Great examples of ship logs, logbooks, captain's logs
November 18, 2012 3:27 PM   Subscribe

I’m looking for examples from literature, film, or television that make heavy use of the ship’s log or captain’s log format as a key narrative device. And, actually, the ship need not be a ship and the captain need not be a captain – what I’m really looking for are official records of assignments or missions told methodically by someone in charge. Looking for fiction and non-fiction.

Examples: Star Trek’s captain’s log; key chapters in Dracula and Moby Dick; Twin Peaks (Agent Cooper’s dictaphone); the journals and log-books of Christopher Columbus, etc.

Examples that are historically important, highly entertaining, and/or or very well done especially welcome.
posted by beanie to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Partick O'Brian's Aubrey Maturin series makes some use of the ships logs.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 3:30 PM on November 18, 2012

Historical rather than fictional - Captain Robert Scott's diary of his failed attempt to be the first to the south pole.
posted by meronym at 3:42 PM on November 18, 2012

There's a TV Tropes page on "Captain's Log" that will have plenty of leads for you.
posted by bcwinters at 3:44 PM on November 18, 2012

Seconding TV Tropes, and try Apocalyptic Logs there too.
posted by Ms. Toad at 3:46 PM on November 18, 2012

not sure if it qualifies but Firefly's episode Out of Gas, told entirely from the captain's perspective and memories, was brilliant.
posted by jammy at 3:48 PM on November 18, 2012

During the race for the South Pole, both Scott and Amundsen kept diaries. Both men were leading groups trying to get there. Scott got to the pole only to find out that Amundsen beat him by just over a month. Scott and his party died on the way back - his last entry before dying was "Last entry. For God's sake look after our people."
posted by rmd1023 at 4:01 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

The ship rutters are an important part of the plot in the miniseries and novel "Shogun".
posted by Melismata at 4:03 PM on November 18, 2012

Howard Waldrop's short novel Them Bones, which tells at least part of its story through mission reports. The regular posting of casualties as the unit is slowly whittled away (mostly off-screen) is especially chilling, as I recall.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:10 PM on November 18, 2012

the novel 'The Egyptologist' was told entirely through letters, drawings and journal entries.
posted by mannequito at 4:16 PM on November 18, 2012

Frankenstein also tells a significant portion of the story through captain's logs. Darwin drew heavily from his journals at sea forVoyage of the Beagle.
You may also be interested in Field Notes on Science and Nature, which is a compilation of field notes from various scientists and adventurers. It's a super cool book.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:17 PM on November 18, 2012

It's a sideways glance at the form, but much of the plot of first-contact-with-aliens novel The Sparrow is told via the interrogation of the mission's sole survivor. Word War Z uses a similar convention, this time with interviews.
posted by gerryblog at 4:19 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Captain of the Pole Star" (albeit by the ship's doctor).

The nineteenth-century section of Cloud Atlas (although again, not by the captain).

I've only skimmed it briefly, but Stanley Crawford's Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine looks like a really, really weird twist on the trope.

A ship's log plays an important role in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage.

Shipboard diaries feature prominently in Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:20 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

PC game System Shock 2 does this very well.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 4:24 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Portions of Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book are the dictated log of a character on a time travel mission gone awry. (Not a person in charge, though.)
posted by stebulus at 4:34 PM on November 18, 2012

Another historical example: A Voyage to the South Seas by Captain Bligh about the mission aboard the Bounty. Taken directly from Bligh's own logs, it would be a great read even without the (spoiler alert!) mutiny that occurs without warning. Lots of eye-popping details told in a very matter-of-fact style, I highly recommend it.
posted by AndrewStephens at 4:46 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition is the story of the Endurance told more or less in ship's log format by a cat who sailed with Shackleton.
posted by coppermoss at 4:49 PM on November 18, 2012

The Journals of Lewis and Clark
posted by TDIpod at 4:50 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

George Saunders' brilliant (and awfully depressing) story "93990" is in the form of a lab report. (PDF here)
posted by neroli at 5:13 PM on November 18, 2012

"Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar" was a radio drama that used the narrative conceit of America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator tallying up his expense report.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:47 PM on November 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

This story from the New Yorker earlier this year seems to fit your description: Black Box. It was online in its entirety a few months ago, but now it's not. Maybe you have a subscription to the New Yorker?
posted by duvatney at 5:53 PM on November 18, 2012

Grant's Memoirs
official records of assignments or missions told methodically by someone in charge.
Not official, but reliable, and supported by official records. You'll marvel at Grant's precise summary of the situations he had recently faced, and the orders he had issued.
posted by LonnieK at 6:49 PM on November 18, 2012

Gary Kinder's Ship of Gold tells the story of the sinking of the SS Central America off the coast of the Carolinas in 1857. The story alternates between the actual sinking of the ship and the modern day attempts to raise it from deep water. Much of the the story of the sinking is told from the diary of a ship's captain who happened to be a passenger on board. Really fascinating.
posted by PaulBGoode at 7:19 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline, by Isaac Asimov (lab report)
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:41 PM on November 18, 2012

The BBC radio sci-fi serials by Charles Chilton use the format regularly. In Journey Into Space the doctor's logs are not only an occasional framing device but become a more vital plot point in an interesting twist. In the later Space Force the series is introduced from the point of view of Professor Magnus Carter, whose voice-over introduces the story ("Log entry 726 – this is the story of a journey among the stars!") and begins each episode with a quick summary of what's gone before.
posted by zadcat at 7:59 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

So many great suggestions. Just what I am looking for! Thank you!
posted by beanie at 9:24 PM on November 18, 2012

Christopher Columbus kept amazing logs. Shackleton, too.
posted by ourobouros at 9:33 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Marvel's Punisher comics often show his "War Journals".
posted by MinusCelsius at 9:45 PM on November 18, 2012

Wikihistory, by Desmond Warzel, is a short story in the form of wiki-style log edits about time travelers and the ubiquitous notion of killing Hitler.
posted by Errant at 4:24 AM on November 19, 2012

I dearly love Daniel Orozco's short story "Officers Weep," which is told in the format of a police blotter. (I tend to wonder if he was inspired by the ongoing police-blotter saga that is the Arcata Eye.)
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:35 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Island of the Day Before" ("Isola del Giorno Prima") by Umberto Eco is about a man who is marooned aboard an empty ship, and he records his tale in the ship's log, which is shared to the reader, selectively, by the primary narrator.

In addition to the logs by Shackleton, there are those of the Captain of the HMS Endurance, Frank Worsley. He also wrote the log on the Voyage of the James Caird, which traversed the 800nm from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island where there was a British whaling station, one of the more remarkable small-boat journeys in recorded history.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:41 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The X-Files episode "Dod Kalm" uses Scully's field notes (in this case, literally a ship's log, since they're stuck on a ship) not only as a narrative device, but as the saving grace in the end of the episode, as her descriptions of their ordeal help doctors choose a treatment to save Mulder's life.
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:49 AM on November 19, 2012

The SCP Foundation
posted by stebulus at 11:29 AM on November 19, 2012

Thanks again everyone, this is just terrific. So many good answers so I'm not marking any one answer as the best. Much obliged!
posted by beanie at 1:27 PM on November 19, 2012

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