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Literature / The Ship Who...
aka: The Ship Who Searched

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"The Ship Who ..." is a science fiction series created by Anne McCaffrey, consisting of short stories and novels.

In The Future, infants with severe birth defects are placed in self-contained life-support shells in which they will spend their entire lives, and are trained to become the "brain" of a starship (and later, space station, megacity, etc.), into which they will be connected in such a way that the facility is effectively their body. Most "brains" are then partnered with humans, dubbed "brawns", who act as representative and counterpart, going where the brains cannot.

McCaffrey first visited the setting in a series of short stories written in the 1960s, following the adventures of a brainship named Helva; these were collected in The Ship Who Sang in 1969.

The setting was revived in the 1990s by Baen Books for a series of co-written novels: PartnerShip (1992, with Margaret Ball), The Ship Who Searched (1992, with Mercedes Lackey), The City Who Fought (1993, with S. M. Stirling), and The Ship Who Won (1994, with Jody Lynn Nye). These were followed by The Ship Errant (1996, a direct sequel to The Ship Who Won, by Jody Lynn Nye solo) and The Ship Avenged (1997, a direct sequel to The City Who Fought, by S. M. Stirling solo).

McCaffrey also wrote two more short stories in the "ship who sang" sequence after long gaps ("Honeymoon", 1977, and "The Ship That Returned", 1999), and "brainships" have made occasional cameos in her other science fiction series, including the Crystal Singer series.

This series provides examples of:

  • And I Must Scream: In "The Ship Who Dissembled", hijackers capture several brainships and remove from each the life-support shell containing the "brain", leaving the shellperson inside unable to see, hear, or otherwise sense anything outside the shell. One goes mad before rescue arrives. In direct response to this incident, subsequent shells are designed with integrated audiovisual inputs.
    • The reason why typically only children age one year or less become shellpeople is because of different sensory and motor input; most people old enough to be used to being able to move and have a sense of touch have great difficulty adjusting. Tia, who became paralyzed from the neck down as a child, acclimated to being shelled as only being somewhat worse. When she's fully hooked up into her own brainship she feels like her sense of touch is restored, that now the ship is her body.
    • A disease in The Ship Who Searched leaves victims progressively more covered in painful suppurating sores, but still alive, conscious, and able to speak. A horrified Tia viewing one man thinks "Those were once hands. Those were once feet", and he can't be easily identified because there's not enough left of his fingerprints or retinas to read.
  • Artificial Limbs: One of the characters in The Ship Who Searched is a research scientist whose field is prosthetic limbs. He starts the book in a kind of wheelchair but is volunteered to test bionic legs.
  • The Bartender: The Ship Who Searched has a scene where the male lead pours out his woes to a bartender and receives some good advice — along with a Lampshade Hanging, as it's revealed that a lot of bartenders in this setting have received formal training in psychological and relationship counseling because of how often they're in scenes like this.
  • Brains and Brawn: In name if not in spirit; each "brainship" is assigned a "brawn" who acts as companion, ambassador and muscle for the immobile ship. Averted because brawns are also required to be pretty smart.
  • Can't Have Sex, Ever: A problem for any brain and brawn pair who fall in love. Sometimes these brawns get so obsessive over this that they break the brain's life-support equipment open trying to get at their bodies, inevitably killing them. This is referred to as "fixation". In The Ship Who Searched, the protagonist, after becoming very rich, deals with the problem by commissioning a remote-controlled full-sensory human body.
  • Centrifugal Gravity: Simeon's space station in The City Who Fought is the cylindrical spinning type.
  • Child Prodigy:
    • Tia of The Ship Who Searched.
    • Joat of The City Who Fought.
  • Code Name: Gently mocked in PartnerShip; when Nancia realizes her current brawn is a spy, he says she can call him X-39. When she points out that she already knows his name, he cheerfully agrees; he just thinks it would be fun to be called that.
