I wanted to write reviews of science fiction written by women, and I thought I’d start off with a classic. Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang is extremely readable sci-fi. It is perhaps a bit light on the science; this may be a good thing, since what science it does have is a little dated and as a result just a touch distracting. It has just enough technical detail to believably build the far-off-future world of the story and permit the (currently) impossible. If you’re iffy on sci-fi, this may be a good starter novel, since it is mostly focused on characters and their stories.
My own copy of this book generally lives on the shelf with what I consider brain candy novels: it’s good enough to read more than once and “easy” to read quickly. I’d recommend it for those times when you need to decompress and read through a book in a marathon one-day session (buy it used so you can drag it to the beach or pool, or read it in the tub, without fear).
The Ship Who Sang is about Helva, a woman who was born with severe physical disabilities and who has been medically treated and specially equipped from infancy to be a shell person (it is implied that she likely would not have lived past childhood without these procedures). Shell people are basically human supercomputers, their inert bodies encased in titanium compartments where they are sustained for centuries while their brains interface with the world through various mechanical channels. Shell people become the “brains” of complex systems like cities, medical centers, and space ships, and are given a salary (and bonuses for exceptional service) in order to enable them to both pay their rearing/schooling/equipment debts, and to eventually purchase their way out of service.
Helva graduates from her training program at 16 to become a brainship–her body is literally a spaceship, integrated perfectly with her brain to give her an incredible range of superhuman abilities. She chooses her first partner, a handsome young man named Jennan. As they complete routine missions, and Jennan defends her honor when people mock her for being a “singing” ship (she has an extensive repertoire and the equipment and skills to control and project her voice in nearly any way she can imagine), Helva falls in love with Jennan. He is her first “brawn” in what, for most brainships, is a string of many (because of shell people’s extreme longevity), and she is devastated by his early demise during a mission to evacuate a colony of stubborn citizens from a planet whose sun is going critical. The book follows her through her process of grief and healing, and catalogues her adventures with a series of temporary partnerships with brawns and specialists. Helva helps a medical specialist save paralyzed plague victims with revolutionary physical therapy, delivers embryonic colonists to a planet that has suffered a near-total loss of genetic stock, helps a troupe of Shakespearian actors make a valuable art-for-technology trade with a race of aliens living on a gas planet, and more.
The story is set in the universe of the Central Worlds, a federation which works to generally advance the quality of life for all its citizens through monitoring and regulating trade, providing medical and technical assistance to planets and colonies in distress, policing crimes (including running drugs, kidnapping, seizing unethical control of colonies, etc.), and promoting interplanetary and interspecies cooperation through diplomacy. Brainships work as couriers and diplomats in order to help the Central Worlds fulfill these various goals, and Helva’s quick thinking and adaptability make her a highly-sought-after ship for especially tricky and sensitive missions. She is so good at her job that she earns enough money to buy out of service after just 10 years, which is unprecedented in her line of work.
I’m not sure exactly where I stand on the issue of converting humans into superbrained-machines–it seems problematic to begin with the premise that disabled humans are “saved” by the Central Worlds in order to become valuable, indentured equipment, but McCaffrey avoids the issue pretty neatly in a couple of ways. First, she presents a scene in which “concerned” citizens protesting the shell person training program are allowed to tour the Central Laboratory School and meet Helva and her classmates. Their objections to what they thought would be an awful, child-labor/indoctrination program are quieted when they meet the bright, enthusiastic, ridiculously talented shell-children.
At this stage in their childhood, they are cyborgs on a much smaller scale than they will be when they graduate and receive their final assignments as spaceships and planetary administrators. They are not described in detail, but are “mobile” and probably slightly robotic-looking, with complete control over multiple functions like adjustable vision and hearing sensitivity, voice modulation, memory recall, a variety of tools for manipulating the environment around her, and so forth. Helva in particular is noted both for her artistic skill (when she meets the concerned citizens, she is painting a copy of The Last Supper on the head of a screw) and her singing voice (an unusual talent among shell people–Helva seems to be one of the first to cultivate vocal musical skill).
The second way McCaffrey slips past the ethical concerns of a society dependent on human supercomputers is through her characterization of the various shell people themselves. In this novel, we meet only brainships, and all are pleased with their impressive skills to the point of conceitedness. Even our heroine, sensitive, funny Helva, is a bit of a braggart, although she generally keeps her pride to herself. Time and again, brainships sneer and joke about the limitations of their non-shell-person peers–trying to imagine a life in which they couldn’t see everything at nearly any angle or magnification, in which they couldn’t soar between the stars, in which they could only hear with two ears. They are characterized as completely human in most ways, however, and we are only reminded of their spaceship status occasionally. Among other brainships, they gossip about brawns and complain about incompetent administrators, discuss personal problems (like grief over loss of a friend, or disappointment over a rotten mission), and advise each other on financial issues. It’s when “normal” humans get involved that we see the cultural problems shell people face: there are definite prejudices and fears directed at shell people, and it is less common than it should be for Helva to find people who are completely at ease with her as Helva and not as an abstract concept, an abomination, or a clever supercomputer which performs humanlike tricks.
Tricky philosophical questions and ethical concerns aside, The Ship Who Sang is a lot of fun. If you get a chance to read it, or if (like me) you’ve already torn through it a few times, I’d love to know what y’all think!