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The ships that get our hearts racing

Which ship do you want to see take off?

Image featuring three spaceships within angular heart shapes on a background of the universe Image: James Bareham/Polygon

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It’s Valentine’s Day, so obviously we all have one big thing on our minds: our favorite ships in fiction.

Fandom has largely claimed the word “ships” to mean “relationships,” as in “two (or more) people you think belong together,” as in “I ship Dean Winchester and Castiel from Supernatural.” That’s all well and good, but it isn’t what we’re talking about. We mean what “ships” used to mean before fandoms stole the word — vessels designed for transporting people or goods across space, through the air, or on the sea. Isn’t there something inherently romantic about being aboard a fearless ship that soars and/or sails through the unknown? As it turns out, there are a lot of fictional ships to get all swoony over — especially as they turn from simple vessels to important narrative devices for the characters involved.

The R.L.S. Legacy from Treasure Planet

a ship soaring through space Image: Disney

There are far too few “spaceships that are also traditional sailing ships” out there, but Disney’s sci-fi take on Treasure Island, 2002’s Treasure Planet, helps fill the gap. The movie was a huge flop when it came out, but it has absolutely gorgeous visuals, and it really pushes the button on what that weird blend of CG and traditional animation at the turn of the millennium could accomplish. These things are not mutually exclusive.

The R.L.S. Legacy exemplifies the best that Treasure Planet has to offer. It looks like a traditional galleon, but it soars through space. It embodies all the romance of sailing the high seas, coupled with the splendor of space. Some of the movie’s most gorgeous scenes come from Jim Hawkins dangling on the rigging and gazing out at the vast expanse of the galaxy. — Petrana Radulovic

The airships from Hunter x Hunter

a blue zepplin with a face Image: Madhouse

One of the cutest quirks of the Hunter x Hunter world is that blimp and zeppelin-like airships are the norm for air travel instead of planes. It is a design decision I fully support, especially because they’re also brightly colored and really darn cute! They have little faces!!! I just want to give them all wee kisses on the nose. — PR

The Rocinante from The Expanse

a shot of the rocinante from the expanse Image: SyFy/Amazon Prime

The best spaceships are ones that become characters in their own right — and the Rocinante is a shining example. The ex-Martian Navy ship becomes the centerpiece of the series. It’s the escape vessel of a group of coworkers who become a found family. It’s a getaway frigate. It’s a warship defending the peace. It’s the place Jim and Naomi meet, and where the former keeps trying to make a decent cup of coffee. It’s the place where Alex Kamal makes Mariner Valley lasagna and attempts to lighten the mood. It’s the eternal improvement project of Amos, then Clarissa “Peaches,” and more. It’s the ship where Bobbie makes a stand.

After nine books, read over the course of 10 years, the interior of the ship is as familiar as any place I’ve ever lived — with even the mention of crash couches and “the juice” mentally preparing me for action and adventure. The Roci changes so much over the years, starting out as a spritely example of tech that always felt out of reach. Nine books later, with a several-decade time jump, the ship’s old bones begin to tire, and her tech is outdated. But she’s still part of the family! Finally parting with the Roci was just as hard — if not harder — than parting with the crew. — Nicole Clark

Helva, the Ship Who Sang

It’s been a long damn time since I’ve read Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang stories, which kicked off in 1961 and were eventually wrapped up into a novel that eventually got several collaboration sequels. I can’t speak for how I’d feel about it today, but as a teenager, I really enjoyed the tragic, yearning romance of the first book, The Ship Who Sang. In a far-future setting, some people with badly damaged bodies become “shell people,” encased in life-support systems that interface with the control systems of cities, planets — or ships. The protagonist here is a sentient ship (a “brain”) partnered with a hunky captain (a “brawn”) and sent out on dangerous missions. Naturally, they fall for each other, and naturally, they can’t exactly be together in a conventional way, and naturally, no one who isn’t a ship partner can really understand their special relationship. The whole setup is rife with unrequited longing, secret passion, and perilous space adventure. I don’t know what more you could want out of your sci-fi ships. —Tasha Robinson

The Venture Star from Avatar

a shot of the venture star from avatar Image: 20th Century

Do fictional space vehicles need to be realistic? Of course not! But when time and attention is given to spaceship realism, I believe it’s worthy of praise. That’s why one of my favorite spaceships is the Interstellar Vehicle Venture Star from Avatar. This spaceship only gets a fraction of the movie’s runtime on screen, but it’s bursting with visual details that reveal an incredibly well-thought-out interstellar vehicle.

The Venture Star is designed for travel from Earth to Pandora, a journey that takes approximately seven years. In order to achieve a significant fraction of the speed of light, the Venture Star is actually pushed by an Earth-based laser for half the journey, which explains the large photon shield in the front (back?) of the ship. After a mid-journey flip, the Venture Star pumps the brakes, which in this case are two gigantic antimatter engines. Just like on a real spaceship, the Venture Star needs to get rid of all the heat those engines create, so two huge radiators slowly dissipate the heat from the antimatter reactions. The engines never even fire in the movie: the only hint at their power is the fact that these radiators continue to glow red hot long after.

The long, thin design of the Venture Star allows the crew quarters to be placed a far enough distance from the antimatter engines heat and radiation, another nod to realism. The gigantic truss connecting the two sections evokes the International Space Station and two Valkyrie atmospheric spacecraft evoke NASA’s black and white space shuttle design. These references help make the Venture Star feel even more grounded as a spaceship design, while also giving the Venture Star plenty of room for Unobtainium storage.

