A.J. O’Connell is the author of two published novellas: Beware the Hawk and The Eagle & The Arrow. All she’s ever wanted to do in life is read and write books. Despite earning an MFA in creative fiction, she remains a huge dork for sci-fi, fantasy and comic books. She blogs at www.ajoconnell.com. Follow her on Twitter @ann_oconnell.
If you watch much science fiction, you’ll see a lot of the same types of spaceships: the boat, with its bridge, hold, and engine room; the fighter jet, with its cockpit and lasers, and the flying saucer, that staple of alien travel, mostly viewed from the exterior and with great fear.
There’s a reason these ships show up so much in television and film: they’re comfortable tropes, easy for a crew to build and for an audience to recognize.
Crack open some written sci-fi, and space travel gets much more interesting.
Ships in science fiction books are often vastly different from those we see on the screen. Their designs are more innovative, the author is often (although not always) using hard science to design a plausible system for space travel, and there is obviously no special effects budget to worry about. Below are some of the coolest spaceships in written science fiction. A few of these have been made into movies, but they had their origins in written fiction, and that’s why they are so ingenious.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell: Russell didn’t mess around when she came up with her novel, which featured a Vatican-funded mission to Alpha Centauri. The Catholic Church (which sees the mission as a mission in the religious sense) makes the ship out of a small asteroid bought on the QT from a mining company. The asteroid, hollowed out for crew’s quarters, provides its own fuel (material from the rock is fed into the engines), is round enough to spin and create gravity for the crew inside, and is big enough to burn off gradually during the trip, protecting the crew at its core. Russell goes into great detail about how the ship works, how waste is filtered through plants and even how the cameras on the outside would be protected from interstellar debris. Her whole plan for the ship seemed so plausible that NASA should probably read it and take notes.
Dune by Frank Herbert: Frank Herbert combined wormholes with spaceships for his concept of space travel in the original Dune. Here’s how it works: You pay the Spacing Guild to come to your planet with one of their gigantic Heighliners (it’s basically a shipping container large enough for an entire planet’s population) and you move all the things you want transported into the liner with your short-range spacecraft. Then the doors close, you wait, and somewhere, a Guild Navigator — a human who has ingested so much of the Dune universe’s drug of choice, Spice, that he’s mutated — uses his mental powers to fold space. And that’s it. You’re there. Dune has been made into two movies, and both have attempted to show the space travel itself but I think that dilutes the mystery of the travel: the Navigators Guild is powerful because no one knows exactly what a fully fledged Navigator looks like, and no one inside a Heighliner can see the travel itself.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: Hollywood made a heroic effort to bring The Heart of Gold to the big screen, but she’s best experienced on the page. Although Adams does give a pretty clear description of the ship (white, shaped like a running shoe, with doors pleased to open for you, video screens, and banks of computers), the ship’s propulsion system really has to be read to be understood. The Heart of Gold runs on an Infinite Improbability Drive which causes the ship to pass through every point in the universe at once, so that you’re already where you want to go. This seems pretty straightforward, but use of the Infinite Improbability Drive also causes a range of improbable things to happen: whales appear in space, people lose telepathic powers, and passengers find themselves temporarily married to someone who isn’t even there.
THERE IS A SPOILER BELOW.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson: Normally, I would not even include this because of the spoiler, but this ship is too cool to ignore. Here is the spoiler: There is a spaceship in this book. The Daban Urnud is a massive habitat ship shaped like a polyhedron with 20 faces. It contains 16 spheres, each half-filled with water, which spin around the center to create gravity. The population lives in these orbs, in houseboats with gardens on them. Because math is the universal language, one face of the Daban Urnud shows the Pythagorean Theorem as a means of communicating with new species. But the coolest thing about the Daban Urnud is how, and where, it travels. That I will not spoil for you.. You’ll have to pick up the book and see for yourself.
Know of a great book with a cool spaceship in it? Tell us all about it in the comments!
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