When Ninefox Gambit came out, I remember the consternation of some readers that starships were called “moths,” and not just “moths” but different kinds of them, everything from the big cindermoths to the logistical support ships called boxmoths and later the stealthed needlemoths and shadowmoths. Why moths? Why not just call them ships like everyone else?
I had a couple reasons for this. The first was pure convenience on my part. I can barely tell left and right apart in English, let alone port and starboard. (This certainly made things interesting when I read Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander years ago, excellent book though it is.) The thought of having to spend an entire book figuring out nautical terminology filled me with horror. I wanted to refer to floors and walls, not decks and bulkheads. So I didn’t call my starships “ships.” Problem solved! I figured that given that the hexarchate’s denizens aren’t actually speaking English anyway, I could justify this as a reflection of their own terminology.
Why “moths” instead of some other creature? I wanted something that flew, that had a name that was one syllable long in English, and that had a group name (e.g. herd of cows, pack of elephants) that sounded sufficiently warlike. I made the mistake of relying on a glorious Tumblr picspam for my information (protip: don’t do this!) and thought that moths came in “swarms,” which sounded perfect for an analogue to “fleets.” This is probably incorrect, though, sorry! I can’t seem to find a definitive answer to this on Google (one site suggests a group of just moths is a “wainscot”); anyone?
The other big reason was that my ships were living ships. Specifically, as if the hexarchate weren’t awful enough as it stands, they’re enslaved cyborged aliens from a shadow dimension. This isn’t really brought up in the first book because none of the viewpoint characters really know or care about it. In hexarchate culture, they would no more think about moths as potentially having autonomy than I would think about whether my socks have opinions. They’re just tools for the humans’ convenience.
But the moths aren’t just enslaved aliens, they’re enslaved sentient aliens. This fact comes into play at last in Revenant Gun, when the titular ship, the Revenant, begins talking to Jedao. The Revenant has definite opinions about what it wants to be doing with its life, which do not include being a slave for the rest of its life. And it’s not incapable of making plans or gathering allies in support of those plans. To find out how those plans go, you’ll have to read the book!