Sunday, 19 July 2015

Myths of SF: Bioships & Organic Spacecraft

The Fallacy of Organic Technology

   It is integral to the nature of SF(defined in the strictest sense) that the technology it portrays is advanced, or in some way unusual.  It is, after all, the reason that many people read SF over other genres.  Partially because of this biotechnology has become rampant in SF, never achieving widespread attention in the way that hyperdrives or blasters have, but appearing in many and varied works throughout the history of the genre.  Biotechnology of the kind needed to produce a spacecraft, or even part of one, is so far beyond current human understanding that it sets the story firmly in the far future, or ensures that a alien race is seen as more advanced.  And therein lies the problem, although a problem that only hard SF fans such as myself may object to.

   In almost all works biotechnology - especially bioships, which will be my focus - are far more powerful/effective than any comparable tech.  The Yuuzhan Vong(Star Wars), Species 8472(Star Trek), Edenists(Night's Dawn Trilogy), Shadows(Babylon 5), Wraith(Stargate Atlantis), Tyranids(WarHammer 40K), to name a few, all had spacecraft superior or equivalent to those that they faced.  Even when their superiority is not demonstrated through combat the organic spacecraft are often seen as more advanced than their mechanical counterparts, like the TARDIS from Doctor Who, or Moya from Farscape.  And although we have very little knowledge of how a bishop might function it seems certain that it would not be faster, be more resilient, have better weapons, etc than a mechanical ship.

   When confronted with this unfortunate truth the reaction of a SF addict is often to state that "its the future, they know things we don't", or "they're aliens and more advanced", or "its a story".  Of these only the last is a real excuse, and even then is only valid when writing 'soft SF'.  Why is this the case?  Mostly it is due to the difference between the structure of biological and nonbiological materials at a molecular scale, along with several restrictions imposed by the growth of the ship.  Because the non-biological structure is constructed externally it does not have to have provision for growth or del repair - instead of single cells it can be homogenous or structured solely to maximise a particular trait.  The result of this is that any material assembled biologically will be inferior to a nonbiological material.  It is not that simple however, the biological materials will have different properties and so designs will be different to make use of them, somewhat negating the less optimal materials.  The small applies to larger structures or constructs.

   Take rocket engines, or example.  A nuclear thermal rocket, at the low end of practical space travel in term of materials science, uses refractory metals and active cooling to keep from melting, not to mention the effects of radiation.  Any comparable biological system will have to withstand temperatures ranging from the cryogenic to thousands of K, be highly conductive to heat, have good mechanical strength, etc.  It will also need pumps to cycle the cryogenic liquid gas used as reaction mass or suffer the performance penalty associated with water or similar.  For their first requirements they are all characteristics that are increased by the homogeneity of the material, making an organic 'grown' substance unlikely.  For the pump not only does it have to cope with massive torques and insanely high rotational speeds but with the cryogenic temperatures.  Any living tissue will freeze solid and die at those temperatures, and if it is a dead material you loose the biggest advantage of a biological system - self repair.  The same applies to weapons, sensors, etc.  So while it may no be impossible to build a bioship it is unlucky that either the components or the whole will have greater performance than a purely technological system.

   So why bother?  Are there any reasons a bioship could be used?  To answer this it is important to consider this: biological systems are not inferior or superior to technological ones, they are merely optimised for a different scenario.  And this is their advantage.  A standard metal-and-composite hull would take a far amount of technology, resources, and effort to construct, making it an expensive item.  Likewise repairs are probably difficult without the resources used in construction, and may never return full strength or performance.  A bioship side-steps these disadvantages.  For construction it might need only a vat of nutrients, and can self repair to a high standard.  More advanced types might literally grow from eggs or embryos placed in the correct environment, like the Voidhawks of the Night's Dawn Trilogy who grow to maturity in the rings of a gas giant.  If so a fleet could require only time to construct, vasty reducing the const and increasing the huber of vessels available.  In a realistic space war, where it is likely that most hits will disable or destroy a ship, quantity may well be more important than quality.  And of course the whole ship does not have to biological; the Brumallian bioships in Neal Asher's Hilldiggers had implanted fusion drives.  

The Bioship Moya from Farscape 
Biological, symbiote, biomechanoid, cyborg?

