Temporary Death

Back from the Dead

Bringing back the dead is a tricky business, story-wise.  For a major character to die adds gravitas.  It gains our sympathy; it makes us take the story more seriously.

But in adventure stories, characters who die have a pretty good chance of turning up again later.  This has become such a convention that we are often adjured not to assume someone’s dead unless you actually see the body.

There’s a strong temptation for a writer to save a beloved (and sometimes lucrative) character; yet the return undermines the impact of the death.  Are there ways to manage that dilemma?

The White Rider

Gandalf faces Balrog with sword and staffThe theme of one who was dead who turns up alive has a very long history—as we may note particularly in this Easter season.  For the literary trope, however, I think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings as the the ur-example.  Gandalf’s loss is appalling for the reader, and his reappearance is a classic example of the sudden turn beyond hope that Tolkien called “eucatastrophe.”

LotR comes early enough in the history of modern high fantasy that it may have been unexpected, at that time, for a character to really die and then come back.  Merely apparent death is much more common—even in LotR.  An article I read once observed how frequently someone is thought to be dead in the course of the story.  For example, Aragorn thinks Frodo has been killed by an orc-spear in the Mines of Moria (Book II, Ch. 5).  Sam assumes Shelob has killed Frodo, when in fact the spider has merely put him into a coma (Book IV, Ch. 10).  Éomer believes Éowyn is dead, but when she’s borne back to the city she is found to be alive (Book V, Ch. 6).  Et cetera.

Gandalf the WhiteGandalf, on the other hand, really does die at the end of his extensive combat with the Balrog.  But this isn’t as fatal as it seems.  Gandalf is a semi-divine spirit, one of the Maiar, and his mission in Middle-Earth is not yet complete.  He says:  “Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task is done” (Book III, ch. 5).  The “naked” is not simply a bodily description.  In passing “through fire and deep water,” he has given up his old self, Gandalf the Grey, and become an elevated version, Gandalf 2.0, the White Rider.

This is perhaps one clue as to what makes a return from death succeed, in a narrative sense.  It isn’t easy, and it isn’t trivial.  Gandalf’s being “sent back” is extraordinary, and it changes him in deep ways.  To my mind, this death-and-reversal add to the depth and power of the story.

The Descent into Routine

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.  If the return is taken for granted, then we aren’t moved or edified by the dying.  We don’t believe it in the first place.  In fact, reading or watching a death we know is reversible tends to make us cynical.  The writers are playing on our emotions, and we feel manipulated rather than moved.

Batman and Wonder Woman mourn SupermanIn the 2016 movie Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice, Superman dies at the end.  Did anyone believe for a minute this death would last?  No one is going to kill off such an iconic character.  If nothing else (here’s the cynical part), the future income stream from Superman stories is an irresistible lure.  Just as with the comic-book “Death of Superman” sequence from which the idea was taken, I suspect my reaction was shared by many:  here’s a cheap trick to get our attention.

To be sure, there are some affecting moments in the transition from BvS to Justice League (2017), in which Superman is revived—partly because reviving him is arduous and difficult, as further discussed below.  But those moments are not easily attained.  The artifice is too transparent.

Westley recovers from death with Inigo and FezzikI have somewhat the same reaction, for a different reason, to The Princess Bride—one of the flaws in that admirable tale.  Goldman’s narrator makes a great deal out of telling his son (in the movie, grandson) that Westley dies (ch. 6).  Really.  He’s not faking.  And naturally, the boy is outraged.  The hero isn’t supposed to die!  Yet he did.  —But no, the author has tricked us.  Westley isn’t really dead.  Miracle Max tells us, “there’s different kinds of dead:  there’s sort of dead, mostly dead, and all dead.  This fella here, he’s only sort of dead . . .” (ch. 7).

That’s cheating.  We may be willing to accept the trick in The Princess Bride because it’s already such a roaring stream of clichés, so enthusiastically devised and appreciated that we never do take the story quite seriously.  But we aren’t really moved.  Our appreciation is of a different order:  we’re laughing fondly at the author’s willingness to indulge with such unreserved gusto in the most absurd fairy-tale stereotypes and gimmicks.

If we’re commenting on Batman v. Superman, we really ought to say something about Avengers:  Infinity War/Endgame.  But it’s too soon—too many spoilers.  Maybe another time.

Variations

Incidentally, the routine return can apply to villains as well as heroes.  A hero’s recurring nemesis may also be an iconic character, and the fact that the nemesis keeps coming back is a convention we rather enjoy.  TV Tropes refers to it as “Joker Immunity.”  Superman’s Lex Luthor, Spider-Man’s Green Goblin, the Fantastic Four’s Doctor Doom:  if any of them appear to be dead in the comic books, we can be pretty sure they’ll be back.  On the other hand, movie series don’t run on forever in the same way that comics series do.  The screen adapters of Spider-Man can thus afford to “expend” the Goblin, or Dr. Octopus, because they’re only going to make three or four films in a given series.  There isn’t time for repeated recurrences of an arch-enemy.

