Some Spectacular Spaceships of Science Fiction
Viewers of my spaceship artwork and articles know that I am no stranger to looking beyond the well-known science fiction universes such as "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" when presenting my own speculative spaceship designs. While the "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" environments are wonderfully developed and contains many inspiring starship designs, they are based on certain engineering and design assumptions that inherently limit the range of spaceship designs that they can present. One of the primary sources for the "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" fictional backgrounds is of course the vast range of science fiction literature.
In this article, I will share some quotes describing fantastic spaceships set in a variety of science fictional backgrounds. This article is intended to serve two purposes. The first is to show some differing visions of future star-faring vehicles that have impressed me to the point of consciously influencing my own work. The second purpose is to encourage others to read one or more of these books for themselves and see even more clearly why I value such a diversity of views on future star-faring technology. I hope such readers will feel the same excitement and wonder that I do when I read such quotes as the examples given below. Finding passages like these is one of the most treasured experiences I get from reading science fiction. The science fictional universes are not given in order of personal preference but rather in that of increasing technological capability as best as I can ascertain.
EXAMPLE 1: H. BEAM PIPER'S "TERRAN FEDERATION" UNIVERSE
H. Beam Piper's "Terran Federation" (1) universe has much in common with the "Star Trek" universe. In the Terran Federation universe, humans are the controlling race of an interstellar realm eventually spanning more than a thousand inhabited worlds with about fifteen sentient races. Piper emphasizes the military aspect of his fictional universe but since there are no other races to challenge humanity in it, most of the struggles are among various human groups. The star-faring technology of the "Terran Federation" environment is less developed than that of the "Star Trek" environment with human starships powered by nuclear reactors. However, much use is made of anti-gravity technology, called 'contragravity' in the "Terran Federation" environment. One of the more interesting aspects of "Terran Federation" technology is the use of 'collapsium' for starship hulls. Collapsium is described as a super-hard substance made from nuclei stripped of their electrons. Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the starships of "Star Trek" and the "Terran Federation" is their shapes:
It didn't take Conn long to appreciate the problems involved in the conversion. Built to operate only inside planetary atmosphere and gravitation, the 'Harriet Barne' was long and narrow, like an old ocean ship; more than anything else, she had originally resembled a huge submarine. Spaceships, either interplanetary or interstellar, were always spherical with a pseudogravity system at the center. This, of course, the 'Harriet Barne' lacked.
p. 124, "The Cosmic Computer" by H. Beam Piper, (c) 1963 published by Ace Books
. . . But the average interplanetary ship isn't very big; five hundred (feet) to seven-fifty (feet) in diameter. One of those couldn't carry more than a couple of hundred people, after you put in all the supplies and the hydroponic tanks and carniculture vats and so on for a four- to six-month voyage . . . the smallest tramp freighters that come in here will run about fifteen hundred feet (in diameter).
pp. 129-130, "The Cosmic Computer" by H. Beam Piper, (c) 1963 published by Ace Books
Human starships range up to three thousand feet in diameter in the "Terran Federation" environment. Piper's imagined starship technology is more conservative than that of "Star Trek" yet he succeeds in describing his vision of starships by writing for the engineer hidden inside of most of us speculative spaceship designers:
. . . Conn had seen an almost completed hypership bulking above the domes and roofs of Port Carpenter in the distance . . . She had all her collapsium on, except for a hundred-foot circle at the top and a number of rectangular openings around the sides. Yves Jacquemont said that would be where the airlocks would go . . . It was like entering a huge globular spider's web, globe within globe of interlaced girders and struts and braces, extending from the center to the outer shell. Even the spider was home - a three-hundred-foot ball of collapsium, looking tiny in the very middle...They have all the engines in-Abbott lift-and-drive, Dillingham hyperdrives, pseudograv, power reactors, converters, everything . . .
pp. 146-148, "The Cosmic Computer" by H. Beam Piper, (c) 1963 published by Ace Books
Readers may be interested in knowing that role-playing games such as "Traveller" have been heavily influenced Piper's concepts of human interstellar culture and technology. His concepts can also be seen mirrored in parts of the "Star Wars" environment.
EXAMPLE 2: JAMES WHITE'S "SECTOR GENERAL" UNIVERSE
James White's "Sector General" (2) universe is similar to H. Beam Piper's "Terran Federation" environment in its approach to human star-faring technology but the cultural background is much different. In James White's vision of our future, humanity is a founding member of the "Galactic Federation" rather than the dominant sentient race. A number of physically very different sentient races exist relatively peacefully in this federation. A multi-sentient racial fleet called the "Monitor Corps" patrols the "Galactic Federation" but actually spends most of its time performing exploration, and search and rescue missions. The primary focus of White's "Sector General" series is a huge hospital station called "Sector General," which is about the same size as the large spacedock facility orbiting earth in the "Star Trek" environment.
