Spaceships

Tagged: Theme

The suggestion that people might one day travel to the Moon inside a flying machine was first put forward seriously by John Wilkins in 1638. There had been cosmic voyages prior to that date, and there were to be many more thereafter (> Fantastic Voyages; Space Flight), but few took the mechanics of the journey seriously enough to invest much imaginative effort in the design of credible vehicles. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" (June 1835 Southern Literary Messenger; rev 1840) has an afterword complaining about the failure of other writers to achieve verisimilitude, but Pfaall makes his journey by Balloon, and Poe's assumption of the continuity of the atmosphere – a full two centuries after Torricelli had concluded that the Earth's atmosphere could extend upwards for only a few miles – is hardly scientific.

Jules Verne's travellers in De la terre à la lune (1865; trans J K Hoyte as From the Earth to the Moon 1869) and its sequel, Autour de la lune (1870, both trans as From the Earth to the Moon 1873) use a projectile fired from a gun rather than a vessel, and most of those who followed in his footsteps treated their vessels as facilitating devices, inventing various jargon terms to signify mysterious forces of propulsion. Percy Greg's spaceship in Across the Zodiac (1880) is powered by "apergy"; H G Wells invented the antigravitic "Cavorite" for The First Men in the Moon (1901); John Mastin's "airship" is borne into space by a "new gas" in The Stolen Planet (1905); and Garrett P Serviss's A Columbus of Space (January-June 1909 All-Story; rev 1911) employed an atomic powered "space-car". Because their means of propulsion were so often mysterious, spaceships in this period could easily assume the "perfect" spheroid shape of the heavenly bodies themselves; a notable example is in Robert Cromie's A Plunge into Space (1890). When not round or bullet-shaped they tended to resemble flying submarines.

Spaceships were taken up in a big way by the early sf Pulp magazines, and their visual image was dramatically changed. Frank R Paul and other contemporary illustrators (> Illustration) showed a strong preference for bulbous machines like enormously bloated aeroplanes or rounded-off oceangoing liners with long rows of portholes. These were often shown with jets of flame or vapour gushing out behind, but this was as much to suggest speed as to indicate that the means of propulsion involved might be one or more Rockets; similarly, the slow process whereby hulls became streamlined and elegant fins appeared corresponded less to any realization of the importance of rocket-power than to the development of sleeker automobiles in the real world. Two of the more convincing early pulp-sf spaceships are featured in Otto Willi Gail's The Shot into Infinity (1925; trans 1929; 1975) and Laurence Manning's "The Voyage of the Asteroid" (Summer 1932 Wonder Stories Quarterly), but such stories were overshadowed by extravagant Space Operas which thrived on fantastic machines with limitless capabilities, fighting interstellar Wars with all manner of exotic Weapons – the ultimate fulfilment of childhood fantasies. Classic examples include the various Skylarks employed by E E "Doc" Smith's Richard Seaton and friends. Many pulp-sf writers still regarded spaceships as mere facilitating devices – Edgar Rice Burroughs was prepared to do without them in many of his interplanetary romances – but the pioneers of space opera exploited the fantasies of unlimited opportunity and luxurious seclusion which had hitherto been attached to such Earthly vessels as Captain Nemo's Nautilus, the Crystal Boat in Gordon Stables's The Cruise of the Crystal Boat (1891) and the Golden Ship used in Max Pemberton's The Iron Pirate (1897). Outside the pulps, the hero of Friedrich W Mader's Distant Worlds (1921; trans 1932) declared that his spacefaring vessel was no mere "airship" but a world-ship with the freedom of the Universe.

By the 1930s writers of Hard SF had become convinced that the first real spaceships would be rockets, and stories about the large-scale projects required to build them were being written as early as Lester del Rey's "The Stars Look Down" (August 1940 Astounding); other notable examples include Arthur C Clarke's Prelude to Space (1951) and Gordon R Dickson's The Far Call (August-October 1973 Analog; exp 1978). But dominance was always retained by naive fantasies in which spaceships could be casually built in anyone's back yard, or in which their familiarity was simply taken for granted. Realistic stories of the building and launching of spaceships can still be written – Manna (1984) by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine) is noteworthy – but we have now become so blasé about the spectacle of Saturn rockets blasting off from Cape Canaveral and space shuttles gliding down to land at Edwards Air Force Base that modern sf rarely bothers with matters of construction or with maiden voyages. Tense Near-Future melodramas involving moderately advanced hardware can still be very suspenseful – The Descent of Anansi (1982) by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes is a good example – but the vast majority of sf stories look towards further horizons.

A different kind of realism was introduced into spaceship stories by Robert A Heinlein in "Universe" (May 1941 Astounding), which scorned the convenience of Faster-than-Light travel and established the archetypal image of the Generation Starship. This notion – an ironic embodiment of the motto per ardua ad astra – quickly took over the sf version of the myth of the Ark, earlier displayed in such novels as When Worlds Collide (September 1932-February 1933 Blue Book; 1933) by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Notable later examples include Leigh Brackett's Alpha Centauri – or Die! (September 1953 Planet Stories as "The Ark of Mars"; exp 1963) and Roger Dixon's Noah II (1970). The spaceship became a powerful symbol of permanent escape, invoked continually throughout the 1950s in stories of future tyranny and the struggles of oppressed minorities. The myth of escape is taken to its extreme in Poul Anderson's time-dilation fantasy Tau Zero (June-August 1967 Galaxy as "To Outlive Eternity"; exp 1970), the first of several stories in which the spaceship provides its human crew with a means to escape the end of the Universe. Such escape motifs are, however, opposed in stories of space Disaster; two interesting stories which recast the 1912 voyage of the Titanic as sf are "The Star Lord" (June 1953 Imagination) by Boyd Ellanby and "The Corianis Disaster" (May 1960 Science Fiction Stories) by Murray Leinster. Other stories developed the notion of far-travelling starships into the idea of a starship culture. Notable examples are Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy (September-December 1957 Astounding; 1957) and Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage (July 1963 If as "Down to the Worlds of Men"; exp 1968). Relativistic effects were built into the idea of a starship culture in L Ron Hubbard's Return to Tomorrow (February-March 1950 Astounding as "To the Stars"; 1954), in which spacefarers become alienated from the course of history by the time-dilation effect of travelling at near-lightspeed.

