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World Ships

Entry updated 3 May 2021. Tagged: Theme.

The Spaceship or Starship which is also a world, or vast enough to have resources comparable to a world's, is a concept that partly overlaps the popular sf theme of Generation Starships (which see). The possibility is briefly discussed towards the end of the nineteenth century in John Munro's A Trip to Venus (1897):

"Why should we not build large vessels for the navigation of the ether – artificial planets in fact – and go cruising about in space, from universe to universe, on a celestial Cook's excursion –"

Perhaps the first actual depiction of a world ship is Laurence Manning's "The Living Galaxy" (September 1934 Wonder Stories), set in a small, self-powered world. Another is Crisis! – 1992 (October 1935-January/February 1936 Wonder Stories as "The Perfect World"; 1936) by Benson Herbert; Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937) also foretells world ships. Full-sized planets are converted into de-facto Faster Than Light starships in E E "Doc" Smith's Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951), James Blish's Earthman, Come Home (April 1950-November 1953 var mags; fixup 1955; cut 1958), Piers Anthony's Macroscope (1969; cut 1972) – where the displaced world is our own solar system's Neptune (see Outer Planets) – and Greg Bear's Moving Mars (1993), whose title is self-explanatory. The eponymous planet of Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer (1964) and the sentient Living World known as the First Sirian Bank in Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) are also capable of rapid interstellar travel; Pratchett's famous Discworld moves or swims at a much more sedate pace among the stars, though its turtle propulsion unit is fantastic in nature. James H Schmitz's The Witches of Karres (December 1949 Astounding; exp 1966) features both a wandering planet whose inhabitants shift it about the galaxy via Psi Powers, and a world-sized Invasion ship from another Dimension. A Sublight flotilla of worlds arranged in a stable "Klemperer rosette" formation is found fleeing the explosion of the galactic core in Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970). Confluence, the world ship featured in Paul J McAuley's The Book of Confluence, beginning with Child of the River (1997), is a 20,000 kilometre-long platform built over a central keel at the heart of which rests a great unawoken engine; the world ship of Robert Reed's Marrow (fixup 2000) is actually built around a planet; the title of Gregory Benford and Larry Niven's Bowl of Heaven (2012) describes a bisected Dyson Sphere driven through the galaxy by the energy from its trapped sun.

Earth itself has become a world ship in Liulang Diqiu (July 2000 Kehuan Shijie; trans as The Wandering Earth 2012 ebook) by Liu Cixin, where our planet has been equipped with many thrusters to escape the swelling of the Sun into a red giant. This story was filmed as The Wandering Earth (2019) directed by Frant Gwo.

More typically, world ships are hollowed-out and adapted Asteroids, as in Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage (July 1963 If as "Down to the Worlds of Men"; exp 1968) – whose ship homages the smaller (non-asteroidal) Free Trader vessels of Robert A Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy (September-December 1957 Astounding; 1957); James H Schmitz's "The Custodians" (December 1968 Analog); the frame story of Poul Anderson's Tales of the Flying Mountains (April 1963-September 1965 Analog as by Winston P Sanders; fixup 1970), which actually uses the term "worldship"; George Zebrowski's Macrolife (1979; rev 1990); Pamela Sargent's Earthseed (1983); Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun quartet, opening with Nightside the Long Sun (1993); and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (1996). A rare film example appears in Il Pianeta Degli Uomini Spenti (1961; vt Battle of the Worlds; vt Planet of the Lifeless Men; vt Guerre Planetari, 1978).

Still other world ships are entirely artificial but nevertheless world-sized – though perhaps only asteroidal rather than planetary in extent – and/or possessed of world-scale production capacity. Examples include the gigantic ship/habitat Rama in Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973); the Death Star ship-cum-Weapon of Star Wars (1977); the eponymous world (one of a fleet) in Greg Bear's Hegira (1979; rev 1987); Plenty in Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty (1990); the numerous General Systems Vehicles (with AI "Minds") of Iain M Banks's Culture sequence – whose quirks and capabilities are most clearly shown in Excession (1996); and the extravagantly named But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky! in Ken MacLeod's Learning the World: A Novel of First Contact (2005). The Banks and MacLeod novels show the World Ship as a place of joyously unbounded horizons, in contrast to the intellectual claustrophobia of the more traditional sf Generation Starship whose passengers have lapsed into ignorance of the vessel's true nature and are ripe for Conceptual Breakthrough. [DRL]

see also: Metamorphosis Alpha.

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