Book Review: The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey (1969)

(The Brothers Hildebrandt’s cover for the 1976 edition)

4/5 (collated rating: Good)

Cyborgs. Grand adventure. Space plagues. Theater performances for aliens. Trauma and recovery. Anne McCaffrey’s fix-up novel The Ship Who Sang (1969) is comprised of four previously published short fictions and one specially written for the volume (listed below). The fourth section, published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact (June 1969) ed. John Campbell, Jr.  as “Dramatic Mission” (1969), was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Award (1970) for best novella. The stories follow the space opera adventures and emotional development of the cyborg Helva, a “shell-person” implanted into a scout ship, and her various operators.

I’m going to rate each section separately as the “novel” feels more like a series of connected vignettes than a cohesive vision. If you think of the volume as a short story collection rather than novel, this isn’t a problem. Each story has an narrative arc and a climax that, taken together, chart Helva’s growth. I am not convinced by McCaffrey’s discussion of the moral implications of the world she’s created. That said, I was pulled into the individual adventures and felt deeply for Helva.


Note: Check out Admiral.Ironbombs’ review for more analysis!

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)

“The Ship Who Sang” (1961), 4.5/5 (Very Good): Helva, born with a serious physical disabilities, is given over by her parents to the Central Worlds (think a capitalist version of Star Trek’s Federation) where she is trained to be the “brain half of a scout ship” (2). The alternative was euthanasia. Indentured and cybernetically integrated into the ship, she must repay her debt (which wasn’t her choice) to the Central Worlds but undertaking dangerous rescue missions. She discovers that she possesses an incredible voice—and the man who appreciates her for who she is, Jennan, becomes her “brawn” (the ship operator). Together they set off to rescue defiant religious zealots from a colony in range of a supernova.

This story hits all the right notes (no pun intended). It is hard not to feel for Helva and her deep connection to Jennan.  And of course, Jennan’s appreciation for her as an equal partner with a brilliant mind—rather than a piece of machinery— resonates. His death gave me the chills.

McCaffrey provides sufficient background to understand the rest of the stories in that sequence that rarely have to reiterate the nature of the ships or the Central Worlds backdrop. McCaffrey adamantly presents Helva’s encapsulation within the scout ship as a positive choice: “Helva would live a rewarding, rich and unusual life, a far cry from what she would have faced as an ordinary, ‘normal’ being” (2). Why some element of the complex ship-integrating technology couldn’t be provided to the disabled to live “normal” lives in’t touched upon. The critics of the operation, the Society for the Preservation of the Rights of Intelligent Minorities, are made out to be clowns—easily convinced that their valid criticism of the treatment of the disability are groundless.

At no point in the following stories does McCaffrey return in a sustained manner to the moral quandaries of the basic premise (disability rights and indentured servitude)–the union of mind and technology and the right of the Central Worlds to control her destiny (until she pays off her debt) is presented as societal givens.

Yes, I wish the more implications were explored in greater detail and with more clarity. Yes, I still enjoyed the story and highly recommend it!

“The Ship Who Mourned” (1966), 4.25/5 (Very Good): The second story continues the emotional arc of the first—trauma and despair at the death of Jennan–with a new mission. Fearful that Helva will go rogue, Central Worlds pairs her with another tortured soul (I assume as a form of therapy) on another vital mission.

Absorbed in her despair, Helva takes on Theoda of Medea for a temporary mission to rehabilitate the victims of a space plague (26). The disease is devastating. Its victims experience complete loss of motor control.  Helva soon realizes that the older woman has her own form personal grief (29) that drives her to assist the victims and attempt radical new forms of therapy. They slowly gain each other’s trust and their backstories unfurl. Theoda, the survivor of a cataclysmic disease, is driven to prevent the next outbreak. Helva realizes the importance of fighting on: “Her sister ships had all had such experiences and were still at their jobs” (32).

This is the best structured of the stories. McCaffrey pairs the backstories of Theoda and Helva. And, parallels the experiences of the victims of the plague (who cannot move their bodies) with Helva’s own disability. I found myself far more interested in Helva’s growth than the central plague plot.