   Bioships do not come in a single flavour.  As posited above they will not have the performance of a tech ship they do have the potential advantage of being much cheaper.  The disadvantage can be combated by adding modules of technology - engines, weapons, sensors - but this decreases the advantage.  As it turns out there are four main approaches to this trade-off, each with advantages and disadvantages.  Note that in practice these categories overlaps, some components of a single spacecraft falling under different classifications.  

   In a fully biology-based bioship the spacecraft is one living organism.  It is still alive, perhaps even growing, and requires no external technology to function.  As such it is more an animal than a machine, and may even posses intelligence.  While this is one of the more common variations in SF it is the least likely.  Foremost is the lack of propulsion tech comparable with biological systems, often explained away by giving the bioship the ability to manipulate gravity(Voidhawks and the ships of the Yuuzhan Vong).  If these did occur in 'Real Life' they would likely live in the rings of a gas giant or in its moon system where energy and resources are potentially cheap while deltaV costs are low compared to interplanetary flight.  A fully biological organism could also be used as the basis of an artificial space-based ecosystem, harvested for their concentrated resources by humans or higher level animals.

   While they have the potential to require no human input in growth these bioships suffer from the most flaws.  Not only are they weak in terms of performance they need the most time to grow, need feeding, can get sick, be attacked with biological or chemical agents, and it intelligent suffer mental problems.


   A symbiotic spaceship is similar to a fully organic one except that it is composed of a colony of different organisms rather than single entity, similar to the Portuguese Man 'O War jellyfish.  It has the same disadvantages as the previous version of a bioship with only a few advantages.  The primary advantage is that by dividing the ship into separate 'subsystems' it is more robust against injury or attack, and it one segment fails - a drive unit, sensor cluster, etc. - there is the potential for it to be quickly replaced rather than regrown.  Although, of course, communication and commonality between the segments could be a problem.

   It is also important to realise that any of the other classifications can also be constructed of separately grown systems, although in that case it becomes a mere example of biotechnological engineering rather than a true bioship.


   Biomechanical is a term that is often used to describe the work of H. R. Giger, who designed the alien from the Alien franchise, along with the derelict spacecraft in the first movie.  According to wikipedia it is also a term meaning the same thing as a cyborg.  Its actual meaning - or the most rigorous definition - is a living organism that incorporates elements of mechanical systems, but not as implants in the way a cyborg does.  In other words it is a biological system that rather than finding its own solution to a problem, utilises one that is a at least visually similar to the more technological approach.

   They are the most effective kind of bioship, and probably the hardest to create.  Although grown they are not necessarily still alive, wither in part or whole.  Because of this they can have greater performance.  Structures can be 'layered' in a kind of biological 3D printing.  Coral-like material could be used in rockets, reinforced by fibres on the outside, and cooled by transpiration.  It also makes them more resistant to temperature, radiation, and damage.  They don't need feeding, medical care, or a controlled environment.  And I imagine it is far more comfortable for the crew than  the inside of a living organism.  Of course it loses the ability to heal, but as this is going to be slow in any case, the loss is probably worth the improvement in performance.  It might also be possible to 'reactivate' parts of the ship when they are damaged.  Of greater concern is the fact that many biological materials loose strength when dead.  Many devices such as rotary pumps can be used, which would be hard in a living system, and weapons in particular should be easier.  Sensors and drives should also benefit by the greater degree of optimisation offered by not having living material.


   Self explanatory for any fan of SF the cyborg bioship is probably the most likely ever to be developed or used as it combines the strong points of both biological and mechanical systems.  This approach is exemplified by the Edenist Voidhawks from The Night's Dawn Trilogy, which were sentient bioengineered creatures with the ability to manipulate gravity, and who carried a technological crew compartment, weapons, etc.  While the organism should be alive for it to be a cyborg in the strictest sense a combination of technology and biomechanical systems seems a good approach.  Structure, armour, remass systems, life support, these could all be biological while drives, sensors, communications, and weapons are technological.  The disadvantage is of course the added complexity of getting a biological and mechanical system to interface, and having components that must be manufactured rather than grown.

Aspects of Design

   For bioships in general there are several things to think about, points and suggestions for the way that they could be designed/grown.

Lifespan  Does the bioship age?  Does it have a childhood?  This probably applies only to sentient bioships, but raises interesting questions about how they are 'retired'.  Immaturity might also be a problem with young bioships.

Sickness   Can the bioship get sick?  Even if it cannot there is the possibility of biological attack.  The ship will probably have a immune system of some kind, although it may be closer to a diagnostic system than the immunological setup of a human.  Do they have allergies?  Can they get drunk?  These questions will add interest to any SF 'Verse, and have potential to push the plot in a particular direction without overt handwaving.

