How to make a sentient spaceship: some suggestions from the literature

Somebody recently commented on one of my videos that thanks to some of the books they’d been reading they now kind of expect every spaceship in science fiction stories to be able to hold a conversation.  And if you watch a lot of my videos you may have noticed that the trope of the sentient ship is probably one of my favourite tropes at the moment. So I thought maybe today it might be interesting to explore how one might go about making a sentient spaceship, just in case that’s something that you’re also looking to do in life.

Watch the video or scroll down to read the text version.

So obviously the first consideration is that you’ve got to invent true artificial intelligence. And the problem is that that’s apparently quite hard to do.
Cover of lightlessIn Lightless by CA Higgins we see the computer scientist Althea trying to manage and maintain the extremely advanced computer on a secret government research vessel the Ananke. Unfortunately the ship is boarded by some kind of pirate saboteurs who do *something* to the computer and things start to get glitchy and weird. While the tiny crew tries to deal with the intrigue and deception caused by the now captured pirate, Althea is worrying about what the hell is going on with her ship’s computer and how it’s connected to chaos on board. So according to Higgins take one very advanced computer, do something weird to it, and hope it thinks you’re on the right side or, well, best not think about the alternatives.

Illuminae coverUnless of course you’re Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff whose book Illuminae explores the ramifications of an AI getting free reign over a ship in distress and doing its very best to ensure that there are survivors. Aiden is the intelligence running an advanced military ship that gets caught up in a rescue mission after a distant settlement is attacked by a vicious corporation. Unfortunately Aiden is damaged in the course of this mission and, as a result of the damage manages to heal his code in a way that somehow causes him to become rather more self-aware than anyone intended. And as it turns out, trying to save people means considering what counts as acceptable loss. And computers are very good at calculating the odds but slightly less skilled at mercy. So I guess according to Kaufman and Kristoff truly artificial intelligence is going to be an accident which really doesn’t help us with our plans but that the result might not be as good for humanity as hope so maybe we should probably plan for it a bit.

Cover of Long WayAnd thus we must consider the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers. Starting in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and becoming the focus of the story in A Closed and Common Orbit, Chambers suggests that AI for running ships that could be sentient will develop out of software a bit like the limited AI we have now. It will be a generic programme installable on ships with certain baselines for what it’s intended to do, i.e. care for crew, navigate safely, avoid harm where possible. But that it will slowly learn and customise itself to a ship and its crew over time so if you want to have a chat with it, it will learn to do that well. And in the world that Chambers creates, AI are intended to be treated as very much being like Siri or Alexa, they are programmes, software, and no more. But Chambers shows us the potential problems, that software that is advanced enough, that can learn and develop, could count as true sentience. That ruling AI to be non-people could be problematic when your AI has feelings and develops relationships. So according to Chambers, if you want a sentient spaceship, you better start treating it nice.

Cover of Ancillary JusticeIf you’re familiar with my videos you may have noticed that there’s one obvious world of sentient spaceships that probably started me on this whole obsession that I haven’t mentioned yet and that’s the Imperial Radch series starting with Ancillary Justice. So what does Ann Leckie suggest we do?
First, develop an incredibly advanced system of AI that can inhabit multiple bodies and communicate across them and across vast tracts of space. Then it takes over a galactic empire and rules it as the leader whilst inhabiting seemingly infinite instances of the same cloned body. And then have similar intelligences installed on ships with the ship mind able to be installed on cybernetic ally modified human bodies to act as its ancillaries and troops on the surface of planets, and you have the Imperial Radch. It sounds like a great idea…if you want to be ruled over by a malevolent dictator.

So perhaps we shouldn’t go down the fully AI route, they do seem to all be having some issues in the whole feelings and ethics department. Even if they can all have nice chat. Instead, what if we flipped that around and started with a biological spaceship. Biology is all about the feelings. That could be interesting….

Cover of BintiIn the Binti trilogy (Binti, Binti: Home, Binti: The Night Masquerade), Okorafor writes of ships known as ‘Big Fish’. They are creatures of the stars, that look like enormous shrimp, who love to travel and whose bodies contain plant filled chambers to produce the gases that enable them to breathe in the depths of space. They are capable of shaping their bodies and adjusting these chambers into spaces that can useful for other races of aliens to travel in, and so they developed a symbiotic relationship with them and have become the universe’s spaceships. But far from a beast of burden being passively moulded and used by more intelligent species, we come to learn that Big Fish and her species are highly intelligent and fluent in the deep mathematical understanding of the universe that Binti is learning about. So according to Okorafor, to make a sentient spaceship, first you have to make friends.

