Spacers, especially in recent years, have ended up being lovable scoundrels, possibly because of latent Han Solo fantasies being brought to light. Shows like Farscape, Firefly, Babylon Five and to some extent, even Star Trek, the average professional space-farer is rugged, tough when they need to be, but all good on the inside, even when doing bad things like kicking bad guys into jet turbines. Sqooosh!

As mentioned in a previous article, my current novel in progress (still official untitled, but labelled “Karyss” or “PSA”) features, in part, the crew of a dubious freight vessel. They started out as the cliché spacer crew – tough, but good hearted – simply because in terms of the overall novel outline, they just weren’t that important.  When I finally started fleshing out that outline into a first draft, they evolved, and I needed some conflict. Don’t we all?

I began with the idea that spacers are going to be products of our environment. We do what we do because we have to and we can. Some of us have hated our jobs, but we continued to do them because we had to and because we could. The trucker of the future won’t be much different: they’ll like some aspects of the job, but hate others. That gets them into the business, but what happens when the worst of the worst happens, when the spacer’s real character comes out? Worse things happen at sea, right? So Even Worse things happen in Space!

Raft of the Medusa, Théodore_Géricault
Based on a true story (and cannibalism to boot!)

In my universe, space travel is dangerous, for many reasons: spacecraft are complex machines that can go wrong spectacularly. Getting lost in the middle of hyperspace (or jump space, witch/wytch space, the warp, whatever method of FTL travel you prefer) is no joke: space is a big place, hyperspace infinitely more so. Its a long walk home, brah!  Also, the need for limited amounts of food, water, air, etc, means that only so many things can go wrong before it begins to affect the crew in other ways.

How about being cooped up in tight confines with lots of people you don’t particularly like? Submarine crews suffer from this all the time. Only certain types of people are going to be able to deal with it and get along with people, and that’s mostly done by being tolerant and conscientious of other people. That’s fine when everything else is good, but when the water recycler breaks down… or the last Twinkie is eaten, etc.

Our real history is filled with lots of nice stories about seafarers and what happens when things go bad. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Melville’s Moby Dick (and the real account it was based on: Loss of the Ship Essex, by Nickerson and Chase, which ends up in a nice dose of madness and cannibalism, see below!), many a pirate tale and quite a few more tells us that being away from home for long periods of time without adequate supplies (or vitamins!), proper company (i.e: women in this case), hard work, long hours, not much pay, unreasonable bosses saying you’ll get your share of the dubloons (or salvage rights, etc) and instilling a harsh work ethic which may kill you (and leave more for everyone else), result in violence, psychological trauma, weird diseases and madness.  Obviously a lot of these conditions are a sign of the times, but would a future crew be any different? Maybe in health terms, with nice vitamin supplements, inoculations and other medical care being available, but the others seem harder to avoid. If you are a depressed – or stressed out – spacer, looking after your health might take a back seat to filling in the work hours.

The type of person who would likely apply for a job as a spacer might need to be a singularly adaptive but possibly not very wholesome character to begin with, but after a week or two, or possibly a lot longer, the pressure cooker will bring out all the bad stuff, and of course, that’s where the drama – and fun, in story terms – comes from. I think that within the context of space travel its very easy to go way down that garden path all the way to madness and cannibalism (like the Reavers in Firefly/Serenity), but its hard to make that feel realistic or understandable, especially when we need to have a connection with those people going insane. The Reavers are the enemy, first and foremost, in Firefly – we don’t need to know them, or understand them, just fear them. In the movie Serenity, we find out a bit more about them, but the connection is only general.

Worse things happen at sea: Cabin boy Nickerson drew this to describe the fate of the whaling ship Essex

In the real life “madness and cannibalism” story I mentioned earlier – Nickerson and Chase’s reports in “The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale”, the fate of the crew is murderously brought home in the most human way possible I think; that is, we see this monstrous act through the eyes of people we can relate to, and the horror is delivered in its pure form: a boy and his friend, and the Captain of the ship, draw two straws – one for who will be killed, one for who will be the executioner. The boy’s friend gets the “killed” straw, while he gets the executioner one. The captain ignores the victim straw and offers himself instead, but the intended victim owns up to the task. So, the poor sod has to EAT his friend… Needless to say that when that boat was picked up, the two survivors were delirious with madness, desperately trying to suck the last bit of marrow out of that boy’s bones, heedless of the situation they were in and they didn’t even know they were rescued.  (Are you feeling a bit short changes on Moby Dick, now? Classic, bah! Everything is better with some cannibalism!)

If this sort of thing really did happen, and all testimonies suggest it did, two thousand miles away from the nearest port, then what possibilities will occur several light-years away?  I see no reason not to apply what we’ve learned plying the sea-ways and whale roads of the past, to conjure stories (even predictions) about the future. Thusly, their rides are going to be rough ones, folks!

In part 3 of this series, hopefully done in a few days, I’ll explain exactly the elements of my spacers in my novel, hopefully without giving too much away from the story I’m writing.

Related Articles: Fast, Cheap, Legal: pick two. Spacers, part 1.

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

Art Credits: The Raft of the Medusa, Théodore_Géricault; Sunk by a Whale, Thomas Nickerson, Nantucket Historical Association.