I am looking for the title a science fiction book that dealt with ships that were on auto pilot and went from planet to planet. The technology to make the ships was lost centuries ago, and the ships continue to follow their programmed route till they fall apart. People take a chance and get on them to go to other planets. I went through phase where I was reading all of the old award winning sci-fi novels, so I think that it was a mainstream, but older, book. Any help would be appreciated!

  • 5
    Were the ships made by aliens? Does the name Heechee ring a bell?
    – user14111
    Jun 22, 2018 at 21:05
  • 1
    I remember this book, or a very similar one. The cargo door opens after the automated ships land, and medieval-technology-level people walk in with all the things they'll need for the trip, including goats and chickens and potatoes, etc. And they light fires on the cargo bay deck to cook food. They can't access anywhere in the ship apart from the cargo bay. Sorry no idea of the name! Jun 22, 2018 at 21:42
  • @user14111 I just read a synopsis of Heechee. I don't think that's it. Any other ideas?
    – Michaele
    Jun 22, 2018 at 22:09
  • @James from NZ. That's the book! If you think of the title, please let me know!
    – Michaele
    Jun 22, 2018 at 22:10
  • Maybe something from the Rhada series?
    – user14111
    Jun 22, 2018 at 22:16

4 Answers 4


Gateway, by Frederik Pohl. It begins the Heechee saga about humans discovering abandoned, unrepairable ships with preprogrammed routes.

Gateway is a space station built into a hollow asteroid constructed by the Heechee, a long-vanished alien race. Humans have had limited success understanding Heechee technology found there and elsewhere in the solar system. The Gateway Corporation administers the asteroid on behalf of the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, New People's Asia, the Venusian Confederation, and the United States of Brazil.

There are nearly a thousand small, abandoned starships at Gateway. By extremely dangerous trial and error, humans learn how to operate the ships. The controls for selecting a destination have been identified, but nobody knows where a particular setting will take the ship or how long the trip will last; starvation is a danger. Attempts at reverse engineering to find out how they work have ended only in disaster, as has changing the settings in mid-flight. Most settings lead to useless or lethal places. A few, however, result in the discovery of Heechee artifacts and habitable planets, making the passengers (and the Gateway Corporation) wealthy. The vessels come in three standard sizes, which can hold a maximum of one, three, or five people, filled with equipment and hopefully enough food for the trip. Some "threes" and many "fives" are armored. Each ship includes a lander to visit a planet or other object if one is found.

  • That was my guess too, but the OP posted a comment saying it's not the Heechee.
    – user14111
    Jun 22, 2018 at 22:27
  • Commenting more as support for the Heechee Saga. Read it, if you haven't. Jun 25, 2018 at 12:59

Based on James from NZ's comment above, and Michaele saying it was a likely match, I'm going to suggest The High Crusade by Poul Anderson even though it doesn't really match the theme of ships in preprogrammed paths.

  • I remember this book, or a very similar one. The cargo door opens after the automated ships land, and medieval-technology-level people walk in with all the things they'll need for the trip, including goats and chickens and potatoes, etc. And they light fires on the cargo bay deck to cook food. They can't access anywhere in the ship apart from the cargo bay. Sorry no idea of the name! – James from NZ 51 mins ago
  • @James from NZ. That's the book! If you think of the title, please let me know! – Michaele 23 mins ago

Plot summary

It is 1345, and in the English town of Ansby (in northeastern Lincolnshire), Sir Roger, Baron de Tourneville, is recruiting a military force to assist king Edward III in the Hundred Years' War against France. Suddenly, an enormous silver spacecraft lands outside the town. It is a scouting craft for the Wersgorix Empire, a brutal dominion light years from our solar system. The Wersgorix attempt to take over Earth by testing the feasibility of its colonization. However, the aliens, having forgotten hand-to-hand combat since it was made obsolete by their advanced technology, are caught off-guard by the angered Englishmen, who mistake the craft for a French trick. The villagers and soldiers in Ansby storm the craft and kill all but one Wersgor, Branithar.

Sir Roger formulates a plan that with the captured ship, he can take the entire village to France to win the war, and then liberate the Holy Land. The townspeople, with all of their belongings, board the ship at the baron's instruction, and prepare to take off. The people of Ansby are mystified at the advanced technology aboard the ship, which they come to call the Crusader. Being unable to pilot the Crusader Sir Roger directs the surly Branithar to pilot them to France. Instead, the alien wrecks the baron's plan by throwing the Crusader into autopilot on course to Tharixan, another Wersgor colony.

For parading the livestock in:

And so we departed.

Stranger even than the ship and its advent was that embarkation. There the thing towered, like a steel cliff forged by a wizard for a hideous use. On the other side of the common huddled little Ansby, thatched cots and rutted streets, fields green beneath our wan English sky. The very castle, once so dominant in the scene, looked shrunken and gray.