Doctor Doom is rescued by the Ovoids

On the other hand, it’s notorious that we hear Emperor Palpatine’s sinister laughter at the end of the most recent Star Wars IX trailer (4/12/2019). immediately following Luke’s voiceover line, “No one’s ever really gone.”  Some movie series do go on that long . . .

Once revival has become routine, it’s a noteworthy exception when an author is willing to let a main character go permanently (Killed Off For Real; see a list of film examples, and also the trope Deader Than Dead).  J.K. Rowling, for example, killed off Albus Dumbledore for good, well before the end of the Harry Potter saga.  Veronica Roth’s Divergent series allows the heroine herself to die at the end, though this seems to have been omitted from the corresponding movie.

In Star Wars, the regular appearance of “Force ghosts” provides a sort of compromise.  The fallen heroes don’t come back to life, but they do hang around to provide advice, commentary, and snarky explanations.

The Search for Spock

Let’s return to an instance where a temporary death does work to see if we can determine what makes that possible.

Spock's death in Star Trek 2Along with LotR, my other go-to example is Star Trek II:  The Wrath of KhanWrath is generally considered to be among the best of the Trek movies (for example, here, here, and here), and a sizable part of its draw is the death of the beloved Spock.  Like Gandalf, Spock perishes heroically, subjecting himself to a fatal overdose of radiation to make a crucial repair that saves everyone else on the Enterprise.  And his loss is fully realized by his long-time friends, along with the new characters we’ve just gotten to know.  Maybe I’m sentimental, but Kirk’s eulogy at Spock’s funeral has always struck me as a genuinely moving moment.

At the same time, there was no doubt in my mind when I first saw the film that Spock would be back.  The whole atmosphere of the final scenes in Wrath—hopefulness so intense you can almost taste it—lent itself to anticipating eucatastrophe rather than a final end.  The shiny “casket,” nestled in the burgeoning growth of the Genesis planet, seemed to promise some kind of resurrection.  What made us feel Spock’s death so effectively, even though we were morally certain we’d see him again?

Part of it is that these characters had had such a long history together.  We’d seen their relationship grow over three TV seasons, and we’d been recently reminded of that history in the first Star Trek movie, flop though it was.  To the numerous loyal Trek fans, at least, these were truly iconic characters, and we were emotionally invested in them.  The history had built up a kind of emotional potential that the death sequence could draw upon.

Spock's funeralEven more important, the other characters were visibly affected.  They didn’t know Spock would be back.  We grieved for Spock through his friends.  The screenwriter and director wisely gave us enough time, in the final sequences, to absorb and appreciate that grief with the other characters.  I suspect this, more than anything, is what makes a provisional death effective:  a powerful portrayal of other people’s response to the loss.

Finally, the heroism of Spock’s final acts, and the overwhelming sense of something wonderful that’s been achieved on the Genesis planet at the end, lend depth and further feeling to the event.  We respect his sacrifice, and it means something.  The hope for new life doesn’t necessarily erode the gravity of the death.

Moreover, the sequels navigated the difficulty pretty well.  Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock did unavoidably undercut the resolution of Wrath a bit.  The Genesis planet is unstable; it isn’t quite as wonderful as we thought.  The adversaries in Search are much more mundane than Khan (who had his own history with the Enterprise crew).  And the death isn’t permanent.

Yet the complex, gradual, effortful reconstitution of Spock manages to become something wonderful in itself, rather than just a reversal of the loss.  The notion that Spock’s katra or spirit survives adds an element of the mystical or sublime to the science-fiction texture of the series.  The notion that it survived in McCoy’s head gave the situation humor and irony.  The unconventional expedients the Enterprise crew must use to get McCoy back to Genesis provide both adventure and a maverick sense of, well, enterprise.  Meanwhile, the scenes of Spock’s body re-growing from childhood to adulthood as accelerated by the Genesis effect have their own sense of wonder.

Spock is rebornWhen the Vulcan ceremony of reintegration rejoins Spock’s spirit with his body, the impact of the result is heightened by the fact that Spock is clearly changed by his passage through death.  (The final film of the trilogy, Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, continues this theme by showing Spock visibly struggling to get used to life again.)  The return, which takes two whole movies to complete—a quest in itself—is far more than a handwave.  It’s an achievement.

Conclusions

From these examples I think we can pick out some factors that help a story to make good use of a temporary death, as opposed to a routine we-know-they’ll-be-back.

  • The death is heroic; it means something.
  • We care about the lost person—and so do the other people in the story.
  • The other characters experience the death fully, even if the reader or viewer knows that it won’t be permanent.
  • The deceased character is absent long enough to let the loss sink in.
  • The deceased character earns the return. It doesn’t come easy.
  • The returned character is transformed in some way by the experience.