The largest human starships in the "Monitor Corps" are the "Emperor-class cruisers":
The Emperor-class cruisers were the largest ships operated by the Monitor Corps, and each required six generators to move its tremendous mass into and out of hyperspace, while the survey and cultural contact vessel "Descartes" needed only four.
p. 192, "Sector General" by James White, (c) 1983 published by Futura Publications
The "Vespasian" is the "Emperor-class cruiser" most commonly mentioned in the "Sector General" series. It is described as nuclear powered with artificial gravity and inertial dampeners. It has a powerful computer used primarily for tactical and translation purposes. The "Vespasian" is outfitted with a large number of tractor and pressor beams and has a very large cargo lock/bay. Its weaponry consists of nuclear warhead missiles along with more exotic devices:
The principle which furnished artificial gravity for the floor and compensated for the killing accelerations used by the ships also lay behind the weapons of both sides - the repulsion screen, originally a meteor protection device, the tractor and pressor beams, and the rattler which was a combination of both. The rattler pushed and pulled - vibrated - depending on how narrowly it was focused, at up to eighty Gs. A push of eighty Gravities then a pull of eighty gravities, several times a minute. Naturally it was not always focused accurately on target, both ships were moving and taking countermeasures, but it was still tight enough to tear the plating off a hull or, in case of a small ship, to shake it until the men inside rattled.
pp. 115-116, "Star Surgeon" by James White, (c) 1963 published by Ballantine Books
White's "Sector General" series contains many fascinating descriptions of human and alien wrecked starships that the main characters explore in addition to the well thought-out medical mysteries that they confront and solve. The "Monitor Corps'" resemblance to the modern Coast Guard is delineated throughout the "Sector General" series and makes a welcome alternate to the Navy-inspired vision of space fleets found throughout much of science fiction.
EXAMPLE 3: JAMES WHITE'S "FEDERATION OF GALACTIC SENTIENTS" UNIVERSE
Tool One, the hypership: the largest general-purpose vessel operated by the Galactics; just under half a mile in length, one-third that at its widest point, bristling with such an angular, metallic outgrowth of hyper-drive generator assemblies, normal-space drivers, tractor and pressor beam projectors, weather control machinery, and long- and short-range sensors that it was incapable of making anything but the most catastrophic of crash landings on a planetary surface. Internally it was packed with enough power generation equipment to satisfy the demands of one of the Galactic's most energy-hungry cities, as well as a small army of monitor and self-repair robots, fabrication modules capable of producing anything from a pair of boots to a medium size interplanetary space vessel, synthesizers for the crew's organic consumables, and, in executive charge of all these systems, a computer which, to describe it as superhuman would have been to damn it with faint praise indeed. In spite of its virtual omniscience, the main computer was subservient to the wishes of the organic crew, although not always without argument.
This was one of the Galactics' standard-issue tools, varying from ship to ship into in the control interfaces, living quarters, medical support, and food and translation systems required by its organic occupants at the time.
pp. 27-28, "Federation World" by James White, (c) 1988 published by Ballantine Books
"Federation World" also contains wonderful descriptions of the awesome space habitat itself along with the advanced technology it wields. As with his "Sector General" series, White describes a number of fascinating sentient races encountered by the human main characters of the novel.
EXAMPLE 4: ARTHUR C. CLARKE'S "RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA" UNIVERSE
Arthur C. Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama" (3) universe is perhaps the most plausible of those presented here, as it does not have faster than light technology. In Clarke's science fictional setting, a number of advanced alien races have come together to study other sentient life. They conduct their investigations by placing sample sentient life forms inside gigantic sublight powered traveling space habitats and observing these life forms over many years. The first of such habitats to visit our home star system is given the name "Rama" by its human explorers. Clarke's interstellar civilization is based at titanic deep space research stations called "Nodes." Clarke's huge starships travel close to the speed of light for prolonged periods, and due to the relativistic effects engendered by transiting at such speeds, travel through time as well. The result is that the starship crews age at a much slower rate than those not on the ships. In spite of the fact that Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama" environment does not possess faster than light drive, I see its technology as more advanced than many science fictional environments with faster than light drive for at least two reasons. The first is the sheer scale of its interstellar vehicles:
The huge Carrier was now stationed only several hundred meters away. It was an awesome engineering construction, far larger even than it had seemed when it was over by the Node. The spacecraft was parked sideways, so only a part of it could be seen from the window. The top of the Carrier was a long flat plane broken only by small, scattered equipment complexes and the transparent domes - or bubbles, as they had originally been called - that were located in an orderly pattern throughout the length and breadth of the plane. Some of the domes were quite large. One, directly in the front of the window, rose over two hundred meters above the flat plane. Other domes were very small. Parts of eleven of the transparent bubbles were visible from the observation window. During the approach of the Carrier earlier in the afternoon, when the entire spacecraft could be seen, a total of seventy-eight domes had been counted.
