Artificial intelligence comes in many forms: you have your Terminator-type Skynets, formless and godlike; your Ex Machina robots, jump out of the Uncanny Valley and freaking everyone out; and, of course, your giant sentient starships, usually bristling with deadly weapons, and frequently coldly inhuman, if not outright insane. It’s that last we’re celebrating today, because who wouldn’t love an intelligent companion spaceship of her very own? Although if we had sentient cars, we might not appreciate the constant comments on our driving or taste in music, so maybe let’s rethink that… Anyway, while we love all sentient ships equally, here are six deserving of particular attention.
The alien ship in Linesman, by S.K. Dunstall
In their new book, the Dunstall sisters don’t simply offer a story about the sudden, ominous appearance of an alien ship, they create a detailed universe around it. Ean Lambert is a linesman, an expert who can tune and work with the barely understood “lines” of energy that stretch across the galaxy and allow for faster than light communication and travel. He is one of the best at what he does, but his hardscrabble past, lack of self-esteem, and peculiar habit of “singing” to the lines peg him as an eccentric, and his peers treat him as a bit of a crank. When that alien ship arrives, using a heretofore unknown eleventh line and threatening to destroy anything that approaches, Ean’s special skills mean he’s the only one who can get close, and his belief that he can communicate with the lines themselves turns out to be far less crazy than everyone assumes. What begins as a classic BDO sci-fi story turns out to be anything but, a first contact tale of an encounter with a decidedly non-human intelligence.
Breq/Justice of Toren in Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
Part of the genius of Ancillary Justice is Leckie’s subversion of the sentient ship concept: Breq was the ship Justice of Toren (at least, a part of its consciousness), but she’s been reduced to a single ancillary body, “ancillary” being the polite term for the corpse soldiers a ship’s A.I. uses as ground troops. This switch from a massive, powerful vessel to a single, fragile human body gives Breq’s tale of investigation and revenge much of its energy, and allows Leckie plenty of room to explore themes of colonization, conquest, slavery, and, yes, justice through the lens of an intelligence that is simultaneously familiar and alien. It’s also the rare book in which the sentient ship becomes a true character the reader completely identifies with.
Perhonen in The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi
The sentient ship Perhonen is but one of an almost infinite supply of ideas flooding the pages of Rajaniemi’s inventive debut, but, plopped into a book that spends much of its time messing around with your brain, she’s also the one thing that will grab ahold of your heart. Created by the warrior Mieli, Perhonen would be a unique and fascinating character even if she was simply a humanoid. As it is, she’s a ship infused with an A.I. built from an imperfect upload of an ancestor’s personality: flirty, arch, fun to be around (inside?), fond of butterfly avatars (“perhonen” is Finnish for “butterfly”), and willing to sacrifice everything for the people she’s bonded with. Acting as a sort of soul to the story, she’s a fair choice for the favorite character in the trilogy, despite the fact that, well, she’s a spaceship.
Helva in The Ship Who Sang, by Anne McCaffrey
McCaffrey many times proclaimed this her favorite of her own books, and it’s easy to see why: the “brainships” in this universe aren’t A.I.s or uploaded personalities, but actual people, born with terrible physical deformities and offered up by their parents to lives as “shells” (basically, cyborgs) who serve as the intelligences for a variety of purposes, including spaceships. They are paired with “brawns,” physical partners who can carry out their orders and interact physically in ways the ship cannot, and bonds between brainships and their brawns can be powerful. Anyone who gets to the scene at the end of the first novel (a fix-up of a series of short stories) when Helva the brainship sings “Taps” to honor her fallen brawn and doesn’t get a little misty-eyed is likely dead inside.
All the ships in the Culture series, by Iain M. Banks
In Banks’ vastly entertaining post-scarcity space opera series, humanity (for lack of a more accurate word) has ceded control of its destiny to the Minds, vast artificial intelligences that run the Culture, fending off threats both internal and external while keeping the flesh-and-bloods fed and happy and free to pursue their own strange desires. Though not all confined to starships, many of the Minds inhabit huge (we’re talking hundreds of kilometers huge) vessels that are, for all intents and purposes, mobile human cities with their own personalities and weird senses of humor (for one thing, they are fond of giving themselves names like Size Isn’t Everything). Such strange beings could be portrayed as remote and godlike, difficult to comprehend or sympathize with, but Banks presents them as flawed, quirky individuals. To experience the full effect of this element of the series, pick up Excession, told party from the point-of-view of several ships working out a vast intergalactic conspiracy.
Dahak in Empire from the Ashes, by David Weber
Featuring one of the deepest and most complex backstories of any recent SF story, Empire from the Ashes introduces Dahak, a battleship as large as a moon and capable of inflicting incredible damage. After the captain floods the ship with poison gas and orders it to prevent anyone from boarding after an attempted mutiny, the ship orbits a planet for 50,000 lonely years, during which time it attains sentience. When the galactic threat it was designed to repel returns, Dahak seeks out a replacement captain who can free it from those ancient orders and allow it to save the universe. Incredibly powerful and so neglected, Dahak could be a terrible threat—but its desire to complete its mission and fight for humanity makes it one of the most likable sentient ships in science fiction.
Which ship would you want as your companion?