Why Aren’t There More Shipwreck Stories in Science Fiction?

37 MinutesThis Sunday, as everyone knows, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. So it seems fitting that we here at Channel 37 should commemmorate the moment by taking a look at the long, rich history of shipwreck stories in science fiction — a genre that, naturally, abounds in spaceships:

  • Shipwreck by Charles Logan
  • Ummmm . . .
  • [*sound of crickets chirping*]

And even that one is more of a Robinson Crusoe-type story than a shipwreck. (Not to mention Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which is actually a pretty good movie.) So what’s that all about? Since the 1930s, science fiction has been awash in spaceships of every conceivable type, size, and capability. And there has been no shortage of accidents, from asteroid collisions to warp core breaches. But in terms of your classic shipwreck story, combining chivalry and self-sacrifice with survival instincts and tick-tock suspense, we have precious little — as far as I can tell.

Titanic poster

The theme song was more horror film than science fiction.

We have plenty of stories in which humans find alien ships adrift from some disaster or another. Clearly, aliens have all kinds of problems with their ships (now there’s a new subgenre — retelling science fiction stories from the aliens’ perspective!). But for us humans, it tends to be pretty binary: either the ships work, or they just blow up completely. Not a lot of middle ground. Or if a ship does get wrecked, we don’t find it after it’s been abandoned. Let’s face it: as compelling as it was when Kirk and Co. found the USS Constellation adrift in the Classic Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine,” the blow-by-blow of the abandoning of the ship would be a great little story in its own right.

What is it about science fiction that hasn’t lent itself to the disaster genre? Is it that we just have too much faith in our ships? Are they — to authors, readers, and crew alike — unsinkable? Is it that the focus on the stories of survival are too “character-centric” and not enough about science-y things?

Commodore Decker from The Doomsday Machine

You wouldn't dare.

Science fiction is experiencing a resurgence in heroic storytelling. Space opera is back in a fresh new guise, and military sf is always popular. We love our movie and TV spaceships more than ever, thanks to super-detailed CGI models. Cinematic science fiction has plenty of epic-scale disaster stories (from Meteor to Independence Day). And stories of survival at sea are among the most enduring in our literature, both fiction and nonfiction (from Moby-Dick to The Perfect Storm).

Maybe it’s time we set our science-fictional sights on a classic story of spaceshipwreck?

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