Even before you reach Pandora, the Venture Star helps communicate how the rapacious Resources Development Administration operates. Though it evokes governmentally designed spaceships, it’s purpose is clearly more exploitation than exploration. This audacious spaceship is economical and efficient, designed to transport the resources the RDA extracts from Pandora. — Clayton Ashley

The lander from Echo

the lander from echo Image: Ultra Ultra

Though only briefly glimpsed during the game’s opening cinematic, the asymmetrical lander from 2017’s Echo is one of the most eye-catching designs in a game with no shortage of striking imagery. Essentially a personal landing craft designed to transport passengers on and off-world, the lander exemplifies all the qualities that I could want out of a personal spacecraft — it’s compact, nimble, and visually unique. It’s the type of design that inspires you to ask a million questions about the technology and civilization that produced it, which makes it the perfect type of fictional vehicle in my opinion. —Toussaint Egan

The Bubble Ship from Oblivion

the bubble ship from oblivion Image: Universal Pictures

Opinion may be split on Joseph Kosinski’s 2013 sci-fi action film Oblivion, but what’s not up for debate is the Bubble Ship, the personal reconnaissance aircraft piloted by Tom Cruise in the movie. This ship is f’n cool. Vehicle designer Daniel Simon describes it as “a dragonfly [combined] with a Bell 47 helicopter.” The end result is a memorable, elegant design, soaring through the clouds above a post-apocalyptic Earth with ease and grace. Every moment the Bubble Ship was onscreen was pure bliss, while every moment it wasn’t onscreen had me asking, “Where’s the Bubble Ship?” –TE

Protoss Mothership from StarCraft 2

the protoss mothership from starcraft 2 Image: Blizzard

My favorite ship is the Protoss Mothership from StarCraft 2. It’s the sort of vessel that I don’t often get to use in multiplayer matches — they are expensive and move too slowly to be useful to a incompetent StarCraft 2 player. But in theory, they are perfect machines: Gorgeous to look at, can make things go invisible, call back allied units, and slow time. It’s pretty good at base defense, but the build order and tech tree to make one is absolute nonsense to me. Typically, I am not good enough at StarCraft 2 to get to a point in the late-game where the ship is viable. Occasionally, I do enjoy employing a Mothership Rush strategy, which I first saw a pro-player do in 2010.

This is an absolutely mad strategy: Instead of doing things that will ensure a good economy and a powerful army, you simply pivot all resources to getting the Mothership as fast as possible. It sometimes works because it’s so stupid and no one expects it. However, again, I am not quite as good and often fail. And so I look on the Mothership with awe — the sort of vessel that is always out of reach. —Nicole Carpenter

HMS Terror from The Terror (and real life)

the terror sailing ship Image: AMC

Let me start by saying that in many ways, this is a terrible ship. Everyone aboard died, and by the end of the voyage, it was a literal wreck. It is best known for complete and total failure.

But I also love this ship. The real-life disaster story is fascinating, and AMC’s highly fictionalized television adaptation is phenomenal. (season 1 of The Terror, based on Dan Simmons’ novel, is available to watch on Hulu.) I feel like I know the ship inside and out, even though I most certainly do not. Among the many excellent things about the series is the amount of attention devoted to the interior details of the ship. The ship is lived-in, and you live in it with the crew. This ship is a home. It’s a doomed home filled with death, but it’s a home nonetheless. Also, it’s called the freaking Terror — perhaps doom was slightly foreseeable. —Pete Volk

The SSV Normandy SR-2 from Mass Effect

a shot of the normandy gliding through space Image: BioWare

I’m not a big ship person, unlike some of my friends, who know who they are. I don’t have a favorite Star Trek ship, much less one that’s appeared in fewer than five episodes of the franchise total. For me, ships are interesting settings, bases of operations, places to explore, but rarely characters in their own right. They don’t make me feel feelings.

Except the first time I saw the SSV Normandy pull out of dock, my shitty monitor speakers doing their best to blast the chords of the Mass Effect theme. My heart swelled with a feeling that could only be voiced by the phrase “That’s my ship,” in the same tone that, say, a total wife guy might say “That’s my wife!”

But I confess my full love is reserved for the SSV Normandy’s resurrection as the SSV Normandy SR-2, a cutting-edge stealth frigate kitted with a luxurious captain’s quarters, observation deck, and a fucking bar. Granted, she skirts very close to being a humanized ship when her illegal onboard AI, EDI, gets her own body in order to conform to the BTG standard (big tiddy girlfriend). But EDI is my ally and compatriot — not the Normandy itself.

One woman can’t be the mighty sword with whom I cut through the galaxy’s myriad struggles, the spot where I go to hang out with my buds, and the place I keep my collection of exotic fish. Only a ship can do that. —Susana Polo

The Fisher-Price Shark Bite Pirate Ship

I don’t even know where I first ran across this toy, which has been around since at least the mid-2010s, and Fisher-Price being largely eternal, maybe long before then. I just know I wish it had been a thing when I was a kid. It’s a (probably extremely leaky) pirate ship, but it’s also a giant shark that eats Fisher-Price people! Also, to judge from the TV ad, it maybe fights crime too for some reason? Exactly what I’d do if I was a giant shark someone had turned into a biomechanical monstrosity. Also, it comes with a little shark-pirate, which raises endless questions about the biology or superscience of whatever imaginary world this thing exists in. I like to think of the shark-ship as the Alphonse to the shark-captain’s Edward, just two brothers with very different bodies, trying to get by in a world that’s probably pretty prejudiced against shark-people and shark-ships. At least once they’re both safely out of devouring range. —TR