But up the ramps we had let down from many levels, into the gleaming pillar, thronged our homely, red-faced, sweating, laughing people. Here John Hamewaid roared along with his bow across one shoulder and a tavern wench giggling on the other. There a yeoman armed with a rusty ax that might have been swung at Hastings, clad in patched wadmal, preceded a scolding wifeburdened with their bedding and cooking pot, and half a dozen children clinging to her skirts. Here a crossbowman tried to make a stubborn mule climb the gangway, his oaths laying many years in Purgatory to his account. There a lad chased a pig which had gotten loose. Here a richly clad knight jested with a fine lady who bore a hooded falcon on her wrist. There a priest told his beads as he went doubtfully into the iron maw. Here a cow lowed, there a sheep bleated, here a goat shook its horns, there a hen cackled. All told, some two thousand souls went aboard.

For fires built in the hold:

He found them in the afterhold, cooking their supper. The air remained sweet in spite of all the fires we lit; Branithar told me the ship embodied a system for renewing the vital spirits of the atmosphere. I found it somewhat unnerving always to have the walls luminous and not know day from night. But the common soldiers sat around, hoisting ale crocks, bragging, dicing, cracking fleas, a wild, godless crew who nonetheless cheered their lord with real affection.

The basic plotline doesn't match what you said in your original question, in that it's a single alien ship, conquered and commandeered by medievals, the fixed route being the result of treachery by their alien navigator. And honestly, the idea of a group of Medieval Englishman creating a universe-spanning Holy Galactic Empire seems like the part that would stick out more, but worse comes to worse, maybe it will help you eliminate details if that other bit was indeed from a completely different book.

  • The ships in the one I remember were definitely automated, unlike The High Crusade. They were on a set trade route from planet to planet. But there were similar scenes of medieval squalor in the cargo hold. There were stories told by the people in the hold about the air running out on other ships, and the hatch opening on the next planet to show all passengers suffocated. It was also a bit chaotic in the cargo bay, with people organising into gangs or groups for protection against the other people. Jun 22, 2018 at 22:52
  • @JamesfromNZ definitely is describing the same book as the one that I am hoping to find the title of. Unfortunately, I can't remember any more than what I have already written - which was why I had reached out to your group for help!
    – Michaele
    Jun 22, 2018 at 23:00

Especially after James' comment, I'm pretty sure you're after Logos Run by William C Dietz.

After interstellar courier Jak Rebo agrees to deliver a powerful artificial intelligence named Logos to a distant planet, he quickly comes to realize that it’s no ordinary assignment. Logos has the power to not only reactivate the ancient stargates, but to restore interstellar travel, and bring the far flung remnants of humanity back together again.

Some, like the members of the ruthless Techno Society, want to harness Logos and control it. Others, including those who fear technology, seek to destroy it.

Together with Lonni Norr, the beautiful clairvoyant who can channel spirits from the afterlife, and the bodyguard Hoggles, Rebo will have to outrun his many enemies, and prevent Logos from falling into the wrong hands if he is to prevent humanity from falling into oblivion.

With electrifying action, unstoppable heroes and gripping adventure, Logos Run is the thrilling conclusion to Runner by acclaimed military science fiction author William C. Dietz.

This features shuttles that come down from AI controlled ships, and planet dwellers need to pack all manner of supplies for their trip. They live in the cargo bay for the duration, lighting fires and such.


The plot of Andre Norton's Galactic Derelict involves characters who wind up on a ship which takes an automated route, set by its long-dead builders, and visits several planets. On one of them when the ship lands it's met by robots who refuel it and resupply it.

While seeking water for his cattle Travis Fox enters a little known canyon in the Arizona desert and gets captured by three men, one of whom he recognizes as Dr. Gordon Ashe, an archaeologist. After discovering that Fox studied archaeology and had done some digging in the very canyon they now occupy, the men have him cleared through security and offer to make him part of their team. Then Ashe tells him that he will be joining an expedition 10,000 years into the past to look for a spaceship.

Disguised as Folsom hunters, Fox, Ashe, and Ross Murdock travel into the past to scout out the area around the wreckage of an alien starship, a sphere perhaps 120 feet in diameter. They find the wreck near a lake and then, across a ridge, they find a smaller spaceship intact, its crew of Baldies dead. After receiving the scouts’ report via transtemporal telegraph, Major Kelgarries, the project’s director, and several technicians come into the past and examine the small ship, determining that they can shift it directly into the present.

Fox, Ashe, and Murdock serve as roving sentries in the area around the smaller globeship as technicians build a time transfer cage around it. The ash from a volcanic explosion and a stampede of mammoths drive the three men into the ship with Case Renfry, an electronics technician, on the day the transfer is to be made. An earthquake triggers the transfer, bringing the ship into the present, and then the ship’s preset autopilot, jolted into action, takes the ship into space.

After carrying the men through hyperspace, the ship lands on a planet where faltering robots refuel the ship. Another leap through hyperspace brings the ship to the second planet of an alien solar system. The ship lands in a desert, sits for a couple of days, and then blasts off on a course that takes it to the system’s Earth-like third planet. Upon landing the ship indicates that the voyage has ended by ejecting a small discus from its autopilot.

Renfry attempts to understand the autopilot and to rewind the course “tape” while the three time agents explore the jungle-draped ruins of a once-great city, in which they have landed. After several weeks Renfry believes that he has succeeded and he attempts to launch the ship. The ship runs its course in reverse, pausing on the desert planet and the refueling station, and brings the four men back to Earth, landing on the very spot from which they had blasted off.

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