Crew   In SF it is common for bioships to 'bond' with a particular individual who then acts as their captain, even to the extent that Voidhawks gestate alongside their future partner.  More realistically the bioship's metabolism could provide life support for the crew or passengers, producing oxygen, food, and warmth, as well as processing waste.

Intelligence   Many bioships in SF are intelligent, making them a character in the story and allowing for many and varied plot twists.  This also brings up somewhat darker questions.  Can the ship feel pain?  Can it have emotions, does it choose its crew?  Do bioships have legal rights, or are they property/enslaved?  This is heavily dependant on the level of sentience - a dog-level ship can be euthanised if injured, but a sapient(human level) ship is another kettle of fish entirely.

   Another fact to consider is the bioship's piloting ability.  If it is sentient, and especially if part of a self-sustaining population, it is likely to be a far greater pilot than any human.  In the way that a bird can fly in winds no aircraft can face the bioship's mind and 'body' are perfectly suited to a 3D environment and the vagaries of orbital mechanics.  Even a AI might have trouble keeping up with them.

Sensorium   While there is no stealth in space a bioship's sensors are likely to be almost pathetically weak if organic in nature.  While 'giant eyeballs' could provide decent optical imaging other frequencies will be difficult to observe.  Communications will also be limited, especially since emitters of any kind of energy, even if possibly, are likely to be weak.  Biological systems do not like high power flows.  However, there is an advantage over tech systems in that sensors should be no more expensive to grow than other modules, allowing high redundancy.  Brightness filters could be in the form of translucent 'nictitating membranes'

Weapons   DEW are going to be impossible to grow, mostly due to the waste heat involved in lasers and the magnetic fields in particle beams.  For the same reason, along with power demand, electromotive weapons - railguns - are unlikely.  Missiles are presumably possible and the ability to grow them in large numbers makes one of their largest current problems, cost, invalid.  Distilling fuel might prove an issue, however.  Chemical guns might be possible, and of course any system can be added as a cybernetic implant.

Landing   While asteroids, low gravity moons, and comets will provide little difficulty to a bioship they are at a disadvantage in a gravity well or atmosphere.  This is to do with the greater performance required, specially in the acceleration area, and brings up another interesting problem.  While most spacecraft can be designed to hold up under far greater acceleration than the crew, a bioship might be limited to the ~5 g that living creatures can stand for short periods.  Reentry into an atmosphere could also pose a challenge.

Drives   Anything using magnetic fields, directed energy, or massive power requirements is a no go.  Thermal rockets will be the oder of the day, the most powerful being variations of a fission thermal rocket.  Being able to 'digest' a asteroid and extract fissionables could allow a ready supply of fuel and remass is only as far away as the next chunk of ice.  Chemical drives are much more likely, and provide adequate perforce for a bioship living in the ring system of a gas giant.  Solar sails are a possibility, although I see no way for the reflective surface to be formed.

Carboneering   Carboneering, the study and use of carbon allotropes and composites is at the forefront of modern material science, and unlike metallurgy and ceramics might be comparable with a biological system.  If carbon nanotubes and graphene sheets can be grown the strength and performance of a bioship will receive a massive boost.

   Doubtless there are many many more aspects to be considered, imagination is really the only limit.  For soft SF anything goes, and for reasonably hard SF all that needs be kept in mind is the poor performance Vs flexibility and cheap production of an organic system.


   Most of these have already been covered, things like the susceptibility to biological attack, possibility of sentience, etc.  Most of the ways they differ from a conventional spacecraft are immediately obvious, as are the consequences.  Also, most of these consequences do not extend beyond the environment in which the bioships are employed.  External effect will be mostly the same as those that a technological ship of similar performance, price, etc would have.  The implications of such advanced biotechnology are wider-reaching, and will be the focus of another post.


  1. One thing to keep in mind is that the Voidhawks/Blackhawk technology was fundamentally superior in many ways to the Adamist ships in Night's Dawn. However the Bitek technology was deliberately suppressed for political reasons which is why only the Edenists used it.

  2. True. I've only read the first book of the trilogy so far but most of the advantages seem to be based on their ability to distort space with patterning nodes, allowing FTL travel, high manoeuvrability, and gives them the ability to stop a Adamist starship from escaping. If they were forced to rely on the same FTL and sub-light propulsion as the Adamists then the advantage would be considerably less, or none existent.

