Spaceships are a human metaphor

So, here’s something I just thought of. English sci-fi usually refers to its interstellar spacecraft as “space ships”, or “starships”, or something else with “ship” in the name. It’s a commonplace term.

Art from the Disney movie Treasure Planet.

Art from the Disney movie Treasure Planet.

Because it makes sense for humans to root our space travel in the nomenclature of sailing. The Age of Sail was a major formative period in Western history, so modern English still uses sailing idioms like “batten down the hatches”, “know the ropes” and “close quarters”, even though sailing is now a tiny niche of world travel. The vast majority of human cultures use boats in some way, and can relate to the imagery of travelling by wind and water. Sailing has a nostalgic sense of exploration and bold human endeavor. But if we dig a little deeper, sailing also touches on the less pleasant lessons history has to teach us — issues like the soul-sucking conditions of long-haul travel, and the human rights atrocities committed in the Age of Sail. The glamour and the grimness of the Age of Sail make a good blueprint for a space opera.

I was thinking about this while listening to The Picard Song, a Star Trek fanwork that starts with Captain Picard’s stately declaration of, “Here’s to the finest crew in Starfleet.”

Huh, I thought. Starfleet. Like a fleet of ships, in keeping with the nautical theme and the military implications. I wonder if alien races have metaphors like that for their space programs — different metaphors than ours.

And it suddenly occurred to me that I can’t think of any non-human versions of the term “spaceship”. Much as I appreciate Star Trek’s efforts to show non-humans in a dignified light, its alien races always seem to accept the “ship” and “fleet” terminology that humans use. Now, granted, universal translation technology is partly to blame. Of course it’s going to use our most commonly understood nomenclature. But still, I don’t recall any sci-fi media where an alien says, “Oh, you call it a space-[water-going vessel]? My species calls it a space-[something else].”

Why doesn’t that happen? Why don’t we hear other colourful names for spacecraft? Why aren’t there more telling glimpses into alien cultures?

I don’t ask that question directly at Star Trek, of course. That franchise had enough of a struggle on its hands, making its vision palatable to mainstream TV audiences of the 20th century. No, I think this is a question to ask of science fiction in general — and maybe fantasy, too, with its “airships” sailing the skies. Sci-fi made me think of this question, but I firmly believe that a magical non-human can do as much thought-provoking as a hard sci-fi alien.

I mean, what about a race that glorifies farming and plant husbandry? They might call their vessels “space seeds”, since they’re tough little packets of life meant to colonize new lands. Or aliens who see spacecraft as a mimickry of stars and planets, a mortal being’s attempt to fit in with the celestial bodies? Maybe their vessels would be called “hardstars”.

Art by James Paick, found here.

Art by James Paick, found here.

 

Now, I don’t claim to be aware of every book, TV show and movie ever made — actually, I get through novels pretty slowly for someone who writes them. So I hope there are examples of space not-ships that I’m simply not aware of. This concept just has so much creative potential, I hope it’s being used to add colour to fictional societies.

Do you know of a sci-fi/fantasy series with an interesting name for its spaceships/airships? Share in the comments!


3 Comments on “Spaceships are a human metaphor”

  1. In The Elder Scrolls computer games series, the Adamantine Tower is occasionally referred to as a spaceship by the guy who developed the series cosmology. Granted it doesn’t really fly anywhere (it was crashed into -something- to start the creation of the mortal plane), but there are various parallels. The same author also references an email-analogue in terms of manipulating the flow of souls in order to create a message.

    I’d also think (vaguely) about Doctor Who – although the TARDIS is called a ship in the first few episodes in the 60s, it is rarely considered as such in later series. There aren’t any particularly colourful metaphors that come out of that, though…

    • So that would make the Adamantine Tower a spaceship, just a multidimensional one? Same with the TARDIS, really, since time is a dimension — and the TARDIS does also move people between physical locations in a more traditional spaceship sense. That’s a good point, that “spaceship” can be a catch-all term for a moving piece in a sci-fi setting.


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