When an author can incorporate these elements, we the audience can extend our “willing suspension of disbelief” to sympathize with the rest of the cast in their loss, even when we are aware in propria persona that the beloved dead aren’t gone for good.

Higher, Further, Faster: Captain Marvel

Wild Loyalty

Captain Marvel poster with mottoI saw Captain Marvel twice in the first ten days of its March 8, 2019, U.S. release.  So, yeah, I liked the movie.  We had big hopes for this one—the first Marvel movie with a female lead, trailing DC’s Wonder Woman (2017) by a little less than two years.  I’d say those hopes were borne out.

But my reaction was even stronger than that.

Back in 1977, when I first saw the original Star Wars (A New Hope), I remember sitting around the next day and wishing I were back there again.  Not in the universe of the movie, which is dangerous and in many places rather unpleasant; but in the story.  Something about the overall effect of it, the ambiance, the mood or attitude, fired me with a kind of instant nostalgia for something I’d just seen.  A curious feeling.

Maybe that could be explained by the fact that I was young(er) and (more) impressionable at that time.  But the day after I saw Captain Marvel, here I was again with this goofy fanboy reaction.  It’s a kind of wild loyalty to a new discovery.  You want to tell people about it, you put up the wallpaper on your computer desktop, you hunt up the soundtrack.  And this at my supposedly-mature age.

So I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why I find this movie so engaging.  Since at this writing CM is still in theaters, I’m going to avoid spoilers; this post should be as safe as any current movie review or the trailers.  If you haven’t seen the flick yet, I will say this:  There are two “stinger” scenes, just as you expect from a Marvel movie these days, one in the middle of the credits and one at the very end.  And be sure to pay attention to the Marvel logo that appears just before the movie starts:  it’s an “aww” moment for longtime fans.

New and Improved

Due to their long-running serial nature, and the reluctance of publishers ever to give up on a profitable property, comic-book characters tend to stick around indefinitely and, as a result, are prone to what TV Tropes calls Continuity Snarl.  Their backstory gets more and more complicated, retconned, and re-adapted, until it becomes hopelessly incoherent.  One of the virtues of the movie versions is that the writers have a chance to start from scratch and use only the elements they choose to build a new iteration of the character.

Captain Marvel’s background is even more complex than usual.  There have been five or six different versions of a “Captain Marvel” character (not even counting the Fawcett/DC “Captain Marvel,” now known for copyright reasons as “Shazam,” who has his own movie coming out shortly).  That’s in addition to several iterations of “Ms. Marvel,” sometimes with the same person switching from one title to the other.  A summary of this history can be found at Comics Alliance; and this Wikipedia page has a quick rundown of the various versions.

Captain Marvel (Marvel Super-Heroes) coverMarvel Comics’ original Captain Marvel was a rather boring and angsty agent of the interstellar empire of the Kree (who look exactly like humans) named Mar-Vell, a young white-haired guy in an unimpressive green-and-white uniform.  (Those who’ve seen the movie will note a distant connection here.)  Mar-Vell is sent to Earth to find out what the heck is going on with these humans, after the Fantastic Four trounced a supposedly invincible Kree Sentry and then Ronan the Accuser.

In the early comics, Marvel couldn’t figure out what to do with Mar-Vell.  He engaged in slugfests with a number of established Marvel characters and suffered through a weepy romantic triangle.  After about ten issues (Captain Marvel #11), the writers had an apparently godlike being named Zo give him new powers, after which he continued to do nothing much of interest.  In issue #16, the Kree’s Supreme Intelligence changed his powers yet again and tossed him into an alternate universe called the Negative Zone, where he floats around until he periodically switches bodies with perennial Marvel kid sidekick Rick Jones, in a manner uncannily similar to that of the DC Shazam character (and also Jack Kirby’s Infinity Man, but that’s another story).

Comics scene, Mar-Vell & distressed CarolCarol Danvers—the Captain Marvel of the movie (played perfectly by Brie Larson)—also appeared in this early era, but not yet as a superhero.  She had a responsible position as security head at Cape Canaveral, but frequently she served as a mere damsel in distress, and as one of Mar-Vell’s two romantic interests. Altogether, not much promising material in this original incarnation of Captain Marvel.

Now, I haven’t followed comics closely for many a year (one can’t read everything), so I wasn’t there for the renaissance of this character in the form we see in the movie.  But as I understand it, the movie’s version dates only from 2012, when the character was rebooted by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick.

In other words, this isn’t a cinematic presentation of an iconic character like Spider-Man, Captain America, or Thor.  Here, the screenwriters elected to throw out a lot of the excess baggage of fifty years’ worth of comics.  It was the right choice.

Higher, Further, Faster

In a 2012 interview with Wired, DeConnick said:  “My pitch was Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager.”  And that begins to explain why I love this character.  She had me at “Chuck Yeager.”

Sam Shepard with Chuck Yeager

Sam Shepard (left), playing Chuck Yeager, with Yeager himself (right)

One of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff (1983), Philip Kaufman’s fact-based history of the NASA Mercury program, spends a lot of time with Yeager.  Tom Wolfe, the author of the book on which the movie was based, considered Yeager the archetype of the test pilots from whose ranks the Mercury astronauts were drawn.  Although Yeager himself never went into space, he exemplified the cool, confident, no-nonsense pilot who could take on any challenge and surmount it through a combination of superb competence and a fearless can-do attitude.  The pilot with the “right stuff” has a certain contempt for the rules, along with all other limitations, and always takes danger lightly, preferably with cool wisecracks.

This version of Carol Danvers starts out as a test pilot, with exactly that intrepid attitude.  The movie isn’t shy about making the comparison.  Carol passes through a Blockbuster Video store (the movie is set in 1995) and pauses to glance at a copy of The Right Stuff.  We get a scene set at Pancho’s, the pilots’ bar that figures largely in that earlier movie.  And we have a cat named Goose—a sly reference to Tom Cruise’s best friend in Top Gun, another movie about hot pilots (fighter pilots rather than test pilots).  Carol embodies this insouciant, reckless competence.  With another pilot, she exchanges a sort of catchphrase or motto—“Higher, further, faster”—from the title of one of DeConnick’s Captain Marvel comic sequences.  It captures the test pilot ideal neatly.

Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame trailerThese references put Carol immediately into the category of daredevil pilots—a maverick, like Tom Cruise’s lead character in Top Gun.  It’s a very engaging attitude (and I mean Attitude, with a capital A).  You don’t have to see the movie to get a sense of this.  Check out this Avengers:  Endgame trailer at about 2:10.  That little crooked smile . . . As Thor says:  “I like this one.”

Marvel and Wonder

Comparison with Wonder Woman is inevitable—and, I think, instructive.  These are both great movies with excellent main characters.  But those characters play out differently.

Wonder Woman, vambraces crossedDiana is invincible; she always has been.  She may have taken some knocks being trained by the Amazons, but she’s pretty much untouchable by anything humans have got.  She takes on the Greek god Ares as an equal.  There, to be sure, the contrast I’m trying to make falters a bit, because she’s outmatched by Ares until intense emotional strain—the loss of a loved one—causes her to claim her full power.  And at that point she really is invincible.  It’s glorious to see a woman who needs to fear nothing, splendid in her power, with a heart guiding that power to fight for the right.

When she enters the world of normal humans, Diana brings a kind of intelligent innocence.  She learns difficult lessons about the complications of the human world, but that never really deflects her from her sense of justice (along with love or compassion).  That’s what’s so great about her.

Carol, on the other hand, has to earn her power.  She doesn’t start out as an Amazon.  First she must acquire her supernormal abilities; and then she has to learn how to use them under challenging circumstances (as celebrated in this Tor article).  Carol also comes face to face with the complexities of the world—but not initially from a position of power.  She has more of a character development arc than Diana does.

Both heroes are a joy to see, coming into their power.  But Captain Marvel is more vulnerable, emotionally if not physically.  Despite the cool test-pilot attitude, the emotion that runs beneath is both her challenge and her strength.  It’s easier to sympathize with her.

Distinctive Valor

There’s more in CM to admire.  The star-spanning plot awakens that sense of wonder, of vast scope and open possibilities, that is science fiction’s strong point.  But the real key, I think, remains in the character of the heroine.

Captain Marvel, defiant with glowThe motif of desperate heroism isn’t unique; on the contrary.  Naturally our heroes are always fighting against great odds.  But some stories are better that others at evoking that undaunted resistance to overwhelming opposition.  This is one of them.  In Larson’s brilliant portrayal, we see Carol’s stubborn courage, her indomitable resolve—and always with that particular mischievous touch that comes with the test-pilot package.

To me, specifically feminine valor is especially poignant.  And when you add that devil-may-care “right stuff” attitude, it’s irresistible.  When Eowyn faces down the undead Lord of the Nazgûl at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, I empathize with her defiant stand even more than with Aragorn’s or Frodo’s.  Then add to this the reckless abandon with which Carol takes on her foes.  She fights with flair.  She takes the fight almost lightly in a sense, as if danger and peril hardly matter.  Yet at the same time she never pulls per punches, much less gives up.  It’s this, I think, that excites my wholehearted admiration.

That’s my take on it so far.  There are a lot of other fascinating angles to CM, but they’d involve spoilers.  Maybe another time . . .

