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10 visions of sentient starships

Writing far-future sci-fi is a pretty front-loaded undertaking – there’s a lot to be decided on before you place those chubby monkey digits on the keyboard and start hammering away. And one of the reasons it’s worth doing in the first place is that you get to write about spaceships (which, because of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica etc, is why you’re doing it at all).

Importantly, what form should the spaceships take? Some say: just give them fins, worry about the rest of it later. But as well as how they travel and fight and whether they have comfy sofas, how should they interact?

The aforementioned classics of sci-fi film and TV still cast a long shadow over this choice, thanks to the current dearth of real-world starships to extrapolate from. Obviously, this hasn’t prevented sci-fi writers of many stripes imagining what living and travelling in these far-future vessels might be like. The intelligent ship (see also the bioship, the self-governing ship, the generational starship) is something that’s been thought about – and continues to be reiterated and reimagined – for eight decades or more now.

In the universe of The Kassini Division, the ships are presided over by an AI that’s limited in its scope. In Conversations With Droids, the short story The Werewolf Dilemma considers the idea of the starship as a magical refuge from the fallibility of the human body, where a human consciousness has been transferred to a starship and melded with it. However, this ‘wetware CPU’ breakthrough is in its earliest stages of experimentation: being a ‘brain in a box’ brings troublesome moral implications along with it.

So instead, in my universe, the human Empire’s spacecraft roll off the shipyard ramps with an adaptable but immature intelligence at the helm. The human captains of these vessels have to teach their ships the foibles of their own personalities through patient interaction and familiarise their ships with the specialised parameters of their missions by trial and error.

This seemed an effective compromise between, on the one hand, the often tacky ‘spaceship girl’ (sassy human-as-computer-avatar, often wearing a zippy leather suit), and on the other, a sort of ‘magical sentience’ – a fully independent consciousness programmed with its own hopes, dreams and ambitions, that thinks down to our level as a courtesy to us. For the purposes of my story, anyway, the idea of a fast-learning but subordinate child-computer in charge of the ship offered dialogue opportunity and may not necessarily be that far from the eventual truth.

If and when we do get to the stars, we are not going to be ‘we’ in any recognisable sense of the term. We probably flatter ourselves to think we will be there at all, instead of the autonomous self-guiding explorers that will likely take our place. But if any vaguely organic vestiges of us do make the trip, that means, by definition, we’ll be vulnerable. Surely then, our spacecraft are not going to be mere dumb tools as they mostly are in Star Trek, Star Wars, BSG et al.

Instead, they’re probably going to have to do an awful lot for us: protect us, feed us, solve problems for us, navigate for us, wake us up after hypersleep with a nutritious futuristic smoothie… we are going to be in many ways subordinate to them and not the other way around. Will they be forced to make moral decisions on our behalf – decisions like… shall I actually bother waking up the crew? Or shall I wait for 900 years for a delivery of small, lemon-scented paper napkins, as in Douglas Adams’ ill-fated Trans-Stellar Space Lines ship?

So, it’s an interesting conundrum. What will the human-made spaceship intelligences running our future spaceships be like to talk to? Here, for the hell of it, are 10 examples out of the thousands from film, books and TV that answer the question with imagination, in both serious and fun ways…

1] Holly from Red Dwarf

The perennially underappreciated Red Dwarf worked hard to slip a fair few intelligent sci-fi concepts in under its goofball exterior. One of the masterstrokes was Holly, the mining ship’s ‘sentient, 10th-generation artificial intelligence’, which pretended to go ‘computer senile’ in order to distract Dave Lister from going insane at the prospect of being the last surviving human – a task it had already spectacularly failed at in the first episode: “Everybody’s dead, Dave.”

2] Trouble Dog from Embers Of War

Gareth L Powell’s Trouble Dog is a biohybrid sentient warship who atones for what she has come to regard as her past misdemeanours by joining the House Of Reclamation, to answer the SOS calls of ships in peril. Aside from the moral conflict, Trouble Dog’s character is noble, nuanced and empathetic. This is helped by the ship being written in the first-person, enabling the author to explore the dualities in the ship’s nature while offering a compelling and unique POV perspective on travel between points in the universe.

