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Spec Tech: Of Tall Ships and Star Ships

August 12, 2010

When Mishell Baker went looking for a nautical blogger, she found me. My name is Rick Spilman.  I am the host of the Old Salt Blog.  By training, I am a naval architect, which is to say a ship designer.  I am also a multimedia designer and a writer, among other things.  I have an abiding love for ships and the sea both throughout history and in the present day.  My interests range from the fictional to the technical.  When I can find the time  I also enjoy crewing on tall and traditional ships.  If anyone is writing about ships and has a question, there is a pretty good chance that I have an answer or know someone who does.  And failing that, I am confident that collectively we will be able to come up with a convincing story.  We are writers after all.

So what does the nautical realm have to do with speculative fiction?  A fair amount, I think. Superficially, both involve a mix of technology and craft. Both often need ships and perhaps just a touch of magic to make it all happen.

There is also a more fundamental connection.  Most speculative fiction, it seems to me anyway, begins at a boundary where someone stares out into a void, full of danger and opportunity, and decides to take that first step beyond. It doesn’t matter whether they depart by a star ship in science fiction or on some great quest in a fantasy, the willingness to step past the established boundaries into the unknown largely defines the genre.

Of course, the heroes of speculative fiction were by no means the first. Sailors, for all of time, have stood on a beach and looked out at the vastness of the sea and sky before setting sail beyond the horizon.  In tiny ships, these sailors faced an eternity at least as vast as space itself, on a dangerous and indifferent ocean that teemed with monsters, both real and of their imaginations. If their ships weren’t cast up on the reefs, they might discover new and exotic lands with hopes of great treasure, as long as the natives didn’t slaughter them as they lurched ashore. If you’ll excuse my borrowing the phrase, these nameless sailors were indeed among the first to “go boldly where no one had gone before.”  The captains and sailors of yore, directly or indirectly, have helped to shape the archetypes around which much of science fiction and and fantasy are based.

It is remarkably easy for fans of both naval adventure fiction and speculative fiction to shift back and forth between the seas and the stars.  The bridge of the typical star ship of classic science fiction looks remarkably like that of an 18th century man-of war.  The man-of-war was a bit breezier and had lots of rigging, flapping canvas and what not, but the players themselves were not so different.  On both, the captains are in absolute command, supported by their able lieutenants, midshipmen, quartermasters and a myriad of crew. The midshipman supervising the signal-man at the flag hoists may not control the sophisticated communications equipment that an author might imagine on a star ship, yet the signal flags were the cutting edge means of communicating of their day.  Indeed the eighteenth century man-of-war was the most highly evolved cutting-edge wonder of technology of its time.  (It might not have had warp drive but then again neither was it fictional.)

Even as we imagine traveling through space, the sea never seems too far away. I recall a low budget TV show with perilously low ratings, just on the verge of being canceled, where the captain of a star ship recited two lines of John Masefield’s famous poem “Sea Fever”.  “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”  In the intervening more than forty years, both the then-failing television program, Star Trek, and the Masefield poem have become cliches.  Nevertheless, the link between tall ships and star ships remain.

I look forward to discussing ships and the sea as they apply to speculative fiction with the readers of the Clarion Blog.  We no doubt have much to learn from each other.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2010 10:21 am

    Nice essay!

    One of the flaws I see in people’s writing all the time is that when they design a starship or cobble together a crew, they look to Star Trek or Star Wars or some other Central Casting visual medium for their inspiration, rather than going back, so to speak, to the source material. Whether your crew is seven or seven hundred, you should have some idea of what they do. And whether you are talking about an 18th century or a 20th century man of war, you can learn something about the organization and duties and crafts which have to be in play. Yes, I know that they probably don’t have pots of pitch for waterproofing on a starship, but I bet they’ll have tubes of vacuum setting epoxy or some such product. You don’t have to bog down your writing with the details, but you should have some in mind. (grin)

    Dr. Phil

  2. Rick Spilman permalink
    August 13, 2010 6:21 pm

    What I find to be funny is that the Central Casting bridge crew is not that far from the the bridge crew of a Royal Navy man-of-war. The captain and the various lieutenants, midshipmen, quartermaster, signal men and gun crews all have rough analogs in the Central Casting starship crew. The big differences are between the Chief Engineer and the engine room crew and Sailing master and sail handlers.

    It might be interesting to try to come up with more a original organization of officers and crew in science fiction that might not stick so closely to the older models. Then again as the jobs that need to be done are similar, there aren’t too many reasons or even opportunities to make huge changes.

    The one thing in common with sailors of the Age of Sail and the fictitious crews of star ships is that both are among the most highly skilled workers of their respective times.

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