are the only people who can save the ship from flying into a sun. I’ve heard it’s hard to watch, but I haven’t actually seen any of it yet. The award-winning script treatment is now a graphic novel.
  • Pandorum (2009) was a failed science-fiction/horror hybrid that was really more of a trashy action movie, but for a trashy action movie I don’t think it was half bad. If you could shut your brain off enough to enjoy the Underworld or Resident Evil series, you should get through this one unscathed. It’s what Metamorphosis Alpha would be if it were made today: a generation starship’s crew wakes up to find that instead of arriving at their new-Earth paradise, they’re trapped in the black void. Worse, their ship is rusting, broken-down, now unmanned. Worse, it’s populated by mutant cannibals. Worse. There’s a deep-space madness named pandorum. Disjointed, but a fantastic idea mine.

Gaming:

  • Warhammer 40k took the whole “space derelict” thing and turned it into a subgenre: Space Hulk, named after a 40k board game of the same name. At this point the term’s a catch-all for any massive derelict ship in space, with a surprising number of tie-in novels, scenarios and adventure modules. The theme’s similar enough that I can see a lot of overlap—what happens when your primitive generation ship inhabitants bump into something that’s trying to scrap and salvage their world?
  • The Phantasy Star series for the Sega Genesis had a heavy overlap of fantasy/science fiction, usually involving characters who were the colonizers from a generation ship, or were stuck on some kind of ship/artificial world/colony world overrun by mutants/aliens/whatever. Not a direct inspiration, of course, but the games always come to mind when I think Metamorphosis Alpha—blending psionics and rayguns with D&D style monsters. Only, in a Final Fantasy way, and on the ground instead of in space. They have some good, inspiring ideas at least.

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