Science fiction has spent decades exploring the far reaches of our universe and various fictional ones, but space itself never gets easier. In our fictional futures, humans might be fighting across the asteroid belt; wormholes may be spitting poor astronauts out like cherry pits; or the key to faster-than-light travel might be impermanent, stranding new civilizations out in the black. Everywhere you look, there’s a space crisis.
But where there’s crisis, there’s also those who rise to the occasion—the tight-knit, found-family spaceship crews who utilize their respective talents to keep their boat running; bands of pirates battling empresses, or emperoxes allying with scientists. These five ensembles don’t let black holes or petty squabbles get in the way of simply staying alive—and occasionally saving the universe.
The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey
In That Was Awesome!, Rob Ziegler sums up the complete competence of the Rocinante crew in his favorite scene from the space opera book series: When Holden and Naomi admit to their crewmates that they’re sleeping together, and Holden is about to launch into the typical spiel of “This isn’t going to change anything,” Amos immediately cuts him off with teasing: “Hey, Alex. XO boning the captain going to make you a really shitty pilot? […] And, oddly enough, I don’t feel the need to be a lousy mechanic.” The ribbing is good-natured, but also reveals how much the Roci is on top of their shit; they have survived far too much at this point to let two crew members’ relationship muck up their lives. It’s pragmatic, but also kinda sweet.
Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone
You know that saying, “if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”? Back on Earth, Vivian Liao spent her time in all manner of wrong rooms, as a brilliant innovator whose peerless status leads to more than one reckless decision. But when she gets dragged across space and time by the heart, to a space station under attack by monks and robots, Viv’s biggest adjustment is not that this is the future, nor that it’s beyond any bit of science fiction she could fathom. Her rudest awakening is that she, frailly human and very behind on pertinent intel, is no longer the most capable person in the room. Lucky for her, destiny conspires to unite her with Hong, crystal-weapon-wielding warrior monk from the Mirrorfaith—and then Viv makes one of her patented reckless decisions in freeing Zanj, a fearsome pirate of legend who runs on sense-enhancing batteries and a brutal smile. Add in a few more allies of the godlike variety, and suddenly this planet-destroying Empress that dragged Viv into her future will have a lot more to worry about.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
We do not blame Rosemary Harper, leaving her home planet of Mars behind, for being intimidated when she first sets foot on the Wayfarer. For one, she’s hidden more than a few details about her past during the hiring process, so she’s constantly on edge that she’ll be found out. For another, the crew is full of brilliant technicians, a pilot and a navigator whose respective talents are literally otherworldly, a doctor and a chef in one, an AI with the social intelligence to mediate disagreements, a sensitive captain who knows how to bring out the best in his crew—and they’re all a tight-knit family, to boot. But as Rosemary begins to regard the Wayfarer less as a workplace and more as a home, she finds that her work as the ship clerk, wrangling her crewmates with important forms, is just as integral to staying the course out in space.
The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
Not all ensemble casts need to share the same physical space in order to make for a compelling story. Emperox Cardenia, scientist Marce, and starship captain Kiva are linked by the Flow—an extradimensional field of space-time through which the Interdependency establishes and maintains its empire. When the Flow begins to change course, threatening to cut off entire planets from one another, these three citizens must draw from their drastically different upbringings to discover what links them (Cardenia’s father hired Marce’s father to study the Flow) and determine how to turn the rising tide of rebellion (Kiva’s guild is being sabotaged by a rival house) on the desirably remote planet of End. Despite devastating new information and potentially fatal setbacks, time and again these brilliant, regal, brave protagonists prove their capability both apart and together—proving the Interdependency’s main ethos, that no human outpost can survive on its own.
Is it fair to call the crew of Moya competent? They have a spectacular habit of frelling things up beyond repair and then adding in a few explosions on top, like an accidental cherry. But the fact that they have no business cohabitating is part of what makes their dynamic so impressive—being able to pull off any sort of plan when you never agreed to work together in the first place is, quite frankly, competence of the highest order. This ship full of escaped prisoners, malcontents, and one lost human somehow manage to knock over space banks and trick bounty hunters and outrun so-called-peacekeeping armadas despite the fact that everyone on the crew is typically in the middle of some form of personal crisis. They have a wide range of skills as well—nerds (Crichton, Jool, Sikozu), warriors and tacticians (Aeryn, D’Argo, Scorpius), political refugees (Rygel, Zhaan, Chiana) and empathetic gurus (Stark, Pilot, Noranti)—making them near-to unbeatable when the chips are down.
Who are your favorite hyper-competent ensembles?