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The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey

October 3, 2012

The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey (1969)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

Anne McCaffrey is best known for her extensive Pern world, a series that joined a hard-SF background with dragons and a touch of romance. Her second-most-popular, more science-fiction-themed work was the Brainship series: a malformed human girl is turned into the cyborg brain of a starship. The series began as a group of short stories before the eventual novels, and it became the one McCaffrey was most proud of, which should say a lot – it’s one of her best remembered creations.

‘The Ship Who Sang’ (Fantasy & SF, Apr 1961)
The first story has a genuine and poignant idea at its core: placing a crippled and disfigured infant, encased in a cybernetic shell, as an organic brain for a starship. The Brain, as it were, partnered with a human Brawn to go forth and perform complex adventures among the stars. It provides an eternal, mechanical protagonist who is still very human, dealing with complex human emotions and problems. The first story ends on a sad note, with the ship’s Brawn dying in the line of duty; this grief is something Helva will have to overcome in the later stories. If the story wasn’t just 18 pages it could have been a knockout, but that brevity leaves it too short and rushed. It’s still very good, working on a great SF idea.

‘The Ship Who Mourned’ (Analog, Mar 1966)
‘The Ship Who Killed’ (Galaxy Magazine, Oct 1966)

I lump these two together because they have the same general theme and arc: Helva is assigned a temporary Brawn who, as luck would have it, has to overcome the same issues as Helva during a trip related to their crises. The first teams grief-stricken Helva up with Theodra, aging grief-stricken survivor of a planetary plague. Theodra lost her entire family to the plague, being one of the few with natural immunities. Their mission: save planets now infected by newer, similar plagues, something Theodra has studied since losing her family.

The second gives a still somewhat grief-stricken Helva with Kira, another depressive Brawn, this time one who lost a male acquaintance/husband and survived an attempted suicide. Oh, and Kira was left barren earlier in life; their mission? Hauling frozen embryos in a “Stork Run” to repopulate a planet. Kira’s also a practicing Dylanist, defined as someone who makes social commentary and promotes world-views via acoustic guitar and singing. (Science fiction enthusiasts have always lauded the “prophetic” nature of the genre; stories like this one show that SF works are more often a reflection of their era rather than grandiose future prophecy. Because, really, “Dylanism” is so very ’60s.)

A little melodramatic, perhaps; at the least, more so than the original tale. Both are longer than the original, and thus more developed; that’s a good thing, as is the further development of Helva (and her successive Brawns) as characters.

‘Dramatic Mission’ (Analog, Jun 1969)
Helva, still without a permanent Brawn, is roped into ferrying a cast of actors. See, this new race of aliens are offering an exchange: some fantastic new ways to modulate and harness power in exchange for olden Earth dramas. Helva’s passengers is a Shakespeare troupe, with a dying leading man who needs zero-gravity to survive, and includes a catty Juliet to promote plenty of infighting. Oh, and the actors must undergo the aliens’ consciousness-switching techniques to survive in their chlorine atmosphere to perform the play. And that includes Helva, when she’s roped into becoming a supporting actress.

The first long tale in this collection, ‘Dramatic Mission’ is a novella that earned nominations for both the Hugo and the Nebula. Helva’s characterization continues, though she takes a back-seat to much of the human drama until Helva reveals she studied Shakespeare as a hobby back in her formative years. Because of this, the story is more of a human one, because of the human frailties and pettiness exposed by the actors. While somewhat predictable, it’s also the most interesting and enjoyable of the stories so far, with enough length to develop the plot and characters.

‘The Ship Who Dissembled’ (If, Mar 1969)
Another short one, but I think it’s the closest in this collection to fully realizing the series’ potential, using all the disparate elements to make a rounded tale. There’s the inevitable human angle between Helva and her Brawn, butting heads over the topic of disappearing Brainships. This leads to some interesting debates about their nature… though it’s a bit one-sided, since Helva’s Brawn is a machine-like tool who thinks the ships are inept machines, hence the need for human partners. She’s on the verge of sacking him, fine be damned, until she’s kidnapped by the same creeps responsible for the other four missing Brainships… some fringe weirdo who wants a collection of these “obscenities”.

So, some examination of the Brainships’ nature, the continuing look into Helva’s life and Brain-Brawn relations, and a kidnapping adventure, that flow together and make a balanced story. Again, it’s a bit short, but connections to both the preceding and following stories makes it feel like part of a larger whole than a short snippet existing within a void. This would be my favorite of the collection.

‘The Partnered Ship’
The other stories were building up to this one, connecting the various magazine stories together to arrive here, at the finale, written specifically for the collection’s book publication.

Having finally paid off her debt to the government, Helva returns to base for refitting and to be officially released into freedom. Her mind still wanders back to her first Brawn, since she’s fixating on her ability as a free agent to choose her next one – she’s looking for a permanent partner, not another temp, someone she likes and can rely on for the foreseeable future. (This flies directly in the “conventional” brainship wisdom, when one of them contacts her via comms and advises her to get a constant rotation of Brawns to fit the profile of whatever profitable missions she picks up.) Helva here is both at her weakest and at her girliest, pining over her lost love while looking forward to nonexistent future Brawns like she’s comparing bowls of porridge or glass slippers. Until she realizes the perfect Brawn has been hiding right under her nose the whole time: the supervisor who’s been aggravating her the last few stories.

