A thought exercise:
It occurs to me that, in a resource-constrained environment, the fact that inorganic materials break and wear out becomes a problem over time. Meat, on the other hand, grows back. I can picture a generation-ship culture that uses humans for many moving-parts operations: maintenance, transportation, EVAs.
This would particularly be the case in a mixed waking/cryo ship: the waking crew would be expected to forget a lot of the colonist expertise over the generations, so they would become basically a ship-maintenance team. The colonist-specialists would then wake up on arrival, with their knowledge and experience fresh in their heads.
Over time, the EVA suits would become more important than their wearers. I was thinking about this in the context of an accident. Say someone’s fingers get tangled in a monofilament anchor line and cut off. The shift supervisor asks whether it’s a clean cut—can the fingers be reattached?
When she’s given the severed fingers, she throws the meat in the organics recycling and starts examining the glove material.
Because meat is cheaper than metal.
Take this further, and you find that turking and monitoring are a major part of crew responsibilities, because brains can be replaced and sensors can’t. And crew members who aren’t able to work or turk are euthanized.
Take it even further, and there are lots of leather, sinew and bone artifacts around the ship. (Though it’s possible that bone needs to go back into the mineral cycle, or people start having calcium deficiencies.) Even if we keep the taboo on cannibalism, there are a lot of changes that a “meat is cheaper than metal” culture could wreak.
The challenge, both as a designer of ship’s culture and as a storyteller, is to preserve the sense that people matter in such an environment. My impulse would be to distinguish between the person and the flesh, so that the intellectual and emotional artifacts of a person become more valued as their physical selves become less absolutely theirs.
Imagine a culture of poets and storytellers, artists and philosophers. Imagine that the ship’s radio sings with collective choruses; you tune into a channel not only to listen, but to join in. Imagine a blogging and commenting culture. Imagine vast wikis of knowledge and speculation, poetry and prose.
Then imagine waking up at the end of the journey and finding the whole epic story of sacrifice and art, intertwined and interconnected. Imagine the shock of it, having gone to sleep in an Earth-standard culture. Would it even be possible to engage with that? Or would that culture then be lost?
Imagine studying it, generations after arrival. Imagine becoming a fan of it, remixing it, becoming absorbed in it. Imagine a subculture where the last crumbling human-leather artifacts are traded back and forth and treasured, where teenagers try to recapture that strange, magical time when the mind was, by necessity, separated from the meat, and flew free as a result.