Phoenix Without Ashes, published in 1975, was the novelization of Harlan Ellison’s award winning script, the pilot for a television series called The Starlost. Not the one that aired, which was an unholy mess rewritten against Mr. Ellison’s wishes, causing him to walk away at a large financial loss in order to preserve his integrity. Always fiercely protective of his work, he would not allow his name to be used and, instead, put in the pseudonym Cordwainer Bird to let fans know that what they were about to see was not his work.
At the beginning, there is a forward by Mr. Ellison that puts forth the story of how a decent idea for a new science fiction series was destroyed by the “money” people who were more interested in trading on the writer’s name than putting out anything worth watching. It details how every short cut was used, from cheap writers who didn’t know science fiction to special effects work that was lame even for the times. First he walked away, then Ben Bova, technical consultant, after viewing the first episode.
What eventually emerged last only some sixteen or so episodes before fading into irrelevance and history.
Here’s the plot.
It’s hundreds of years in the future. Way back when, Earth was going to die and a generational ship was built consisting of a number of connected biospheres a hundred kilometers wide. The stars winking in the sky are artificial. Each biosphere has a different culture preserved from Earth, the intent to seed planets and preserve the human race.
Sometime in the distant past, an accident had killed the crew and sent the ship off-course. In the hundreds of years since then, generations had grown and died. It was forgotten that they were on a ship. Each was a self-contained world, which was all theinhabitants knew these days.
Cypress Corners is an Amish type world, the inhabitants very pious, praying for up to eight hours a day. Devon is a dreamer and an outcast. He imagines about stars and space, not satisfied with his small world. This doesn’t sit well with the Elders who have banished him to the hills, believing he can repent when severe conditions will test him.
He survives with help from his only friends, Garth and Rachel, the young woman he loves. They want to marry, but marriages are arranged by genetic manipulation to ensure diversity and Rachel has been promised to Garth, though neither of them are happy about it either.
Devon learns the Elder Micah has manipulated the genetic data and goes with proof to his father. Religious man that he is, dad turns him in and he’s scheduled for death by stoning. Escaping, he flees to the hills and stumbles onto an iris that opens, swallowing him up, falling down a long tube to another biosphere.
In exploring and learning to adapt, Devon finds the control room and learns the horrible truth. In five years, the generational ship will plunge into a sun! Now they will have to listen to him! Yea, right.
Once again, he runs, this time taking Rachel with him to look for help somewhere in the giant ship. The Elders won’t follow down the tube, but send Garth to bring them back.
The idea was each episode would visit a different culture as the young people look for anybody that knows anything about ship operations. Originally it was to be a miniseries, a dozen or so episodes(Mr. Ellison believed it the maximum to sustain the series), but before he knew it, it had been turned into a weekly show.
Reading the longish introduction, one gets a glimpse into just how much the television business values writers, which is to say not at all. It doesn’t seem likely that much has changed all these years later. Also, Ben Bova wrote a novel, The Starcrossed, based on what happened.
Below is a clip of The Starlost’s opening: