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.

Lost World-Ships

Lost Universes

Suppose it turns out that the world in which you and your ancestors have lived isn’t a natural world at all, but a construct.  All you know of reality is the interior of a vast spacecraft.  If the truth ever becomes apparent, you’re going to be in for a shock:  the universe is vaster and stranger than you ever imagined.

Warp Drive exit signThe immense distances between the stars, and the speed-of-light limit, make this kind of situation a staple of modern science fiction.  Barring some as-yet-undiscovered method for faster-than-light travel, like the Star Wars hyperdrive or Star Trek warp drive, an interstellar voyage is likely to take many years.

The “generation ship” is a common SF assumption.  What I call “lost world-ship” stories, in which the inhabitants have forgotten they are even on a spaceship, form a subset of generation ship stories.  The generation ships, in turn, are a subset of the broader category of what might be called “sealed environment” tales:  people live for generations in an restricted artificial environment, but it isn’t a spaceship (as for instance in the movie City of Ember).  The sealed environment stories can in turn be seen as a subset of “exotic environment” SF tales, where an unnatural situation places unique pressures on the people who live there.

 

. . . And Where To Find Them

I find the lost world-ship plot particularly fascinating, so I’ve accumulated a number of examples over the years.

The Star Seekers coverMy first exposure to the idea as a child was in Milton Lesser’s The Star Seekers (1953), one of the distinctive Winston Science Fiction publications that introduced so many kids in that era to SF.  I recently obtained a Kindle copy and was charmed to encounter the story again, after all these years.  On a 200-year trip to Alpha Centauri, the four levels of the starship have separated into four different cultures, three of which are no longer aware they are on a spacecraft.  The setup is not entirely convincing; there’s no real explanation as to how most of the inhabitants simply “forgot” their origins.  But the book conveyed to me the mystery of discovering something that changed one’s whole world-view.

Orphans of the Sky coverIn pursuing the stories in Heinlein’s Future History, I ran across the real bellwether of the lost world-ship tale, the two novellas “Universe” and “Common Sense” (1941) that form the book Orphans of the Sky.  It may not be the earliest treatment— Don Wilcox was a year ahead with “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” (1940).  But in the Wilcox story, as in The Star Seekers, there was still someone on board who remembered the ship’s purpose.  In Heinlein’s starship Vanguard, no one preserved that memory.  A mutiny long ago had killed off the technically skilled, and their descendants preserved the story of the “Trip” to “Centaurus” only as mythology—which they interpreted as pure allegory, not to be taken literally.

Orphans of the Sky focuses on how hard it is for those raised in the artificial environment even to conceive that there could be an outside.  The escape of a few characters to make landfall on a planet, at the end, is a dramedy of errors.

Aldiss Starship coverAnother lost world-ship story that fascinated me in my misspent youth was the Brian Aldiss book Non-Stop (1958), published as Starship in the U.S.  As in Heinlein’s case, Aldiss’s travelers have reverted to barbarism.  The artificial nature of their surroundings is masked by the fact that much of the ship is filled with “ponics” – mutated hydroponic plants that have spread through the corridors.  The real story does not emerge until close to the end, mediated, as in Orphans, by a diary left over from earlier times.  The ship had been ravaged by a disease of sorts, the result of a previously-unknown amino acid picked up on their destination world, from which the ship was now returning.  This plague, and the long unpiloted voyage, has rendered the inhabitants far different from their ancestors, rendering their hopes for escape from the degenerating vessel problematic.

Strangers in the Universe coverI encountered Clifford D. Simak’s Target Generation (1953), originally published as Spacebred Generations, in Simak’s collection Strangers in the Universe.  There’s a well-done summary and analysis of the story by Zachary Kendal on his Web site.  When Simak’s automated starship reaches its destination, it triggers a sequence of events that lead the main character to open a sealed book of instructions that has been waiting for that moment—rather like the instruction page in City of Ember.  He concludes that the builders of the ship had deliberately caused the travelers to forget their origins, except as a vague quasi-religious observance, because that was the only way they could (in Kendal’s words) “survive the journey without terrible psychological trauma.”

All these stories affected me with a sense of vast, brooding spans of time and forgotten lore.  The settings tended to be gloomy, the societies stunted or degraded, the environments worn-down and cramped.  But the tales also raised a sense of hope—that the travelers could somehow break free of their limited universe in the end, and recover the way humans were meant to live.

 

Other Media and Sources

The lost world-ship trope has turned up in other media too.  The original Star Trek series included a third-season episode (1968) with the cumbersome but evocative title “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” in which the Enterprise crew discovers that an “asteroid” approaching a Federation planet is actually a generation ship.  There was a mercifully short-lived TV series in 1973 called The Starlost, a decent concept (by Harlan Ellison) with a completely botched execution—an entertaining story in itself.  The Pixar film WALL-E incorporates the idea that the remaining human beings have been living for generations aboard a luxury starship and have almost, if not entirely, forgotten what it’s like to live on a planet.  There was even a 1976 role-playing game called Metamorphosis Alpha set on a generation ship afflicted by an unknown cataclysm.

