“The Ship who sang” is an early novel for McCaffrey which was published in 1969. It depicts the story of a young female who is born with severe birth defects rendering her body useless, who is trained and then installed into a spaceship, with the ship essentially becoming her body. The story depicts the various adventures of this character, Helva, who likes to sing (hence the book’s title.)
The book started life as a series of short stories, so is a bit episodic as a result. It’s a light-hearted science-fiction tale that I don’t think reaches the complexity of some of her later work. The character of Helva is very believable. You always have the sense of her as a woman, not a robot or computer. (She is essentially a cyborg). She is a very passionate individual, and this is made clear through her deep grief after the loss of her first human companion. Helva’s distress about Jenman is a thread through the rest of the book, and she only finds peace with it at the end. I felt this was a good way to show that she might be a spaceship but her human brain would still need to go through the same grieving process as anyone else. It does go into great detail about what it might be like if your body was a ship. This aspect of the story is interesting. It is hinted that some shell people don’t adjust to this transition, but the main character herself doesn’t have any issues so that is a side of the story that is not explored.
The book does have some considerable problems in terms of its attitudes. Helva and others like her would be euthanased if they were not placed into the ‘shell-bodies’ that were the first step towards their eventual incorporation into ships or other devices. (Later Helva meets a character who is the central intelligence for a spaceport.) it is unclear if Helva’s condition would kill her without this intervention, but it did sound as if she would simply be euthanased because of her disability. The modification, education and installation of the ‘shell-people’, as well as any further repairs to them as ships, is something they have to pay for. Essentially they become indentured servants to the government until they’ve paid their ‘debt’. The characters calmly talk about conditioning, implying that they have received indoctrination to make them pliable. The ‘Central Worlds’ government is ultimately accepted as wanting everyone’s good with very little question or critical analysis from the characters. Those who raise objections to this are seen as crazy. There are monumental ethical questions here that are never discussed. Frankly it would have been a much better book if McCaffrey had addressed these questions, instead of glossing over them.
It’s a reasonably light-hearted fluffy book, which can be read and enjoyed as pure escapism. I felt that the book contained the seed of a far more profound idea, and that makes “The Ship who Sang” a missed opportunity.