  3. Loving this article! As someone who grew up with organic starships in D&D, B5, WH40K, and X-men, it was nice to see an article that takes the bio-tech to task. Soon, FWS will cover this..

  4. The article is interesting, but I think there is a small problem. Or can me your definition of life is too limited. If it grows, reproduces and reacts it is a form of life, your definition of life (and from it derived arguments) is focused only on life we know from our nature and that is not the only possibility. And do not forget we are talking constructed life... My two cents :)

    1. That is true. A ship that uses nanotechnology could 'grow' while ending up closer to a ship that was built in terms of capabilities. However, for this article I was focusing on the way that such spacecraft appear in SF, rather than the way they might actually occurs in the future.

  5. I have to admit, I have fallen into this trope with the early version of my setting before I went the idea of trying to justify their biological construct and that they are a mere medium to the factor that makes this particular faction's spacecraft a formidable opponent. Weak, I know, but it's better than the assumption that "biological > mechanical" ideology.

    Though biological ships would have limited applications other than as a harvested resource, Biomechanoid craft does have an attractive air to them. A hybrid of "wet" components mounted upon a hard, but living framework does give an air of the alien and unfamiliar, yet toeing the line of plausibility. As for the whole "self healing" and regeneration, I imagine that nano-machines would offer a good enough suppliment on areas that lack such an ability. Though on the subject of Symbiote spacecraft, the execution might be dubious but the theory is sound. Sound enough to suppliment the disadvantages of a biomechanoid in terms of replaceable "parts" and systems.

    Still, a cyborg spacecraft is just as attractive. Perhaps even give credence to pure bioligical spacecraft in that they are the "wetworks" that serve as the foundation of the cyborg spacecraft? It even adds an element of alien bodily horror to it too. Though to be honest, I have a slightly different version of this "cyborg" spacecraft in which the biological "wetworks" are grafted onto a support fuselage ala Terminator rather than the conventional cybernetic implants as many are more familiar when the word "cyborg" comes up.

    The points in the Aspect of Design does give a prospective sf worldbuilder kernels of ideas to work with and make their own contribution to the genere that more interesting, unique, potentially thought provoking.

    Though like Unknown has noted, biological ships do not have to be limited to our own carbon-based life. Still, it does help get the creative juices flowing.

  6. I image what alien race which produce bioships use bio-engeneering to make wheir ships resiliant to radiacy, vacuum, hight temperature or intense cold. IF i imagine bioship it whould be scientyficall or even magical(why not? i think aliens can have potence to magic too) way enchanted organism whit machanicall spacecraft capabilities like flt(faster then light travel),immunity to moust diseases and vitstanding vacuum enviroment.For vesel weaponry i think about chemical weapons like acip or tendrils. Bioship can use lazer weapons if ship is enchanted to vitstant hight temperature.

  7. After coming from time to time to this article in desperate searchs in google trying to find rocketpunk and biopunk, I feel like writing something about it even if its just to order my own thoughts.

    I have tried many times, thinking about how to design a bioship in the way a normal spaceship would be made; thinking about mass, structure, fuel, deltaV and the specific impulse... and then the "juicy" part of guns, telecomunications, atmospheric entry and I just come to the realization that when you think about biological systems you are probably thinking about them in the wrong way.

    A biological system, in the manner we understand, its the addition of naturally evolved mecahnisms that started from molecules in the primigenic soup to the entire biosphere that we have today. What you see when looking at any animal, is not a squshy, probably tasty moving thing, what you are seeing at that moment is a naturally formed construct of nanomachines interacting, coordinating and suporting each other in every level that also use their own tools to function pretty much like we do.

    Take the Piruvate deshidrogenase enzyme as an example, its in every single cell and what it does is making AcetilCoA from piruvate to balance energy within the cell. And the way it does it's through a mecahnism that its not so different from a flail. You have a handle, a chain and a ball, the piruvate sticks to the ball and then the enzyme swings the flail so the chain moves the ball into another position and the piruvate suffers a transformation, then it moves to another position and suffers another transformation and leaves becoming AcetilCoA, and in the last movement the ball moves into another position to, lets say "replenish glue" and goes back to where it started to do it again, and it does it with every single piruvate molecule in an industrial manner.

