No space for spaceships?

Captain Kirk wouldn’t like it, but the chances are nobody is boldly going anywhere in space ships. That’s the realistic prospect of space exploration in the future. Sending people out into space in vehicles is probably one of the strongest tropes in science fiction, but it’s also become a lazy bundle of clichés holding the evolution of space scifi back.

Can you imagine space without space ships?

Spaceships aren’t just the mainstay of any story that takes place beyond planet Earth, they are the critical plot device that allows most space stories to progress. Without space ships, we must conjure very complex ideas to bring aliens into a plot, or place humans in colonies ‘out there’. It’s a potentially huge problem for a scifi writer, because without space ships everything from contemporary pop-fiction through to the classics would be all but impossible to write.

Or maybe not. John Wyndam’s Chocky managed interstellar travel without a ship. As did Prot in Gene Brewer’s K-PAX. And let’s not forget the half-way houses of Stargate, and the inter-dimensional science stuff that was always leaking out of the Star Trek franchise (all of which have a hint of the ‘wardrobe to Narnia’ about them, but A for effort).

Nevertheless, the spaceship-less solution is out there if you go looking. They can feel forced, stories that either replace the space ship with a magic doorway, or fudge the notion of interstellar travel by a character being there in mind or spirit but not fully. But we need space in scifi… and although I wouldn’t write a story about space ships, I’m planning a book set on other worlds.

So this is a problem I’m trying to think through. How to lose the ship, without losing the plot?

The space ship is a metaphor

I love space ships. What scifi lover doesn’t? They are very emotional touch points for fans. They have, in particular, defined some of science fiction’s most iconic images. Tie Fighters, X-wings and Star Destroyers. The Millennium Falcon. The USS Enterprise and it’s many incarnations, the Borg cube. Dr. Who’s Tardis… to name but a few.

Space ships are icons, brands, the tribal tattoos of geekdom. But why do we love them so much, and in particular, love some more than others? Nobody weeps over a generic shuttle, or a lost probe. No. There’s a certain DNA to the iconic, emotional space ship.

The space ship’s emotional DNA is rooted in its role, within the plot, as metaphor for home. They are an extension of the Earth in many stories, perhaps the greatest of which would be The Valley Forge from 70’s classic Silent Running. They are a physical expression of cultural identity and social development, like the vast ships in Iain M. Banks Culture novels. They are the place where misfits find refuge and become family. The little patch of freedom in which heroes flee from oppression, cruelty and monsters.

In Dr. Who’s case, this little patch of home is taken to the extreme as an almost endless realm wrapped up inside a box. A metaphor in many respects, the Tardis fits huge spaces inside it’s form, in the way Dr. Who fits many lifetimes and faces into the appearance of one man.

They’re all basically the nameless ship of Phaeacian origin, the fast black ship that carried Odysseus to adventure and heartbreak. Over time, they also become avatars for the heroes they carried within them. They’re vessels that carry the plot’s struggle, they are the saviour, the explorer and the refuge.

War of the Worlds…

It was perhaps the influence of H.G. Wells that cemented the space ship into the scifi psyche. Although, oddly, not with a space ship.

In The War of the Worlds, the Martians invade the Earth in missile-like space vessels. This projectile ship appears again in very similar form in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, seventy years later. The unnamed, shell-like ship shot from one place to another. We’ve seen them come ago go, like the ship in Asimov’s Contact, fired from Earth. But those ships don’t fire the imagination.

More important in explaining Wells’ influence over fictional space ships was a battleship, the Royal Navy’s HMS Thunderchild, that managed to bring down one of the martian war tripods in a heroic battle that ends with its own destruction too. The image of Thunderchild, outgunned, outmatched in every way but fighting on for humanity, is one of the most evocative expressions of the vessel as a character. It is, quite literally a little piece of home standing up to the aliens. Thunderchild encapsulates all the things we love about space ships in the canon of 20th Century scifi, and its heroic last stand is much retold in more contemporary work.