There’s more.  The Wikipedia and TV Tropes pages on generation ships provide useful lists.  Still more are summarized in a study by Simone Caroti, The Generation Starship in Science Fiction:  A Critical History, 1934-2001 (2011)—though Caroti’s study is a little heavy on the academic Marxist/deconstructionist attitudes for my taste.

For the broader categories I mentioned above, examples of non-spaceborne sealed environments include Hugh Howey’s Wool, James White’s The Watch Below (which pairs an alien fleet of generation ships with a human group trapped in a sunken oceangoing vessel), and Daniel F. Galouye’s Dark Universe.  TV Tropes lists others under the headings City in a Bottle and Small, Secluded World.  Other “exotic environment” stories include Ray Bradbury’s memorable “Frost and Fire” and Christopher Priest’s Inverted World.

 

Themes

What is it that’s so compelling about the lost world-ship stories as to explain my lifelong love affair with them?

Sense of Wonder.  The strangeness of the environment—the union of familiar human concerns with surpassingly unnatural situations—evokes the “sense of wonder” that is characteristic of F&SF.  But we can point to more specific themes that arise in the lost world-ship setting.

Loss and Forgetfulness.  A sense of loss pervades these stories—a loss not fully appreciated by the characters, but clear to the reader.  The starship inhabitants have lost their history, and with it, their sense of who they really are.  They have lost other kinds of knowledge as well, especially technological knowledge, often existing as barbarians in the ruins of a superscientific construct (again, a wider SF trope).

This sense of loss is like that of another subgenre, the post-apocalyptic story.  The disaster that afflicts the starship is a sort of localized apocalypse; this is what differentiates the lost world-ship from a functioning generation ship.  Pondering the causes—whether mutiny, plague, accident, or even deliberate obliteration of the past—makes us reflect on the fragility of our own histories and societies.

Illusion.  In these stories, the world is never what we think it is.  One need not live on a starship to share that experience; the whole history of modern science can be read as a progressive penetration of appearances.  (Heinlein has a character in Orphans unknowingly echo Galileo as he tries fruitlessly to convince others of how their world really works:  “Nevertheless—Nevertheless—it still moves!”)  The lost world-ship story brings home the way our knowledge is bounded by our experience—or by our assumptions.

The Natural and the Artificial.  This dichotomy can play out in two ways.  Either the inhabitants take their artificial world so matter-of-factly that it seems perfectly natural to them, and they can hardly imagine anything else (Heinlein); or the unnaturalness of their world subtly warps or frustrates them (Aldiss).

The former may seem more plausible to those who prefer “nurture” to “nature” as an explanation.  When you grow up with something, why wouldn’t you take it for granted as normal and natural?  The latter approach may appeal more to those with a strong sense of the natural as fundamental and superior to the artificial.  For example, a character in Non-Stop tries to show his companions that the ponic plants are natural, but corridors are not.  The key question, of course, is how he knows that plants are more natural than walls:  is the difference somehow wired into the human brain?  In Howey’s Dust, part of the Wool series, a knowledgeable character says of their underground sealed environment:  “They don’t know anything beyond their walls, so I guess they don’t have some of the stress about what’s out there that you and I feel.  But I think they have something else that we don’t have, this deep feeling that something is wrong with how they’re living.”

We frequently encounter such nature-nurture arguments in more conventional sociological contexts.  But the lost world-ship story brings us face to face with them in novel ways.

Incongruity.  The lost world-ship is a fertile ground for irony and “cognitive dissonance,” where the reader knows things the characters do not.  In principle this sort of incongruity could be played for light comedy or farce—but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it done that way, except perhaps toward the middle of The Star Seekers, a young adult novel and thus somewhat lighter in tone.  The starship stories tend to be too grim for farce.

Escape.  The somberness of the classic lost world-ship is alleviated by the possibility of getting out, into a freer and better world.  Once the characters realize there is somewhere else to go, they may be able to escape.

Flammarion cosmos paintingEscape is a major preoccupation in Non-Stop, and contributes much of the story’s emotional force.  It fits in with the fact that we encounter the starships in Target Generation and The Star Seekers just as they arrive at their destinations:  a hoped-for new world, a natural world free of the constraints of the world-ship.

The last generation is in a far better position, in this respect, than their ancestors.  As TV Tropes puts it, commenting on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora:  “A major theme of the book is the fact that while the original generation-ship crew may have consented to their risky mission, their children don’t get a choice.”  The writer of the ancient diary in Non-Stop, facing the beginning of the generations-long return trip, bursts out:  “Only a technological age could condemn unborn generations to exist in [the ship], as if man were mere protoplasm, without emotion or aspiration.”

But the characters we’ve come to know in the story do have the possibility of emerging into something wider and greater.  This hope is not quite the same as what Tolkien means by “Escape” in On Fairy-Stories (a topic for another day), although there is some common ground.

The contrast between the all-too-human characters and the artificial environment has still more resonance, perhaps, with the common human feeling that we don’t really belong in this world.  Some of the twentieth-century existentialists took this reaction as a sign of despair and meaninglessness.  But the notion of escape suggests instead that such emotions may instead point to another place where we do belong, evoking hope rather than despair.  The plight of the lost world-ship traveler may recall Chesterton’s lines in “The House of Christmas”:

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
. . . . .
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.