The author Anne McAffrey is best known for her fantasy series The Dragonriders of Pern but she’s also a Hugo Award winning author of science fiction novels. Any enterprising science fiction enthusiast would find herself well-tread to pick up one of Ms. McAffrey’s novels and sit down on the couch with it. A good introduction to her work in this genre is The Ship Who Sang, originally published in 1969 and spawned an entire series called the “Brain & Brawn Ship series” in the 1990s.
The book is named after the first of a series of five short stories written by Anne McAffrey—they are all memorable but the primary short story sets the stage for the universe and the subject matter.
At the core, The Ship Who Sang is a story about the ultimate level of cyborg-transhumanism that’s reflected today in by many modern-day cyberpunk novelists. The main character, Helva, was born with a terrible birth defect that meant she couldn’t survive more than a few days after birth and thus she was sold by her parents to a corporation to be a “shell baby.” In this way, her growth was stunted and her body encased in a life-support capsule with a titanium shell allowing her to grow to adulthood—but not as a natural human.
As a result of this “shell people” are indentured to the corporation who paid for their medical bills, equipment, training, and such. As a result of their indentured nature, they’re compelled to work for the Central Worlds (the governing branch of the galactic human colonies in the books) in a majority of interesting and curious capacities. One of this is that of a “brainship” or a spacecraft whose central computer core is augmented with a “shell person” pilot who is integrated physically into the ship.
Brainships are partnered with a strong and intelligent mobile captain called the “brawn” who act as the extra-ship mobile person in their partnership.
The book explores not just the morality of indenturing people into specific service but the trials and travails of being a ship (or city, or hospital, etc.) with a human brain. Although the “brain” portion of brainships do have human bodies, the body is essentially vestigial by that point and the ship becomes their body. Only through intense training, medication, and surgery do they work and function as a fully cyborg entity.
This book, and the series it spawned, belongs in the category of transhumanism in exploring the question of what it is to be human. Although it could be argued that Helva is definitely human and maintains a great deal of her humanity, she lacks many of the fundamental properties that natural humans have—the fundamental of which being a human body. It also brought to mind moral questions about the treatment of the terrifically disabled.
Even with the Central Worlds and the science fiction elements intact, The Ship Who Sang is also a book about what happens in the universe. There are characters aplenty but the protagonist Helva has always shown brightest in my mind.
One emotional mention form the book has stayed with me for years. Helva’s first brawn died in a horrible radiation accident from which she herself was spared (due to being at the heart of a heavily shielded and buffered environment). She had to watch him die horribly in her airlock as she did everything in her power to protect him. The event is significant because brainships, for all their capability to fly through space, visit other worlds, and essentially do things that normal humans cannot; they’re still unable to do fine manipulation or rescue.
The title, The Ship Who Sang, is a reference to this event and that Helva (the ship) sang Taps at her brawn’s funeral.
To this day, I have not forgotten Helva, Brainship XH-834.