The unskilled tasks performed by colonists appear to place them in a lower strata of ship society, especially for the majority of crew members who never bother to stop and talk to them.
1 February, 1999
A Recording by Lamont Townsend
Aboard the United Space Ship Westward
One of the primary strategies that space colonists use to survive with sanity intact is the fostering of a strong community dynamic, not unlike that of an extended family. Or, one might even say, a tribe. Their regular cycle of communal activities tend to reinforce shared goals and viewpoints, applying social pressure to bring everyone around to a similar way of thinking. Humans excel at this sort of thing, and the colonists, by training and inclination, are specially adapted for it. Despite a diversity of colors and creeds—or perhaps because of it—the colonists seem to be of a common stock, combining fierce independence with a tenacious communal loyalty. These qualities serve very well, presumably, when the colony is alone on a strange world, surrounded by hostile wilderness. But when the hostile wilderness in question is a highly civilized and smoothly operated interstellar spaceship, the frontier mentality is constantly put to the test.
For one thing, most of the adult colonists are assigned regular, non-essential duties on the decks below. This policy was put in place, ostensibly, to help alleviate boredom and idleness during the indefinite span of our search for a suitable world. But for the colonists, who seem to have no trouble keeping occupied in any case, the routine forays into the regular life of Westward are like visits to a foreign tribe, incursions among a strange people with different values and outlooks. This is not helped by the fact that the tasks assigned to colonists are largely menial. Since the ship must eventually function in their absence, their presence in these roles is by definition not actually required. Thus, an accomplished engineer may be found vacuuming the command deck, or a lettered toxicologist might be assigned to polish corridor railings. In the context of a struggling colony, there is an understanding that labor must be shared by all, but here the functions seem—and in fact are—contrived. The unskilled tasks performed by colonists appear to place them in a lower strata of ship society, especially for the majority of crew members who never bother to stop and talk to them. This is combined, I would suppose, with a certain sense of apprehension that one day the same tasks will need to be performed in the colonists’ absence. The same data analyst who turns up his nose at the colonist who is sweeping out the air vents may, in the near future, be assigned to the same unpleasant duty when that colonist is no longer around to do it.
Secondarily, some colonists—especially, though not exclusively, the younger single ones—are simply more restless by nature. Though young children are strongly discouraged from scampering about the rest of the ship, there is nothing except routine and a certain amount of social pressure preventing colonists from dropping in on the lower decks for a change of pace. Upon their return, their fellow colonists cannot be entirely sure what their curious compatriot has been doing, who she has been talking to, and what she has been talking about. I have seen this plant tiny seeds of discord among the colonists, for whom a shared outlook is felt to be a key to survival.
This factional unease and sense of suspicion is something to which I have become more sensitive as my time on Westward continues. I witnessed it first-hand when men from the colonist deck attempted to literally drag young Constance Beckett from the New Year party in the cafeteria last month. And I’ve felt it as I’ve redoubled my efforts to spend time on the colonist deck and to better understand these people in the weeks since then. To the colonists, I am an outsider, viewed with a certain ambivalence or even distrust as I interrupt their normal routine. What they largely don’t understand is that, while I’m certainly no colonist, I am also not a member of the Westward crew. The fact is, I don’t generally feel more at home among one than I do the other. There is no place on this ship that I can go—especially in the air of tension following the death of Rex O’Neil—in which I do not feel like an outsider.
Next: An Uninvited Guest