The Hidden Right Stuff

Astronomy Ascendant

Cassini over Saturn's southern hemisphereIt isn’t surprising that I got a lump in my throat at space probe Cassini’s Grand Finale plunge into Saturn.  What’s striking is that so many other people seem to have felt the same way, as described in the aforelinked article and a Sept. 16 Washington Post editorial titled “The Cassini mission embodies the best of humanity.”  No immediately profitable results, no earthly use—and yet quite a range of people seem to have been moved by the end of this long-running mission.

People watch the solar eclipse from the observation deck of The Empire State Building in New YorkThe Cassini Grand Finale followed immediately upon another widely popular sky event, the eclipse of August 21, 2017.  A total solar eclipse visible in the continental United States is rare enough that dedicated eclipse watchers were naturally excited.  But the level of interest in the general public was quite remarkable.  Libraries, giving away eclipse-watching glasses to the public, ran out of them well before the big day.

Why this sudden upsurge in astronomical interest?  My guess is that at a time when other news is so depressing, and human inhumanity to humans is so prevalent, we long to hear about something that’s both bigger than ourselves, and wonderful rather than terrible.

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures book coverI recently read Hidden Figures (2016), by Margot Lee Shetterly.  This historical-biographical work tells the story of the African-American women who worked with NASA during the “space race,” at a time when neither women, nor African-Americans, were typically considered candidates for science positions.  Their mathematical expertise was crucial in making possible the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

Hidden Figures movie posterAn excellent movie based on the book—I’ve seen it twice so far—came out in December 2016, which must set some kind of record for speedy translation of a book to the big screen.  The film, as is usual with historical movies, alters the facts somewhat to dramatize the changes taking place.  But it effectively conveys how the intrepid characters overcame prejudices and organizational impediments to make great contributions.

Part of the lump-in-the-throat uplift I felt in this story comes from the chance, for once, to see people doing the right thing in terms of justice and respect for everyone.  But another part comes from the fact that the achievements of the women depicted in the book and movie weren’t just any successes.  They were specifically in the area of spaceflight, appealing to the science- and science-fiction enthusiast in me as well as the admirer of virtue.  In that respect, I was reminded of an older favorite film, The Right Stuff.

The Right Stuff

A generation ago, Tom Wolfe’s idiosyncratic history of Project Mercury and the test-pilot culture out of which it grew, The Right Stuff (1979), became a 1983 movie by Philip Kaufman.  From the slapstick humor of the medical testing, to the cheerfully cynical depiction of the public-relations machine that went to work on the Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff took a decidedly down-to-earth look at the space program.  But as the story develops, those mundane aspects merely serve to underline the genuine courage and daring of the Mercury pioneers.

The Right Stuff movie posterThe movie has long been a favorite in my household.  Aided by a soaring score from Bill Conti, The Right Stuff awakens the same sense of wonder we feel from Hidden Figures—with the earthier aspects to remind us that, inspiring as the story may be, this isn’t a fairy tale or even solid SF; it really happened.

Common Ground

These two space race movies obviously have a lot in common.  They share a historical setting, though they approach it from quite different angles, and they cover some of the same events.  Each features an ensemble cast, rather than a single main character.  Some of the characters even overlap; John Glenn plays an important role in both.

Each is a fictionalized movie made from a nonfiction book.  To present their stories, screenwriters and directors have to invent actual dialogue and scenes that aren’t part of the historical record.  Conversely, the books cover more ground than the movies can possibly handle.  The book Hidden Figures, for example, starts its narrative in World War II, while the movie opens around 1960.

More important, I think, is the mood evoked by the two films.  The distinctiveness of that emotion arises from the fact that the U.S. space program is one of the few enterprises in recent history that joins heroic dedication to an aspirational goal, with a visually impressive record that can be readily appreciated by all of us.  (One might point to medical successes, for example, as equally noble—say, the development of the polio vaccine.  But rockets are easier to see and appreciate than bacteria.)

So many of the great heroic efforts we can point to are wars.  The perennial appeal of stories about World War II, the American Civil War, Star Wars, the War of the Ring, show how these exemplars of courage and perseverance continue to move us.  But even when such wars are justified, they are essentially negative efforts.  The participants strive to prevent something—to avert or amend some great evil—and the means for doing so unavoidably involve harm and destruction.

New Horizons launches to PlutoThese stories about the space program, on the other hand, remind us that equally great and heroic efforts can be made for affirmative purposes.  They arouse that heart-lifting sense of people striving mightily together for goals that are not destructive, but wholly aspirational.  To the wonder of discovery and exploration are added the glory of humans exercising their best qualities—intelligence, diligence, boldness, cooperation.  These true stories give us a sense of unity in a good cause, like the “band of brothers” forged in wartime, but without the corresponding division and opposition of a human enemy.