Well, maybe it’s not as romantic as I played it out, since she chooses him after he tries to maneuver her into another long-term contract with the government, dangling a possible FTL (faster-than-light) drive as bait. In a fit of revenge, she picks him; he flees after revealing his fascination with her, rationalizing that he can’t partner with Helva because he’ll inevitably want to crack open her shell and see what the real Helva looks like. (I’m sure some people think this is romantic, but it sounds pretty creepy to me.)

Truth be told, not a lot happens here – the big problem of having a ship as a character means a lot can go on around and even in that character, but things turn into a lot of internalized pondering, or talking with people who are a bit more mobile than a shell person. Still, that doesn’t make it bad, just a bit awkward. It’s a nice story that takes the Brainship stories to the next logical step, bringing earlier plot elements together and binding them together. Not a bad tale, but more of a bridge to future stories than a story all of its own, leaving things without a definite conclusion.

The first story is good, and introduces a load of great ideas, but too short to be meaningful. The second two were too melodramatic for me; the series leans towards romance with its premise. But even then, their brevity prevented any emotional investment. ‘Dramatic Mission’ is the first long tale in the collection, one in which Helva’s role is diminished in the bigger picture, and I thought it was the closest the stories had come to fully realizing their potential thus far; ‘Dissembled’ continues the trend, juggling many themes of humanity in a brief story. ‘The Partnered Ship’ brings back many plot elements introduced in earlier stories, binding them together and preparing for Helva’s future; it’s the most personal in terms of relating to Helva and her goals, but became awkward when the plot turned into “Helva talks to people and her Brawn runs around”.

McCaffrey is a good, but not excellent, writer; she has some sloppy turns of phrase now and again, though her characters and dialogue are both strong and realized. I felt the setting had a lot of potential, but because of the short-story nature, it’s left underdeveloped, and after the first one it shows up on a “what’s necessary to this story” basis – tidbits of an interesting setting that grows with each story. It wasn’t until the third one that I found out these Brainships have to save up and pay off all their costs of training and maintenance – wait, so they’re taking handicapped people, making them into ships, and then charging them for this service? Fining them when they rotate out a Brawn they hate? I could understand the kind of compulsory duty-service that many real-life countries practice, but really, this is worse than college loans.

And while the idea of taking handicapped people and using them as spaceships is amazing, I don’t feel it was dealt with to the degree it could have. The ships are adamant they’re getting the better half of the deal, since they can do things normal people can’t – flying through space is indeed pretty damn cool. But what about the human angle? The inability to touch, or love, somebody – that lack of physicality – shouldn’t that crop up given the romance angle, the constant look-but-don’t-touch impersonal relationship Helva’s stuck with for all her Brawns? (Something that’s given lip service in ‘Dramatic Mission'; yet Helva’s dogmatic answers don’t seem to convince the other characters.) Considering the Brain/Brawn partnership falls somewhere between “college roommates” and “marriage” on the relationship scale, I would have liked to have seen it tackled in more depth.

Similarly, how about the moral, ethical choices for using the disabled: the first story mentions that activists questioned the morals behind the Brainships, but that thread is forgotten by that story’s end. Making the handicapped into a cross between civil servants and semi trucks under corporate servitude drew some criticism from disability rights advocates in recent years. I have the feeling that McCaffrey could have preempted this criticism had she approached the topic in-depth within the stories. Helva does have a point that this life offers many benefits, though it’s defeated by the ordeals she’s forced to overcome, such as the debt – this society requires its handicapped to pay to live, not as a person but as a brainship, something I find morally questionable. Are they really “empowering” these handicapped persons by forcing them into a life of servitude? Society’s view of the handicapped has changed, leaving us with a lot of loaded, heavy questions.

But to be honest, the topic is too much of a downer; McCaffrey wrote fun speculative fiction with upbeat, romantic ideals, not scathing psychological discourses or deep examinations of the human spirit. I don’t think it’s a road McCaffrey would ever go down.

I can see why these stories are so beloved and popular, with a large fan-base, though they didn’t quite win me over. Yes, having different opinions about disabilities my opinion, as does McCaffrey’s pre-woman’s lib look at female empowerment/emancipation, which is a can of worms I’m reluctant to open since I’m already soap-boxing about the handicapped. Let’s just say I liked their optimism and creativity, but found their views outdated – and they’re too flowery, a bit too romantic for my tastes.

I did find several of them quite enjoyable, but they didn’t thrill me into running out and buying more McCaffrey. Many of the themes and elements McCaffrey introduces are fantastic, and as a whole the book has merit. As stories, they will fulfill, doubly so if you like characters with strong personalities and feelings. As historical artifacts, they’re an neat look back at ideas people had in the 1960s. As great science fiction… I’ve read better. Recommended for McCaffrey fans, and people who look for romanticism in their reading choices.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.

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