The ships that sail the cosmic ocean

The spaceship: you have to look far to find something more central to the science fiction genre than that. Certainly, future projections of technology and science in general is one of the most important ingredients of the genre. But the spaceship is the visual quintessence of these visions of the future.

The content of spaceships

Take almost any science fiction book from the shelves at your bookstore and you will find a spaceship (or several) on the cover. This is not unimportant, since the spaceship signals something special about the content, just as a science fiction movie featuring spaceships to a large extent is defined by how these spaceships are designed.

This applies, of course, first and foremost to the spaceship as seen from the outside, but its insides are also significant. Think of the Millenium Falcon (Star Wars), Enterprise (Star Trek), Nostromo (Alien), or Discovery One (2001: A Space Oddyssey). These films and film series can hardly be imagined without the designs and aesthetics of their respective spaceships.

The spaceship as symbol

But the spaceship as a graphic symbol simultaneously represents a collection of ideas that go beyond the individual spaceship and the concrete context in which it occurs.

First and foremost the spaceship – whether real (e.g. the space shuttle) or imaginary (e.g. the extraterrestrial spaceship of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial) – represents a vehicle in which one can leave the Earth and its atmosphere and gravitational field behind (or, in the former case, at least annul its effects). At the same time, however, this journey up into the heavens is easily associated with a religiously tinged transcendence of earthly conditions.

In the book Cosmodolphins Mette Bryld and Nina Lykke speak of “the cultural historic semantics that lends significance to the spaceship icon as a vehicle designed to bring humans to the sphere that, for centuries, has been associated with the divine realm of the white Christian Fathergod." This gives part of the explanation why the spaceship is surrounded by a special aura.

Out of the past and into the future

At the same time, the movement from Earth into space is also a movement from the past and into the future, in so far as outer space is often the place where humakind’s ideas about the future unfolds. Thus, in a way spaceships are also time machines.

It is not without symbolic significance that time and space (and thus space travel) in modern cosmology are two sides of same coin. Many a sci-fi spaceship has had the ability to jump in time and space and thus travel both back and forth in time.

Oceanic metaphors

Also, one must not forget that the spaceship is a space-ship: a ship sailing in space. The word draws on an old and widespread metaphor in the fictional, as well as factual, discourse on space: Space as ocean or sea. With this metaphor outer space has been rendered both sensuous and comprehensible to the human mind.

From this follows many other comparisons and associations: Planets (or solar systems or galaxies) as islands; Earth as a beach of the cosmic ocean; comparisons between space travel and terrestrial explorations (especially Columbus' discovery of the New World), the ocean (whether earthly or cosmic) as both evolutionary, mystical, and mythical place of origin, etc.

The essence of progress

At the same time, the spaceship is the visual essence of the techno-scientific idea of progress. As Sharona Ben-Tov says it in The Artificial Paradise, the moment when the science fiction reader “accepts the images of interstellar travel is also the moment of implicit, conspirational belief in the ideology of progress […]"

And the spaceship, she believes, represents technological man's dream of transforming nature: "as soon as we picture a spaceship, we mentally unroll the map of objectified space; we enter the mass dream of collective technological power; we participate in a drama about remaking the universe in our image."

Of course, the spaceship can also "just" be a backdrop for the archetypal adventure story (Star Wars) as well as nightmarish encounters with extraterrestrial life (Alien). But it's still an image of the techno-science of the future, whether the angle is utopian or dystopian, or something else.

Flying saucers and extraterrestrial intelligence

But there is also the journey from space to Earth. The spaceships of aliens play an equally important role as spacehips from Earth. They are still, in most cases, expressions of the essence of future techno-science, but with the twist that they have been created by extraterrestrial intelligent beings.

When it comes to UFOs, it is usually about either friendly contact or aggressive invasion. Originally “UFO" stands for "Unidentified Flying Object" and does not necessarily mean a spaceship. But the meaning of the term rapidly slipped towards becoming virtually synonymous with a "flying saucer" and thus a spaceship of some sort.

The saucer-shaped UFO has become a symbol for extraterrestrial intelligence, whether in the form of enigmatically perverse techno-goblins who kidnap and subject people to horrible intimate examinations, or in the form of ethereal light-beings who want to lift humanity to a higher level of consciousness.

From myth to the mundane – and back again

The spaceships of reality, such as those of NASA, are based on more than scientific and technological achievements alone. Not only are they born out of various more or less hotheaded dreams, but they also dissipate into the surrounding culture, where they attract new meanings.

Since they were written and fantasized about long before they came into existence, one can almost say that the real, existing spaceships come drifting out of the human imagination, only to disappear into it again. At least it is certain that the spaceships of real life, technically magnificent feats as they may be, live a kind of parallel life in the cultural imagination. Not least as they are imagined to look in the future.

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Mette Bryld and Nina Lykke (2000 [1999]). Cosmodolphins: Feminist Cultural Studies of Technology, Animals and the Sacred. London and New York: Zed Books (quote from p. 16).

Sharona Ben-Tov (1995). The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press (quotes from p. 5 and 130-31).

For an account of some of the “hotheaded” dreams lying behind space exploration, see for example Howard E. McCurdy (1997), Space and the American Imagination, Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press (esp. chapter 8 on spacecraft) and Tom D. Crouch (1999). Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

If one wants to delve into the aesthetics of the spaceship the blog conceptships.blogspot.com is the place to look.

The picture illustrating this blog entry:
© 2011 by Luca Oleastri - illustrator
Visit Luca Oleastri's website here: http://www.innovari.it

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