This isn’t Pollyanna territory.  The Right Stuff pays plenty of attention to human foibles and pettiness; but they become trivial in the great achievements of the movie’s second half.  Hidden Figures specifically addresses human vices—and sweeps them aside in the name of something greater.  As with Cassini and the eclipse, we have a chance to focus, for a while, on something that extends beyond ourselves and calls out the best in us.  We don’t ignore human weakness, but we are given examples of how, from time to time, we can transcend it.

These are stories worth telling.

The Large Spaceship Competition

Enormity

We space opera fans like big things:  sweeping plots and intrigues, larger-than-life characters, huge explosions.  And big spaceships.  The bigger, the better.

You remember the opening of the original Star Wars.  At the top of the frame, the Imperial Star Destroyer looms into view.  And keeps coming, for what seems like forever.  With this visual cue, Lucas communicates immediately the sheer scale of his story.

In a long story, this can lead to a Lensman Arms Race in terms of spaceship size—each new construct eclipsing the last.  One might wonder:  How far can we go with this?  Who holds the record for Largest Spaceship of All?

Traditional spacecraft

Saturn V-Apollo on transporterOrdinary, garden-variety depictions of spaceships are long since out of the running—not just real vehicles like the Saturn V-Apollo, but fictional ones that are meant to be big.  Kate Wilhelm’s title “The Mile-Long Spaceship” (1957) doesn’t sound even slightly impressive any more.  According to Wikipedia, those Star Destroyers range up to 2,915 meters, almost two miles.  The famous size comparison chart by Dirk Loechel displays these, along with the Independence Day mothership, the Dune Spacing Guild Heighliner, the Borg cube, and many more—but Loechel set his cutoff for the image, arbitrarily, at 24,000 meters:  “I had to draw the line somewhere.”

That’s just getting started.

“That’s no moon”

The alien probe in Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, which I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, is 50 kilometers long and 16 wide (31 by 10 miles).  That’s bigger than a lot of Earthly cities.

Death StarStar Wars’ Death Star, famously misidentified as a moon, has been estimated at between 100 and 160 kilometers in diameter (62 to 100 miles), at least three times larger.  The second Death Star, from Return of the Jedi, spanned somewhere between 200 and 400 kilometers (up to 250 miles), according to the same Wikipedia article.

Skylark of Valeron coverFor a long time I idolized E.E. Smith’s Skylark of Valeron as the epitome of spaceship scale.  The ship (not the novel of the same name), “almost of planetary dimensions,” is a sphere one thousand kilometers in diameter—about 621 miles (ch. 20).  That’s over twice the size of the large economy-size Death Star.  (A blogger going under the title Omnivorenz has done a detailed analysis of the various Skylark series spaceships.)

However, we’re still in the moon category, not yet up to planet-sized.  (Of course, if astronomers keep changing the rules on what counts as a planet, the two size ranges can overlap.)

Planets in motion

At this stage, we need to think about what counts as a “spaceship.”  Surely one requirement is that it be able to move in a directed fashion—otherwise the International Space Station would count.  But does it have to be a construct, a made thing?  Or can you take an existing mass and equip it with motive power?

Quite a few science fiction writers have depicted mobile planets (not simply in the sense of moving in an orbit, but of guided, directed motion).  In Blish’s Cities in Flight series, the characters twice use spindizzy drives to send whole worlds careening through the heavens.  E.E. Smith’s Lensmen, after a point, deploy “dirigible” planets almost routinely—not to mention antimatter objects (“negaspheres”) of comparable mass.  In The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber has not one, but two, traveling planets approach the Earth.  (The original source of the word “planet” is a Greek word meaning “wanderer.”)

There’s a series of stories by Robert Reed about something called “the Greatship,” but I haven’t managed to read them yet.  The blurbs describe the Greatship as “larger than worlds” and “apparently built from a re-engineered gas giant” – which would put us into a distinctly different size class from even an Earth-type planet.

And beyond

Here’s a question:  Does a “spaceship” have to be a single contiguous object?  Or can it be an array of objects that travel together, but are not physically connected?

In Larry Niven’s Known Space universe, the species known as Puppeteers flees a coming galactic disaster, not by leaving their homeworld, but by taking their planet with them—along with four others, arranged in a “Klemperer rosette” around their common center of gravity.  That’s traveling in style!  This “Fleet of Worlds” moves slower than light, but not much—and it’s five times larger, altogether, than a Blish or Smith flying planet.

The Cometeers coverBut Niven was writing hard science fiction, with some attempt at scientific plausibility.  The great space operas of earlier eras weren’t constrained by such trivial considerations.  For a long time, my list of giant spacecraft was topped by the so-called “comet” piloted by the adversaries in Jack Williamson’s 1936 classic The Cometeers.  It’s not a comet at all, but a green force-field shell enclosing an entire system of worlds:  the heroes count 143 planets, plus an artificial sun (ch. 13).  The eponymous alien Cometeers sail this congeries of worlds about the universe like space pirates on a grand scale.  It’s the biggest guided space-traveling object I’m run across that’s described with any precision.