This is, of course, very exciting for readers and viewers… but in terms of originality, or new and exiting storytelling possibilities, it’s a cliché that has worn a little thin. There are only so many times you can blow up the Death Star and escape in your jet fighter, so to speak.

The space ship is a character?

Perhaps the last really interesting plot development in the space ship was the introduction of the sentient AIs that fly them. This was a literary invention but was most effective on the screen. 2001: A Space Odyssey gave us the remarkable Hal 9000, it seems like one of the most significant examples of the AI. However it’s worth noting that Star Trek introduced audiences to a computer with a natural language, spoken interface first in moving pictures.

It seems like a significant step, although perhaps the talking ship is merely an evolution of the talking robots from the 50’s Forbidden Planet or 60’s Lost in Space. Perhaps it just seems different because we’re inside it as opposed to talking to it from the outside.

At first a harsh, metallic voice, Star Trek’s computer became the soft, reassuring lilt of actress Majel Barrett, giving all Star Trek ships a motherly quality. In Red Dwarf, the ship’s AI “Holly” evolved the role to full blown cast member. Less of the motherly and more of the alcoholic deadbeat uncle, but Holly was a descendant of the Enterprise D.

In Farscape, Lexx and Babylon 5 we see actual living creatures as space vessels, something more frequently seen in literary space opera than TV or movies, arguably first seen in Robert Sheckley’s Specialist (1953). The sentient ships of TV and movies were simply running with balls thrown in the ‘50s and ‘60s by the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, Sagan and Clarke. Living ships we quite an innovation in their day, now, ten-a-spacefaring-penny.

Been there, done that?

Disappointingly, over the years, all space ships seem to blend into one. They are big. They talk to you. They carry weapons, lasers, torpedoes, they wear shields, they can fly faster than light. They even sound the same. The thrum of the engines, the pull of artificial gravity, they shudder and pulse, and so on. It’s hard to be original with such a well used trope, which means it’s hard to write truly original works with space ships in them.

When we look at space exploration through the lens of likely near-future developments, we know that advanced telescopes will be doing the bulk of it, letting space (or more specifically, light) come to us rather than us go to it. The mountain goes to Mohammed in astronomy, as light reaches our space exploring radio boffins at SETI.

If the evolution of aircraft is any sort of indicator as to our proliferation of future space vehicles, we should expect to see the frontiers of the unknown to pushed back by drones. Is it a future where resources are limited, and ships that carry people are too expensive? Or perhaps, where the risks of space travel outweigh the benefits? Sending drones out might make for the best sense on a number of fronts. It’s a bit dull for a scifi yarn, though.

Of course, with vast distances we reach the limits of what drones can do, unless they have some sort of AI guiding them. Now the yarn gets more exciting. The AIs have adventures in space, not us? That’s got legs. Character development, plot pace. More than the drones have, anyway.

None of this really gets us around the need to exceed the speed of light to make stories of other worlds and alien races come to life. That’s a challenge. And one that raises curious flaws in the space ships of the past. If, for example, a ship can bend space and time to warp us from one world to another at impossible speed, why does it need missiles or lasers? It can already bend and tear the very fabric of the universe, does it really need to incinerate little bits of it too?

Perhaps we should be thinking outside the ship box, so to speak. If we can bend space, or travel through a fourth hyperspatial dimension, perhaps we don’t need ships at all. Those vast space battles would be pointless, a lot of flying around trying to hit other little dots whizzing about in the vast emptiness of space would soon run out of steam, but warping an army straight to the scene of the battle, or detonating bombs in hyperspace that ripple gravitational waves into your enemies worlds, that’s got some oomph.

The space ship needs a holiday

My own plot ideas are leading me away from ships. And way from conventional motivations for space travel along with it. War and conquest are human motivations. Territory and land are human creations. Who knows what spaceship-less intelligences different from our own will want? And present as story arcs and concepts.

The idea of basically every space opera descending into space ships and battles though, is due for retirement. There is a lot of room in space, literally and figuratively, not just to reinvent the space ship, but perhaps to un-invent it altogether.

In fact, I’m creating a character that walks everywhere. Including the next star system…