“The Ship Who Sang” Anne McCaffrey (1961)
So what is different about “The Ship Who Sang?” Or, to ask it in a better way, but still rhetorically, why should we give our time to read this story so late in the semester?
First of all, it deals with cyborgs—our theme for the week. Now, I need to clarify that I am purposefully writing this before reading anything critical. I’ve read some of the other stories for this week, but anything that might speak critically to the cyborg is as yet untouched.
So . . . cyborg.
In this case, our cyborg is Helva, or X(J)H-834. A female mind (and body, let’s not forget) existing within and as part of a scout ship.
Helva and her relationship with Jennan fulfill a classic relationship of pilot talking with his ship—the pilot typically male, the ship female. A spaceship is often seen as the dominant female relationship in a captain’s life—so much so that women typically call him out on this love, usually out of frustration, when they leave him and his ship alone. (Channeling some Star Trek here, what with Kirk’s love for the Enterprise. . . also insert any nautical story, or any story about a man loving his car, or his jetski, or rifle . . . )
The difference here, is that Helva is a living, breathing (albeit through fluid) human . . . who happens to be plugged into the ship in every way possible.
My biggest point of interest, is how does Helva function differently than other cyborg bodies? Before this week we encountered “No Woman Born,” which featured Deidra as a cyborg. It is interesting that both are women, and both are given completely machine bodies—the cyborg-ness comes from their human brains. (Again, Helva actually is “completely” human, in that her original, genetically and medically stunted body, remains.) Helva is constrained to her ship, to running her ship, to fulfilling her ship’s duties—as if the ship itself was only run by a human taking orders. Which, in fact, it is. Because she exists as both the brain and the function-er of the ship (excuse my creative use of English, btw) of the ship, she can almost function like a human pilot living in the ship—she’s almost on the same plane as Jennan.
So . . . cyborg. Cyborg LOVE story.
Helva loves Jennan. She chooses him over all other “suiters,” for that’s what they are, aren’t they? All of her potential pilots are male. Silvia, later on, has had male pilots. Henry, the only male shell-ship we encounter, does not give us any indication as to the gender of his pilot—we can assume a female, considering the “courtship” of Helva including only applicants of the “opposite” gender. I only say “opposite” because of Helva’s cyborg nature, specifically that her “body” is entirely a non-gendered machine. Although that gets problematic too, doesn’t it? Because her mind, a female mind, no matter how under-genderally-developed, is a female—wouldn’t that make her “body” female as a natural extension? The fact that she can fall in love with Jennan makes for the case that she could probably extend herself into the ship as female, and vice-versa.
The saddest part about this story, aside from the very obvious genetic and physical manipulations/liberties taken by the powers-at-be on the shell-people, is that Helva doesn’t really have the opportunity to go rogue, does she? She was able to choose her first suitor—but she also had to choose, didn’t she? (Sorry for asking so many questions . . . I find I do it a lot when I blog.) She couldn’t have just left the hanger on day one without taking on a physical pilot, or at least we’re not given the information that she could’ve done that. She was lonely. Why choose to be alone? That’s ultimately what she gives in to at the end, instead of defiantly going rogue (which would make her “alone,” probably forever)—she is going to go get another human pilot (assumedly a male).
James Herriot, the go-to-famous veterinarian, once said something to the effect of “if your dog dies, the best thing you can do is go out and get a new dog. As soon as possible.” That’s basically what 422 (and can anyone tell me why she says Silvia died a long time ago? Is she talking about an identity she had when she was with Jennan’s grandfather that she no longer calls herself?) tells Helva: get a new pilot as soon as possible. Move on.
Helva is an emotionally stunted human female—and she’s being ordered to take a new lover as soon as she can.
I fell like I haven't answered my own questions, and I also don't have a clear direction on how to end this post. So . . . ask me in class! Ha! (Sorry.)
(For an interesting contrast, consider reading Philip K Dick’s “Mr. Spaceship” (1953). The link goes to its Wikipedia page, which can send you to the project Gutenberg full text.)