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Five SF Classics Featuring Soon-To-Be Obsolete Spaceships


Five SF Classics Featuring Soon-To-Be Obsolete Spaceships

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Five SF Classics Featuring Soon-To-Be Obsolete Spaceships


Published on October 10, 2023


One of the frustrating aspects of this ever-changing world in which we’re living is that no sooner does one become accustomed to paddle-wheelers than bang!—less than a century into the golden age of modern paddle-wheelers, some bright chap invents screw propellers and renders an entire class of ships virtually obsolete overnight.

SF authors have gotten a lot of milage imagining transitions like the ones from sail to steam or from paddles to screw propellers…but in the context of starships. Consider these five vintage examples.


The Shattered Stars by Richard S. McEnroe (1984)

Independent traders with older starships, traders like Moses Callahan, are uncommon because the economic realities do not favour them. Modern ships can charge less money to move goods. Large corporations have the financial resources to weather setbacks that would bankrupt Moses. The question isn’t if Moses will go under, but when.

Faced with bills he cannot pay, Moses does not investigate the prospective client when he is offered a suspiciously conveniently well-timed commission. Bankruptcy would have been the more prudent choice. The cargo on board Wild Goose could kill a world, and if the psychopath whose cargo it is gets his way, it will.

The Shattered Stars somehow isn’t a Traveller tie-in, but it does serve as a very nice illustration of one of Traveller’s core elements: how economic desperation in the form of ongoing operational expenses facilitate terrible decisions, also known as “adventures.”


“The Big Night” by Henry Kuttner (1947)

Atomic-powered hyper-ships provided access to the stars to those who cared to risk the dangers inherent in riding the hyper-tides. Matter transmission provides the same access, without risk and with the added benefit of immediate gratification. Overnight, hyper-ships found themselves consigned to economic extinction thanks to Transmat’s superior technology.

There are always people who refuse to modernize. The crew of La Cucaracha are stubborn hyper-men, determined to hold on to their traditional way of life until their aging starship falls apart around them. Given the condition of the ship, they might not have to wait all that long.

There are a number of SF stories where it turns out that the old technology has an application new technology cannot match. This is not one of those stories. This is a story about people whose way of life is almost over, people whose only comfort is knowing that someday Transmat will suffer the same fate.


All the Bridges Rusting by Larry Niven (1973)

Launched in 2004, the Lazarus was a triumph of early 21st-century interstellar propulsion technology. With a cruising speed of one seventh the speed of light, it spanned the distance between Sol and Alpha Centauri in a generation. Too bad the planets waiting for it were not habitable. Too bad that a technical mishap meant that they could not decelerate.

Launched in 2018, the Lazarus II delivers more convenient crewed interstellar travel. It’s not needed for reaching Alpha Centauri; that’s a matter of hitting transmit in a teleportation booth. But it could possibly rescue the Lazarus. Possibly if a few pesky technical problems are solved. Perhaps this is a job for … creativity.

The characters in this novel spend a lot of their time complaining about how the government, which by 2018 had funded not one but two crewed interstellar missions, is run by a bunch of penny-pinching so-and-sos who cannot see the value in non-commercial space efforts. It just proves that no matter how good your space program is, you can always imagine one that is better.


Seetee Shock by Jack Williamson (1950)

Having claimed the moon for America, the United States did not hesitate to sign the 1987 Treaty of Santa Fe, allowing rival nations to claim the other planets of the Solar System. Only the Moon was within reach of atomic rockets. Who cares who owns planets nobody can visit? It was a brilliant diplomatic gesture. Too bad Maxim-Gore invented paragravity in 1988, opening an age of affordable interplanetary colonization by other nations (depicted in the book as a bunch of broad national stereotypes).

Lifetimes later, a new innovation may free humanity. The asteroid belt is rich with contraterrene matter. What is now a hazard for space travellers could provide humanity with the Fifth Freedom, that is, energy too cheap to meter … if some genius can work out how to safely manipulate antimatter. (And if the powers that be do not manage to strangle the Fifth Freedom in its cradle.)

It’s no coincidence that the asteroid belt is rich in antimatter. The intrusion of a contraterrene world into the Solar System and the events that followed is why this Solar System has an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter instead of the planet that formerly resided there.


Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh (1981)

There being no known life-bearing worlds to settle in nearby systems, the Earth Company constructed space stations instead. Lacking a means to exceed the speed of light, the Company established a sub-light trade network. Company coffers filled until three unforeseen developments ended their domination: the network of stations grew beyond the point lightspeed communication centered on Sol could control it; a life-bearing world was discovered orbiting Tau Ceti; and finally, superluminal jump was developed out in the colonies.

By 2352, the Company Wars are almost over. Earth Company must acknowledge that the Union and not the Company now dominates interstellar space. This leaves the unfortunate matter of the surviving Company Fleet. The Company has no desire to pay to repatriate this symbol of Company failure. Union will never forgive the fleet for its war crimes. Small wonder the fleet takes a third option: return home to comparatively defenseless Sol to stage a coup d’état.

Readers specifically interested in the Company War itself, rather than the endgame, might want to track down Mayfair’s venerable Company War board game. Surprisingly affordable used copies may be had on eBay and no doubt elsewhere.



Technological obsolescence is a running theme in modern life and fiction as well. No doubt many of you have your own favourite examples, many of them more recent than the ones above. Feel free to regale us with titles in comments below.

In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, and 2023 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.

About the Author

James Davis Nicoll


In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, current CSFFA Hall of Fame nominee, five-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.
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