From Jules Verne’s far-sighted Victorian moonshot to the self-aware starships of Iain M Banks, here are some of the most compelling flights of fantasy.
Some of my earliest memories are of watching Star Trek in the early 1970s, on my grandparents’ black and white TV, and then getting caught up as a schoolboy in all the hype surrounding the release of Star Wars in 1977. But while movie and TV spaceships such as the USS Enterprise and Millennium Falcon – and even the Red Dwarf – are firmly established as part of our shared cultural vocabulary, the worlds of printed fiction contain many other ships that are every bit as iconic.
In science fiction, spaceships are more than vehicles. They’re often characters in their own right, whether they can think for themselves or not. One of the lead characters in my new book Embers of War is the sentient warship Trouble Dog. Shaken by the horrors of war, she has chosen to resign her position in her fleet.
Over the years, spaceships in fiction have come in many forms and guises. These are some of my favourites:
1. From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
In the aftermath of the US civil war, members of the Baltimore Gun Club construct a cannon capable of launching three men to the moon. Published in 1865, this novel was one of the first to take a serious stab at describing a space vessel and its means of propulsion (earlier attempts involving balloons and geese notwithstanding). Although Verne got a few of his calculations wrong (the length of the cannon’s barrel would have to have been much longer), most of what he describes seems remarkably prescient when you consider it was written a century before the first real moon landings.
2. Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss
As members of a tribe of primitive people undertake a quest through an overgrown jungle, it slowly becomes apparent that they are aboard a huge spaceship, and the descendants of its original crew. They may have forgotten the fact and purpose of their voyage, but the ship itself has shaped them. The confines of its interior have led to them becoming smaller; the wild, over-spilling hydroponics garden has provided them with food and shelter. For Roy Complain and his little group of explorers, the spaceship literally is their whole world.
3. Nova by Samuel Delany
Completed when the author was only 25, Nova is a swaggering, heady smash-up of gritty space opera and serious literary ambition. It takes the tropes of traditional space opera and bolts them to a self-consciously mythical framework of grail and tarot lore. The main character, the doomed Lorq van Ray, leads a crew in search of a metal than can only be mined from the heart of an exploding star. They are flying an aged ship called the Roc, which requires the crew to physically and mentally connect themselves to its systems in order to fly.
4. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
The all-conquering story of a murdered starship’s quest for vengeance, and the human body in which it now finds its consciousness trapped. Leckie’s debut novel, the first volume in her Imperial Radch trilogy, won a stack of honours, including the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke awards.
5. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Due to a technical blunder, the last humans alive find themselves confined to their starship for centuries, while a different (and surprising) Earth species grows and evolves on the planet where they wanted to settle. Generations grow and wither in the corridors and cabins, while a few survivors of the original crew sleep in suspended animation, observing the same mistakes of power and aggression being played out again and again. Yet all the while, the ship remains a constant and unchanging presence around them, keeping them safe as the centuries pass.
6. Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks
A rollicking adventure featuring space pirates, shape-changers, sentient ships and interstellar war, which somehow also manages to simultaneously provide a deep and acutely painful meditation on the moral and emotional futility of conflict. When it comes to self-aware starships with quirky names, Banks is the touchstone.
7. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Famous for the author’s vision of a galaxy segregated by “zones of thought” – areas in which certain technologies such as FTL and AI simply won’t work – A Fire Upon the Deep also presents us with a vision of a galaxy-wide internet chatroom and the terrifying incursion of an artificial super-intelligence into human society: perhaps the definitive use of the Singularity in space opera. Racing to rescue a pair of stranded human children, the starship Out of Band II carries its passengers on a long haul into the unknown.
8. The Martian by Andy Weir
While the focus of this book is on the astronaut Mark Watney’s attempts to survive alone on the surface of Mars, his crewmates spend months aboard the Hermes, the ship that brought them to Mars and which they’re now using to slingshot around the Earth and return to rescue him. Through cleverly sketched scenes, we get a vivid impression of life on board the cramped vessel. And in the end, the spaceship itself aids in the rescue attempt, at some cost to itself.
9. Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
In the colonised solar system of a not-too-distant future, political tensions between Mars, Earth and the Belt threaten the stability and future of humanity. When a stealth ship attacks an ice-mining vessel, the survivors find themselves in possession of a small warship, which they name the Rocinante after Don Quixote’s steed. But while the Rocinante offers them a way out of their predicament, it quickly becomes much more – their home, the thing that holds them together as an ersatz family, and the means and muscle they need in order to survive, and bring the fight to the enemy.
10. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
A space opera that has all the classic ingredients: a beaten-up ship, a crew of misfits and a galaxy filled with danger and adventure. Like its multi-species inhabitants, the starship Wayfarer is a bricolage of mismatching parts fused into one ugly but endearing whole. It isn’t here to win a beauty contest; it’s strictly a working vessel. But like the Rocinante above, it’s also a home and its crew a family bonded by their interdependence with, and love of, their vessel.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE GUARDIAN 28/02/2018