  • Continuity Nod: Helva is mentioned in just about every sequel at some point, but apart from that:
    • Partner Ship references the "Helva Modification" invented after "The Ship Who Dissembled".
    • The Ship Who Searched references the "Nyota Five" incident from Partner Ship.
    • The City Who Fought references Moto-Prosthetics from The Ship Who Searched.
    • The Ship Who Won recaps the events of The City Who Fought early on (together with cameos from Simeon and Dr Chaundra), and references the Moto-Prosthetics.
  • Cool Starship: Depending on how inherently cool you consider the idea of a brainship. The actual ship body is usually something ordinary and middle-of-the-range, even on the shabby side; only brains working for military and law enforcement get top-of-the-line ship bodies.
  • Covers Always Lie: The cover of PartnerShip features an astronaut walking next to a female humanoid hologram being projected from a device that floats next to him as he walks away from a spaceship, giving the impression that the brainship of the novel gains the ability to project an image of herself. This never happens. The blurb on the back cover also misidentifies the main character and misses the plot entirely.
  • Crew of One: A brainship appears to have a crew of one (the brawn), if you don't realise it's a brainship. It's also perfectly capable of flying itself with a genuine crew of one (just the shellperson), but they usually don't except in emergencies.
  • Custom Uniform: In The Ship Who Searched, Chria Chance wears an identical uniform to everyone else in the Academy — except it's personally tailored and made of genuine animal leather. It's implied that she's allowed to get away with it for the same reason they ignore her patently fake name; she's almost certainly a Black Sheep daughter of a High Family who wants to make her own way.
  • Cyborg: The "brains" are cybernetics carried about as far as possible, with human brains controlling entire space ships and space stations as their prosthetic body parts. The human body is still there, but only as a life-support system for the brain. Advances in this technology are also used to benefit more traditional cyborgs.
  • Death Seeker: Kira, Helva's brawn in "The Ship Who Killed", is this due to the death of her husband... causing Helva enormous panic when they unknowingly wind up on a planet where the religion is such that everyone is one of these.
  • Death World: Kolnar, the homeworld of the villains of The City Who Fought is a volcanic, radioactive, heavy gravity nightmare world, in orbit around a sun with a spectral category of blinding. It was colonized by a particularly nasty group of prisoners, who evolved into nigh-unkillable superhumans. They have a nuclear war once every generation — and they get their weapons-grade nuclear material by hunting a creature best described as a jet-propelled submarine with fangs. And that's one of the nice critters on the planet.
  • Decontamination Chamber: In the research station at the start of The Ship Who Searched, decontamination procedures are required whenever someone comes in through the airlock. Readers are treated to some graphic depictions of what can happen when decontamination procedures prove inadequate or aren't followed properly.
  • Department of Child Disservices: The social worker assigned to the orphan Joat in The City Who Fought proves to be an outright bigot, and denies Simeon's application to adopt Joat on the grounds that "a shellperson can't possibly raise a child," apparently in complete ignorance of the Federation's anti-discrimination laws.
    • Various strawmen who opposed young Tia's unusual living arrangement at the start of The Ship Who Searched are portrayed this way, though given what happens to her it's hard to say they don't have a point. No matter how independent and prone to Troubling Unchildlike Behavior a child is, leaving a seven-year-old alone for weeks on end with the implication that this isn't the first time is not good parenting.
  • Dream-Crushing Handicap: Tia, stricken with paralysis, puts on a smile for people but knows that she can't do any of the things she's always yearned for and cries over them in private. Her doctor remembers when he was in the same boat, but since he's "only" paraplegic he was still able to go into medicine.
  • Dueling Scar: In The City Who Fought, Simeon's onscreen avatar has a dueling scar because he thinks it's cool. Only one other character recognises it.
  • Eternal Engine: The Ship Who Won features an alien world with an enormous weather-control system inside the planet.
