The Ship That Found Herself
by Rudyard Kipling

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

The Idler, December 1895

The Day's Work
Kipling's Science Fiction

August 2010


Even in 1895 near the end of the Nineteenth Century, when "The Ship That Found Herself" first appeared, machinery seemed to be everywhere — but it was not nearly so ubiquitous in peoples' lives as it was to become. For instance, the builders of railroad equipment or of a steamship would be immersed in industrial machines during the day, and might take a streetcar home after work. But once at home, as John Brunner points out in a 1992 introduction to the story, a bicycle or treadle-operated sewing-machine might be the most complex machines at hand.

Among Rudyard Kipling's several geniuses, or range of sensitivities, is a feeling for the character of machines, of things built by men that do work in aid of mankind. Kipling saw into the nature of such workaday wonders as steamships, saw their inwardness that gave them character — and even, as in the case of "The Ship That Found Herself", the characters or personalities of the structural parts of a steamship. Now, I wouldn't call this a pantheism; but there is something in Kipling akin to the archaic Greeks who peopled their woods and meadow-banks with exotic spirits, not so much deities as embodying or signifying some distinctive quality of material objects in their settings.

It's a truism that poets describe flowers in more sensuous detail than we normally notice. Kipling's prose can make the man-wrought metal and wood speak to us:

Wooden ships shriek and growl and grunt, but iron vessels throb and quiver through all their hundreds of ribs and thousands of rivets. The Dimbula was very strongly built, and every piece of her had a letter or number, or both, to describe it; and every piece had been hammered, or forged, or rolled, or punched by man, and had lived in the roar and rattle of the ship-yard for months. Therefore, every piece had its own separate voice in exact proportion to the amount of trouble spent upon it.

Cast-iron, as a rule, says very little; but mild steel plates and wrought-iron, and ribs and beams that have been much bent and welded and riveted, talk continuously. ...

At sea crossing the North Atlantic, both the elements of the sea and the new steamship's components are quite vocal, each according to its nature:

As soon as she had cleared the Irish coast a sullen, gray-headed old wave of the Atlantic climbed leisurely over her straight bows, and sat down on her steam-capstan used for hauling up the anchor. Now the capstan and the engine that drove it had been newly painted red and green; besides which, nobody likes being ducked.

"Don't you do that again," the capstan sputtered through the teeth of his cogs. "Hi! Where's the fellow gone?"

The wave had slouched overside with a plop and a chuckle; but "Plenty more where he came from," said a brother-wave, and went through and over the capstan, who was bolted firmly to an iron plate on the iron deck-beams below.

"Can't you keep still up there?" said the deck-beams. "What's the matter with you? One minute you weigh twice as much as you ought to, and the next you don't!"

A simple conceit, but a thoughtful and affecting story.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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