The underbelly of the Carrier had an external surface of metallic gray. It extended below the plane about a kilometer, with gently sloping sides and a rounded bottom. From a distance the underbelly looked insignificant compared to the vast flat surface which was at least forty kilometers long and fifteen kilometers wide. However, up close it was clear that an enormous volume was contained inside that drab structure.
p. 528, "Rama Revealed" by Arthur C. Clarke, (c) 1994 published by Bantam Books
The "Node" type space stations are even larger than this star-faring behemoth. The second reason I feel that Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama" environment, while using only sublight technology, is still more advanced than some others with faster than light technology, is the way its ships can use stars as energy sources without endangering the environment with stray radiation from reactors and warp cores, or subspace degradation caused by some forms of warp drive:
Then, five million kilometers from the Sun, and still accelerating, Rama started to spin its cocoon . . . Then he realized that Rama was still there, but that it was surrounded by a shimmering haze . . . It was now surrounded by a perfectly reflecting sphere, about a hundred kilometers in diameter . . . Behind this protective bubble, Rama was presumably safe from the solar inferno . . . The sphere was turning into an ellipsoid, its long axis pointed in the direction of Rama's flight . . . Something was happening to the solar magnetic field in the region around Rama. The million-kilometer-long lines of force that threaded the corona and drove its wisps of fiercely ionized gases at speeds that sometimes defied even the crushing gravity of the Sun were shaping themselves around that glittering ellipsoid . . . A faintly glowing tube or tunnel, a hundred thousand kilometers long, had appeared high in the outer atmosphere of the Sun. It was slightly curved, bending along the orbit Rama was tracing, and Rama itself - or the protective cocoon around it - was visible as a glittering bead racing faster and faster down that ghostly tube through the corona . . . Now it was moving more than two thousand kilometers a second, and there was no question of its ever remaining a captive of the Sun. Now, at last, the Ramans' strategy was obvious. They had come so close to the Sun merely to tap its energy at the source and to speed themselves even faster on the way to their ultimate, unknown goal.
pp. 268-270, "Rendezvous with Rama" by Arthur C. Clarke, (c) 1973 published by Ballantine Books
Arthur C. Clarke has a rare gift for not only delineating plausible star-faring technology that does not violate current scientific understanding of cosmology, but also elucidating that technology in almost poetic terms that remind us of just how wondrous such a technology would really be.
EXAMPLE 5: IAIN M. BANKS' "CULTURE" UNIVERSE
Iain M. Banks "Culture" (4) universe is by far the most advanced of those presented in this article. The "Culture" is an humanistic, hyper-developed human star-faring society whose population lives mostly on numerous gigantic artificial habitats. These habitats range from ring shaped constructions similar to that of Larry Niven's "Ringworld," to actual Dyson spheres. These habitats may strain credulity but they do offer the "Culture" interstellar abodes independent of star systems. Starships of the "Culture" environment use a faster than light drive similar to that portrayed in "Star Wars" and are commanded by artificial intelligences far exceeding that of humans. In fact, the core of the "Culture" is itself described as consisting primarily of these synthetic minds rather than the human ones that originally created them. A reader would have to look far and wide for a fictional starship to match the "Ocean Class General Systems Vehicle," given the whimsical name "The Ends of Invention," of the "Culture" environment:
. . . was the ex-Culture General Systems Vehicle "The Ends of Invention." Its broad, flat top stretched for kilometer after kilometer in all directions, almost totally blocking out the view of space and stars beyond. Instead its top surface glittered with its own lights where various connections had been made with the access tubes and tunnels of the port.
He felt dizzy again, registering the sheer scale of the vast craft. He hadn't seen a GSV before, far less been inside one. He knew of them and what they were for, but only now did he appreciate what an achievement they represented . . . just the structure alone was enough to impress.