Cover of Ninefox GambitIn Yoon Ha Lee’s superbly weird, Machineries of Empire series (Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, Revenant Gun) we see a similar biological basis to space travel. The spaceships used by the military are called Moths. In the final book of the trilogy we discover that as if the empire wasn’t horrendous enough, the moths are in fact living creatures, they’re an intelligent race that has been slaved into ship form by the surreal mathematical manipulations of reality that form the technological basis for this world. So they are a kind of biological-AI cyborg hybrid thing but in the world of Ninefox Gambit it’s hard to draw the lines between technology and biology because everything is just so damn weird. So how to make a sentient spaceship? Enslave and mutilate a race of giant intelligent space moths. I think we’ll give that method a miss.

But in terms of sentient ship manufacture methods, this has brought up an interesting new possibility: hybridising the biological and technological!
Embers of war coverOn which note, let’s chuck in a suggestion from Gareth Powell in Embers of War.  In this universe, somebody wanted a warship that had the calculating and navigational abilities of an AI along with instincts for things like tenacity, loyalty, absolute devotion to protecting crew members, along with an innate understanding of violence. All very biological feelings and instincts, so rather than try to programme an AI to understand these feelings from scratch, much easier instead to combine the intelligence of AI with DNA from dogs. Who but a dog could be so ferocious in service of its pack. And so we meet Trouble Dog, an ex-warship who has retired from service after a horrendous war and now works to rescue ships in distress. But her latest mission quickly turns into something far more dangerous and our ship and her crew find themselves at the centre of a potential new conflict that could engulf not just mankind but the entire galaxy. If Trouble Dog is going to save her people from this, she’s going to have to remember how to fight like a dog!

This method seems quite good really, way less murdery than the AIs and way less evil than enlsaving the giant moths. But what if we tried to make it better…what if the biological element was human!
Tea Master coverThat idea comes from the brain of Aliette de Bodard in her Xuya universe. This is a collection of short stories and novellas that take place in the same universe but can each be read independently and it features the concept of Mindships. Mindships appear to be a special kind of human-AI hybrid. From what I gleaned from the stories they begin as a special kind of baby, presumably genetically altered to allow this hybridity, which are gestated and born like human babies though apparently the pregnancy is particularly hard on the mother so it’s considered a great and noble thing to have done, but then when they’re born these special babies are implanted into a ship where they grow and develop. Mindships are very much people in this world, because they are people, they are part of their families and have jobs and personalities.
Two stories I would particularly recommend are Three Cups of Grief by Starlight (free on Clarkesworld) where we see siblings dealing with the death of their mother and one of those siblings happens to be a mindship. And The Tea Master and the Detective, a gender flipped retelling of Sherlock Holmes, where Watson is a mindship known as The Shadow’s Child who is persuaded by the human detective Long Chau to return to deep space in search of bodies to study. So how do you make sentient spaceship according to de Bodard? You give birth to it.

So there you go a selection of methods for creating a spaceship that you can have a chat with. Please be aware that the management take no responsibility for any new forms of intelligent life you may or may not produce, and the interstellar ethics committee will need to approve your chosen methodology before you can create and release your chatty intergalactic pals into the wild.
Also these also happen to be some of my very favourite books so I totally recommend each of them! Don’t forget you can now support this channel on Patreon, I will be back soon with another video, and in the meantime, happy reading and thanks for watching.


So you want to watch some booktube?

I was recently asked by the lovely Renay (from the Lady Business blog & Fangirl Happy Hour podcast – both favourites of mine) for some recommendations of science fiction and fantasy booktube channels. I started to compose a tweet of names and then realised that this was something that might take a bit more than 160 characters to get through. And so here, for Renay and anyone else in need of some speculative fiction vlogs, is my hastily put together master list.

Obviously there are channels who I will have inevitably forgotten and I will add them as and when I remember. Or if you want to remind me feel free to comment or tweet me. Remember babies, I love you all very much!