  • Explosions in Space: Used correctly in The City Who Fought; an exploding starship releases enormous quantities of debris which make the immediate environment of the protagonists' space station very dangerous for a period of time.
  • Famous, Famous, Fictional: In The Ship Who Sang, young Helva's education includes a music appreciation course that covers classical works (such as The Marriage of Figaro and Oklahoma!), singers of the atomic age (such as Bob Dylan), and alien musical genres (with specific examples cited from Venus, Capella, Altair, and Reticula).
  • Fantastic Drug:
    • In "The Ship Who Dissembled", the hijacked ships are carrying tightly-controlled drugs that have important medical uses but also other less reputable applications.
    • PartnerShip has several designer drugs, including Blissto and Seductron.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Very expensive, and you still have to accelerate and decelerate relative to your destination on conventional drives, making the trips less than trivial.
  • Fingore: In "The Ship Who Won", the farmers had a finger removed as a means of control, making it harder to use the magical equipment.
  • Foreign-Language Tirade: Played with in "The Ship Who Killed". Helva's brawn curses a hapless functionary off the ship by reciting a particularly vituperative string of syllables; when Helva asks what she was saying, she explains that she was reciting her grandmother's recipe for paprikash, which she then proceeds to cook and eat.
  • Full-Conversion Cyborg: The Brainships are cybernetics carried to an extreme, with human brains implanted into and in complete control of entire space ships and space stations. It's implied that the human body is still there, but only as a life-support system for the brain.
  • Future Music: In The Ship Who Sang, Bob Dylan is a popular classical musician of the future. Singing in his style is banned on some planets, because it's too persuasive.
  • Hold Your Hippogriffs: "Decom it" is seen for "damn it", and shellpeople use "shellcrack" as a higher expletive.
  • Honor Before Reason: Nancia's first Brawn is this and teaches her to be the same. He's not really a bad person, but far too inflexible to handle complex situations.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: FTL drive is pretty tame — going in or out is uncomfortable and some people react to it with temporary nausea, and there's always a lingering sense of unreality, but it's perfectly normal and safe. Singularity drive, on the other hand... involves "translating" between two linked, mapped nodes instantaneously by taking a mathematical jaunt through several realities, all of which inflict temporary body horrors on the poor passengers. The usual transit time is on the order of seconds. However, sometimes ships get stuck, at which the horrors can last for weeks. One notable example involved a brainship having to burn out dozens of powerful processors, put down a mutiny, and finish the translation using a handful of known good processors (including the graphics processor for the screens and a processor or two donated from the body of a cyborg), all while looping between two realities that turned your teeth to rotten mush in one and long stabbing needles in another.
  • Kill Me Now, or Forever Stay Your Hand: In "The Partnered Ship", brainship Helva learns that one of the crewpeople at her home spaceport has fallen in love with her. He tells her that he's afraid if she lets him get too close to her, he'll succumb to an urge to crack open her life support unit, killing her, in an attempt to get at the real her (a thing that has happened before in comparable cases). She deliberately eggs him on, confident that she knows him well enough to be sure he won't go through with it. She's right; he doesn't.
  • Klingons Love Shakespeare: In "Dramatic Mission", humanity makes contact with methane-breathing Starfish Aliens that are intrigued when they learn of this Earth thing called 'theatre' and offer a valuable technology in return for a theatre troupe visiting their home planet and performing Romeo and Juliet.
  • Long-Lived:
    • Shellpeople are explicitly stated to have a life span of centuries.
    • Several other characters in The Ship Who Sang are casually mentioned to be over a hundred years old and still in their productive years, including Theoda in "The Ship Who Mourned" and Nia in "Dramatic Mission", with the possible implication that a longer lifespan is the norm.
  • Magic from Technology: In The Ship Who Won, the "magic" discovered on an alien world is powered by an enormous weather-control system inside the planet, which the mages are abusing to cast "spells".