In the years before manned spaceflight became a routine achievement, spaceships were naturally little-used outside Genre SF – though a spectacular exception is the epic poem Aniara (1956; trans 1963) by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish poet Harry Martinson. An opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916-1968), Aniara, based on the poem, was performed in 1959. The story pits human values against inhuman Technology on a ship originally bound for Mars but diverted by an Asteroid near-collision into the void beyond the solar system.

The UFO crazes of the post-World War Two years made some impact on sf imagery in the magazines. Disc-shaped spaceships became more common in Illustrations, and the interest of editors Sam Merwin Jr – who also wrote about flying saucers in "Centaurus" (March 1953 Startling) – and Raymond A Palmer was reflected in the magazines of which they had charge. Ufology had far more influence on the imagery of sf Cinema, where saucer-shaped ships became commonplace. The sleekly streamlined ships which still dominated magazine illustration continued to hold their ground until the 1970s; when their imagery was finally challenged, it was by the bizarre and surreal hardware of artists like Eddie Jones and Christopher Foss. This movement towards a more complicated topography – licenced by the knowledge that starships built in space for journeys in hard vacuum had no need of streamlining – had been foreshadowed in fiction since the 1950s. Among the more romantic spaceships featured in the later years of magazine sf are those in Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality stories, which include the light-powered "sailing ships" in "The Lady who Sailed the Soul" (April 1960 Galaxy) and "Think Blue, Count Two" (February 1963 Galaxy) (> Solar Wind). The tree-grown starships of Jack Williamson's Dragon's Island (1951; vt The Not-Men) and the animal-drawn starships of Robert Franson's The Shadow of the Ship (1983) are among the most curious in sf.

The men who sail or fly in them often refer to ships and aircraft as "she", crediting them with personalities and giving them names. Much sf transplants this tendency in perfectly straightforward terms, but other stories carry it to its logical and literal extreme. Human brains are frequently transplanted into spaceship bodies to become functional Cyborgs, as in Thomas N Scortia's "Sea Change" (June 1956 Astounding; exp vt "The Shores of Night" in The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1956, anth 1956, ed T E Dikty), Anne McCaffrey's The Ship who Sang (coll of linked stories 1969), Cordwainer Smith's "Three to a Given Star" (October 1965 Galaxy) and Kevin O'Donnell Jr's Mayflies (1979). Other spaceships acquire intelligence and personality in their own right thanks to their sophisticated Computer networks; the one in Frank Herbert's Destination: Void (1966) has delusions of godlike grandeur, and the one in Clifford D Simak's Shakespeare's Planet (1976) has a multiply split personality. More often, though, the relationship between humans and spaceships maintains a traditional naval rigour, as in many novels by the Merchant Navy writer A Bertram Chandler, Starman Jones (1953) by ex-US Navy officer Robert Heinlein and The Mote in God's Eye (1974) by Larry Niven and Jerry E Pournelle.

Sf stories whose subject matter is the spaceship Mythology built up by their predecessors include Stanisław Lem's Niezwyciezony (1964; trans as The Invincible 1973) and Mark Geston's Lords of the Starship (1967). The idea that the spaceship owes much of its charisma to phallic symbolism has been much bandied about – as reflected in Virgil Finlay's cover for the October 1963 issue of Worlds of Tomorrow, Kurt Vonnegut Jr's "The Big Space Fuck" (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison) and Norman Spinrad's The Void Captain's Tale (1983) – but a more convincing analogy would liken spaceships to the "sperms" of sea-dwelling creatures which require no intromission (and hence no phallus) but are simply released into an oceanic wilderness to seek out the object of their fertilizing mission. This is the metaphor contained in such novels as Jack Williamson's Manseed (fixup 1982), and reified as a brutal reductio ad absurdum in James Tiptree Jr's "A Momentary Taste of Being" (in The New Atlantis, anth 1975, ed Robert Silverberg). The spaceship is still commonly deployed as a straightforward facilitating device – a means to send ordinary near-contemporary characters into exotic and fabulous situations – but even in this role it can become as charismatic as Star Trek's Starship Enterprise. The terminal decline in the plausibility of the home-made spaceship in the face of the magnitude and complexity of the actual space programme has to some extent been compensated for by the remarkable frequency with which sf characters serendipitously discover Alien spaceships; a notable example is Frederik Pohl's Gateway (1977) and its sequels. Alien starships are sometimes invested with even more mystique than those constructed by humans; notable examples include those whose one-time arrival on Earth is revealed in Ivan Yefremov's "Stellar Ships" (trans 1954) and the gargantuan vessel featured in Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973). Awesome alien spaceships provide stirring climaxes for such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Abyss (1989), but they can also perform a much more sinister role, as in Stephen King's novel The Tommyknockers (1988).

The power of the sf mythology of the spaceship was made evident by the decision to bow to public pressure and name one of the experimental space shuttles, constructed in 1977, the Enterprise. [BS]

see also: Space Sim.

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