Spacecraft by Timothy Morton

Spacecraft (Object Lessons). Timothy Morton. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 

Reviewed by Phil Nicholls

Timothy Morton is best known for their writing on ecology and as a philosopher who gave us the concept of ‘hyperobject’.  While Spacecraft (2021) is only a small book of 129 pages, including index and notes, Morton has nevertheless written a dense but enjoyable book with a glittering insight on almost every page. Reviewing any book crammed with so many ideas is a challenge. Spacecraft is a heady mix of pop culture and philosophy, where it is difficult to pick out the unifying theory amidst the glare. 

On one level, Morton has written a performative history of spacecraft, both speculative and real, in the media, with a particular focus on Star Wars. The book examines the role played by these vehicles, not the method of portraying them or the nuances of their design. While the principles may apply to all spacecraft, Morton’s sources are primarily drawn from within Western cultures, especially American. Essentially, spacecraft representations, according to Morton, performed one of the following functions:

  1. the ark, carrying all remaining life forms, such as in Silent Running or the Jupiter ship in 2001
  2. the juggernaut, destroying all before it, such as the Death Star and Imperial Cruisers in Star Wars or the militarized version of the Enterprise from Into Darkness
  3. the frigate, a standard SF warship
  4. the fighter, small military vessels such as the X-wing and TIE fighter
  5. the explorer, such as scouts or shuttles
  6. the machina cum dea, Morton’s phrase inverting the traditional deus ex machina, meaning an alien vessel that sweeps in to dispense justice. Examples being the UFO at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or the TARDIS
  7. the coracle, where the spacecraft is a spiritual craft on a mystical journey, such as the EVA pod in 2001 or the real Voyager I probe.

Morton makes a distinction between spacecraft and spaceship, for example, with respect to size, with starships being much larger. Furthermore, starships such as the Enterprise and an Imperial Cruiser are part of an established fleet with a large crew in a fixed hierarchy. In contrast, spacecraft are smaller, often with a fluctuating crew roster: people simply climb aboard one and fly away, such as happens repeatedly with the Millennium Falcon over many films, or The Heart of Gold in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Morton notes the “craft” aspect of the name, reflecting the skill required to fly the vessel. There is also a sense that these ships are being crafty, meaning cunning.

Starship Enterprise U.S.S. Enterprise NCC 1701-D, Star Trek series
Imperial Cruiser, Star wars

While Spacecraft draws on many sources, the book is at its heart a love letter to the Millennium Falcon. Morton clearly sees this vessel as the archetypal spacecraft as each chapter casts the Falcon in a new light. Spacecraft highlights the Falcon as a feminist vessel because when the revolutionary feminist robot L3-37 is damaged beyond repair, her data and personality are incorporated into the Falcon’s electronics in the Solo prequel: “The Falcon is then really a ‘she’ insofar as the Falcon is a feminist robot keen to liberate other robots from their status as slaves.”

The Millennium Falcon is also the third important non-human to appear in A New Hope. Moreover, the Falcon is adept at defying the forces of gravity in a film series all about the use of the force. Morton also highlights how the Millennium Falcon is the plot pivot in The Empire Strikes Back. Once the Falcon functions properly and engages the hyperdrive, with the help of R2-D2, the film is emotionally “over” and we await the sequel.

Millennium Falcon, Star Wars

Spacecraft includes only four chapters and an introduction. Each chapter explores one aspect of spacecraft and the Millennium Falcon in particular. In the first chapter, Morton notes a recurring trait of garbage, or the “found-ness of objects”: “we need to consider the Falcon as pure contingency, as something that just happens to you, garbage or not”. The Falcon demonstrates this trait when Rey initially refuses to escape on a ship located off-screen in The Force Awakens, dismissing it as “garbage”. When her first choice spacecraft is destroyed, she concedes “the garbage will do” and we see her and Finn escape on the Falcon. Indeed, through the whole franchise the Falcon is repeatedly found just when it is needed.

Morton specifically notes the role of dirt in the Star Wars series. Unusually, all the good vehicles in these films are dirty, a notable difference from the Imperial vessels or a spaceship like Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. Dirt seems to be used as a signifier for the rebellion, while at the same time making the setting appear more real. After all, what actually is dirt? Morton shares the definition given by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger of “matter in the wrong place”. How often is the Falcon in the wrong place? Taking the viewpoint of the Empire, the Falcon is forever in the wrong place, typically waiting to be found by one rebel faction or another.

This aspect of stumbling upon the Falcon is a focus of chapter two of Spacecraft. Here Morton explores the concept of spacecraft as winnings, such as how Lando won the Falcon in a card game. More broadly, spacecraft are often outright stolen and become the trophy of the escape. Once again, the Falcon is the epitome of the getaway vehicle, repeatedly evading Imperial entanglements in almost every appearance. Other stolen spacecraft include The Heart of Gold, The Liberator in Blake’s 7 and the TARDIS. Yet, so often these thefts are justifiable and necessary to escape the crimes committed by the state.

Morton’s third and longest chapter deals with hyperspace, that common avenue of escape. One example of a coracle is a passage from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the Mariner is taken through the netherworld. To Morton this netherworld reads a lot like hyperspace:

And soon I heard a roaring wind:

It did not come annear;

But with its sound it shook the sails,

That were so thin and sere.

The upper air burst into life!

And a hundred fire-flags sheen,

To and fro they were hurried about!

And to and fro, and in and out,

The wan stars danced between.

The opening credits of Vertigo (1958)

Modern film depictions of hyperspace turn “fire-flags sheen” into a familiar visual, argues Morton. The dominant method arose from the slit-scan technique of computer animation pioneer John Whitney for Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958, that impressed Douglas Trumbull who made similar visual effects for To the Moon and Beyond, which in turn brought Trumbull to Kubrick’s attention. Trumbull was thus engaged to create the stargate sequence for 2001. A similar slit-scan technique was developed by graphic designer Bernard Lodge for Doctor Who and was applied in Nolan’s Interstellar in the tesseract scene.

 In Morton’s view, hyperspace is a place of bliss and sensuality. Hyperspace is an expression of Gaussian geometry – the term Morton uses for not Euclidean (but euphoric) space-time. When the Falcon “makes” hyperspace, it is catapulted into a whirling, glittering realm of beauty. The visuals of hyperspace are a liquid tunnel that whisks spacecraft off. Morton invokes the feminist term circlusion, coined by Bini Adamczak to describe these visualisations in the media as circlusion of a spacecraft by hyperspace. The verb circlude was defined by Adamczak as describing any process of enveloping one thing with another: “Indeed circlusion is an extremely common experience of everyday life. Think of how a net catches a fish, how gums envelop their food, how a nutcracker crunches nuts, or how a hand encircles a joystick”.

This random, democratic and almost chaotic nature of hyperspace is contrasted in the conclusion with the precise orderliness of the Death Star or the Enterprise. These spacecraft resemble giant, open-plan offices in space. Such “middle class” workspaces seem so unlike the rogue-ish Falcon and its crew of misfits. 

Enterprise bridge

There are so many ideas in this small book that I have barely scratched the surface in this review, and I am sure that rereading it will uncover new ideas each time. 

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One thought on “Spacecraft by Timothy Morton

  1. I read this fascinated – thank you for the review.
    But…no category for the plucky little merchant vessels carrying their found and actual families across the galaxy? Examples are legion: Andre Norton, Postmarked the Stars. Robert Heinlein, The Space Family Stone and Citizen of the Galaxy. C.J. Cherryh, Merchanter’s Luck. Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

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