In It for the Long Haul: Generation Starships and Multi-Volume Novels

I’ve been sprinting my way through the third and fourth books in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet this week, and it has me thinking about books and series of this particular scope—often tied to length, but not always. These are books where the sheer passage of time drives the bulk of the plot, and sometimes the bulk of the poetry. There’s something very profound—when done well—about just watching a character age, go through life’s different stages and collect both triumphs and regrets as she does so.

Though they nominally have little in common, the scope of Ferrante’s series and similar works reminds me of the science fiction trope of a generation ship—these are stories about starships on journeys so long that the crew must sustain an ecosystem and society on board, including raising at least one generation of children to run the ship as the original crew dies off. (For my money, the most compelling version of this trope focuses on the middle generation of a three-gen ship—the people whose parents made the choice to begin the journey, but who won’t live to see the destination. Oof.) This is partly about content, which I'll get to below, but I think there's also an intangible formal link—the ambitious journey segmented in a way that sometimes feels as artificial as it is useful. The concept of a generation ship is practical, but so far it exists only in fiction—so both the multi-volume novel and the multi-generation starship voyage are for now functions of the way we we're drawn to subdivide and break stories into categories.

Plenty of great literature really does follow multiple generations, with children inheriting the legacies and burdens of their parents, and the reader being attached to both/several groups in-scene. It’s common with “great books,” which sometimes seem to have earned their credentials with a big cast list—War and Peace comes to mind. It’s most interesting to me as a reader to get into that kind of narrative without realizing it—Middlesex grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, in this way; I picked it up expecting to start Cal’s story immediately, and by the time I got to it I’d become fully invested and obsessed with multiple rounds of ancestral mythology instead. The risk you run there, of course, is that the reader will end up feeling like that middle generation on a starship—like they’re being asked to commit to something they didn’t sign up for, or a journey aren’t prepared to weather. (Yes, I have recently gotten into Star Trek: Voyager, why do you ask?)

Ferrante’s quartet is part of an even more interesting subgenre—books that theoretically focus on a single generation or character, but in such detail that they feel multi-generational, more ambitious than an average novel or biography. The other examples I can think of immediately—Proust, Knausgård—are like Ferrante in that they’re widely supposed to be at least partly autobiographical. In some cases that opinion persists with no encouragement from the author—perhaps just because it’s hard for us to imagine someone could imagine a life that fully and minutely without having lived some version of it. It’s fascinating to see the almost counterintuitive affect this scope and pacing has on the plot of these books—events and turns that would seem minor in a slimmer novel take on climactic proportions, because we’ve been with these characters for so long that their experiences resonate with us at a deeper frequency. Outside of writing many-thousand-page books, it’s a lesson in the importance of forging a bond between the reader and your characters in stories of any size. Because when this isn’t pulled off well, it leaves the reader feeling stranded—perhaps like that middle generation on a voyage they didn’t agree to.