The real prize, however, belongs to Arthur C. Clarke.  In the unthinkably far future of The City and the Stars (1956), a reconstruction of history shows the leading intelligences of a galactic civilization leaving the Milky Way on a voyage of exploration in what is apparently an entire star cluster, set into motion by energies on a galactic scale:

They had assembled a fleet before which imagination quailed.  Its flagships were suns, its smallest vessels, planets.  An entire globular cluster, with all its solar systems and all their teeming worlds, was about to be launched across infinity.

The long line of fire smashed through the heart of the Universe [i.e., the Galaxy], leaping from star to star.  In a moment of time a thousand suns had died, feeding their energies to the monstrous shape that had torn along the axis of the Galaxy, and was now receding into the abyss. . . .  (ch. 24)

That’s about as far as my imagination will go, to be sure.

The pursuit of wonder

TV Tropes collects a number of these references, and more, under the heading Planet Spaceship.

As we contemplate these logarithmic jumps in scale, we may note that after a point, the whole exercise can become meaningless.  If your “ship” includes whole planets and solar systems, why go anywhere?  It’s rather mysterious why Williamson’s Cometeers would need to roam the universe preying on other star systems (other than to provide a challenge for our dauntless heroes).  What are they getting that they haven’t already got ‘on board’?

The one likely answer may be, to see what’s out there (assuming you need this large a vessel to take you).  This is the primary reason Clarke’s far-future intelligences set out on their journey:

All we know is that the Empire made contact with—something—very strange and very great, far away around the curve of the Cosmos, at the other extremity of space itself.  What it was we can only guess, but its call must have been of immense urgency, and immense promise.  (ch. 24)

In a way, the exploration motive—“new life and new civilizations”—brings us back to where we started this exercise in scope.  Simply contemplating larger and larger objects brings us some degree of awe—a touch of that “sense of wonder” for which science fiction and fantasy are famous.  But a much greater wonder springs from the idea of meeting wholly new experiences—“very strange and very great.”

The grandest justification for leaving our world may be sheer discovery—even if we end up, like the Puppeteers, taking our world with us when we go.

Strangeness

One of the specialties of science fiction—and to some extent fantasy—is to evoke a sense of strangeness.  In dealing with the alien, the cosmic, that which is far away in space or time, SF can make us feel we are encountering something that passes the limits of our knowledge or understanding.

This isn’t as easy as it looks.

The Used and the Unusual

Since at least the original Star Wars (1977), it’s been good practice to portray a “Used Future.”  Star Wars gave us a world full of beaten-up, grimy equipment that looked as if it had been duct-taped together.  This is generally a good technique.  It adds realism.  We feel at home in a world where everything is not perfectly cleaned and aligned; it’s like where we actually live.  There’s a sense of familiarity.

One opposite to the “used future,” of course, is the kind of earlier SF movie that was full of shiny, spotless spaceships and immaculate gizmos.  But the sense of familiarity also has its own opposite:  the thrill of unfamiliarity.

One way the challenge arises is with extraterrestrials.  Suppose a story has us meeting intelligent aliens.  If they seem just like us—“rubber-forehead aliens”—they won’t be convincing.  We expect something from another world to be different.  The writer or director has to show creatures, technologies, behaviors that are unlike anything we’ve seen on Earth.

Escher: Wallpaper CaveYet these things must also be believable.  Something that simply looks random or arbitrary, like an abstract swirl of colors, won’t convince us we’re seeing a real thing at all.  How do we thread the needle between the too-familiar and the unintelligible?

Just Alien Enough

Natural laws do enforce certain constraints on physical objects.  But other characteristics are a matter of custom, design choices, or aesthetics.  To show something convincingly alien, we need to know the difference.

Alien ship from movie ArrivalSometimes a single feature can be odd enough to alert us that we’re “not in Kansas any more.”  The alien ship that appears in the movie Arrival looks strange at once, because it’s smaller at the bottom than at the top.  It looks as if it’s upside-down or sideways. Not the way we’d build, yes.  But is it physically impossible?  Nope.  The ship isn’t on the ground, balanced implausibly on a narrow end.  It’s floating in the air.  This not only frees the ship from the usual need for wheels or other supports; it also introduces a second, subtler strangeness.  When we humans land somewhere, we expect to land, to set ourselves down securely on a surface.  These folks seem quite comfortable floating just above the ground.

