How to Pilot a Starship

Used starships are easy to come by. You may have found yours floating derelict in the void or crashed on an alien world. Occasionally, you’ll even dig one up in your own backyard or win one in a high-spirited game of Sabacc. Now that it’s yours, what’s it gonna take to fare some space in that ill-gotten jalopy?

Sure, some starships are a piece of cake. The Firefly-class transport ship featured in Joss Whedon’s «Firefly» requires nothing more than a spunky crew and liberal flipping of three magic switches. The Gunstar in «The Last Starfighter» flies like a 1984 arcade game, so even kids can enjoy the fun of intergalactic war.

Sadly, it’s not always so easy. Sophisticated starships often come with equally sophisticated piloting and navigation technology. It makes sense. These fictional vessels achieve feats beyond the grasp of even near-future space technology. They soar faster than the speed of light, slip through alternate dimensions and provide Earth-like gravity without so much as an offhand explanation.

Chances are, the starship in your garage wasn’t designed with human beings or even humanoid aliens in mind. Before you just jump in and start pressing buttons, let’s try out a few favorite piloting systems from science fiction, as well as a few rarities that might turn up.

Alien spaceships present a whole host of problems. Fictional extraterrestrials range from tentacle horror shows to ephemeral energy beings, so there are no guarantees you’ll even be able to climb aboard, much less take the ship for a test-drive.

Just consider your own ill-gotten starship. Does it lack a physical cockpit or breathable atmosphere? Is the pilot’s seat made for square buttocks? If the ship designers were alien, don’t expect a human-friendly layout.

Fortunately, a great many fictional aliens are morphologically similar to human beings. Many even appear to speak English! So, you might just be in luck. Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith had no problem commandeering an alien spaceship in «Independence Day,» though other vessels such as the «Robotech» SDF-1 Macross required a decade’s worth of research and retrofitting.

If you’re lucky, the spaceship you score will host a benevolent robotic pilot to do all the work for you. The Trimaxian Drone Ship in «Flight of the Navigator» is a classic example of this. Sure, it might store star charts in your brain or ruin your life with time dilation, but that’s all water under the bridge when it becomes your BFF.

Sometimes a ship’s artificial intelligence (AI) will even manifest itself in a physical body, such as the demilitarized warship Xenophobe in Iain M. Banks’ «Use of Weapons,» which takes the form of an adorable catlike creature. When traveling aboard the Xenophobe, cuddling with said creature is highly encouraged.

Still, not every spaceship AI yearns for friendship. A bot like HAL 9000 from «2001: A Space Odyssey» might try to blow you out an airlock.

Other pilot AIs want to be much more — «spaceships with benefits» if you will. Ship-piloting AIs in both «Futurama» and «Mass Effect 3» have fallen in love with their crew members, generally with problematic results. Sex with a spaceship may sound fun at first but don’t give into the temptation. Stick to cuddles.


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