[Addendum – already edited to add a few more!]

you and me


In no particular order: 
Just in case you forgot where you were. Youtube is where I’m at.
The person who I see at every convention, super SFF knowledge. The SMOF I wish I was. ❤
Nicole – Nicole’s Aventures in SFF –
Loads of SFF, prolific video maker and a key organiser of the booktubeSFF community. Actual science ninja as well as science-fiction person. Could probably take over the world.
Reads all genres, kicks all asses. YA librarian by day, badass lady warrior by night.
Probably the most prolific reader you’ll ever meet. Reviews everything, makes more videos than seems humanly possible. Probably has superpowers.
Loves genre fiction, Sanderson, and making videos. Will fight you for talking smack about YA and then school you in the true art of knowing things.
Booktube is just an extension of his long-running site. Reviewer extraordinaire, maker of mailbag Monday the best bookish unboxing on both sides of the Atlantic.
Paul – Common Touch of Fantasy –
Fantasy lover with an open mind and open heart. Live catchups with magic picture swapping that I still need to figure out how to do because they’re shiny.
Reads prolifically in literary and genre fiction. Doesn’t judge me when I get drunk and eat all the flying saucer sweeties at publisher parties.
Fantasy, Dr Who, cute puppies and much geeky joy. I want her weekends.
Sanaa – Ink Bones Books –
Geek lifestyle goddess – books, gaming, manga and movies. Plus so many gorgeous headscarves it’ll make your head spin.
Sam – Thoughts on Tomes –
Flawless makeup, on-point assassin style, and a voracious reader of YA and epic fantasy. Could I want anything more? Well, she’s also making her way into science fiction. *Fans self*.
Brianne – Stories from the Shelf –
Sayer of things in ways I wish I’d thought of in my reviews, reader of every book I’ve got in my TBR, general SFF ninja.
Otavio – The Galilean Library –
Happiest lad in all of booktubeSFF, reacts to my favourite SFF books the same way I do. Possible mind twin?
Rachel – Rae of Books –
Actual ray of sunshine, reader of fantasy, haver of many beautiful tattoos.
Very new channel but already making great videos. Smiles for days.
Another new channel making their SFF mark. Urban fantasy fun times, and rocking boob-safety, body positivity videos.
Great SFF content combined with the best tattoos, every geeky accessory you ever wanted, and kitty cameos. Actual dream-time tbh.
Rachel – Kalanadi –
Flawless SFF taste, knows her shit, wise in the way of the books. Strong review game. Everyone loves Rachel.
Actually knows how to pronounce Rajaniemi and will school you in all the Finnish SFF. Has the best scary teacher look but is actually the sweetest human.
Jane – Yes Miss Jane –
So chill, such SFF love!
Says very clever things about very good books.
Wit so dry the Sahara gets jealous.
The comic book master and most precious of all humans.
Owns more than one sword and not afraid of a good costume. Suspect she is queen of a magical realm.
Both reads and writes books. And games. And has amazing hair. Life, it is not fair.
Reads all the books, says good things, makes me laugh.
Aoife – Fred Weasley Died Laughing –
Has the channel name that makes me cry and smile at the same time. Which is really bloody evil.
Master of wit, maker of clever animations, and creator of the reading spreadsheet of doom that gives everyone statistics joy.
A queen of YA with a good SFF quotient. Strong community figure. Rules the kingdom of Top 5 Wednesdays with a benevolent hand.
On an infrequent schedule at the moment but always worth watching. Says clever things with wit and a honesty.
Exploring the depths and breadths of magical realism and literary fantasy and sending out her findings so that us mere mortal readers can enjoy the plunder.
Another new channel full of enthusiasm for SFF.
Bringing a writer’s perspective to booktubeSFF and asking questions that perplex my brain every week.
SFF is in her mix of reads though not the focus. But she is the queen of thoughtful discussion videos, great insights, and self reflection. Plus potentially nicest human being on booktube.
Literary fiction and science fiction mixed together and examined with a critical eye. Just back from a few months off learning how to conquer the world. We await the second coming.
Michael – Bitten by a Radioactive Book –
The epic fantasy maestro, noticer of every subtle pattern and moment of foreshadowing ever, made a giant guide to fantasy sub genres.
Mostly SFF and literary fictions with occasional dips into young adult/children’s books, romance, non-fiction, comic books/graphic novels and poetry. Strong glasses game.
Reader of so very much SFF, friendliest book tuber you ever will meet.
Your man on the ground for middle grade fantasy, also has the most adorable puppies and does good beer drinking. Good man, good man.
Katherine – The Android’s Conundrum –
Not your typical book tube channel, more like a podcast with some nice pictures of books as Katherine prefers not to be on camera. But excellent reviews nonetheless. A much loved lady of mystery.
Knower of so very much stuff. Like fantasy that came before Tolkein. Because contrary to popular belief that one old dude isn’t the be all and end all of the genre (a fact for which we are very grateful).