The Ship in SF

December 7, 2010

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, and it’s the sort of thing that I’m tempted to delve into in detail and write a real essay about. And I might just do that, now that I am more or less done for the year. But for now, here are my vague and wandering first impressions on the function of the ship in Science Fiction.

When you say “Science Fiction,” most people think of aliens, heroes ranging through outer space… and spaceships. Think about it: in every good old-fashioned space opera, the ship plays an integral role, far beyond that of transportation system. The ship often becomes a character in its own right, the nexus where other characters and storylines intersect. There’s the Enterprise (Star Trek). Voyager (Star Trek: Voyager). Serenity (Firefly). The Andromeda (Andromeda). HAL/Discovery 1 (the Space Odyssey saga). I could go on, but the pattern holds true even in genres outside of SF. Look how important the Black Pearl is in Pirates of the Caribbean.

As you may have noticed, some of these ships are so vital to their universe that they lend their name to the story/franchise/whatever. But why? Why do ships, space or ocean-faring, take on their own characters, whether implicitly or explicitly? Why do they become so strongly identified with their crews/missions?

I think one of the essential points here is that the ship becomes a microcosm of the world left behind by its crew. Imagine being surrounded on all sides by void. Empty darkness which may or may not be filled with the hostile “Other.” Immense distance separating you from your own planet and loved ones. As the only defence against that void, the ship then takes on enormous physical and psychological significance. A space ship isn’t just a mode of transportation. In a very real sense, it is a guardian, a protector, and often the only means of livelihood for its crew. Is it surprising then that it would come to be viewed with affection, to be personified as the “sheltering arms” against the night? Indeed, this may explain why ships are so frequently referred to as female. Those aboard are utterly dependent on it for life; the ship thus takes on a maternal role.

As to why the ship and crew become so closely identified with each other… consider this. People like to belong. Whether to nations, or families, or various organizations, they like to be able to say, “I am part of such-and-such a group.” Blame the fact that we are very social animals that depended (and continue to depend) on groups for survivial. In space, or at sea, your crew is it. There is no Fatherland or Motherland, and you probably don’t have your biological family with you. All you have are your crewmembers, your ship, and your mission, and the only thing all of those disparate components may have in common is the ship itself. So you “belong” to your ship, the maternal figure comes to head a “family.” And, I suspect, it feels comforting to be able to say you are “John Smith of the starship Awesome.” It’s a home and family wrapped up in one, and thus an incredibly comforting and convenient tool for identification.


I tend to be guiltier than most of ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects, but the tradition of ship personification stretches across time, and across genres. Science Fiction just takes this one step further by occasionally making the ship a living (or at least sentient) character in its own right, and by utilizing the natural association between ship, crew, and mission.

Over and out,




  1. Good observations. We felt a bit like that with our camper:

    Our home away from home.

    A tiny microcosm of the Universe . . . with B.O.B. (bathroom on board). 🙂

  2. These are the exact reasons why book series like Horatio Hornblower and its derivatives like David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels remain popular both in the SF and mainstream genres. The ship, whether sea-going or space-plying, offers both writer and reader the opportunity to yearn for home while carrying a bit of home off to distant lands/worlds.

    Yes, it’s like a warm, maternal embrace, but one that serves both to nurture you in life and, perhaps, seal you in death. For that same ship that saw you through the storm or the billions of miles of void, might, if things go awry, become your tomb.

    — david j.

    • Hmm… I hadn’t thought about that, but yes, the ship can also easily serve as vessel from this life to whatever lies beyond. Something along the lines of “cradle-to-grave,” as it were (perhaps all too literally, on some generational ships). Thanks for sharing- that’s really cool.

  3. I think the note of seperation has a great deal to do with this. If you compare this to…we’ll call it ‘castaway’ fiction where the main character/characters are trapped on a deserted island or planet the setting also becomes a character in and of itself, though normally hostile. Look at Robinson Crusoe, Castaway, or Pitch Black. In all of these the island (or planet) becomes on of the major enemies the character must overcome.


    • Exactly- in those cases the island, planet, or even the vacuum of space becomes the antagonist, and the ship is often the best (or even only) means of survival against it.

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