Flying with the brain ships in Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang

anne-mccaffrey 1I’m having a private Anne McCaffrey festival today, since I’m simultaneously posting a review of her son’s memoir of her, Dragonholder, over on Vulpes Libris. This post draws a line under the mini-series of podcast scripts about gentlemanly thrillers that ended here last week, and begins a new series on feminist science fiction. It also follows up on the things I had to say about James Blish last week, by looking at how women writers wrote about science and society in science fiction, even if it’s made-up science. I do enjoy novels where the gender thing is unimportant: where feminism has done its job, or, in the science fiction canon, shows how the job ought to be done to produce a future society, how society ought to be. Fantasy is no good for this sort of speculation, because science has rules, plots have to obey them, and fantasy is so deliciously soggy and woolly, you can’t follow any proposition to its logical conclusion when wizards and magic get in the way.

the edition I read in my teens, a glorious watery cover
the cover I like best, a glorious watery seascape

This time, I’ve been reading one of Anne McCaffrey’s earliest novels, from 1969, The Ship Who Sang. It was first published as short stories in various SF magazines from the early 1960s. The stories are linked episodes in the story of Helva, a woman born with severe birth defects who passed the neurological tests to join the brain ship programme. She is encased in a titanium shell with neurological and emotional links to her spaceship, and travels the galaxies as a working vessel. She can talk to whoever she wants to by tight beam, she can magnify all her senses to know exactly what is going on in her ship at any level, and when she’s without human cargo she has the power to travel faster than any human normally could. Her eyes don’t work, but her visual senses are perfect. Her special talent is singing, which she does multivocally once she’s taught herself how to manipulate her voicebox and larynx with her implanted microphones. The technology McCaffrey invokes to suggest hi-tech solutions and a perfect match of body and machine are vague, but scientifically persuasive.

note the blonde lurking in the middle distance, in case we don't realise the book is about a blonde (which it isn't)
note the blonde lurking in the middle distance, in case we don’t realise the book is about a blonde (which it isn’t)

McCaffrey wrote in the fantasy and science fiction genres simultaneously. Once she became famous for her dragons of Pern books (fantasy) and had developed a canon, she co-wrote science fiction novels with younger writers, mainly to give them a boost, but also, I think, to refresh her own inspiration. I’ll be raving about Elizabeth Moon, the best of these then ‘new’ writers with whom McCaffrey collaborated, in a couple of weeks. Twenty years after the publication of The Ship Who Sang McCaffrey invented a new series of novels about the brain ships, by sharing her old idea with new writers, to give a good old idea new life for new readers (The Ship Who Won, The City that Fought, etc.). The Ship Who Sang is the only novel of the series by McCaffrey alone, and while it’s not the strongest in terms of writing, or emotional impact, it was a trailblazer, and has most of the best ideas and most inspiring science, written in a woman-oriented way.

So, Helva is the ship, but she works with a partner, called a ‘brawn’, a human pilot with whom she can partner till death, or can accept temporarily. This is an obvious analogy to a marriage, but since Helva is permanently sealed away from human touch, and would die if she were removed from her nutrient fluid, her relationships are working partnerships where the partners must be emotionally in tune without the help of physical contact. Partners can be in love with each other: Helva’s first partner dies on a mission, and several of the stories are about her struggling with her grief and desire for suicide. Brawns can develop fixations on their brain partners, which leads to dangerous situations, since they could, potentially, open the shell, with catastrophic results for the people, and for the Company’s investment in brain ship training and medical care. Brain partners like Helva have to be emotionally mature to handle the psychological demands of both physical confinement and separation from the human world, because you can’t run away from your mind. Relationships and how to negotiate them are the main focus in these early stories, using the male-female dynamic to show how characters differ as a reaction to personal trauma. The plots of the stories are very concerned with health: physical health, mental health, drug addiction, the maintenance of good gene pools on distant planets, the effects of unknown viruses, and the threat of psychosis. There is no heavy weaponry in these stories: all conflict is handled and resolved with psychology, and Helva’s manipulation of her own skills and toolkit.

a gorgeous minimalist cover illustration
a gorgeous minimalist cover

The first story is about acceptance: humans accepting the brain ships as responsible adults, rather than indentured slaves of the Central Worlds, who are the equivalent of an intergalactic UN. Helva teams up with her first brawn, he dies in an accident, and she learns that her life is important without him. Helva’s grief is about the loss of a man she loves, but also about her need for companionship in her working life as well. The dynamics of how two people work together in confined spaces, in difficult situations, over time and space, where privacy and personal space are limited: all are tackled in this story, and in most of the others, with remarkable economy. You can’t help but be reminded that McCaffrey knows all this stuff from life. She was divorced, after all.