A classic example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.  A massive spacecraft—a spinning O’Neill cylinder—enters the solar system, apparently inert.  A human crew matches course to explore it before its hyperbolic orbit takes it out into interstellar space again.  The ship begins to “come alive” around them—but there’s no sign of intelligent life aboard.  The explorers find one strange and amazing feature after another.  The purpose of some becomes clear:  the long, shallow rectangular valleys turn out to be immense lights that illuminate the interior.  But they never find out the reasons for many other objects.  In the end they have to cut loose from the vessel, letting it go on its mysterious way.

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustrationClarke’s mastery of clear detail—how the airlock doors open, for instance—gives us the necessary sense of realism.  But leaving many things mysterious evokes the sense of mystery and wonder that is among the most distinctive experiences in science fiction.  The unfamiliar is clearly and concretely depicted, but the purpose remains obscure.

(Parenthetically, I advise paying no attention at all to the dreadful sequels Gentry Lee wrote to Rama under Clarke’s direction.  They make the classic mistake of erasing the mystery without replacing it with anything at all interesting.  As with certain other sequels, the only thing for a conscientious reader to do is declare them non-canonical and pretend they never happened.)

For another Clarke treatment, remember 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  The mundane and even humdrum character of the long space voyage makes the psychedelic sequence at the end feel even weirder than it is in itself.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Extraterrestrials need not be involved.  Distance in time or space, and the concurrent advances in technology, can also provide a good foundation for the sense of strangeness.  (It was, after all, Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Among the numerous virtues of David Brin’s Hugo-winning novel Startide Rising is that sense of entering a new and unaccountable world.  His Earthly spaceship crew of “uplifted” dolphins, with their small group of human companions, use advanced techniques that are still recognizable to us.  But they’re dealing with galactic cultures that draw on hundreds of millions of years of accumulated science.  The results can be mind-boggling.  One species, for example, travels by using a captive creature that creates portals “by the adamant power of its ego—by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality.”  This isn’t your grandmother’s hyperdrive.

Toy stack of ringsThe body of another species, the Jophur, consists of a stack of distinct rings, like a child’s toy.  The Brothers of the Ebony Shadows employ a probability weapon that sends out “waves of uncertainty.”  The fact that these species are nonhuman is incidental to the fact that their immense background of far-advanced science lets them use techniques that seem to surpass our understanding.

For a purely human example, let’s look at Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.  (Clarke really had the knack for this sort of thing.)  The main character, who bears the pedestrian name of Alvin, lives in Diaspar, the last city on Earth, billions of years in our future.  The city’s structure does not erode or decay; it’s maintained by “eternity circuits” according to the model held in its master computers.  The people do not die in a conventional sense.  After living for a thousand years, each individual walks back into the Hall of Creation and is dissolved—but is also retained in the memory circuits, to be rematerialized eons later.  Thus the population of the city is always changing, but the individuals continue.  And that’s only the beginning . . .

The City and the Stars, illustration

Exotic Ways of Life

Technology is one thing; behavior is another.  The City and the Stars does a terrific job of imagining how the society of Diaspar is shaped by the extraordinary conditions under which its people live.

When I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, it was billed as ‘military science fiction’—but it’s nothing like the general run of military SF.  The six factions in the story make use of technologies that create real-world effects based on “formations” of people and their consensus beliefs.  Much of the plot revolves around a revolt based on “calendrical heresy”—which is just what it sounds like:  deviation from the standard calendars.  In Lee’s world, calendrical uniformity isn’t just a matter of convenience, but of crucial importance.  The resulting society is correspondingly peculiar.  Reading the story makes you feel as if you’re constantly being knocked sideways.

Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time combines present-day characters with those living in a city one hundred trillion years in the future.  The far-future people consist of “noötic” or virtual mass, are defended by “reality generators,” and are trying to fight a cosmic entity that’s trying to destroy the universe by disintegrating its history, acting backward through time.  The present-day people in mundane Seattle keep us grounded, but trying to understand the end-of-time characters and what they are doing requires a constant stretching of the imagination.

Strangeness and Wonder

The sense of strangeness or mystery is one form of the “sense of wonder” often used to characterize science fiction.  It takes us out of the mundane, makes us strain to conceive the inconceivable.  We’re often told that world travel expands our horizons by exposing us to different places and cultures.  Science fiction goes further:  it exposes us to ideas and places and people that don’t exist in the world at all.  At its limits, SF seeks to show us more than we can even comprehend.  The lack of reality is compensated by the greater impetus to go beyond our mental limitations.

To achieve that experience, we seem to need the right combination of the familiar and the exotic.  The weird stuff at the end of 2001 isn’t entirely successful, in my view:  it’s too strange.  Not only do we not understand what’s happening; we don’t quite feel there is anything to understand.  You have to read the book to figure out what’s going on.

But when we have enough groundedness to effect the “willing suspension of disbelief,” yet enough mystery to defeat (in part) our attempt to understand, the combination is uniquely fascinating.  As I noted at the beginning, this isn’t an easy balance to strike.  But the payoff makes it worth attempting.