Anne McCaffrey’s 1969’s The Ship Who Sang is a fix-up of SF stories published 1961 – 1969.
Hideously disfigured Helva might have been humanely euthanized, as was routinely done to those outside the norm for her time and place. But she had a brain worth salvaging. Helva survived the conversion process and was reborn as … the brain of interstellar ship XH 834.
Ship’s brains are potentially immortal. Their pilots (know as Brawns) are definitely NOT. Brains know, theoretically, that their Brawns will die. But theory is not experience. Helva’s first, beloved Brawn dies and Helva is consumed with grief.
No one cares. She owes for her own conversion process. Her masters dispatch her on mission after mission. The plucky ship and her rotating roster of brawns struggle with many challenges: deranged cults, kidnappers, zwilnicks1, enigmatic aliens. Success is, of course, rewarded with more work.
Unlike many of her fellow Ships, Helva at last pays off her debts and becomes a free Ship. She now can make her own choices. The first choice with which she grapples: allow her former masters to refit her ship with a superlatively fast drive even though this would require her to accept another quarter century’s worth of debt?
McCaffrey acknowledges that fuzzy minded do-gooders might attempt to interfere with Central World’s efforts to convert otherwise useless children into valuable assets.
One such group, Society for the Preservation of the Rights of Intelligent Minorities, got all incensed over shelled ‘children’ when Helva was just turning 14. When they were forced to, Central Worlds shrugged its shoulders, arranged a tour of the Laboratory Schools and set the tour off to a big start by showing the members case histories, complete with photographs. Very few committees ever looked past the first few photos. Most of their original objections about ‘shells’ were over-ridden by the relief that these hideous (to them) bodies were mercifully concealed.
Well, that’s sorted!
Central is not a benevolent master. It oversees Ship contracts and enforces penalties for breach of contract, but it is stingy when it comes to paying for repairs.
Among his many grievances with the galaxy at large, the extortionate price of repairs and maintenance made by outworld stations ranked high. Amon had run afoul of a space-debris storm and the damage had required a re-plating of half his nose. Central Worlds had insisted that the cause was his negligence, so it was therefore not a service-incurred or compensable accident.
Billing Ships for their own surgical expenses is another way that Central controls the shelled brains. As long as the Ships are in debt, they are effectively enslaved. Note that as soon as Helva does manage to pay the debt, Central tries to convince her to go into debt again, for a ship upgrade. That’s debt bondage, which has a long, sad history.
Was it really only fifty years ago that euthanasia of the disabled (or surgical alteration and subsequent debt bondage) seemed acceptable? That McCaffrey could write such stories, that they could be published and collected, and that no one seems to have objected to the premises? Or at least, didn’t object in any of the columns I read obsessively. The book sold well and was followed by several sequels.
Mind you, according to TV Tropes, one of the 1990s sequels reportedly featured “literally savage black-skinned men coming to kill, loot, and rape any other humans they find” so perhaps the past is more recent than I realize.
While I read McCaffrey more because her books were available rather than because I particularly enjoyed them — see my usual comments about how little SF was available in the 1970s — I do not remember taking particular note of the ableism or the debt peonage. Which makes me wonder how many unconscionable practices I accept as normal NOW will be viewed as barbaric in later years. Ask me again in fifty years.
1: Zwilnick: a no-good dope-smuggling gangster. Term used in E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman novels.