Designing Your Fictional Spaceship

by Jeremy Zentner

Spaceships have been iconic in science fiction ever since Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon. There are many features for writers to consider when designing their craft, including microgravity, faster-than-light (FTL) capabilities, journey time, habitation and resources, whether there’s a menacing AI on board, and so much more. In this article, we’ll examine how many published authors designed their sci-fi spaceships, so strap in and get ready for launch!

Interstellar travel: To FTL or not to FTL. In general, books that describe interstellar travel write about ships with FTL capability. In The Indranan War series, K.B. Wagers uses the Alcubierre drive, a concept developed by theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre to enable interstellar travel. Other books use wormhole technology. In John Scalzi’s The Interdependency series, ships penetrate a network of wormholes called the Flow to travel to other star systems. Since the Flow is a natural phenomenon, it’s also subject to cosmic events that can change the nature of its location, culminating in a great plot point. In Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the Galactic Commons uses artificial gates that tunnel through the fabric of subspace, built by scrappy crews like that of the Wayfarer.

Length of travel. Some authors describe sub-lightspeed ships that don’t use wormholes or FTLs. Naturally, this will create a long-duration voyage. In Edward Ashton’s Mickey7, we are acquainted with the Draaker, which uses antimatter to travel at 90 percent of the speed of light. In Ness Brown’s The Scourge Between Stars, the colonizing vessel Calypso was returning to Earth after Proxima B was found utterly uninhabitable. What I liked about this book is that it acknowledged the ship had a broken system that prevented the Calypso from traveling at previous higher speeds—a believable malfunction for an already dismal situation.

Ship gravity. Some writers model current spacecraft to describe travel in zero gravity, but many others prefer to have their characters enjoy gravity on their ships. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey depicts the Discovery with a rotating ring that uses centrifugal force to mimic gravity. In James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse series, the Rocinante is designed like a tower with a constant thrust to mimic gravity against the deck. A writer can also invent sci-fi gravity, as depicted in John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, where a ship generates a push force, literally pressing mass to the deck.

Habitation and resource limits. There are ample details that go into supporting human habitation within a vessel. The Wayfarer, for instance, uses a greenhouse for food and morale in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Another great example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, depicting an alien spaceship akin to a cylinder world. The Rama uses centrifugal force and is large enough to support a habitation that includes a sea and weather system. If a ship doesn’t have a grand mass, a writer may have to find unique ways to maximize resources. 

Local travel. Even if a writer is in the genre of hard sci-fi, the technology has to be more advanced than what we have today. The Expanse series conceptualized the Epstein drive to run at a continuous thrust, allowing ships to reach the Jovian worlds much faster. In Ben Bova’s The Grand Tour series, starting with The Precipice, the reader is introduced to a space age that uses fusion propulsion to create plasma exhaust, while the plasma is recycled for power generation. 

Landing craft. Many sci-fi ships are space-bound only, but sometimes a crew needs to land on the surface. In Christopher Ruocchio’s The Empire of Silence, some spaceships actually have an underside shaped like a seafaring vessel in order to land on water. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, a space elevator transports people and heavy freight off Mars. You also have the traditional shuttle that can fit inside or dock to a larger craft, as illustrated in the Honorverse series by David Weber, The Grand Tour series, The Expanse series, and many others. The shuttle concept has also been miniaturized into a single-person craft, like in Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, where a single-person capsule lands in a skyport’s “nets.”

AI. Like it or not, there’s no avoiding artificial intelligence in sci-fi unless the story has a Frank Herbert-stylized prohibition of AI tech, as depicted in Dune. However, there is a wealth of ideas to explore when crafting AI. It can be a great antagonistic force, as depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. My personal favorite is the presentation of AI more akin to a member of a crew, as portrayed in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. There are even stories in which the ship’s AI extends to android bodies, as described in Gareth L. Powell’s Stars and Bones and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.

The look. This isn’t always necessary, but a ship’s look can add a sense of richness. 2001: A Space Odyssey uses a very scientific approach to ship design, creating a centrifugal habitation deck and a very segregated powerhouse and engine area. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet takes a similar approach, with the understanding that new technological concepts exist, such as gravity plating. The result is a patchwork of decks, instruments, and a greenhouse dome, all woven together over the course of decades. For a sleeker design, you can follow in the footsteps of David Weber, who, in The Honorverse series, invented spaceships that resemble submarines because of an impeller drive system that maintains bow and stern impeller rings for propulsion.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of qualities to consider, but hopefully, it can help you design a vivid spaceship for your sci-fi epic!

Jeremy Zentner is a librarian and a sci-fi addict. He has published short stories in sci-fi and supernatural fiction. He lives in rural Illinois, USA.