Once again humanity is shown on a long exodus through the stars. ‘The Beast Below’ provides an interesting view of how a generation ship would function during this period. Starship UK isn’t just a vessel, it is a city.
There are wide open spaces, sky lights that reveal the passing suns, stars and planets above, bicycles are used for transport and everywhere you look there are reminders of the past they have lost.
Symbols are used to reinforce the idea of United Kingdom. The Union Jack is proudly displayed, men wear bowler hats and wield umbrellas, the London Underground signs adorn the lifts and the decks are named after old cities.
This short hand is useful to quickly provide player characters with an idea of the local culture. It can be used to establish where they are with only a glance, not just on similar nation-ships but in all settings.
Just pick three or four things that you associate with a country or culture and have them be the first few things that the player characters see. It might not be realistic but it gets the message across quickly.
A large vessel means that most areas with be wide areas, allowing people to mingle. It is a nice contrast to the narrow featureless corridors often depicted in science fiction. These are communal areas, giving people freedom of movement.
Without renewable resources everything needs to be rationed and recycled. Bicycles are a much more sensible form of transport in a ship like this. They don’t require fuel, are small enough they can navigate through tight spaces, don’t produce pollution and don’t go fast enough to cause serious injury.
One would assume that this back to basics approach would see a revival of older past times. With power sources and batteries either being hard to find or too valuable to use on frivolous pursuits most people wouldn’t have electronic devices such as music players, televisions or computers.
Board games, toys and dolls would be back in fashion. You’d likely see children playing games of hoop in the street and families gathering round the piano for a sing song. Culturally entertainment would resemble something from the 19th century.
This brings us back to the idea of contrasting two distinct elements to creature something unusual. It is far more interesting to find old fashioned behaviour on a futuristic spaceship than the typical science fiction depiction of logical people in shiny jump suits.
An advantage of creating a setting with a retro-culture is that you can transfer historical events to a futuristic era. A human colony on alien world could resemble the old west, a civil war breaking out as two factions disagree whether the alien natives should be enslaved. An space station whose culture resembles that of 1960s Earth might be thrown into chaos as the Flower Power movement takes root among their young population.
In your own games you can create starships that have adapted different to the situation. What if one ship decided to divide people into different social groups, restricting who had access to advanced technology. Those on the bottom would have simple tools while those on the top had futuristic marvels. What if they restricted technology to those within the government, the police or even a religious group. How long would this status quo remain before people rose up?
‘Beast Below’ illustrates the lengths that humanity will go to ensure their survival. They have done something terrible, given the population every opportunity to stop the whole project and for hundreds of years the inhabitants of Starship UK have chosen to keep torturing another creature.
The thing to note is that humanity isn’t evil here. Yes, they are doing something awful but they realise that. True evil wouldn’t care, wouldn’t feel guilty. They choose to keep doing it because if they didn’t they’d all die.
This is a useful thing to remember when establishing the motivation of the antagonists in your adventures. They might do horrible things but it could be because they see no other alternative. They might feel terrible about it and gladly welcome another course of action.
The government are not just complicit in what is happening but also have to go a step further, ensuring that those who do object are eliminated, dropped down a chute to be feed to the space whale. I don’t believe that this is because of how they voted, and the governments fear that this would end their voyage, but because it meant they would retain their memory of what they saw. This presented the problem that they could tell others without giving the option of being able to remove the memory.
A crueller step was the elimination of those who didn’t contribute to society. The boy at the start of the episode is dropped down the chute because of his low grades and presumably so were the other children. Following this logic anyone who was disabled or infirm would also have to be sent to feed the beast.
This is again a terrible thing but also necessary. With limited resources the government simply couldn’t afford to keep them alive and apparently they still needed to feed the space whale. Sacrificing the people solved both problems.
Although this is a police state it is revealing that the government didn’t kill the children themselves when the space whale refused to eat them. The government and their agents could bare to get innocent blood on their own hands.
This trait can be assigned to villains to avoid any direct confrontations. They might use robots, death traps or mercenaries but when face to face with the player characters they can’t bring themselves to take their lives. That is a line they will not, can not, cross.
We learn from Mandy that Scotland left in their own starship. If the UK and Scotland were able to leave than we can safely assume that other nation ships did as well. It is left to our imagination what those ships were like but we can get an idea of how things went.
It is likely that each ship would become insular, a natural progression of their cultural identity being reinforced so strongly. While some nation ships might form alliances, travelling in groups of safety and security there would be many that gave any sense of unity and might even be aggressive towards others.
Conflict would most likely occur when resources were discovered. Would Starship Russia battle with Starship Germany over mining rights in an asteroid field? Might Starship Italy send boarding parties to steal food from Starship France when their own supplies were low?
It is also interesting to ponder what would happen to the larger world powers. Is there a gigantic Starship US or would each state have their own vessel? Would they remain together as a union or would old rivalries flare up again, leading to new alliances and war?
There is plenty of potential to set vessels on these crafts, showing how their own culture is represented on board and charting what happened to them. Their fate could very well be in the player character’s hands.