Ships of the Line in Literature: Saratoga Plain and Small

Thursday , 28, January 2016 8 Comments

Dirk Loechel’s highly entertaining Science Fiction Spaceships comparison chart is worth a look:

Scrutinize the ships and note the differences by media: movies, manga and video games not only dominate in number, they dominate in size, too.

Loeschel included as many ships that he could think of that are listed at between 100 meters and 24,000 meters, and here’s what I see when look for some of my favorite ships from books:

There aren’t many portrayed.

The most numerous representatives are from the Honorverse (right hand side, upper quadrant), and frankly, all those ships look the same – like they belong on a rollergrill at an android 7-11. To be fair, books tend to be more realistic than comics, videogames, or movies, and certainly are far less concerned with literal visual aesthetics, as novels are the only one of the media that is exclusively text-based.

However, as realistic as the ships in Honorverse may be, they also indicate something else: that sometimes novels think too small with their ships. As vivid as the visual media can be, some of my favorite spaceship experiences did not occur on the Nostromo, a Republican Dreadnaught or even the Zerg Leviathan. I recall running the corridors of an  Anacreonian naval fleet cruiser with a priest-attendant of Scientism to avert yet another disaster for the Foundation. The cramped dread of the men aboard The Beagle in The Black Destroyer is something any reader of van Vogt’s classic can’t miss. I never saw the Ender’s Game movie, but the clips I caught of the battle simulator paled against the ones of my imagination spurred by the book. Probably my favorite ship in books is one of the smaller…and least likely ones: The Heart of Gold (bottom right quadrant) from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Freeground Station from Spinward Fringe is not shown in this diagram, so it is possible that the poster simply overlooked massive ships from books. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the megaship – a staple in videogames, comics and movies (and the above poster!) is relatively uncharted territory in novels.


  • Jack Aubrey says:

    Doc Smith didn’t skimp on ship size. Skylark Three was 2 miles long, and Valeron was 1000km in diameter. There were some pretty big ships in the lensman books as well, although exact dimensions weren’t given. I do remember Dauntless landing and crushing several city blocks in one of the stories.

    • Carrington Dixon says:

      In one of the later Lensman books, Doc Smith talks about mobile, armored planets. Doc was never one to think small.

  • tweell says:

    The note that the artist stopped at 24000 meters explains much – Skylark of Valeron, the Death Star, Halo, Weber’s Dahak, V’Ger, etc. aren’t on there.

  • Daniel says:

    The Space Hulker in me loves the semi-archaic Warhammer 40k ships mixed among the others.

  • Seneca says:

    I don’t see the battle stations from John Ringo’s Troy Rising series there either. They would give books some more representation in the giant space ship category too.

    • Daniel says:

      Are the measurements listed? The fanartist who did this relies on verified measurements and appears to favor pre-existing visual designs.

      That is obviously the big problem: until recently, ship design in books was 95% verbal and only 5% visual design, and that was only if the author actually talked to the cover artist.

      My wish for new space books is that they take the same care with their cover ships as CH has done with Quantum Mortis, RRH and First to the Moon, etc.

  • True_poser says:

    Ok, I’ll bite.

    First of all, gargantuan EVE ships which dominate the chart are flown by a single pilot (or capsuleer), in-universe, too.
    Flying single in a big ship is a viable premise, Tuf flied the EEC seedship all alone with his cats.
    However, in EVE universe the pilot is suspended in their capsule and doesn’t even wander any decks.
    So, the story-telling value of any EVE ship is the same for a Kestrel and for a titan of your choice.

    Ships from X fall into the same pattern. They are all single-flyable.
    However, there’s a catch.
    While in X-Tension each ship had it’s own cockpit, in X2 there was a single cockpit per class (standard among all races, ironically) and X3 ditched cockpit altogether.
    If it isn’t throwing the character of a ship out of the airlock, I don’t know what is.

    Descent: Freespace ships are more interesting. Sure, destroyers dwarf cruisers, but that’s a nitpick.
    In Freespace 1 capships were utterly defenseless and very vulnerable to in-universe analog of small arms fire. Protecting them was a chore, and the real heroes of the game were small ships.
    It didn’t help that the game was all about trying to stop Shivans and failing at it, with capships doing heroic, but majorly useless stands and the Earth was saved by usual space superiority fighters.
    That all changed in the second game where capships play a much more prominent role. While Colossus’ standoff with a Lucifer and subsequent destruction by Satanas was a bit cheesy, the overall mood towards the capships has changed.
    They got flak cannons, became much more deadly towards each other and started playing a proper role in missions.
    While the overall mood of the game is still bleak and pro-player forces resort to blowing up starlanes (once again) and the victory is but a fluke, despite all sacrifices, reappearances of the old guard, like GTD Bastion, makes capships a part of the story.
    As single characters, not as humongous complex mechanisms with thousands of personalities playing cogs in it, but characters nonetheless.

    WH40K ships in all their complexity and hiveworld-like structure are explored in some fluff books. Less then I’d like to, but at least some.
    IIRC, Rogue Star by Andy Hoare had a vivid scene of warp drive recharge with psykers souls transported onboard by servitors in special containers, the emanations from which caused servitors to fall apart on the go.

    Dead Space is a good example, why big ships are excessive for storytelling.
    You spend tens of hours in the first game without any real interaction with other people, just walking and killing monsters, all in the scope of a small-ish 1600m ship.
    Imagine Isaac a maintenance engineer tasked with a biannual state inspection of Ishimura. How many volumes would’ve his inspection take, with all the hardware to check, crew members to talk to, tensions with Unitologists to surface?
    Actually, the answer is, “as much as it’ll be interesting to read”. And it doesn’t really matter for a book, is the ship 300m from bow to stern, 1600m or 8848m.

    Mass Effect’s Citadel looks nice.
    However, for a player it isn’t a 10km ship, but about 25-30 disjointed locations over three games.
    It has zero character despite various attempts to make it believable that people actually live there.
    Quarian ships had much more personality.

    Ok, this is getting too long, I’ll wrap it up.
    Books do not need gigantic ships as they are describing them “from inside” as someone seeing them or serving on them would perceive them.
    Games and movies may use gigantic ships as they are describing them “from outside” as someone single-handedly commanding them or single-handedly destroying them would perceive them.

  • Aeoli Pera says:

    Sathanas-class juggernauts are my trigger.

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