When I thought of science fiction as a kid, I tended to think of the ABCs (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke). Anne McCaffrey, unfortunately, wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t because she was a woman, it was because her most well-known series, the Dragonriders of Pern, had the audacity of calling itself science fiction when it had dragons in it. Come on, are you science fiction or are you fantasy? Crap or get off the pot, I said… Yeah, I was a stupid kid.
In my youth, I was far more interested in the ideas behind a story than the characters (again, I was stupid, unable to recognize that the ideas mean nothing unless you care about the characters as well). So The Ship Who Sang sounded a bit wishy-washy to me when I first heard about it. A bit too girly for my liking…
…I did mention I was stupid, right?
Now, being a less stupid adult, I found myself reading The Ship Who Sang and wishing I had had more sense back then. This is not only a fun series of stories (it is made up of five previously published short stories and a novella, plus a sixth piece made just for the book) but it easily holds its own in the realm of both Classic and New Wave science fiction, and its influence on science fiction is felt to this day.
In a nutshell, it follows the life of Helva, a girl born with extreme physical disabilities but a perfectly intact mind who would under other circumstances have been euthanized. Now the pessimist might look at this scenario and think the story is, “What if you had no body?” while in fact the story is, “What if your body was a starship?”
Helva’s body is kept in a titanium life support “shell” with its brain directly connected to everything on board said starship. Such “brains” are also used to run cities and space stations as well. In the case of a ship, they are paired with a “brawn”, a physically capable co-pilot who does the things Helva can’t.
This scenario differs from most intelligent ships I’m familiar with, which are usually some kind of artificial intelligence, but it wasn’t exactly a new concept either (McCaffrey herself sites a story she read involving a brain autopilot as the origin of her premise). What differs is the fact that this is told from Helva’s perspective. We follow a woman who has no body to speak of, yet the same drives and ambitions.
It is a metaphor for disability, and it’s important to note that Helva’s life is not a prison. Far from it. She excels, and in fact is capable of much more than her human counterparts in many respects. Yet there is that distance, that separation from others that does get touched upon time and again.
However, while Helva’s life is shown in a very enabling way, one could read something a bit sinister into the nature of their servitude. These ships are obliged to work for Central until such time as they have paid off the considerable cost that went into their care, training, and even their ship repairs. Once that debt is paid they can become free agents, but it seems Central looks for ways to keep that from happening—though all perfectly legal.
The adventures Helva and her various brawns go on are reminiscent of the spirit of classic Star Trek. They don’t focus on action or combat (it’s never made clear if Helva’s ship is even armed) but encountering new mysteries, new problems, and even new civilizations.
From a writer’s perspective, the book is also interesting in that we see McCaffrey grow as a writer. The stories (written between 1961 and 1969) span her early days right up to when she hit her stride with the Dragonriders series.
Her style of science fiction is rather light in terms of explanations. While she does go into some detail about how things work, much of it is left up to the reader to assume based on their knowledge of existing SF. What powers Helva’s ship, how FTL works, even the nature of the government she works for, most of it is extremely vague. This is in part because the stories were originally all short stories, but it is also because the focus is on the characters, not the doodads and technobabble.
The influence of her story can be seen in many places. What Classic Star Trek fan can forget the episode “Spock’s Brain” (even though they wish they could)? The Next Generation had an episode (“Tin Man”) featured a living ship that yearned for a living pilot (for most of the book, Helva is lacking a permanent “brawn” and rather miffed about it).
However, the idea of using a living brain in place of a computer is not a concept that really holds up in modern SF, though a transcended intelligence would still work. But even when using artificial intelligence, we’ve long gone past the days of HAL 9000 in terms of dry sentience. Ship-board AIs are can be all-too human in personality, such as Rommie in the series Andromeda. In a case like that, whether or not the entity is organic or artificial no longer really matters. What matters is the core concept: what if your body was a starship?
Originally Published in KODT #216