Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Sue Bricknell on The Ship Who Sang

I always love finding new people who love reading as much as I do. I love it when these people who love books also blog and I tend to absolutely adore their blogs. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is a huge difference between the blogs run by people who are passionate about books than people who are trying to get something out of it. Sue is one of those bloggers who does it for the sheer joy of sharing her passion with others. I notice her passion and her love of literature, and it makes me pay attention to her.

Sue told me in an email that she was rather self-conscious about her post because she was new to blogging. All you really have to do is see her website to realize that this is a woman with a flare for reviewing, reading and discussing. She participates actively in plenty of online activities (read-a-longs, etc), which is far more than I can say. She is also very eloquent and thinks through things deeply. She might be new, but she has a bright future in the blogosphere. One thing I can say about Sue is that she makes me respect books I would have never noticed before and that’s a huge compliment to her style and depth.

Sue tends to be rather quiet, but she’s always there, supportive and willing to have a good discussion. I’m glad she participated in this event. I know it was hard for her to think of something to write about. When she approached me with her idea I was thrilled because I knew it was something off the beaten path and I love that kind of thing.

Please, continue on. Her perspective is unique, refreshing and thought provoking.

About the author

Sue is an ex-pat Brit who loves to read a wide variety of books. She began writing book reviews after she had the great fortune to find a wonderful book group. Unfortunately, they only meet once a month, so her blog helps her talk about books the rest of the time without driving her husband crazy.

The Ship Who Sang – Anne McCaffrey 

When Sarah sent out her request for posts about Disabilities in SF & F, I have to admit that not many examples sprang to mind. Then I remembered this book, which I first read in the late 1980s because my husband was a great fan of Anne McCaffrey’s early books and he recommended it to me.

Warning: As I am writing a review from the perspective of disability there will be spoilers aplenty, many more than I would normally give, but they are necessary if I am to discuss the issues explored in the book.

The book is actually a series of short stories / novellas that all revolve around Helva, a physically disabled woman. At birth her body is so deformed that euthanasia is a distinct possibility. However, an ECG shows that her brain is fully functional, so her parents decide to give her up to Central Worlds, the government bureaucracy, to become a ‘Brain’ or ‘shell person’. Her tiny body is placed inside a metal shell equipped with sensors, wheels and mechanical extension, all of which are connected directly to her brain. She is treated with hormones to prevent her body from growing and fed a perfectly balanced liquid diet via the fluid that fills her ‘shell’. She learns to control her mechanical body and is trained to be the ‘Brain’ controlling a space ship in partnership with a human ‘Brawn’ and working for Central Worlds on all kinds of missions. However, no two Brains are the same, and she develops a deep love of music and singing.

The first story, The Ship Who Sang, takes us through Helva’s childhood and early training and follows her pairing with her first Brawn, Jennan. As she is only sixteen years old when she meets him, it is hardly surprising that she falls in love with Jennan and their growing relationship leads her to become famed as ‘The Ship Who Sang’. Unfortunately, Jennan is killed in an accident and Helva loses her desire to sing. The Ship Who Mourned takes Helva on a medical mission to help a planet ravaged by a plague that causes many of its inhabitants to lose all motor control whilst remaining full conscious. The Ship Who Killed sees her helping to repopulate a world that has suffered a radiation burst causing everyone to be sterilized. Along the way, she encounters another Brain who has gone mad with grief and is forced to euthanize her. In Dramatic Mission, Helva carries a party of actors to a distant planet that has only just made first contact. In exchange for unbelievably advanced technology, the inhabitants of the planet want to see a production of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. However, in order to give their performance in the gas giant, the casts’ minds are temporarily transferred to empty alien ‘bodies’, which proves to be an almost addictive procedure. The Ship Who Dissembled places Helva in terrible danger as she is kidnapped, removed from her ship and placed in total sensory deprivation by a crazy drug-addicted ex-Brawn. She eventually uses her singing ability to stun or kill her captors, but not before the other kidnapped Brains suffer severe psychological damage. Finally, The Partnered Ship shows the political and personal maneuverings of Central Worlds as they try to retain Helva in their employ by fitting her with the latest Faster Than Light drive. The missions and events in the preceding two stories have earned Helva enough money to pay off the debts she built up as a child and trainee. The new FTL drive will make her the fastest ship in the known universe, but will put her back into serious debt.

