From the Star-Destroyer flying overhead at the beginning of Star Wars to Klaatu’s flying saucer descending in the original Day The Earth Stood Still, the idea of a spaceship goes hand-in-hand with what we expect from sci-fi. Where would science fiction be without space ships? It would certainly have lost a significant proportion of its iconography. To celebrate this I have chosen ten ships which stand out to me as great icons of the genre. This list is by no means definitive (neither ships mentioned above is included) but these ten vessels are essential to the narratives of their stories, and they’re fiction design classics as well.
10. The Lying Bastard – Ringworld
This one takes some explaining: built by Pierson’s Puppeteers – a cowardly two-headed alien race from Larry Niven’s Known Space series – the Lying Bastard is technically advanced and packs a few nifty tricks.
Though the Puppeteers detest violence, this personal vessel (large enough to carry four in cramped conditions) is filled with tools which could easily be used as weapons – a disintegration ray supposed to be used for digging, a flash-light with a beam so powerful it can cut someone in half. Hence our protagonist, Louis Wu’s affectionate nickname for the ship.
The Lying Bastard is also protected by the Puppeteers’ impervious hull, which comes in handy when the ship collides with the Ringworld and the novel gets interesting.
9. Serenity – Firefly & Serenity
Serenity, a second-hand Firefly-class ship and the setting for Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly, has as wonderfully iconic design. To me it’s like a duck, odd-shaped and bulky on the ground but surprisingly graceful in the air.
Serenity may be small compared to the settings of some stories but it has enough secret hidey-holes filled with stolen goods and the occasional fugitive to keep the audience interested. More than anything, the crew of Serenity are a family and no family is complete without a home. Whedon lovingly brings it to life for this cult season of TV and the subsequent film.
8. Red Dwarf – Red Dwarf
In the future, there will still be shit jobs; this unavoidable truth is the essence of Red Dwarf, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s sci-fi/comedy show. Huge, lumbering and most of it serving no visible purpose, Red Dwarf is a place where the downtrodden of the future toil away for little money.
It has an AI with an IQ of 6,000 (or the same IQ as 6,000 PE teachers), a surviving crew of four (one human, one hologram, one cat and one android) and is vast enough to contain any number of comedy capers. One piece of advice: make sure you know one of their garbage pods when you see it.
7. Luke’s X-wing – Star Wars
No, not the Millennium Falcon; the real hero among Star Wars’ ships is Luke’s dependable X-wing. The star of sci-fi’s greatest David and Goliath scene, Luke must pilot this fast but well-armed single person star-fighter down the equatorial trench of the Death Star to deliver a photo-torpedo to the enormous battle station’s only weak spot.
The Millennium Falcon plays only a supporting role in this, one of cinema’s most dramatic scenes. It’s Luke in his plucky X-wing we root for, breath held as he presses the fire key and launches those missiles down an unshielded ventilation port. It helps if you have the force on your side at the final hurdle but you need an X-wing to get you there first.
6. Planet Express ship – Futurama
In the year 3000 you wanted some soft toys delivered to the moon, Planet Express would be your first call. Another great example of blue-collar jobs in the far future, the staff of this delivery company frequently ends up in trouble on simple delivery jobs, always relying on their trusty nameless vessel.
The ship has been everywhere with its human, robot and lobster crew, from the University of Mars, to Roswell in 1947. The only thing they won’t deliver is presents for Santa.
5. Nostromo – Alien
Continuing on from Red Dwarf, it seems to me the worst job you could get in the future would be working on the intergalactic mining vessel Nostromo. Made almost entirely out of tiny ducts, pipes and small spaces for nasty things to hide in, the ship is managed by what looks like a computer from the late 1970s.
Its crew is so obsessed with getting their bonuses that they barely have time to investigate a mysterious signal they pick up on their travels. When they do, they discover science fiction’s most vicious predator and spend the rest of their short lives running or being attacked in the ship’s escape pods. All in all, not a great ship on which to be a crew member.
4. The Truck – Galaxy Truckers
Galaxy Truckers is a brilliant board game in which you assemble your space truck out of tiles picturing spare parts and then send it on a run around the stars to get the stuffing knocked out of it. Bits fall off, crew members get spaced, the guns never point in the right direction and usually the whole thing is lopsided. We love this game, because no matter how well you build your ship at the start of each round, it always ends up in port hobbling along on its last engine, with a large hole in the side.
There’s a fine art to building robust space trucks and no human seems to be able to master it.
3. Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints – Surface Detail (Culture Universe)
No list of spaceships would be complete without a mention of the late Iain M. Banks and his amazingly named Culture vessels – runners up for a position on this list included Serious Callers Only, Grey Matter and Funny, It Worked Last Time. However the prize must go to Surface Detail’s Fast Picket Ship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, a vessel which is basically a self contained war fleet, capable of breaking into a fleet of smaller, deadly warships. In one scene, the FOTNMC takes out an entire enemy armada in a few seconds, displaying the Culture’s vastly destructive military power which goes along with their utopian lack of laws, leaders and social structure.
The casual cruelty and moments of sudden viciousness of the FOTNMC show the dark side to the never ending sex and drugs free-for-all that is the Culture.
2. The Normandy – Mass Effect
If I were going to fly around a hostile galaxy and fight ancient killer machines, I would want a ship like the Normandy. Piloted by Seth Green’s Joker and crewed by a bizarre rag-tag group of aliens and humans, The Normandy is as versatile as its captain, Commander Shepard.
There is enormous fun to be had exploring each layer of the ship and talking to every crew member, finding out their backstory and getting their opinion on the last mission they went on. Like Serenity, The Normandy is a home and its crew members are a family. Throughout the Mass Effect series you get to know each personally and the Normandy is the perfect setting for this.
1. Discovery One – 2001: A Space Odyssey
Without 2001, there would be no Star Wars and without Star Wars there would be no sci-fi summer blockbusters or triple A games. It all began here in 1968 when Stanley Kubrick teamed up with Arthur C. Clarke to expand one of his short stories into a film. What resulted pioneered a lot of special effects that are now a staple of modern sci-fi.
The most intelligible part of the narrative takes place on Discovery One, a ship sent from Earth to investigate a mysterious black monolith that has appeared in space around Jupiter. The ship has an active crew of 2 and is run by its AI, HAL. Unfortunately, conflicting parameters in HAL’s programming drive him to become murderous. More than the terminator, HAL is logical, cold and unwavering in his killing of the crew of Discovery One, leading to some of science fiction’s most iconic scenes. The mission was a failure but 2001 was a huge success which changed science fiction forever.
Honourable mention: The TARDIS – Doctor Who
Technically not a spaceship, in that she rarely does any flying, but a special mention must go to the Doctor’s mind bending, bigger-on-the-inside space and time travelling device.
It’s huge, unknowable and full of surprises. Its ability to always go somewhere interesting is one of the greatest plot devices in TV fiction. A piece of trivia for anyone keeping track: since Doctor Who was brought back in 2005, all regenerations have taken place in the TARDIS console room, including the Master’s and the Doctor’s fake one during Journey’s End. If only those walls could talk.