“The Ship Who Killed” (1966), 4/5 (Good): After returning with Theoda to Regulus Base, Helva is shipped off again with another temporary “brawn”—Kira of Canopus. The mission: deliver thousands of embryos to the Nekkar system, “an unexpected radiation had sterilized the entire population of the newly colonized planet. A freak power failure had resulted in the total loss of the planet’s embryo banks” (56). Still depressed at her loss of Jennan, Helva is once again paired with a brawn with baggage. Kira, young yet barren, is a Dylanist, who writes music as a commentary on society. While similarly structured to “The Ship Who Mourned,” the plot takes a central seat as it devolves into a very macabre and horrifying spectacle.

The planet in the Nekkar system contains a scout ship that has gone rogue. Under a volcano, the rogue ship’s inducements to death and destruction pull Kira in. A theatrical and violent manifestation of Helva and Kira’s torment unfolds.  And, when the loose ends are gathered in… catharsis.

The idea of a rogue scout ship broadcasting its suffering to a collection of adherents is fascinating. Helva is presented with and important lesson–what could happen if she cannot control herself.

“Dramatic Mission” (1969), 3.5/5 (Good): The three-year mission with Kira complete, Helva sets off again with an entire theater troupe in her bunks. The mission: present a Shakespeare play to an alien race in exchange for new technology.  This is the longest story in the collection and I found the story dragged. The dramatic (the title’s double-meaning! hah) hatreds and melodramatic backstories of the troupe actors went on too long. While in the more constrained earlier stories, the parallels between Helva and her passengers were tender and meaningful, I wasn’t pulled into this one.

I am unsure why it was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula for best novella. The three earlier stories in the collection were more deserving.

“The Ship Who Dissembled” (variant title: “The Ship Who Disappeared” (1969), 3.75/5 (Good): Back into tightly-structured territory with this one… The mission: find the missing scout ships. Helva impulsively selects Teron as her new brawn. Teron, unlike Jerran, sees her as a machine rather than a human—and an imperfect one at that. Moments from breaking her contract with him and taking the financial fine, they are both pulled into a hostage scenario which her gift becomes their deliverance.

This is the most intense story in the collection–Teron is emotionally abusive in his interactions with Helva and the criminals who take the ship hostage attempt to physically torment her. This is a slick self-contained short story.

“The Partnered Ship” (1969) 3.5/5 (Good): Fresh off her financial windfall at solving the mystery of the missing ships and separated from Teron, Helva finally picks her new partner. While her contract with Central Worlds is fulfilled, Helva is convinced to reenter the service on her own terms—give me the partner of my choice! The mission: test the new technology acquired in “Dramatic Mission.” She demands Niall Parollan join her as a permanent brawn. Niall, who worked at Regulus base and frequently flirted and manipulated her (she was aware) in the past, resonates with her sensibilities. And he is obsessed with her (in one scene he straddles the column in which she is ensconced). I found this one to be awkward and didn’t add to her character or development. I wish she had picked Kira or Theoda as her partner–I found both more compelling as characters (note: “brawns” can be male or female).

(Angus McKie’s cover for the 1976 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1986 edition)

(Bruce Pennington’s cover for the 1982 edition)

(Giannetto Coppola’s cover for the 1972 edition)

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For cover art posts consult the INDEX

22 thoughts on “Book Review: The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey (1969)

  1. I see you ran into the same issues as I did when I reread this some years ago: good stories but a rotten premise.

    • Do you mean a “rotten” underlying moral implication of the premise? I wish it was presented as a dystopian scenario or as something possibly amoral (shoving a child into a training program leading to indentured servitude when the parents have been given death as an alternative) that Helva would question…. I understand that McCaffrey was trying to be empowering (Helva makes the best of her situation).

      • Why a society that is presented as fair and good wouldn’t use the same technology to help children like Helva live their own lives, and make their own choices, is beyond me.

          • Yes, the Central Worlds defend it as a financial investment. Are we a “fair and good society” though? I’m not convinced. Helva does not speculate about her world on those lines…. She does not question the choices made for her — she defends them as empowering. As, I would speculate, McCaffrey thinks they are.

            This is essentially taking the most vulnerable and making them indentured servants without their choice.

            • Their choice is the problem for me. Committing someone who cannot offer informed consent to a life-long course of action only works if the alternative is death…but that’s a deeper and darker issue.