  • Majority-Share Dictator: A benign version takes place over the course of The Ship Who Searched. Hypatia Cade is seen telling her stockbroker to invest some of her earnings into a cybernetics company that is apparently not very profitable. Later, now owning a majority stake, she introduces herself as their new owner. She didn't want to do anything untoward, she just wanted them to build her a robot body so she could have a physical relationship with Alex.
  • Man in the Machine: Each of the main characters is a disabled person cybernetically attached to a ship. Or, for less adventurous shell-people, space stations. Eventually, however, technology is developed that allows the shell-people to control human-sized robot bodies.
  • Mindlink Mates: Helva and Niall end up as this in "Honeymoon".
  • Mission Control: Some stories have the brainship serving as a mission control for their mobile "brawn" partner when they leave the confines of the ship.
  • Naming Your Colony World: In "The Ship Who Sang" (the original short story that became the first section of the novel), the climax takes place in the Ravel star system, with its two colony worlds Daphnis and Chloe.
  • No Conservation of Energy: Played with in The Ship Who Won. A brainship finds a world where magic actually works, complete with all the standard no conservation of energy tropes. Then they discover that there's actually a huge generator complex powering all this, which the magicians have completely wrecked by using it for stupid things like fireballs and levitation.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: Many of the titles. Helva is also known as "The Ship Who Sings" In-Universe.
  • Numbered Homeworld: In "Dramatic Mission", the homeworld of the methane-breathing Starfish Aliens is Beta Corvi IV.
  • Parental Abandonment: Theoretically, once parents give consent for their babies to become brainships, they have no further contact with them and the kids grow up knowing nothing about their background. Nancia of PartnerShip and Tia of The Ship Who Searched avert this totally, however. Nancia's parents belong to the wealthy and powerful 'High Families' class so they could screw the rules setting a precedent for Tia's parents continued involvement in her life. Tia is also a rare case of having become a shellperson in childhood rather than infancy, and thus had several years of normal family bonding before a disease paralyzed her body.
  • Patchwork Story: The Ship Who Sang is composed of previously-published short stories, with a final story added to round them off.
  • People Jars: As the name implies, shellpeople. The occupants soon adjust to see themselves as a brain controlling a mechanical body, which translates easily into becoming the mental controller of a ship or something even larger.
  • The Plague:
    • In "The Ship Who Mourned", a plague has wiped out most of a planet's population. The handful of survivors of this disease are either immune or are left paralyzed. Helva supports Theoda in an attempt to demonstrate that physiotherapy may be effective for the latter.
    • Tia and Alex, the Brain and Brawn of The Ship Who Searched are forced to deal with more than one plague spread by contaminated artifacts.
  • Plasma Cannon: Used by the Kolnar pirates in The City Who Fought, ignite slugs of fissile material.
  • Power Nullifier: In The Ship Who Won, the ship found out how to prevent the magical devices from working, but they could still be used at least once.
  • Razor Floss: Monofilament wire used as a weapon in The City Who Fought.
  • Remote Body: In The Ship Who Searched, Tia finances the creation of a completely human-seeming remote-operated android accessory so she can be her human partner's... partner.
  • Salvage Pirates: The brainship Carialle once suffered a fuel tank explosion as the result of sabotage. As she drifted in space, she detected movement on her outer hull, but was unable to generate a signal to get the attention of whoever it was. Later rescued, repaired and returned to service, Carialle re-encounters the salvagers after a considerable period of time. The younger members of the group are profoundly shocked and apologetic; they hadn't realized that the ship they had salvaged parts from was a brainship. Their leader, however, certainly knew - he stole Carialle's ID plate from the wall of the control room. He winds up going to prison for a long, long time. Carialle, however, manages to help the younger crewmembers get away, since they helped her resolve the current crisis.
  • Samus Is a Girl: In The City Who Fought, Simeon is surprised to learn that the street urchin Joat is a girl.
