Monday, December 17, 2007

Up Up and Away

Once upon a time, giants roamed the sky. They did so not in the misty past but for several decades of the twentieth century, starting just about at the turn of the century, and ending with the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937.

Even the Goodyear Blimp has a majestic stateliness to it, sheer bigness that distinguishes it from all heavier-than-air craft. Yet it was dwarfed by the great zeppelins. The Hindenburg over four times as long and twice the diameter - giving it just about 20 times the volume of a Goodyear Blimp - 20 times the bigness. Sometimes size really does matter, and it matters for airships. I am sorry I never got to see a vehicle 800 feet long gliding across the sky, its shadow wrapping the hillsides below.

Dirigibles (technically rigid dirigibles) have a mystique of their own, having simultaneously the worst of reputation and the greatest of fascination. The Hindenburg not only has been remembered as a flying Titanic, it has made all airships Titanics - gigantic gas bags waiting for a lightning bolt. At the same time, dirigibles or zeppelins are endlessly popular in alternate history and kindred branches of Romance - so much so as to be something of a cliché at places like

The airship is the genteel cousin of the aether ship. Unlike the aether ship it uses a real technology - always an advantage in science fiction, though SF airships may bend the physics a bit, and the engineering quite a bit, to have airships carrying massive payloads or heavy armament. (Lighter than air means just that - for all its immense size, the Hindenburg only weighed about as much as a medium jetliner.)

Airships are genteel in other ways as well. Airship travel must have come as close to the pace and grace of train travel as air travel can get. Who would not want to escape from our world, with its technological marvels such as a Greyhound bus with wings, to a world where you relax in the gondola lounge, an inverted Domeliner, as the landscape glides past below, close enough to see the cows on the hillsides.

Even battles between airships are imagined as having something of the pace and flavor of battles between sailing frigates. In fact, airships evoke a more genteel world altogether. On a darker note, not infrequently the airship world is conservative and technologically sluggish, as in Kingsley Amis' The Alteration.

I want to focus not on the gentility of airships, however, but their place on a continuum with aether ships. So maybe I should first do something I failed to do last post: define an aether ship. They are, as I understand them, largely a retro-SF invention, with antecedents in the "scientific romances" of a hundred years ago, but no defined canonical form until I write the next paragraph.

An aether ship is a Victorian or Edwardian spaceship, propelled by a drive that probably though not necessarily interacts with a pervasive cosmic aether. Unlike most later starships, aether ships in general can also travel in an atmosphere and land on a planet (possibly on water) in spite of its great size.

An aether ship in fact is probably about the size and shape of a dirigible, and its behavior in atmospheric flight would be rather similar. It might differ in being roughly a thousand times heavier - the mass of a seagoing ship - but these are technical details that have little to do with the image or magic that airships and aether ships share.

Extented into the past, aether ships become more fantastic, ultimately the airborne galleons of graphic fiction, though even these may have a whiff of proto-science science to them. (Is astrology a fantasy element, or a retro-SF element?) Going in the other direction? One reason that no aether ships are dreadnoughts is that they all become obsolete the year before HMS Dreadnought was launched - in 1905, when a postal clerk in Switzerland demonstrated that the cosmic aether they were supposed to impel themselves through did not exist. After that, aether ships became by degrees ordinary spaceships - a Russian schoolteacher having figured out the basic features of all present day spacecraft and then a bit.

In fact, an aether ship is pretty much how most people still imagine spaceships, and certainly the way Hollywood does, minus the Belle Epoque stylistic elements. Even we hard SF geeks must make a conscious effort not to see our ships as flying on one side like sea craft or aircraft.

Part of the charm of airships is that you can very nearly heave your cake and eat it too - fill the sky with thousand-foot ships, without requiring any fanciful physics, at most a bit of semi-fanciful engineering. After all, if no thousand-foot zeppelins ever flew, the 804-foot Hindenburg did, even if its voyage ended like the Titanic's.

In real history, the airship was not so much killed as it never quite gained enough lift. The future of airships looked pretty bright after the First World War. German zeppelins had bombed London, only a nuisance value at the time though a grim foretaste of total war. More substantively they were the eyes of the High Seas Fleet. Britain and the US were both interested in naval airships for long range reconnaissance - an application that, if pursued, would find solutions for most of the technical requirements of transatlantic commercial airship service. In Britain the program fell victim to interservice rivalry (the Royal Navy was interested in airships, but the RAF was not) and postwar retrenchment.

In the US the program muddled along for some years, and the US Navy built a few big airships, but the first - USS Shenandoah, 680 feet long and only 35 tons - was lost to a needless breakup in a storm in 1925, and the even larger USS Akron, 785 feet long and 100 tons, was lost at sea with almost her entire crew. The crash was survivable, as crashes of helium airships frequently were, since even if they break up the gasbag sections tend to drift rather than plummet to earth - but the crew had not been issued life jackets. Lost with her was Real Admiral Moffett, the Navy's leading champion of airships, a further blow to the program. When her sister ship USS Macon also crashed at sea in 1935, all but two of the crew survived. Of the big US airships, only the ex-German zeppelin USS Los Angeles ended its career in one piece.

