[process] Slamming the doors on your spaceship

I have this whole theory about the non-normative nature of the science fiction genre and its transformational narratives. Luckily for you, I’m not going to talk about that in this blog post. Not much, at any rate. (Ask me some other time.) A somewhat more plain-English way of articulating one of the key concepts behind that theory is to say that most of us read science fiction to experience something meaningfully different than what we find in our everyday lives.

One of the signature fillips in the original Star Trek was the doors on the starship Enterprise. It’s hard to remember this now, but when Star Trek went on the air in 1966, those automatic doors we’re all so used to at every grocery store and whatnot basically didn’t exist. The bridge doors sliding open and shut with a “schmuck” sound behind Shatner’s every entrance were very, very strange. Different. A simple signifier of a bold, new world. (We saw an attempt to recapture that sensibility in Deep Space Nine with those weird rolling cogwheel doors.)


In a similar vein, a very common narrative trope in science fiction is that future spaceship operations will have their roots in naval tradition. So, for example, almost all spaceship or starship crews seem to follow naval or merchant marine ranks. Ships have “hatches” instead of “doors”, “decks” instead of “floors”, which is often reflected in science fiction usage. Less often but still common are usages such as “overhead” for “ceiling”, “bulkhead” for “wall” and “passageway” for “hallway” or “corridor”. This is both part of how we’ve been trained to think about spaceships in our narratives, and part of making things in the narrative feel just a little different, an echo of the frisson we got from the original Star Trek‘s bridge design.

Lately I’ve been doing a fair amount of workshop critique reading for various events, and as happens anytime one reads a number of manuscripts, certain coincidental trends emerge. In this case, it’s writers setting stories on space stations or spaceships where the interior fittings are described with common architectural terminology. This bothers me vaguely based on my lifelong training as a genre reader, as well as the sensibilities I’ve evolved as a genre writer these past two decades and more.

I really can argue this both ways quite readily. Part of the challenge of making the unfamiliar feel real in fiction is leaving in enough bits of naturalistic reality that the reader can follow along with the adjustments in reality that the story offers. (Oddly, [info]the_child and I were discussing precisely this point a day or two ago in a slightly different context.) This is the source of that piece of genre writerly folk wisdom that says you get to do one impossible thing for free in your story. If you change everything at once, the story becomes incomprehensible.

In other words, having people on spaceships live in rooms and open doors and walk down halls and stare at the ceilings keeps the reader from being distracted by wondering what the hell an “overhead” is, when that’s not the point of the story. At the same time, people who live in rooms and open doors and walk down halls and stare at the ceilings may as well be hanging around in my house. It doesn’t feel different.

And different is what science fiction is all about.

Still, I can forgive this in pursuit of the story. Every writer has their own vision of how the narrative should flow. Every writer’s vision evolves.

But I really, truly draw the line at slamming the doors on your spaceship. That whole concept is so predicated on contemporary Western interior design, and echoes strongly of teen tantrums and relationship spats. It makes all the sense in the world in a romance novel taking place in a naturalistic contemporary setting for the protagonist to slam a door. That’s an emotional signifier and a familiar action. But damn it, I want my spaceship doors to go “schmuck”, or dilate, or hiss gently into the walls, or dematerialize, or at the least clang ponderously. I don’t want them to be slammed.

There’s a fine line between the familiar and the banal. For good science fiction to work, you really need to keep on the right side of it. Otherwise you’re missing the whole point of the genre, methinks.

Do the doors slam on your spaceship?

4 thoughts on “[process] Slamming the doors on your spaceship

  1. I think there’s a functional reason for all the naval terminology, too. Space ships and submarines have something important in common: they both need to be airtight.

    “Hatch” to me implies something that will slam shut automatically in the event of a hull breach, preventing the whole ship from depressurizing. “Doors” don’t do that.

  2. Cora says:

    Minor niggle: A bulkhead is not simply a wall but a partition that closes on the event of a hull breach to keep the effects of the breach confined to one section of the vessel. Hence, someone leaning to a bulkhead while the spaceship experiences a hull breach (when the bulkhead should close) would bother me as much, if not more, as a slamming door in space.

    That said, whenever I need name for a spaceship component about to break down or a missing spare part that can only be found on planet X, I reach for my handy dictionary of marine technology and thumb through the entries until I hit upon something that sounds cool and can be adapted. Though one should be vaguely familiar with the original purpose of the thing, even if it’s just a McGuffin.

    For traditional spaceships in the Star Trek mold, naval terminology does make sense. Though SF is also full of organic spaceships (e.g. the insectlike vessel in Lexx, Moya in Farscape or the shadow ships in Babylon 5), metallic ships that do not follow human design principles (e.g. the Borg cubes in Star Trek) and other offbeat designs that have no naval background. For example, Simon Green has a spaceship shaped like a giant stone castle in his Deathstalker series. The castle ship is full of halls and chambers and other bits of terminology that are more closely linked to castles than to spaceships, which makes sense in this context. I don’t recall any slamming doors, though.

    A slamming door might also make sense on a deliberately ramshackle or low-tech spaceship like the Serenity in Firefly. It’s been a while since I watched it, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find slamming doors in Firefly.

    Though part of the fun of SF is how to make everyday actions like slamming a door work in a completely different environment. For example:

    “You bastard”, the fresh-faced ensign yelled at Captain Stud McManly, “You slept with that green-skinned slut from Orphelas IV.” She spun around and the door slid shut behind her with the finality of a slap into the face.


    “You bastard”, the fresh-faced ensign yelled at Captain Stud McManly. She slammed her hand on the door panel with a force that probably set off several warning sensors. Her foot tapped impatiently, while the door slid open in unbearably slow motion
    “You slept with that green-skinned slut from Orphelas IV”, she spat and flitted out of the cabin door as soon as it had opened wide enough to let her pass.
    For two standard seconds, Captain Stud McManly stared at the open door in dumbfounded shock. “Close door”, he ordered.

  3. David S. says:

    Not any more!

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