Name That Ship

USS Enterprise


One of the challenges science fiction authors face, particularly space opera writers, is naming ships. Star Trek may have even spoiled the process by insisting on aircraft carriers, famous warships, and the odd spacecraft. Occasionally, it would self-source, Picard’s Enterprise rendezvousing with the USS Gorkon, named for the Klingon chancellor from Star Trek VIEnterprise itself is named for two (soon to be three) famous aircraft carriers in the US Navy. In a bit of self-mythmaking, the name inspired NASA to christen its first space shuttle Enterprise in the mid-1970s, with the shuttle woven into the backstory for Kirk’s starship only a few years later.

But Star Trek tended to be American-centric and Anglo-centric in its ship’s name, an occasional nod to other navies or to famous spacecraft thrown in for good measure. So is it Star Trek‘s fault?

Battlestar Galactica - 2003 version

OK, they had to really make things up for this one. (Syfy)

Well, David Weber had good reason for naming his ships with a more Anglo-centric flair. He clearly drew upon the British Empire to create his Kingdom of Manticore. In On Basilisk Station, Honor Harrington commands the Fearless, a frequently used warship name in the Royal Navy, while her erstwhile superior commands (if it could be called that) the Warlock, a name that would not have been out of place in Nelson’s fleet.

But what do we call our ships? And why are they so Westernized? Well, consider the source. Were I writing for Star Trek, I’d be plundering British and American history for ship names. But my own work?

In mine, Earth and Mars dominate humanity. The capital ships are named for UN secretaries-general and for Woodrow Wilson, who proposed the League of Nations and Franklin Roosevelt, who helped found the United Nations. They’re also named for major geological features on Mars. For instance, the two ships featured in the finale of the forthcoming Broken Skies are the Valles Marineris and the Dag Hammarskjold.

But I also had to name troop carriers, and those are typically named for generals. I posed the question to the Space Opera: Writers group on Facebook. Were there any names to avoid? I was thinking primarily of Rommel, a general respected by his opponents, not the most committed man to Hitler’s cause, but still a member of the Nazi Party. Would 500 years allow his reputation to eclipse his association with a man who most likely will remain humanity’s most reviled leader? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that, partly because Nazi war criminals were still being arrested and tried into my thirties. That pain is still fresh in many people’s minds only three generations after World War II.

But someone suggested, quite rightly, that ship names tend to have historical significance. And much of that history in our work takes place after the present day. Ships named for people should convey a sense of that history. So now I’m toying with naming ships NaismithHarrington, and Perry. And yes, you can thank Bujold, Weber, and Scalzi for the source of those names, though the Naismith, Harrington, and and Perry in my setting’s backstory are very different people from those they are named for.

I think that’s a good way to name them. There will be people who come after us who rise to prominence. As an interstellar species, we would find new landmarks to name things after, and dub famous spacecraft with something other than names of Greek, Roman, and Norse gods. They may not even be named for gods at all. Or different gods. I think we’re overdue for starship Krishna. But they may even draw names from movies that will rival literary references as copyrights and trademarks expire. I wouldn’t chance it, but it’s entirely possibly someone will try to name a ship Skywalker or Kenobi or even Millennium Falcon. I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of Disney’s wrath when that happens, but it’s realistic to think someone will eventually take the bait in the real world.

Leave a Reply