I wrote this piece for SFX magazine’s ‘Book Club’ column in 2012
As fans shared their sadness at Anne McCaffrey’s death, many cited The Ship Who Sang as their favourite of her books. That seems fitting; she often spoke of her pride in this story as well as its personal resonance, written in response to her father’s death. However these tales of the brainship Helva are as much about life and love’s ultimate triumph over appalling loss.
Helva’s life as the rational brain and emotional heart of a spaceship exemplifies the optimism in 1960’s SF, driven by the faith in technological advancement which put men on the moon. Serious scientific conferences were discussing enhanced humans leading extra-terrestrial exploration and the first research was underway which led to IVF. McCaffrey’s SF was always rooted in science fact, dragons included. Though as her writing focused on personalities and relationships, we get little medical or technological detail on Helva’s defects or the brain-encapsulation process. Fifty years on, this is no flaw; less precision makes McCaffrey all the more prescient.
At Helva’s birth an encephalograph test mandates euthanasia if her mind proves as crippled as her body. Even then, her parents can still order her death instead of enhanced life. Good SF always reflects harsh contemporary reality, exploring universal questions. In 1961, before mass vaccinations, debate concerned children impaired by polio, rubella and the drug Thalidomide, coloured by eugenics theories persisting despite Nazi atrocities. Should such children be allowed to die or saved in an era when the impaired were routinely warehoused unseen with scant care, without education or independence? Today quality and value of life discussions reflect five decades of medical advances offering hope, whatever the cost or outcome.
McCaffrey understood the inconvenient complexities of such debates and invites us to think those through rather than dictating answers. Consider those costs; accruing massive debts for her medical care Helva is indentured until that debt is cleared. Is that commercial necessity or slavery? These stories appeared throughout the civil rights campaign’s decade, a movement slow to extend such thinking to the disabled. Today these questions have added resonance, as politicians everywhere seek to balance affordability and compassion in healthcare.
Helva earns her freedom through a series of adventures clearly revealing this book’s origins as a series of short stories published in SF&F magazines between 1961 and 1969. She rescues obstinate colonists from a planet threatened by a nova. She carries medical relief to those threatened by plague before delivering a cargo of embryos to others sterilized by a radiation flare. She faces personal malice from an egotistical actress and threats to her very survival from those who should defend her. While some detail now seems dated, notably reverence for Bob Dylan to equal Shakespeare, contemporary readers may well find this episodic structure more to their taste than many in intervening decades now that DVDs and digital TV have re-accustomed us to serial drama.
This structure incidentally gives the book’s opening chapter an impact seldom found in novels. Each ‘brain’ ship has a ‘brawn’ partner, far more than crew or a useful pair of hands. Helva’s first meeting with her new partner Jennan and their developing friendship is a wonderful exploration of love uncomplicated by physical lust. Thus Jennan’s tragic, heroic death is truly shocking. The reader cannot help but turn the pages to discover if Helva can possibly cope with her intense bereavement. As she struggles with survivor guilt, Helva learns that grief is common to all humanity, male, female, encapsulated or physically able. Helping others to find a path through their own despair, and encountering obsession, determination, blinkered thinking and altruism along the way, she discovers her own inner strengths. This ultimately leads her to a new, true partnership, full of hope for their future together. Such clear-sighted optimism recalls McCaffrey herself. A fitting legacy.