    Now think that there are thousands of thousands of copies of piruvate deshidrogenase in your cells and other thousands and thousands of similar molecules within it filling the cell with similar "machines" constantly interacting and moving but without crumbling under their own complexity, these aren't fragile systems since you can add more of a substance and automatically some little machine within the cell with compensate eliminating that substance or processing it to keep the balance.

    Now imagine that you can modify the screws and configurations of those little machines through genetics, for now we can only make some big changes, for example; make the gene of the citrate synthase overexpress itself so the cell produces more citrate into the medium and precipitates Aluminum in Aluminum poor soils making them fertile, see what you did? You told your cell to simply make more machines to produce more, now altering those machines or creating your own is really complicated.

    And through the interaction of those machines you define the cell, with the cell you define the tissues, then the organ, then the organism, then the population, comunity... you see where I'm going?

    A biological system doesn't have an advantage in regeneration, it has an advantage in the ability of everything to be made of the same stuff and yet be wathever you want it to be, it's versatility works on such a fundamental level(physics and chemistry and the complexity added through milenia) that it has developed systems for doing every physical and chemical thing you can imagine. Living systems became experts synthetic chemists, capable of creating any molecule you can imagine with any weight and atom, you "just" need to understand how they work to take advantage of that.

  8. cont

    For example: The nitrogenase enzyme, is capable of converting atmospheric nitrogen, where it normally would only associate with itself with a triple bond into a reduced nitrogen molecule accepting 3 hydrogens and forming ammonia, and it does so with only the energy of the sunlight a single bacteria can get(and no, sometimes it receives helps from the plant but not always, in fact, many bacteria fix nitrogen without association with a plant) at "room" temperature or lower and normal pressure. Compare that with the Haber process where you need a lot of heat and pressure to form industrial quantities of ammonia... and whats more amazing is that the nitrogenase is able 10 other very different reactions(in fact, in the lab to measure the ammount of nitrogenase you do not check for the ammount of ammonia fixed but the ammount of gas converted by another reaction) so its not even specialliced but rather dynamic and capable of doing many things throug design. Compare that with the Haber process in the industrial production of ammonia; you need a lot of heat, a lot of pressure to produce the same thing that enough nitrogenase can produce without so much effort(biologically its energy expensive but energetically is running in circles around the Haber process), and why haven't we made fields and fields of nitrogenase? Becuase the enzyme requires many interactions with other molecules to work properly and we don't even understand enough of how it forms in the first place(protein folding)

    More examples; let's say, a space ship, a spaceship might have a skeleton, but that its just a piece of metal, is not related in any way to the rest of the ship and you would consider it dead, it works fine within its function and its probably made of some alloy in a complicated process that I probably wouldn't know or have problems to really understand, That piece of metal is not connected to anything, its just there, desgined to stand and resist and nothing more, if you were to melt it unless you followed a strict process you wouldn't even recycle it. Compare it to your bones, your bones are not made of exotic elements, if anything nature hates exotic elements, and its produced constantly by osteocytes, which are fed through small blood vessels, the osteocytes die too, and leave the matrix of bone behind, but anytime you want you can grow more osteocites and let them generate another matrix, and the best part is that you can dynamically change the composition of the matrix by simply touching some genes here and there, afecting its flexibility and durability or even function.

  9. Thats why genetic modification and biochemical synthesis are so revolutionary, you get access to all of this and the ability to add your human touch into it making more efficient, since for now, you have to think that your body believes that you are in the savanah fighting elephants with sticks, it doesn't know that energy and matter are barely a problem now and that it could incorporate more of other elements that scarcity or inability to be a solvant in water made them unavaliable for nature to play around.

    And as such, you shouldn't think that nature finds that problematic to employ "dead" stuff too. When a mollusc grows, he produces 3 different layers of different organic and inorganic materials(except one, one is totally inorganic) for achieving maximum protection, but when it suffers damage he regenerates only two layers, the last cannot be regenerated later in life since its too "dead"

    So, the real problem that I end up finding when designing such a ship is creating the relationships based around science, not for a lack of knowledge about the subject(the really hard parts can be put under the "just works" for protein folding or advanced genetics) but an excess of knowledge of how many mechanisms are out there and the fact that with human manipulation we don't know the limit.

    Cells capable of secreting refined metals? Why not? Cells firing lasers? We can already! Cells... cells... cells...

    So, thats what I refer to when I said that we probably considered a biological system from the wrong perspective the first time we ever did; the answer is nanomachines son.