            • The entire scenario is morally suspect. It’s also implied that the children undergo substantial conditioning from a super young age — so it’s far from surprising that they would argue against the system.

              But the stories are fun regardless!

  2. I have to admit that when I read the Ship series (ie the additional Helva stories and the other Brain/Brawn novels) in my teens I didn’t give that angle much of a thought, but the more you think about it, the more troubling it is. I remember that the fact they can “buy back” the cost of their ‘treatment’ thus making them “free” is presented as somehow Central Worlds making it … fair? (Although how exactly that works for the Brains that are Planetary Managers or Space Station Managers would be fascinating ….)

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      It’s forced indentured servitude. As I mentioned in other comments above and the review, if it were to be presented by McCaffrey as somewhat more dystopian then the moral issues mostly dissipate — because the narrative is more about Helva trying to make her way in a problematic world… But yeah, there’s a lot of space given to defending it as somehow “fair” or “the best alternative.” And critics, and there would be critics, are made out to be groundless.

      • Yeah; the premise, human brain in a spaceship body, is a fun one (and yet seems under-used). But McCaffrey’s explanation for why there are human brains in spaceship bodies feels like she just tossed off the quickest one that would get us to the premise and then didn’t worry about what that implied for the world.

        This can be OK, especially if you set out to just a short story built around a great image. It’s when you get a whole book and don’t really have answers for the first couple obvious questions a reader might have that it gets awkward.

        (And some of this is probably the social mores changing out from under the story. Not that the treatment of disabled or partially disabled persons now is great, but it’s so much better than, like, that Original Star Trek episode where we were supposed to be amazed a woman could be a successful psychologist and blind too.)

        • I’m not sure this is better than the Star Trek episode you mention. Here, she is an indentured servant from birth because of the cost of training her to use sophisticated technology. Her alternative is death…. and her parents made the decision.

          I should put together a list of human brains operating ships… Does Spinrad’s The Void Captain’s Tale fit? Or is the spaceship simply an AI?

          I read her world building in this case as more hasty than anything else. I.e. not thinking through the moral implications as systematically as she could have rather than 60s social mores. I could be wrong of course!

          • “Or is the spaceship simply an AI?”
            Is that somehow a disqualifying quality? Aren’t AIs actually human brains?
            If there’s an organic-brain-only requirement, what about the Bobiverse? We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis Taylor deals with the specific issue of a human consciousness existing in a sensory-deprived environment. It made me pause…a consciousness accustomed to millions and millions of sensory inputs per {pick a period} would go mad when deprived of them, right? It’s a really good question.

            • There’s definitely a philosophical side to the difference that I am not knowledgeable enough to engage with. That said, I do posit substantial differences from a mind that grows organically (a human brain) to a mind entirely programmed (at least at its start — perhaps it has a function that mimics a somewhat random i.e. “organic” developmental process).

      • I read the first story in an anthology of women’s SFF years ago, so I have an idea of what I’m getting into. I started reading the first Pern book around 2012 and didn’t get on with it – wonder if it’s a series you need to start younger?

        • I read all of the Pern books up to The Masterharper of Pern (1998) when I was a teen. I haven’t returned to any of them — and I don’t think I will return to them unless a short story pops up in an anthology. I was obsessed with Pern though as a kid! I wanted to be telepathically bonded with a cool animal (maybe that’s why I also loved the His Dark Materials novels — animal daemons as an extension of your soul!).

  3. Gahhh! I read The Ship Who Sang as a short story and hated it. I liked the ideas, but the whole story felt like a draft that needed more fleshing out with characterisation and setting. Just didn’t work for me.

    • I mean, it’s a short story — rarely do short stories feel “fleshed out.” As for characterization, yeah, the rest of the stories in this episodic fix-up add to her character in a compelling way. My issues are with the moral implications of the shell people — as I explain in the review.

  4. “Theater performances for aliens. …” slightly off-topic, but this reminds me of a short story, probably mid-1960s, about aliens consuming vast quantities of Earth fiction, an export commodity, with writers using A.I. writing assistants to produce the fiction, where more expensive A.I. writers produced fiction worth more money, and the competition between writers to score a fiction hit (with the alien audience) so they could afford a better A.I. writer.

    Any idea what this story is? Probably not as good as I remember. but an interesting idea.

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