  • Sand Worm: In The City Who Fought, Simeon's computer systems are attacked by a "worm" program, which manifests in cyberspace as a literal worm, two metres thick with rows of rotating concentric teeth — apparently based on a real creature.
  • Sapient Ship: Brainships, which are not sapient in themselves until connected to the neural network of a specially-trained human being.
  • Schizo Tech: In The Ship Who Won, most of the colonists are living in a neo-feudal situation while their masters are in control of technology so advanced it looks like magic. The technology they're using was created by aliens and is hugely durable.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: In PartnerShip, a character is running a mine with a labour force of native animals. It turns out that they are intelligent, but getting them registered as such is some kind of Catch 22 situation. He therefore breaks the rules in order to get them registered. His punishment is community work with another native species who might turn out to be sapient.
  • Shameful Source of Knowledge: In PartnerShip, the five Royal Brats that Nancia ferried to their remote postings in the Nyota system are all planning to use their positions for various kinds of corrupt practices (they even have a bet going; the one who makes the most shady money in five years gets a cut of the others' operations). However, Nancia can't tell anyone about it because she got the information by refusing to introduce herself and letting them think they were aboard a mindless drone, which is considered tantamount to spying.
  • Sharpened to a Single Atom: In The City Who Fought, Joat lays a trap using monomolecular wire. The effects are messy.
  • Social Darwinist
    • The Ship Who Searched has a minor character — Haakon-Fritz — who fits this. He actually belongs to an organization called the neo-Darwinists.
    • The villains of The City Who Fought are an entire race of these who have grown up in an extremely harsh environment.
  • Son of a Whore: One of the secondary protagonists from The City Who Fought describes himself as "the son of a pimp and dockside whore."
  • Spaceship Girl: Any of the female shellpeople who opt for ship bodies, to some extent.
    • But especially Tia in The Ship Who Searched, who finances the creation of a completely human-seeming remote-operated android accessory so she can be her human partner's... partner.
    • Another book has a brainship who had gone through a terrible traumatic event; in therapy a counselor had her channel her emotions and frustrations into art, and eventually had her create a self portrait. He expected her to paint a projection of herself as a human, if she hadn't had the genetic defects that landed her in a brainship, but she painted her shipself with some anthropomorphic elements.
  • Super Wheelchair: Downplayed, the Moto-Chair that Doctor Kenny uses 'glides' over the floor and can be vocally commanded. The one Tia is put into has attached 'arms' that take her about half an hour to work out how to feed herself with, and it has incorporated plumbing.
  • Tagline: The tagline for the Baen novels was "The Ship Who Sang is not alone!"
  • Unable to Cry: For obvious reasons, shellpeople are physically unable to weep, and they occasionally wish they had that release.
  • The Unpronounceable: "Fred" in The Ship Who Searched.
    "Very few humans would be able to reproduce his real name. His vocal organ is a vibrating membrane in the top of his head. He does human speech just fine, but we can't manage his."
  • Veganopia: The future humans in this setting are all vegetarians, except for some "backward" mutants.
  • Wetware CPU: Again, shellpeople. After adapting to control their 'shell' body, they are wired in as the nerve center for something larger, like a ship (or a city).
  • Wrong-Name Outburst:
    • At the end of The City Who Fought, Chaundra calls her boyfriend Amos "Simeon", the name of her shellperson partner. Amos, who has always been jealous of her relationship with Simeon, storms out. Simeon promptly calls him on it, pointing out among other things that Amos took Simeon's name to deceive invaders on the station, and it's not surprising Chaundra slipped when she's been calling him that for several weeks.
    • In The Ship Who Searched, Alex accidentally calls his random hookup partner Tia. Fortunately she isn't that bothered by it and just calls him Giorgi in return. Alex is more disturbed by it because it makes him realize that he is falling for Tia (who is a Brain and therefore can't leave her life support tube).

Alternative Title(s): The Ship Who Sang, The Ship Who Won, The City Who Fought, The Ship Who Searched, Partner Ship