I remember enjoying this book when I first read it because it made me think about extraordinary concepts. The idea that a person could spend their life as an organic computer, in control of a city or a space ship, seemed so futuristic at the time. Of course, when the first story was originally written in 1961 the computers available at the time were amazingly primitive if compared to those we use today. However, the science in the stories stands up pretty well: the only obvious ‘mistake’ is that all Helva’s orders are delivered on tape. Indeed, Ms McCaffrey offers very little explanation of the science of the time, which helps to protect the stories from anachronisms.

Aside from the empowering thought that a physically disabled person could be made into a ‘useful’ member of society by effectively replacing their body, this series of stories has many important points to make about disability. Although Helva is removed from her parents, she is raised in a loving environment and has a lot of psychological therapy and conditioning to help her to deal with her situation as a shell person. This struck me as a little degrading at first: a cynical way to provide Central Worlds with good little Brains who will do what they are told without too much fuss. However, I finally came to the opinion that this was more of a benefit to the Brains than a restriction upon their personalities. Rather than simply destroying these ‘useless’ people, a great deal of time, energy and money is invested in them so that they can have a role in society. Indeed, that role is highly respected and the Brains live very long loves, as their bodies age extremely slowly: we meet some that are more than three hundred years old.

In The Ship Who Mourned, we encounter people who have been become totally physically disabled by a space-born disease. Unlike Helva, who has the ability to augment her vision to a high degree, the surviving humans can see no sign of life in these living corpses. The bodies are cared for, but the people inside them are slowly going insane through frustration and an inability to do anything for themselves. Helva arrives with her temporary Brawn, who is a physical therapist, and they quickly discover that the victims are indeed conscious and that their brains can be reconnected to their bodies by very intense therapy. This brings hope to the survivors, who now have hope of reviving their loved ones, but it also reminds us that even the slightest twitch of an eyelid can communicate a wealth of information. One only has to think of Stephen Hawking to see how much wisdom would have been lost if had lost the power to communicate.

The third story, The Ship Who Killed, does not seem to have much to say about disability at first glance. However, it explores infertility, which is surely an important issue for those born with disabilities that make reproduction impossible or very difficult. In Helva’s world, all adults are expected to bank some of their eggs or sperm: either for their own use if they become sterile, or to allow their genetic line to be continued in the future. Although there is an element of Huxley’s “Brave New World” here, it seems like a sensible precaution, especially in an era of interstellar travel. Of course, Helva can never reproduce. She will never produce eggs because of the hormones that stop her body from maturing, and she could certainly never carry a child inside her. The Brawn she has for this mission is an infertile woman who lost her partner before they had the chance to bank their gametes, so the two women help each other to come to terms with their childless futures.

The longest story in the book, Dramatic Mission, deals again with the issue of a competent brain inside a useless body, although the person affected this time is an old actor who has a progressive wasting disease due to overuse of a memory-clearing drug. His body is so weak that he cannot cope with normal gravity, but his mind is a storehouse of theatrical tradition and experience. He is dying well before his time, but there is no medical remedy available. During their mission to perform “Romeo and Juliet” in the atmosphere of a gas giant the whole cast, including Helva, have their minds transferred to ‘empty’ alien bodies. For Helva, this is an amazing experience and she suffers from a sort of agoraphobia at first, because she is not used to having only one set of eyes in one position. She finds the freedom wonderfully attractive, but ultimately sees the danger inherent in the way this mind-transfer system is working: there is a type of bleed through of the aliens’ way of thinking into the actors’ minds. However, the aged actor and two of his colleagues decide to stay in their alien bodies, leaving their living human bodies behind and discarded.

