My Top Ten SF Spaceships
Let’s make this clear, no mention of SF is complete without Frank Herbert’s majestic Dune. Right that’s sorted. Let’s begin.
1) EE ‘Doc’ Smith: Skylark – from The Skylark of Space and sequels. The Skylark of Space is one of the earliest novels of interstellar travel and the first example of space opera.
2) Arthur C. Clarke: Rama – from Rendezvous with Rama. Rama, an alien space vessel, is detected by a space study program designed to identify near-Earth objects on Earth-impact trajectories. Clarke named the program: Project Spaceguard. 40 years after Clarke’s award winning book, NASA initiated Project Safeguard, naming it after Clarke’s fictional concept.
3) Douglas Adams: Heart of Gold – from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Zaphod Beeblebrox, general con man and President of the Imperial Galactic Government, steals the Heart of Gold just in time to rescue Arthur Dent (& Ford Prefect) from the wastes of space. The Heart of Gold uses an Infinite Improbability Drive which in turn is powered by the Golden Ball of Prosperity in Douglas Adam’s implausible but highly likeable Hitchhiker’s Guide (a trilogy in four parts).
4) Robert Heinlein: Vanguard – from Orphans of the Sky. Orphans of the Sky came out in 1941 as 2 novellas: Universe and Common Sense. It depicts a vast starship in which, after a mutiny by the colonists, the descendants forget the nature and purpose of the ship. This was the first novel to depict a generation starship.
5) Larry Niven: Lying Bastard – from Ringworld. Ringworld is a conceptual structure – a ring circling a star in the Goldilocks (ie habitable) zone. It has giant sized rim walls to keep the atmosphere in and is made of another type of scrith an example of indistructiblium (and unobtanium). While investigating Ringworld, the Lying Bastard is disabled by the automated meteoroid defense system. Nebula, Hugo and Locus award winner.
6) James White: General Hospital, Sector 12 – not really a spaceship but rather a giant multi-species space station / hospital founded as a peace making project (Babylon 5 anyone?). White published twelve Sector General books between 1962 and 1999 – this was the first explicitly pacifist space opera series.
7) Brian M Stableford: The Hooded Swan – Halcyon Drift (and 5 sequels). The Hooded Swan is designed from a fusion of human and alien technologies. Grainger is hired to fly it but not captain it. Grainger is resentful but has big debts to pay off. He also has a symbiotic relationship with the wind, an alien presence in his mind. The wind wants to make Grainger a better person, to Grainger the wind is a parasite. The Hooded Swan series is notable for the use of Let Well Alone as a concept in dealing with alien species.
8) David Brin: Streaker – Startide Rising. A Terran spaceship, Streaker, makes a discovery that threatens the status quo of the Five Galaxies. The older races have a vested interest in suppressing the discovery along with the Streaker. This is part of conceptual storyline in which older species dominate the younger due to uplift. Patron species scour the galaxy for pre-sapient species, ready to be uplifted. The patron makes genetic modifications until the client species evolve sapience; this gives them status; client species are indentured to them for up to 100,000 years. The Five Galaxies are an ancient hierarchy that has lasted hundreds of millions of years: Unusually, Terrans have no patrons. Part of the 6 volume Uplift Universe.
9) Christopher Priest: The Space Machine – from the book of the same name. Edward Turnbull and Amelia Fitzgibbon take a tipsy ride in inventor, Sir William Reynolds’ machine. Actually it’s a Time and Space machine. Christopher Priest fuses together The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds in a recursive steam-punk novel – probably the first. Victorian pastiche: tick; pacey action thriller: cross.
10) By the time I got to nine I realised there were no clear nominees. Christopher Priest had just squeezed in for merging HG Well’s Time Machine with War of the Worlds, but no. ten? The Lenin (and the MacArthur) of Niven and Pournelle’s Mote in God’s Eye has to be ruled out; Niven is already in. Pohl’s Gateway fought a hard battle for token Space Station appearance and lost to peace loving Sector General. Dune is great (might as well mention that again) if only it had a spaceship with character.
Philip K Dick’s ships were rarely more than props. Would have liked a New Wave exponent but few of those works worked hard at the spaceship side of things. Anne McCaffrey’s Helva from the The Ship Who Sang would make a good no 10 (brain & brawn) as does Idries Shah’s Dermis Probe. Non-Stop was pacey (for Aldiss) but it’s similarities to Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky have been noted elsewhere. Eventually I plumped for Andre Norton’s Solar Queen. The series begins with Sargasso of Space. The Solar Queen is one of the spaceships used by the Free Traders in interstellar trade, a trader’s ship and a home in space. The series touches on topics like space pirates, forerunner species and xeno-archaeology. Andre Norton was a past favourite of mine and her American Indian heritage isn’t hard to make out in her works.
The Guardian article article on top ten spaceships puts me in mind of the many attempts over the years to reposition the genre as part of a far grander tradition. “Appropriation gentlemen. That’s my game.” Might well have served as the introduction to Brian Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree. As far as appropriating from before Science Fiction came into being goes, the question arises: would Mary Shelley agree to her work being pigeon-holed so, or Cyrano de Bergerac?
SF begins with Hugo Gernsback’s Scientifiction; Gernsback was a greedy man who impoverished writers in order to enrich himself while, as a not unrelated consequence, nudging the genre into a literary nosedive. For his pains, fans named their SF award after him. Those who want to make SF something it isn’t first need to deal with that.
Spaceships are more than a home in space; they’d better be because if you’re going to need a whole lot of entertaining / diversion to keep you sane – space is big and the odds are you’re going to be stuck out there a long time. The idea of sentient starships is appealing. Why? To while away the boredom. Mine vary from the plodding, safety conscious Expedient in Lucky (lucky to even exist) to the outrageous Noor in The Tau Device. Back to Andre Norton’s xeno-archaeology – the study of dead strangers. I’ve always had a soft spot for that and made it the cornerstone of my: The Tau Device.