Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Surprisingly the first Anne McCaffrey book I’ve ever read! Just never got into Pern…. Anyway, The Ship Who Sang is a collection of shorts following Helva, a person born with so many congenital defects that her body was installed into a shell so her mind could develop and become a Brain Ship. It’s an interesting concept, and each story explores different challenges that Helva faces as a human being with a very different type of embodiment. The stories build on each other to culminate in a final expression of Helva’s freedom of choice. McCaffrey explores a lot of compelling issues with nuance, yet I found her writing overall leaves much to be desired.
Helva’s human body is born with too many physical deformities for her to ever live and interact successfully. In this world, people in such situations can often be adapted to become the human component of a Brain Ship. With her neural functions connected to a larger ship, Helva is the ship. And along with a mobile human companion, the “brawn” to her “brain”, Helva performs delicate missions for the Central Worlds. These missions usually involve cargo transport, sometimes delegate transport, and often call upon Helva to use her judgment as a living mind. Each story shows how a routine mission can quickly turn into a catastrophe, however, and places demands on Helva’s cunning and compassion.
I think why The Ship Who Sang works, and why I’m giving it 3 stars despite not liking the writing style that much, is that McCaffrey diligently explores what it would mean to be … a ship. The first story, obviously, sets up Helva’s life and portrays her first partnership with a brawn. It provides insight into Helva’s personality, the way she relates to the world through, in her case, singing. The next stories examine how Helva reacts to being pushed to various extremes of sorrow, anguish, anger, and guilt, each time forcing her to make decisions no one really likes to make. In all of these stories, McCaffrey reminds us that Helva, despite being a ship, is still very human. She has human feelings, human desires, at least on an emotional level.
How this translates in terms of love is probably one of the key themes here. What kinds of relationships can Helva have with her fellow human beings? I don’t always agree with the way McCaffrey develops this theme. Although physical sex/desire would seem to be ruled out, there are moments of … weird … sexualization of Helva. At one point she ruminates on how shorter men supposedly have bigger penises—like, why would that matter to you, and also, that’s not how it works anyway. And at one point, one of the male characters talks about ripping off the access panel to the shell that contains her human body, which we’re supposed to infer has been suspended in a pubescent or pre-pubescent state to make sure it doesn’t outgrow its shell. There are numerous references to Helva being a “tin-plated virgin” or “tin-plated witch”, and look, I know this book was written in the 1960s, but it’s set in the far future, and that’s still pretty clearly sexual harassment. Indeed, the attitudes towards sex and gender are pretty conventional and one-dimensional: very heteronormative, very much “women fall for clever/strong men”.
Also some weird eugenic stuff in “The Ship Who Killed”? Helva and her companion have to collect embryos from planets who have enough stock along the appropriate “racial” and “genetic” lines to help out a colony rendered sterile. Just, the language that McCaffrey uses is very clinical and smacks of eugenicism. In general, the intergalatic society she depicts in this universe is a utilitarian, perhaps even authoritarian one, and though we don’t learn a whole lot about its overall structure, it doesn’t come off as a happy place.
So I guess my bottom line with all these observations is simply that McCaffrey makes a valiant attempt to explore the idea of a human brain controlling a starship … but it’s myopic in many ways. There must be better stories since that have explored similar concepts but with a more diverse representation of human experiences. The Ship Who Sang was diverting, enjoyable to read—a little bit dry in terms of the writing, especially the dialogue and characterization—but not as radical or far-reaching as I want in my science fiction.