This is certainly one of my favorite themes in SF: huge ships needing to travel for decades, if not centuries, before reaching their destination, with the original crew knowing they will never see the planet chosen for the new colony but trusting that their descendants will be able to fulfill the dream.
Of course there rarely is a story about a generation ship that does not include some kind of problem, the most frequent leading to the population forgetting that they are on a space-faring vessel and believing that that microcosm is the whole world.
Here a Wikipedia list – that I hope is comprehensive – of the works of fiction, in several mediums, focused on generation ships.
I have not read as many novels with this theme as I would have liked, but the first one I encountered, a long time ago, was
ORPHANS OF THE SKY, by R.A. Heinlein (1963)
It tells the story of a generation ship where a mutiny obliterated most of the passengers and the reasons for the voyage have become more myth than actual knowledge. The remnants of the crew still perform the required maintenance operations, but such actions have become a matter of religious ritual rather than anything else, while in the less radiation-shielded parts of the ship a number of mutants lives in harsh conditions.
Another example of generation ship can be found in
CHILDREN OF TIME, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)
in which what remains of humanity, after the collapse of Earth and its civilization, travels in old ships, practically falling apart, toward the only habitable world discovered by their ancestors, unaware of the fact that a race of intelligent spiders has created a civilization there and is less than sanguine in being invaded by these… strange aliens.
And again, the theme is explored in a novella:
ACADIE, by Dave Hutchinson (2017)
This story features the society built by a group of humans who wanted to build an environment in which they could expand their potential through genetic modifications, long banned on Earth, whose authorities still hunt for them. It’s not exactly a generation ship story, but the colonists live in movable arcologies, and that’s close enough to the trope that I felt it could be easily listed here.
As far as shorter stories go, I would be remiss if I did not quote
MONO NO AWARE, by Ken Liu (2012)
A poignant tale of refugees from Earth, facing a centuries-long voyage toward a distant start after our home planet has been destroyed by the impact with a comet. A damaged propulsion system will force the story’s main character toward a difficult, hearth-breaking choice.
Generation ships have also featured in movies and television: I remember, for example, that there was one episode in the original series of Star Trek featuring such a society that had forgotten its past and whose ship was headed toward mortal danger. In more recent times there have been a few examples of the theme as well:
a movie that was more horror than SF, in which a few individuals are awakened from cryo-sleep only to be confronted with mutated people turned cannibals.
a TV series about an ark ship launched by no other than President Kennedy at the height of the Cold War, to preserve humanity against nuclear holocaust. Only, things are not exactly as they appear…
a movie exploring, in a far less gruesome way than Pandorum, the consequences of an unplanned re-awakening from hibernation.
And this list would not be complete without mentioning a movie I love:
showing what happens to humanity after the generation ships in which it has taken refuge have chosen to satisfy every need people have, without them moving from their seats or making any kind of effort.
Do you have any suggestions for other titles featuring generation ships? I am looking forward to them, and will brace my overworked TBR accordingly… 😉