Mourning continues in the second episode, when Helva takes Theoda, a physiotherapist, to a planet where most of the population have been paralysed by a space plague. Her vision adjustments can detect microscopic reactions from these doomed people to the ancient techniques of rehab applied by the therapist, and this shows the survivors how they can rehabilitate their people, particularly the children who will relearn movement fastest: another triumph of an augmented human-machine response. Whether Helva’s contribution is because she is a woman is not the point. She’s interested in people, and supports the therapist’s mission by participating because Theoda interests her. Empathy, a need to help, a desire to assist, are not solely feminine characteristics, but in presenting them as so important, so crucial for the plot, and so desirable in a well-adjusted and normal person who happens to be female, McCaffrey shows us that women using such skills are highly valuable in society. (This was 1969, remember.)

another cover with an awkward juxtaposition of a woman's head and space hardware
another cover with an awkward juxtaposition of a woman’s head and space hardware

The next story is the one has a B movie plot, and a gratuitous use of Bob Dylan. I really don’t like it when real-world people are brought into fiction. It drags the plot back from imagination to dreary reappropriation, and it dates the story indelibly, producing an impression of lack of imagination rather than enthusiastic hommage. I’m sure I’ve seen this plot on Star Trek several times, and I think it pops up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well: a deranged brain ship mourning her dead brawn by enslaving the local population with her voice to kill themselves as a sacrifice to He Who Orders. Helva’s new brawn is a woman in mourning because her husband died before they could store their genes, and her disastrous first childbirth killed the baby and prevented her from having more. She and Helva have to pick up donations of embryos in plastic ribbon to repopulate a planet which lost its gene pool, and they are lured to a place where life is an abomination and death is an act of devout sacrifice, all aided by hallucigenic gases from volcanic eruptions. McCaffrey’s focus here is on motherhood and nurturing life: the ethics of creating test-tube embryos are easily upheld by having a very obvious villain object to them. The motherhood / midwife role played by two women who physically cannot have children is a very targeted way to concentrate on exactly what motherhood is, and what the body’s role actually is: another feminist debate.

The fourth story gives Helva more people to play with, a group of actors whom she is transporting across the galaxies to perform Romeo and Juliet to a planet of jellyfish who communicate in the language of physics. How would you enact ‘Soft, what light from yonder window breaks?’ in equations? The actors, and Helva (she has perfect recall, she can play any part required, and it turns out she can act quite well) are transported into jellyfish shells to perform, and find the experience of exchanging energies in the performance of the play almost too overwhelming to survive. This story is about selflessness and ego, about denying your own needs for the benefit of others, or being totally selfish. The snottiest actor is an egotistical madam who specialises in ruining scenes and upstaging others to get her own way, and to prove her skills. (I should mention that McCaffrey used also to work in theatre: she’s writing off some old grievances here, I think.) Trouble is, to survive best in the jellyfish environment, ego is necessary, and what a shame that the egotistical one ends up trapped there, no longer able to use her body and physicality to attract attention, but must rely on her mental and emotional powers, finally forced to play true to her actorly skills.

generic dullness, but nice colours
generic dullness, but nice colours

Torture and sensory deprivation are the subject of the next story, and also attack. Helva gets kidnapped by a deranged brawn and has her synapses disconnected, she can no longer hear or see. She never could smell, taste or touch, so her only senses have been turned off. How she copes, and gets herself out of the situation, are down to strong willpower, inner mental resources, and intelligence, the management and recall of data that will give her an idea to neutralise her attacker, and allow help to come. How would you kill someone if you only had a voice? McCaffrey’s emphasis on self-reliance comes back again here: in this story Helva’s brawn is a total git, an arrogant, patronising male stereotype who thinks of Helva only as a sophisticated computer without a personality, and so she kicks him off her ship, divorcing him not so much for his personal failings and terrible judgement, but for failing to understand who she is and what she needs. If that’s not feminist action I don’t know what is.

The last story gives Helva a kind of closure, because she finally meets her man, her perfect brawn, whom we have encountered in all the stories so far, in a very traditional romance pattern: the one man with whom she is continually arguing is of course the one man for her. I find this disappointing because it’s so predictable. It’s also a reminder that all the authority figures in these stories are men: that is a feminist fail that McCaffrey went on to try to do something about in her later novels, but never really got a grip on. The Ship Who Sang is a great way to set out ideas, and to explore some really important ideas about women and power and strength, but if only she had continued in this way.

Anne McCaffrey, The Ship Who Sang (1969), in many editions.

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4 thoughts on “Flying with the brain ships in Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang

  1. I’m the other way round to you – I hated The Ship that Sang (but, on the whole, I don’t enjoy science fiction, so it’s a genre I rarely read), and loved the dragons! Having said that I think the Pern books went on for far too long. There was a point at which she should have said ‘enough is enough’ but, like many authors who produce a successful series, she carried on writing and the later books failed to engage me. Ifelt they seemed forced.

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