General Systems Vehicles were like encapsulated worlds. They were more than just very big spaceships; they were habitats, universities, factories, museums, dockyards, libraries, even mobile exhibition centers. They represented the Culture - they were the Culture. Almost anything that could be done anywhere in the Culture could be done on a GSV. They could make anything the Culture was capable of making, contained all the knowledge the Culture had ever accumulated, carried or could construct specialized equipment of every imaginable type for every conceivable eventuality, and continually manufactured smaller ships . . . Their complements were measured in the millions at least. They crewed their offspring ships out of the gradual increase in their own population. Self-contained, self-sufficient, productive and, in peacetime at least, continually exchanging information, they were the Culture's ambassadors, its most visible citizens and its technological and intellectual big guns. There was no need to travel from the galactic backwoods to some distant Culture home-planet to be amazed and impressed by the stunning scale and awesome power of the Culture; a GSV could bring the whole lot right up to your front door . . .
pp. 237-238, "Consider Phlebas" by Iain M. Banks, (c) 1991 published by Bantam Books
Banks does not stop with just describing the exterior and general concept of this massive vessel but gives us tantalizing glimpses of the interior as well:
He looked to his right. Through the walls of the corridor he looked into clear air. Kilometers of it. There was some sort of roof high above, with just a suggestion of wispy clouds. A few tiny craft moved. Level with him, far enough away for the view to be both hazy and vast, were hangars: level after level of them. Bays, docks, hangars - call them what you wanted; they filled Horza's sight for square kilometers, making him dizzy with the sheer scale of it all . . . Craft moved, lights went on or off, a layer of cloud far below made the view still more hazy, and something whizzed by the corridor Horza stood in: a ship, fully three hundred meters long, swooped, and far far away did a left turn, banking gracefully in the air to disappear into another bright and vast corridor which seemed to pass by at right angles to the one Horza stood staring at. In the other direction, the one that the ship had appeared from, was a wall, seemingly blank.
. . . Horza looked closer and rubbed his eyes; he saw that the wall had an orderly speckle of lights in a grid across it: thousands and thousands of windows and lights and balconies. Smaller craft flitted about its face, and the dots of traveltube capsules flashed across and up and down.
pp. 240-241, "Consider Phlebas" by Iain M. Banks, (c) 1991 published by Bantam Books
"The Ends of Invention" was so huge it was built on three almost totally separate levels, each one over three kilometers deep. They were pressure levels, there because otherwise the differential between the very bottom and the very top of the giant ship would have been the difference between standard sea level and a mountain top somewhere in the tropopause. As it was, there existed a three-and-a-half thousand meter difference between the base and the roof of each pressure level, making sudden journeys by traveltube from one to the other inadvisable. In the immense open cave that was the hollow center of the GSV the pressure levels were marked by force fields, not anything material, so that craft could pass from one level to another without having to go outside the vessel. . .
p. 263, "Consider Phlebas" by Iain M. Banks, (c) 1991 published by Bantam Books
Personally, I find "The Ends of Invention" an almost heavenly vision of a super starship. I think more than one fellow speculative spaceship designer would agree with me that this would be a much more interesting kind of heaven than some of those traditionally put forth.
I have briefly shared five different science fiction universes and attempted via quotes from the various novels that describe them to show examples of the spectacular starships that populate them. I hope the reader has been able to experience at least a bit of the tremendous sense of wonder and visionary delight that I did when first reading the passages quoted above. The reader is encouraged to see the notes below for a listing of some of the books from each of these fictional future backgrounds.
1. Some books in H. Beam Piper's "Terran Federation" series include "The Cosmic Computer" (c) 1963, "Federation" (c) 1981, "Fuzzies and Other People" (c) 1984, "Fuzzy Sapiens" (c) 1964, "Fuzzy Bones' (c) 1981, "Empire" (c) 1981, and "Little Fuzzy" (c) 1962.
2. Some books in James White's "Sector General" series include "Ambulance Ship" (c) 1979, "Code Blue-Emergency" (c) 1987, "Double Contact" (c) 1999, "Final Diagnosis" (c) 1997, "The Galactic Gourmet" (c) 1996, "The Genocidal Healer' (c) 1992, "Hospital Station" (c) 1962, "Major Operation" (c) 1971, "Mindchanger" (c) 1998, "Sector General" (c) 1983, "Star Healer" (c) 1985, and "Star Surgeon" (c) 1963.
3. The books in Arthur C. Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama" series include "Rendezvous with Rama" (c) 1973, "Rama II" (c) 1989, "The Garden of Rama" (c) 1991, and "Rama Revealed" (c) 1994. The last three books of the series were written with Gentry Lee.
4. Some books in Iain M. Banks' "Culture" series include "Consider Phlebas" (c) 1987, "Use of Weapons" (c) 1992, and "Excession" (c) 1997.