“I must point out that this is a gross misuse and an absurd waste of my capabilities…”

3] Zen and Orac from Blake’s 7

Aided and mostly abetted by the sentient fishtank Orac, the Liberator ship’s master control computer Zen was by no means an unquestioningly obedient foil to its human crew and had its own self-preservation subroutines. Yet Orac was the subject of most of Blake’s 7’s ambitious theorising about AI: we all have to hope that if computer intelligences are going to accompany us on these voyages, that they will at least have a sense of humour, no matter how cutting.

4] Thermostellar Triggering Device #20 from Dark Star

John Carpenter (and Dan O’Bannon)’s 1974 student-film debut is an astonishing piece of DIY. It also features one of sci-fi’s most enduring AI scenes, when the ship’s computer, Mother, talks down artificially intelligent Thermostellar Triggering Device #20 and dissuades it from detonating. With its backdrop of AIs wrestling with philosophical questions while humans go nuts coping with the tedium of space, Dark Star would’ve been a cult classic even without the “it is time for Sergeant Pinback to feed the alien” sequence.

5] The spacecraft from the Culture novels

Iain M Banks’ Mind-controlled-sentient-starship taxonomy became truly elaborate as the series sprawled. And his celebrated bizarre naming conventions have made it into the real-world space programme, courtesy of Elon Musk naming three of his ‘drone ships’ for recovery of spaceship parts in tribute to Banks’s creations: Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read The Instructions 1 and 2.

6] Justice Of Toren/Breq/One Esk from Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie’s lauded space opera/vengeance story is narrated from an AI ship’s perspective – or at least from a fragment of its distributed consciousness, housed within a human body. It’s complicated, then, but luckily, the writing manages to convey its complexities and themes while staying fast-moving, and the world is crafted down to the last detail.

“I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently…”

7] HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Alongside the Monolith and the mysterious extraterrestrial cyclinder Rama, Arthur C Clarke also gave us the HAL 9000: the first and last word in conflicted AI dichotomies leading to dangerous and creepy outcomes. Let’s not forget that HAL has passed into Western popular culture to such an extent, that it’s bound to shape future spaceship intelligences, gods help us.

8] The Bargarean Jade (Bargie) from Mission To Zyxx

The hit improvised sci-fi sit-com podcast Mission To Zyxx is now into its fifth season of zany intergalactic diplomacy and its shiniest star remains the outdated sentient spaceship The Bargarean Jade, aka Bargie, voiced brilliantly by Moujan Zolfaghari. Once a renowned holo-movie actress, these days, she’s a jaded spaceship with one add-on wing, no wifi and an autobiography, who moans to her ever-increasing crew about her many exes, her halcyon days and her ‘juck ups’.


9] The Cylon Basestar Hybrid from Battlestar Galactica

In the 2004 remake, the Cylon race’s experimentation into cyborg evolution led to a subspecies of eerie biomech creatures they subsequently used to control their basestars. The lot of these Hybrids doesn’t seem to be a happy one: they’re a sort of mishmash of human bodyparts and mechanical fixtures secured in a milky bath, seemingly subject to waves of frightening emotion they can’t control. Much like a Zoom call with an elderly relative, Hybrids speak in rambling bursts of enigmatic nonsense and only occasionally have lucid periods of genuine back-and-forth communication in the present.

Maybe the universe will dream up fully biological ships for us

10] The Voidhawk and Blackhawk bioships from the Night’s Dawn trilogy

In Peter F. Hamilton’s masterful space opera series, the comprehensively imagined Voidhawk and Blackhawk ships are 100-metre-wide biological entities with a limited lifespan, which return to Saturn to spawn and die. Individual voidhawks are captained by a human who has undergone a year-long melding process with the ship as an infant.

There are many, many more great examples… Anne McCaffery’s Brainships in The Ship Who Sang, Brian Aldiss’s tribal, generational starship in Non-Stop, the Perhonen from The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi… as long as there’s sci-fi, writers will try and imagine evermore elaborate possibilities for the ships we will hopefully one day travel in.

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