Given her physical deformities and acute mind, Helva is chosen to become a “brainship”. She escapes the confines of a human body but there is still the matter of her human heart.
This is going on my shelf permanently since the last story in the book, “The Partnered Ship” kept me from meeting a deadline. Anne McCaffrey has been one of my favorites since I read Dragonsong in 8th grade, and she continues to be a best-loved author to this day. But my Pern collection is just going to have to scoot over to make room for this one.
Helva was born with some staggering physical challenges. I couldn’t tell what her disabilities were supposed to be specifically, but McCaffrey’s vivid description paints a pretty hopeless picture for Helva. However, with the help of some futuristic technology, she becomes the “brain” of a spiffy new spaceship, achieving more power and more control than any human has. She goes from being an embarrassing drain on society to a huge asset with the universe (literally) at her fingertips. In fact, several times throughout the book, when someone expresses pity for her situation, she states that she likes herself just fine and she’d never trade her titanium hull for a real body. She even pities the fragile “brawns” who get hurt so easily.
Yet Helva learns that physical hurt is the least kind of pain the universe can dish out. Her body might be protected by an impenetrable shell but her heart and mind are just as vulnerable as those of her more fleshy counterparts. And like any character, Helva learns, changes, and grows from her experiences, becoming a stronger, better person than she started.
I was worried that because of Helva’s technology she would be too powerful to be interesting. She’s a ship; she can just run from trouble, right? She can just use her super sensors to sniff out trouble and stop it before it can advance the plot. But I was wrong. McCaffrey created a strong, powerful character, but she also put her in situations that tested her abilities realistically and in some unexpected ways. She can’t always pull out all the stops because she is limited by her human companions. And she still experiences prejudice and misunderstanding from the highly evolved world.
We even get to see Helva save the day without her phenomenal resources. As a result of the inattention of one mentally and emotionally abusive partner, Helva is stolen from her ship and her sensory and movement connections are disengaged so she can’t see, hear, or move. For the first time in her life she is truly disabled. Yet she withstands the sensory deprivation and tricks her captors into giving her enough control so she can save herself and the others trapped with her.
I found it interesting that while Helva would never trade her ship for a body – and while borrowing an alien body she even thinks “how limiting mobility is” – her goal through most of the book is to find a suitable partner. She may be impenetrable, well adjusted, and confident in herself and her abilities but she’s still lonely. She still longs for companionship. And in the end she finds her own kind of love – a partnership that’s beautiful and fulfilling even without the possibility of ever being able to hold her beloved.
Exploring the bounds of humanity is not a new concept in science fiction, but what a unique and stirring way to ask the questions “what makes us hurt?” “What makes us human?” Well done, McCaffrey.