Spec Tech: Alive Upon the Sea

Alive upon the Sea – Living ships: Thoughts on Anthropomorphism and Sentience

This may be a bit unusual for Spec-Tech, having almost as much to do with psychology as technology.  Nevertheless, it seems worthwhile to take a moment to consider why sailors have always anthropomorphized their ships, how science fiction writers have taken that several steps further, and why ships are always “she”, but only in English.

Joseph Conrad says that he first understood the sea and truly became a sailor when he helped rescue the crew of a sinking ship in the middle of the Atlantic. The ship was only afloat because a few of the crew were still pumping.  The rest had simply given up. The captain said that the sea had broken their hearts.

Conrad would later write in “The Mirror of the Sea”:

Already I looked with other eyes upon the sea. I knew it capable of betraying the generous ardour of youth as implacably as, indifferent to evil and good, it would betray the basest greed or noblest heroism. My conception of its magnanimous greatness was gone. And I looked upon the true sea – the sea that plays with men till their hearts are broken and wears stout ships to death.”

Experienced sailors understand that the sea is immensely powerful and can sink any ship, at any time. They also understand that the sea is neither cruel nor kind, but something far, far, worse. The sea is wholly indifferent. Ships and men are insignificant, meaningless things, merely more flotsam and jetsam on its mighty waters.

In Conrad’s account, shortly after the survivors left the sinking ship, it sank beneath the waves. As they rowed away, the captain of the lost ship said, “No ship could have done so well…. She lasted under us for days and days but she could not last forever. It was long enough. I am glad it is over. No better ship was left to sink at sea on such a day as this.” The ship was not to blame. Even after being crippled by the sea, she was still their protector. She was to be respected, honored and indeed mourned.

Because sailors understand the heartless indifference of the sea, they must trust and indeed, love the ships that carry them and protect them, as they cross the boundless oceans. It is almost as if they have no other choice, short of madness. Having nothing else concrete to put their faith in, they give their allegiance, hope, and loyalty to the ship itself.  As long as the ship lives, so they too have a chance at life. If the ship is gone, so are they.  To sailors, ships are and must be living things.

In the tens of thousands of years that man has taken to the sea, he has always anthropomorphized the ships and boats that carried him. The Greeks gave their ships eyes to see forward. Fisherman painted eyes that looked downward for fish. Vikings gave the prows of their longboats the heads of dragons. Until the end of the 19th century most ships had figureheads, always looking forward from the bow.

In English ships and boats are always referred to as “she.” Writers have often make a big deal out gender. Writers in English cast the ship as a feminine archetype; the mother protector, symbol of a love ashore and so on. Nevertheless, gender is wholly arbitrary. Ships may be feminine in English but in French, ships are “he” and in German they are “it.” In Arabic, gender depends on the type and size of the vessel. Whether the ship is mother or father to the sailor matters little.

Sailors implicitly assign life to their ships, as well as the virtues of the living – courage, loyalty, strength, and determination. Writers, however, first gave ships sentience.

In 1895 Kipling wrote a short story, “The Ship that Found Herself,” about a new ship just out of the shipyard in which all the component parts, from the rivets to the plating to the boilers, had to learn to function together as a single ship. After speaking with many voices, the ship becomes a single entity, ready to courageously breast the ocean waves. The story has been called both science fiction and fantasy, and may qualify as a bit of each.

If the sea is heartless and indifferent to both men and ships, the vastness and emptiness of space must by comparison be exponentially worse. In countless works of science fiction, the heroes sound just like sailors from ages past speaking of their ships. Han Solo defending the Millennium Falcon says, “She’ll make point five past light-speed. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.” He could easily have been the captain of a clipper ship, notwithstanding that most clippers did not exceed light-speed.

Writers of science fiction, however, have also taken Kipling’s self-aware ship one or two steps farther.

The bio-ships of fiction, whether in print, movies, comics or games take forms of all sorts. These ships are alive, with varying degrees of sentience. They range from Dyson trees adopted in a half dozen novels; to Jodorowsky’s CetaCyborgs; or Babylon 5’s Vorlons and Shadows, who both used bio-ships; or the Brood’s Starsharks; or even Dr. Who’s TARDIS, which is telepathic and semi-sentient and apparently grown and not built.  In Starcraft,  the  Tyranids and Zerg  also have fleets and swarms of living ships.

But rather than asking why would a ship be alive and sentient, the question might be – why wouldn’t it? The sailing ships of the eighteenth century were the most technologically advanced machines of their day, on land or sea. They required miles of hemp rope, acres of canvas, and small forests of trees for the hull, masts, and yards. They were designed to catch the last bit of energy from the wind and translate it into motive power. More than that they required skilled officers and crew.

Jumping forward a few centuries to spaceships, whether or not their structures are organic, the chance that ships could be self-aware doesn’t seem unreasonable. Even our comparatively primitive computers can be programmed to pass the Turing test. Deep Blue has deep-sixed the chess masters and Watson won at Jeopardy.  Add a few hundred years or perhaps a millennium and sentient ships don’t sound so far fetched.  Whether they are in any sense biological, it is possible that they may be self-aware.

The immediate problem with truly sentient ships may be that we may not like their company as much as the old inert anthropomorphic ships.  Need we be reminded of poor HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who suffers from a nervous breakdown and turns just a touch murderous?   Perhaps the stoic silence of a windjammer doesn’t seem so bad by comparison.


3 thoughts on “Spec Tech: Alive Upon the Sea

  1. I snoozed through Moby Dick in high school, then read it again as an adult, and… wow. All the passion and craziness of human endeavor, and the sinking of a massive ship and nearly everyone on it, all their struggles and fears and pain wrapped up by:

    “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

    This was the first time I saw the sea as sailors see it, and your blog addresses the vast apathetic horror of it nicely.

  2. Kipling’s ship story was great except the finale was a letdown–the suddenly-whole entity seems chastened, instead of just awestruck/delighted at its new state. It/she/whatever should not have had to feel ashamed of what it could not have known before. “.007” ends more happily, even if the setting is less formidable than the ocean.
    Stapledon featured nautilus-like creatures that evolved into shiplike sophonts in “Star Maker”.

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