The names make you nostalgic. The sight of one stirs dreams of adventure and excitement. Hearing someone talk about them makes you wish you could be a part of the crew, or better yet, have it to yourself, with your friends as your sidekicks.
Starships: the iconic image of space-based science fiction. A home. A refuge. A way to get from one adventure to another … usually via some calamity smack dab in between. The most beloved share the traits of your first car, a tree fort, and a badass fighter plane.
But what is it about them that makes us love them. Or to put it more plainly, what does a starship need to do to be loved?
Let’s Start With the Unloved
Oh, how it’s easy to loathe an evil starship. It’s even fair to say that, despite their obviously inanimate nature, a starship takes on the personality of its commander (and to a lesser extent, its crew). What do we find cold, hateful, and despicable? It should be large, probably larger than it really needs to be. It should be menacing, implacable, and merciless.
One example would be the Executor, Darth Vader’s super star destroyer. I can hear the “but wait a minute” comments now … the Death Star is a space station, not a starship. It can travel, but the Empire called it a station, so I’m ruling it out. Vader’s flagship, however, is fair game. Dark, menacing, and bigger than it has any need to be, this is typical of imperial thinking. You don’t bring a sledgehammer to swat a fly. You bring a turbolaser cannon that will vaporize everything within a mile of the fly. Aiming is for rebels.
Or how about a borg cube? It looks inhuman, without even the basest sense of stylistic sense. You just know that whoever is inside that considers you vermin. Beings with interpersonal skills just don’t construct city-sized assimilating cubes and disperse them across the galaxy.
Start With a Name
You don’t need your ship’s name to be cool, or make you sound awesome. If you think about most ship names in a vacuum, most don’t really sound that great. But if you name your ship, then do awesome things with it, the name will become awesome. But the name is important. It’s not a matter of what that name is, but the very fact of having it makes the ship a character. It makes it unique. If the ship isn’t a one-of-a-kind already, this is what sets it apart from all its brethren in model year.
Be a Little Different
Well, we’ve stumbled onto a uniqueness factor in the need for a name. But it helps if the ship is a bit non-standard. After-market customization, one-of-a-kind designs (home-made gets more bonus points than experimental prototype … maybe not in awesomeness, but in lovability certainly), little quirks picked up over the course of its adventures.
How much can you love something that’s just like a thousand other somethings just like it that came on the assembly line? I know, I know … “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine…” But how easy is it to get over that feeling that if anything were to happen to the ship, you could just go out and buy a new one? Part of being different and unique is the sense of the irreplaceable.
That Cozy Feeling
This is the Goldilocks Principle at work. A one-man fighter can be a bit lonely. Sure, you might becomes friends with the ship’s computer, but it will be a weird, possibly unhealthy relationship—the spacer’s equivalent of becoming a crazy cat lady. On the other hand, when a ship gets to be too large, you run the risk of it becoming a place, more an ecosystem than a home. How much can you feel like you’re at home when you’re surrounded by a thousand other crew members, many of whom you may not have ever met.
Along with the cozy feeling is the sense of being lived in. Scrubbed and sterile is fine for looking professional. Sleek and polished can look menacing and/or cool. But being rough around the edges makes for a more homey feel. A duffle bag on the floor stuffed with clothes is more cozy than a closet lined with identical, neatly-pressed uniforms.
Be a Little Broken
No one likes the Mary Sue character (outside of the fiction, where they have to). The same goes for starships. Do everything, do it well, get all the praise. Sure, you might be the best ship in the fleet, but I’ll take my friendly little bucket any day; she gets the job done just fine. Quirks are nice, but quirks that make life a little more harrowing are always more interesting. You’ll defend your ship’s honor, flaws and all, before you’d trade her in for a shiny new model. The crew learn to adapt around the ship’s limitations, making them a part of normal operations.
Part of the Crew
By the time you’re addressing a ship by name, you’ve made it a part of the crew. If you refer to it without “the” before its name, you’ve taken another step in personifying it, not just having it be a thing with a name. Bonus points on this one if the ship is sentient or organic in composition.