“What is it?” he said.
And here’s what I said:
Three hundred years from now, the Earth is about to suffer a cataclysm that will destroy all possibility for life on the planet. Time is short. The greatest minds and the noblest philanthropists get together and cause to have constructed in orbit between the Moon and the Earth a giant ark, one thousand miles long, comprised of hundreds of self-contained biospheres. Into each of these little worlds is placed a segment of Earth’s population, its culture intact. Then the ark is sent off toward the stars—even as the Earth is destroyed—to seed the new worlds surrounding those stars with the remnants of humanity.
But one hundred years after the flight has begun, a mysterious “accident” (which would remain a mystery till the final segment of the show, hopefully four years later) kills the entire crew, seals the biosphere-worlds so they have no contact with one another... and the long voyage goes on with the people trapped, developing their societies without any outside influence. Five hundred years go by, and the travelers—the Starlost—forget the Earth. To them it is a myth, a vague legend, even as Atlantis is to us. They even forget they are adrift in space, forget they are in an interstellar vessel. Each community thinks it is “the world” and that the world is only fifty square miles, with a metal ceiling.
Until Devon, an outcast in a society rigidly patterned after the Amish communities of times past, discovers the secret, that they are onboard a space-going vessel. He learns the history of the Earth, learns of its destruction, and learns that when “the accident” happened, the astrogation gear of the ark was damaged and now the last seed of humankind is on a collision course with a star. Unless he can convince a sufficient number of biosphere worlds to band together in a communal attempt to learn how the ark works, to repair it and reprogram their flight, they will soon be incinerated in the furnace of that star toward which they’re heading.
It was, in short, a fable of our world today.
“Fresh! Original! New!” Kline chirruped. “There’s never been an idea like it before!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him the idea was first propounded in astronautical literature in the early 1920’s by the great Russian pioneer Tsiolkovsky, nor that the British physicist Bernal had done a book on the subject in 1929, nor that the idea had become very common coin in the genre of science fiction through stories by Heinlein, Harrison, Aldiss, Panshin, Simak, and many others. (Arthur C. Clarke’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning bestseller, Rendezvous With Rama, is the latest example of the basic idea.)