The starship as a character

So I generally write space opera and space adventure. (Plus some dieselpunk that also qualifies here, as you’ll see once you read that series.)

One of the interesting things about this sub-set of genres is the importance of the vessel transporting your crew of misfits wherever they are going. Star Trek TOS had this lovely, elegant heavy cruiser of a ship, which meant they were going in harm’s way and confident that they could make it out the other side safely.

Han Solo had his hunk of junk that had it where it counted.


Been thinking about the topic because I have a couple of new series spinning up, and in each the ship itself is a character. This is a useful way to think about it, because in Private Detective fiction (usually the hard-boiled variety), the city is also a character. Same with the old-school urban fantasy, when it was more Jim Butcher and less shifter-romance, like today.

When you read Marlowe, Los Angeles is a character. Same of Spade and San Francisco. You can’t just pick them up and put the story anywhere else and have it work.

So where my wife (the Fabulous Publisher Babe(tm) ) builds new magic systems every time she starts a fantasy series, I spend my time designing starships.

It took a different form when I started the Jessica Keller Chronicles, because the original RAN Auberon was a Strike Carrier. I’ve mentioned before how I played Star Fleet Battles when I was a kid (up until my mid-20s when I lived in Los Angeles). And my homage to that universe was basically taking a number of those designs and filing off enough serial numbers to include them. I even had the SSD books open when designing new classes, and wrote down all the relevant weapon stats and firing arcs when I did, so that I could keep things consistent.

But Jessica was EPIC space opera. Original CVS got replaced by a design roughly equivalent to a Fed SCS from Commander’s SSD Book #6, or maybe a B-10V variant (I can’t remember where I saw that one and not worth digging through all my old books to find it right now.) From there, up to the Heavy Dreadnought design, which is basically just using X-Tech and Type-4 Phasers on a warship.

But now I’m writing much smaller scale stuff. The Pizzafarmer stories take place on a smaller ship (Pizzafarmer), a fast freighter that wraps like a wishbone around a single cargo pod and is designed for a crew of 2-3. Got three of those stories done so far and an cut-down version of #1 will appear in a month or so in the new Blaze Ward Presents. “Bad Habits: A Nuns With Guns Anthology” I have two more that follow Wilson’s story, and space to go a little nuts with the whole wild-west element of things.

I’m in the middle of a new epic series of novels and decided I needed to rough out a floorplan for that ship (Ark Royal for other reasons). As I hacked several thoughts together, starting with riffs on the original Constitution class, writer-brain decided that what I really needed looked an awful lot like a D-7, with the bridge shifted around a little bit, but that same gooseneck design, with the Crew Section being the aft hull, where they could shield folks against warp-spawn while leaving the woman who is the Engine forward and exposed. I went an bought a table-top D-7 that’s about 9cm long by 6cm wide. It’s sitting on my left flying around the counter as I type.

The other new new series I just started involves the rough equivalent of finding a djinn in a lamp and asking for a wish. The main character is marooned on a planet and trying to survive when she comes across an ancient computer system roughly god-like in age and tech capability. The computer is at tech level 9, while Brannon comes from a culture midway through 6. The problem there is that the planet itself was abandoned thousands of years ago and marked “Previously Inhabited” (the name of the first story).

The machine will build her a ship to escape, on the understanding that Brannon and her sidekick never tell anyone else the truth.

Brannon’s culture would come back here and bomb the shit out of such a demonic thing as an Aware computer system, but this one is already several cultures old (20,000 years+), and willing to wait for the wheel to turn some more, retaining ancient human knowledge for whoever comes along.

So the machine will design and build a small-ish ship for Brannon and Hawny to escape in as part of story #2. And she’ll need to down-tech it to a point where it doesn’t upset the galaxy’s power balance overnight. And doesn’t summon killing fleets to her home.

So I sat down last night with all my old SSD books and went through them, making notes of every type of box that could be marked off in combat. Cruisers, scouts, tugs, pirates, freighters. The works. Then I meandered through some really old (and silly) ship blueprints. Finally, I have the officially licensed Klingon D-7 Battlecruiser deck plans, and went through all of those.

The thing about most RPG maps is that that the kitchen (galley) for a huge starship is usually smaller than the kitchen in my house. (Usually just a replicator unit stuck in a pantry or something.) And there is NEVER anything like laundry facilities. But EVERY ship has a desperately-oversized med bay. One of them I looked at last night had four beds in the medbay, for a crew of eight people.

Never sure what the shipwright was working from when he did that, but I always start with bathrooms and laundry when laying out floor plans. (As a point of reference, when I designed my house, I worked outward from having a double-shower AND an oversized bathtub in the same room. I cut the two bedrooms smaller to fit the decadence I needed.)

Because the ship should be a character. The Millennium Falcon is fast and breaks down a lot. The Tardis can go anywhere and sticks out a little. Space 1999 has the Eagles. Jessica has her various steeds. Pizzafarmer has his courier.

Does anybody know a good place to lay hands on “real” blueprints for submarines? Both Boomers and Hunters? Those are the best bet for what a starship would really look like, when you get down to it.

I’m not sure yet what Brannon’s new ship will be like, but I get to think about how the technology will impact on her storytelling. If she just returns home, will the authorities confiscate it? She’s in their military and was escaping from a battle in a badly mangled gunship when she crashed on this planet in the first place.

I have some ideas for her that will make her not wish to go home immediately, but that makes her something of a deserter as well. So now she has to make some hard choices. And the bosses will have to also decide what they want to do about this woman.

The ship will be the third main character, after Brannon and Hawny. Similarly after Wilson and Sparrowhawk in those stories.

What can and can’t you do, as a result of the ship you put your heroes in? How does that impact on the stories? USS Enterprise NCC-1701 could take on all sorts of monsters and enemy vessels, while either Battlestar Galactica was a Space Control Ship. And an Imperial Star Destroyer (or a Super like Executor) didn’t back down from any task, but chasing a YT-1300 through an asteroid field was a bad choice.

How much time do you spend on making your starships characters? How much better/richer/deeper/funner would your stories be?

What are the limits to your imagination?