The Ship Who Dissembled is very disturbing piece for two reasons. Firstly, Helva is paired with a Brawn who is prejudiced against shell people and so treats her as simply part of the ship. He refuses to acknowledge her as a ‘real’ person, and is rude and bullying about the decisions she makes. When they are boarded and she is attacked, he has no more concern than if the thieves were making off with his toaster. He makes no effort to find or retrieve her from their captors and simply waits to be released. Secondly, she is tortured by the use of total sensory deprivation, which removes absolutely all input from her, because no part of her body is connected to her brain. Fortunately, she is the last Brain to be taken so she suffers the fewest effects, but the others have suffered horribly and may never recover from the trauma. To make matters worse, their captor uses the threat to withdraw input to the other Brains as a way to control her.

The final story, The Partnered Ship, shows how her supervisors and other officials treat Helva as a valued colleague. We are also introduced to the Brain who runs the city surrounding her homeport. He is wonderfully catty and gossipy, with a distinctly gay feel, which is nice to note. He treats her as his little sister, trying to help her and guide her to a successful, and profitable, career choice now that she has paid off all her debts and can be a free agent. She has to manipulate them and negotiate hard to get what she wants, but she wins out in the end by out-thinking them.

Finally, I would like to mention one aspect that is constantly repeated throughout the book: Helva sees the humans that she encounters as limited and pities them because they do not have all her advantages. I do not know think this is supposed to be the result of very clever conditioning by her early trainers. At the very beginning of the book we are shown an incident when some people who are opposed to the use of shell people are shown around her training center. One of the ladies asks her what she is doing, and Helva replies that she is painting a copy of the Last Supper onto the head of a screw. Helva’s ability to change her body to provide the sensory input or motor output that she needs is extraordinary and does indeed make her far superior from ‘perfect’ humans in many important ways.


Sue can be found on Twitter, Facebook and her blog – Coffee, Cookies and Chili Peppers. I suggest you check it out. You won’t regret it.

6 Responses

  • Excellent choice for a book to review! I loved Anne McCaffrey when I was younger and so have read a lot of her books, including this collection. I love The Ship Who Sang both because of the very interesting premise of Helva’s life and because she sings :D. I have a review on my blog as well and it was a lot of fun to remember all of the plot points that have faded with how long it’s been since I read it! This makes me want to go back and re-read some McCaffrey lol!

    -Anya @ About The Story

  • Wow, Sarah! Thank you so, so much for your amazing introduction: I am all embarrassed now! I will try not to be so quiet in future . . . you might regret that! 😀

    @Anya You should re-read it, if you have time, because it has not lost any of its impact. I was surprised at how modern it felt, even after all this time, and it has also made me want to go back and re-read more of her work. If only I didn’t have to sleep, eat or do household chores so that I had enough time to read all the books that I want to! 😀

  • sue begg

    Fantastic review. I have just packed all my McCaffrey books and so the re-reading will have to wait awhile. I found the whole concept of the stories mind boggling when I read them many years ago and they still have much food for thought today.
    I must remember to check back more often – so many books, so little time !!!

  • @sue begg: Thank you! 🙂

    I read an awful lot of her books during the 90s and got a little fed up of the Pern books because they fell into a rut after awhile. Some of her other ideas are really good though, such as the Crystal Singers, the Dinosaur Planet books and Decision at Doona is one of my all time favorites.

  • Wonderful review! Anne McCaffrey is one of those prolific authors I have always wanted to try but don’t know where to start. I will add this one to my ever growing “to read” pile!

  • Makiruz

    I never even finished the 1st story, so my opinion is very solid; but I admit those first paragraphs rubbed me the wrong way. I mean the first line is “She was born a thing”! And it didn’t sound ironic; and the idea that they can’t grow up because they’d be too big for a can. I don’t know, I should probably read the whole thing, but I don’t know

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