spacer [ˈspeɪsə] n,  3. (Astronautics) a person who travels in outer space

Mechanismo Spaceport, by Jim Burns

The humble spacer. Possibly one of the most enduring of science fiction/space opera character archetypes. The Han Solos and Chewbaccas, the Malcolm Reynolds, Pyanfar Chanurs, Ace Garps, Commander Jamesons, Baltechs, Ellen Ripleys and many others while not always heroes they seem to capture the imagination more than most. Average Joes doing their average work in extraordinary ways and with exceptional skill. They know what a hydro-wrench is (and isn’t) for and won’t take shite if someone says otherwise. They can repair a hyperdrive assembly in a few minutes with paperclips, but can’t fix a coffee machine worth a damn.  They know what they know well and thanks to them, they’re responsible for many an SF novel or story.

A worn-out, semi-shady, yet good natured space freighter crew is almost a cliche to me. It occurs frequently as a plot facilitator or lynchpin of the story. There’s been as a many variations on the theme as there are authors. Out and out smugglers, like Han Solo/Chewbacca, borderline freedom fighters like the crew of the Serenity, grungy truckers like the Nostromo crew in Alien, even socially deranged peeps on Red Dwarf. For every story there is a slight variant with a schtick.   But why? You’d think that in the far future, when we have reliable and frequent space travel, there’d be far more interesting jobs out there to do. So why does it, at many times, come back to the “spacer?”

That question is just as varied – many spacer characters are products of the world/environment they live in, or succumb to (like the Reavers in Firefly). Malcolm Reynolds – former soldier during the war with the Alliance in Firefly, still harbours a massive grudge which defines him in everything he does, and the kinds of jobs he takes on. He is still a hero a heart, and struggles to do the right thing when things allow, but as a business man first and foremost with a ship to run and crew to pay, he take whatever jobs he can find.  On the other end of the spectrum, the crew of Blake’s 7’s “Liberator” (and later Scorpio) are terrorists and revolutionaries fighting against an oppressive government -their business is illicit technology, sabotage and assassination and their ride is an alien-built spaceship that is one of the most destructive forces known to mankind. However, in both these cases, they need crew desperately. The ship needs working parts if its going to go anywhere. Reynolds is a bit more rag tag, mostly people looking for a home and a bit of safety. The Liberator crew are criminals: a thief, a computer hacker, a pilot, a formidable female warrior, a portable computer – none of which get on well with anyone, but they are bound together through some kind of symbiosis or parasitization between them. They all want something from someone else.

As you can see from these two “polar opposites”, they have more similarities than distinctions. And this is where my thoughts on the spacer as a cliche come to mind. Their differences are just variations on a theme. Its all good pizza, but some pizzas have this, some have that.

The spacer is the archetypal “spaceman” in Science Fiction. In theory, you can’t go anywhere in the universe without the help of spacers, outside of godlike intelligences moving pure matter around instantaneously.  Even Zap Brannigan needs Kif to get him places!  Sure, you get your up-market spacers (Federation weasels on Star Fleet vessels, Picard et al) and you get your slummers, but their basically doing the same thing.

There are your legit spacers and illegitimate ones. The first are supposed to be there doing their job. They have awesome ships, support from home and are propped up by huge interstellar companies/conglomerates to help them do it: these are the people to whom you have to explain why you scuttled 42 milion Credits of spacecraft when a wee lil Alien shows up at/for dinner.

The illegitimate ones are probably our favourite. They’re basically us – just in space, doing their jobs. They have a mortgage to pay (these spaceships don’t come cheap!) and their income isn’t necessarily assured. They have to work their asses off to make payroll, or even buy food (Rocket Noodles are expensive!…) They’re lucky to end up with full bellies, let alone profit. So that means that they’re looking for the next big score – which will in turn, bring great rewards in the form of lots of money and most importantly – an awesome story.

Sure, we’ll help get a strange plant-based life form priestess to get to their destination.

Oh yeah, we can help move your 5 tons of stuffed animals to Habitrail Alpha. Wait up, those don’t look like stuffed animals…
See who can race to the nearest Star faster than the other for shits and giggles? After this shipment…

Yep, we’ll pull over and check the derelict out. No problem. Dinner at 8 folks. We get beer today!

The life of a spacer is far from glamourous, but to the right kinds of person, it is very appealing.

Yep, Kraiklyn here, what? A very expensive AI Mind on a dead world, defended by horrendous weaponry? And a fanatically religious alien race looking for it? Sure, I’ll go check it out…acchhhhh…achhhh… (expires)

Ok, so why I am I talking about this. Well, for my own novel in progress, a lot of the action of the first part concerns a crew of spacers. When I started planning out my story, they were mostly white noise in the background, relatively unimportant to the narrative, but as with all things, when I started writing about them, I needed characterization. They needed lives, habits, motivations, challenges. My story grew to accommodate them, but they faced a considerable hurdle: how are these people going to be different from all the others I began talking about at the beginning of this article? What will people find interesting about them – they NEED to be interesting. A spacer is a spacer… give them this and that and they’re still the same old archetype. Even as pirates, they’d still be… spacers. I needed a schtick.
I’m not sure how successful I’ve been with that.  At some level, I’m retreading a very tired path. I feel like I’ve brought in an angle which will suit the tone of the novel, but still read as fresh, but that’s my opinion. It is what it is and won’t make it any more real or interesting to others.  My solution owes a lot to Herman Melville and Moby Dick, and perhaps to Nickerson and Chase’s report about the sinking of the Essex – metaphorically, there’s no space whales or anything… er… wait a minute.. that would be a good idea… /takes notes

The image that graces the top of this article is the single most-important image to me on the matter of spacers. I first saw this illustration when I was 14, in the page of Imagine Magazine or the First Citadel Compendium, in an advertisement for a pack of 15mm Traveller Miniatures. I would soon encounter Jim Burn’s artwork in a variety of forms and came to love his many early paintings. The designs of clothing, the expressions on their faces, the texture, the “Advanced” technology, pretty much everything. Its glitzy and crude at the same time.  I give Jim a by on the spaceship as it is… well… bleh. It falls into the common trap of making a spaceship from modern day aircraft and just fudging them together. With a lot of lesser artists, it just doesn’t work – the bits are way too recognizable to suspend disbelief.  The Masters – Peter Elson, Peter Andrew Jones and Chriss Foss – use the technique to create a basis on which to build the rest of the machine, and disguise it. I think Jim rushed the F-15 Eagle/Tornado/F-4 Phantom/F-16XL (or LAVI) with canard foreplanes?) thing in this one, its a background element.

The important bit are the space crew – unshaven, disheveled, heavy brow expressions. They look like you feel after a long flight and you breeze over to the hotel at 3am trying to check in.  When I think of a spacer crew, this is what I see, partially. Its a great starting place.

I hope to return to this article topic in a while, much like I have done with the Starship Construction for Writers series, to talk about what I feel makes a spacer a spacer and what kind of gear they’d need, using the philosophy of the world I’m creating for them in the novel.

The Speedo Ghost and crew, from Ace Trucking Co./ 2000AD

GRNDL /tips hat

PS: Extra brownie points who can point out the relevance of all the names/references to spacers in the article. 🙂 Be careful, though, some of them are red herrings.

Related Articles:

Even worse things happen in Space: Spacers, part 2

“Yo ho ho and a Bottle of Synthslurp!”  Spacers, part the third

Image Credit: Mechanismo Spaceport, Jim Burns/Young Artists.  Speedo Ghost: Belardinelli, 2000AD/IPC/Rebellion Comics