Maybe a ship is only as good as her crew, and a crew is only as good as its captain. But in many science fiction stories, the ship comes to represent the characters who call it home. Ships can also become iconic images for their fictional worlds. That’s probably why some of the first images that appear when you look for Mass Effect and Star Trek are stylized artworks of the Normandy and the Enterprise.
I like ships and think of them as characters sometimes. They’re breakable and upgradable. They can be adapted, and they often change over time with new paint jobs and new parts. Sometimes they’re replaced entirely, but that doesn’t mean the spirits of the originals are gone. What matters is that they offer their crews shelter, the ability to explore, and sometimes defenses or weaponry that they need in times of war.
There are a lot of fantastic ships out there, but these are a few of the biggest names that also happen to be my personal favorites.
5. USSC Discovery One
I’ve yet to see a spaceship that looks quite as elegant as the Discovery One from 2001: A Space Odyssey. At first glance, she looks like two bulbs connected by a hulking metal bar. One end is the gaseous core nuclear reactor engines working away, while the other end — the graceful sphere — contains the crew quarters. The sphere spins to produce artificial gravity.
Aside from the polished design, that’s my other favorite thing about the Discovery One: the real world physics that obviously went into its conceptualization. It doesn’t make noise; it couldn’t in the vacuum of space. (Learning that fact has ruined a lot of other fictional spaceships for me, let me tell you…) And director Stanley Kubrick eliminated the structures that looked like wings so audiences wouldn’t assume they were for flying through the atmosphere, something the Discovery One does not do.
The Serenity in Joss Whedon’s Firefly TV series and Serenity movie is one of those ships with true personality. That’s because she’s ready to fall apart at the seams, yet her crew relies on her for their living doing odd jobs — including illegal ones. The Serenity is apparently an older ship, which explains why she’s so rickety, but the design is gorgeous. She’s bulky at first glance, but the ship’s bulb-shaped tail glows like a firefly when a fusion explosion initially propels the ship forward. I can understand why Captain Mal and engineer Kaylee wax poetic about the Serenity so often; I even have a model of it in my apartment that’s one of my favorite things in the world.
In the stellar anime series Cowboy Bebop, bounty hunters Jet Black and Spike Spiegel call the Bebop home. Though it was originally a fishing trawler on Ganymede, Jet outfitted it with big engines and took it to outer space to start a new life hunting down criminals with Spike, Faye Valentine, hacker kid Radical Edward, and super smart dog Ein. It’s one of those ships I find myself wishing were real, because the characters who live there are some of my favorites in fiction. Sure, they spend a lot of time complaining about not having any money and having to subsist on ramen noodles, but the Bebop is always there for them.
2. SSV Normandy
The Normandy is home to Commander Shepard and her crew in the Mass Effect series of video games. Over the course of the three games, it really does come to feel like home, with its private quarters, lockers, research lab, and weaponry that makes it a fighting machine when things get rough. It’s blown up and retrofitted — sometimes with the Alliance and sometimes with the questionable paramilitary group known as Cerberus — but its spirit remains intact through all the chaos. Personally, I love the Cerberus design and paint job, as well as the Cerberus-installed AI known as EDI who becomes a beloved character in Mass Effect 3.
1. USS Enterprise
I don’t think any ship can ever match the USS Enterprise for me. Technically, there are several Enterprises that have warped through outer space in the various Star Trek TV series and movies, but this is a case of the spirit being the most important thing. Well, the spirit and the design, which remains absolutely exquisite in every incarnation. The recent J.J. Abrams movies really show off just how clean and bright and polished the Enterprise is. But more than that, this ship is a vessel of exploration (with weapons, just in case) that sets off “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” In this way, it truly represents what Star Trek is all about, and why I love it so much.