The novel's protagonist, Roy Complain, lives in a culturally-primitive tribe in which curiosity is discouraged and life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. With a small group, he leaves his home and ventures into uncharted territory. The consequent discoveries will change his perception of the entire universe.
Complain's small tribe roam nomadically through corridors overrun by vegetation. After his wife is kidnapped, a tribal priest named Marapper encourages Complain to join a furtive expedition into the unexplored corridors. It is Marapper's belief that they are all living on board a moving spacecraft and that if they can reach the control room, they will gain command of the entire gargantuan vessel.
On their journey, the group encounters other tribes of varying levels of sophistication. Complain is also briefly captured by humanoid 'Giants' of legend, who release him with no explanation. Complain's party eventually join the more sophisticated society of the 'Forwards'. Here, they learn that the space-craft is a multi-generational starship returning from the newly colonised planet of Procyon. In a previous generation, the ship's inhabitants had suffered from a pandemic because of an alien amino acid found in the waters of Procyon. Law and order began to collapse and knowledge of the ship and its purpose was eventually almost entirely lost throughout the vessel. It is now 23 generations that have passed since this 'Catastrophe'.
The Forwards have uncertain knowledge of 'Giants' who, though feared, are generally considered to be benevolent. Other mysterious beings, termed 'Outsiders', are thought to infiltrate the human world from an unknown place and are reviled as enemies. However, when the Giants attack a Forward crew-member, the humans conclude that the Giants and Outsiders are colluding against humanity and prepare to retaliate in force. Meanwhile, Complain and his developing romantic interest Vyann (a Forward officer) learn that the spacecraft should have taken only six generations to return to Earth. Aware that 23 generations have passed since the epidemic, they despairingly deduce that the entire spacecraft is now plummeting into the cold expanse of infinite space. Although they find the ship's control centre, all the mechanisms have been destroyed.
The Forwards briefly engage the Giants, but the conflict quickly ends. It is then revealed that the ship has been moored outside Earth's atmosphere for a number of years. The 'Giants' are merely normal sized Earth-humans who have been attempting to improve the conditions of the ship's inhabitants by slowly repairing the vessel. The 'Outsiders' are unusually short humans from Earth who have infiltrated the ship's various societies in order to study the development of their civilization. The rulers of Earth have been reluctant to integrate the ship-dwellers into Earth's civilization because the epidemic survivors have mutated to live at a rate four times faster than Earth's population. However, the recent battle on board the spacecraft has caused it to begin an emergency split into its composite parts, ensuring that the entire population will now be granted a new start on Earth.
Series: Millennium SF Masterworks S
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Gollancz (September 14, 2000)
Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches