So far in this series I’ve played with circles and squares in an attempt to explore the range of spaceship designs that look good. Well, maybe “good” is too strong a term. Look not terrible. That look, let’s say, unoffensive in the context of a low-budget star-field.
Let’s talk about the starfield, actually. It’s just a big sphere with a couple particle systems attached to it. There’s a “clumping” setting in Blender that gives it a little texture, and that’s it! Well, I also added a few smudgy galaxies too. I’d like to put some nebulae in as well, but who has time for that? We’re not here for stars! We’re here for starships in space! Spaceships among the stars!
Ideally, though, these ships would be recognizable in another context, like a planet or a hanger or underwater. So that’s what this article is about. We’re going to address the other half of the word. Being in spaceor in the context of stars isn’t enough. We’re going to need to look something like a ship. We’re going to need the stuff I was talking about at the end of the last article:
As I’ve been attempting to demonstrate, there are a variety of shapes that work for a spaceship. Unlike terrestrialmaritime, for the technically minded ships which have to contend with fluids like water, or air-ships that have to contend with fluids like, well, you know. Unlike those kinds of ships, space-ships are in space! They don’t need streamlined hulls! They can be as tangly and drag-inducing as you can imagine, and it doesn’t matter at all!okay, yes, there is some material in space, and there are micro-meteors, and solar wind and such, but for the purposes of a fantasy fiction vessel powered by magic, it doesn’t matter. But even though they are completely unnecessary, we’re going to use them anyway.
It doesn’t seem like this would matter, but it transforms “open expanse of featureless geometry” into “precisely manufactured body panel” in no time flat.
This thing is so powerful in pursuit of the “starship” look, that I hazard to call it “indispensable.” I man, obviously they were a joke, but look at how much better the face-ships look with visible hull seams!
Why Hull Seams?
Because that’s how we know they are space-SHIPS.
I mean, we could just toss a streamlined wrapper over the whole thing, but then it ends up looking like a potato. The visible seams indicate something manufactured, something clearly artificial. Why not just show all the mechanical parts like a real spacecraft? Well, sure, we could, but I don’t want to leave them out entirely because there’s nothing quite like a few good hull panels to indicate “this thing moves fast” to the audience. The streamlining is ancillary, but we want it anyhow.
They also act in concert with window size to indicate scale. But there’s more! The size and complexity of the hull plates tells us something about the sophistication of the society that built this craft. Large contiguous panels indicate that there are large manufacturing facilities to make those panels. Complicated hull panels all curved and fitting together nicely indicate sophisticated methods of communication and organization to coordinate the whole design. Flush seams with no visible fasteners denotes careful construction and attention to detail. You can imagine this ship being put together in a cleanroom.
Conversely, many small plates, all rectangular, joined at angles and overlapping seemingly at random, with big knobby mismatched rivets and bolts everywhere indicates a slapdash, shoestring approach, probably in a dingy rusty grease-besmeared den of some space barbarian.
And finally, visible hull seams give us a convenient way to have panels where parts can open up, fold out, deploy, dock, or grant access for maintenance.
But because the hull doesn’t really need to be there at all for function, we’re not compelled to cover the whole space ship with a uniform plating. Instead we’ll use a:
This does two things. First, it adds visual interest to what could otherwise be a pretty boring surface.complicated seams notwithstanding
Second, it helps the “space” part of the space-ship design, nodding to the fact that exposing the internal bits doesn’t really make a difference in space.
And finally, the partial hull lets us show off:
There are a bunch of components on a ship that need to be exposed. We’ve already played with engines, windows, and guns, but radiators, sensors, docking ports, and landing gear also need to be exposed at least some of the time. Then there are all those fantasy parts that are covered in complicated bits and glowy doodads that just look neat! You wouldn’t want to cover those up with hull panels either! So, let’s not.
Now, once we start exposing the internals of the spaceship, it would be great if those internals made some sense. Some components generate power, and nearly all of them consume power. Some need life-support, which needs to be connected to backup power. There should be hallways for the crew to reach the different parts of the ship, and pipes to carry fuel and coolant. And if there are machines that need to move around the inside of the ship there should be corridors for those as well. So, I guess what I’m saying is:
Tubes Are Back!
Just, mostly on the inside. I think one of the things that made the external tubes look so bad was the way that we think about machines. Which, is that we don’t. Not really. I mean, how long have machines been around? A few hundred years? Maybe a few thousand? We don’t have mental structures built in to consider them, so we end up using whatever is most analagous, which in this case is animals. Living healthy animals have all their tubes on the inside. If the tubes ever get on the outside, it’s bad news. Which is why the big arcing hoses, while they may be appropriate in a purely technical sense, are deeply inappropriate for a “cool starship” design. They don’t say “This is an optimized machine.” They say “This animal has been eviscerated.”
Now, there’s certainly a place for this school of design. As I’ve noted before, Warframe seems to have an “animals turned inside out” aesthetic that, while I don’t like it, is apparently somewhat appealing. And veins and muscles showing through the skin could work, I guess.I wanted to make an example, but I ran out of time. Maybe you can suggest one in the comments?
This way of looking at space-ship design, as a rough analogy for an animal, brings us full circle. We have the head, which is the part with the crew and the windows. The arms, which are guns and manipulators. The torso, where all the storage, cargo, and complicated internals go. And the legs, which are the engines. Crew, engines, cargo, and guns are back, but now in the company of the all important bit that is so easy to overlook. The fifth component is the skin, which is the segmented hull plating. And this final insight, the segmented skin, gives us the hook to finally understand where spaceships most comfortably fit in the human psyche. They aren’t really animals.
Space-ships are insects
So next week I’ll be exploring those few remaining components that prefer to be exposed, specifically landing legs, radiators,perhaps like wings? a variety of ports, and those most insect-like of appendages, antennae.
 or in the context of stars
 maritime, for the technically minded
 okay, yes, there is some material in space, and there are micro-meteors, and solar wind and such, but for the purposes of a fantasy fiction vessel powered by magic, it doesn’t matter.
 complicated seams notwithstanding
 I wanted to make an example, but I ran out of time. Maybe you can suggest one in the comments?
 perhaps like wings?
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