Loss of four out of its five airships in peacetime operation is enough to explain why the US gave up on dirigibles. All of the losses seem to have been avoidable. Taken together they raise the question of whether any structure as large and lightweight as a dirigible could be built strong enough, with 1920s and 1930s technology, to stand up to violent weather. On the other side, the Zeppelin company operated commercial service safely for years, suggesting that airships could be safe in the hands of those who respected their limits.

So let us suppose that airship development in the 1920s had seen better luck, institutional and operational. By the 1930s major navies all have a squadron or two of airships, and commercial airships are entering transatlantic service. (As as a new generation of great ocean liners did, and on land the streamliners, in spite of the Depression.)

The skies will not be filled with airships, any more than the seas are filled with battlecruisers or ocean liners. Even at their height, only a couple of dozen might be in service worldwide, but they would make their mark as the embodiment of luxury travel. A fair comparison to the role of more successful airships might be flying boats, another technology that flowered in this era. Only a handful of Pan Am's China Clippers were built, and they only flew in commercial service for short time, but they were and are an air travel legend.

In World War II they would serve for the most in unsung but critical roles, as Atlantic convoy escorts and Pacific long range patrol craft. Is there any justification for an early radar apparatus that is too large for a plane, but not too heavy for a zeppelin? If so, airships in the Pacific might have served in an AWACS-like role.

Like giant flying boats, the great airships would not long outlast the war. The transatlantic airliner would muscle them aside, and the postwar generation - technical marvels utilizing wartime progress in airframe structures and materials - would end up in a few years as specialized cargo carriers, or as scrap, though smaller blimp types might remain in more widespread use than in our world.

The abiding temptation of airship fantasies, in my modest opinion, is asking too much of them - filling the sky with zeppelins doing the impossible, instead of accepting them as rare giants of the sky, purple argosies dropping down with costly bales.

Their time would still have come and gone, but what a wonderful way to fly.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Are Aether Ships Ever Dreadnoughts?

A peculiar thing happened to keep me from updating this blog over the past few weeks. I created a universe. I claim no special achievement in having done so; for fiction writers - especially in most branches of the great super-genre of Romance - creating universes is both part of the job and a seductive occupational hazard.

This is not limited to people who write fiction, whether or not intended for publication. A universe is created every time a middle-school girl draws a superheroine catgirl and gives her a name and origin story; every time a bored graduate student uses SpringStyle to sim a predreadnought battleship, then gives her a name, country, and service history.

Universes can be made to order - no particular inspiration from the Muse is required - but they can also just happen one day. Is this a problem for God? Has any theology ever proposed that He created this Universe inadvertently, perhaps while he was stuck on where to go next with his high-fantasy trilogy?

If you are a writer, don't tell me that you haven't thought about the God analogy. How often do you kill off an appealing character, not because they deserve it, but because by jabbing the reader it helps to move the plot along? As seen from within the created world, this must fall somewhat short of moral justice. Our characters have absolutely no reason to like us, and less to trust us.

By and large I suspect we treat our universes better than our characters - we may smash a bit of the scenary now and then, but the sets are big and expensive, and we usually have a notion to use it for more than one production. A universe may not even have a production scheduled, but function more like a mental theme park, a place to wonder around and see the sights. Add dice and you have an RPG.

The particular universe I created, like Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom, began with trains: more specifically trolley cars, trams to non-North Americans. Among my other geekitudes I am a rail transit buff, and since I had little success in high school shop class, building a layout, with HO interurbans zinging along past along six-inch storefronts, is out of the question. Train sets of the imagination require no talent with soldering guns and plaster of Paris, and can run for HO scale miles. (The famed, vanished Pacific Electric in Los Angeles, fully replicated in HO scale, would sprawl across an actual mile, give or take.)

Still, as universes go a trolley universe can be fairly small; mine was originally tucked along the California coast as the mid-sized city of Santa Teresa. Mystery fans will know this burg as a doppelganger of Santa Barbara in Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton novels. Mine is farther north and larger - large enough for a rail transit line to survive the decimation of the 1940s and 1950s.

Railroad empires, however, tend to be imperial, especially when you don't actually need to build them. I started wondering about a mainline railroad at the turn of the last century. How many locomotives and cars does it need? How much freight do those freight trains haul, and how many people are needed along the line to produce and consume that much freight? Statistics have their place in Romance, or at any rate in world-building.

But it cannot all be statistics, or even way freights chuffing along the line. To be Really Cool our railroad must have an express that takes a day and a night, or close to, to run its schedule - long enough for dinner in the diner, an evening flirting in the parlor car, and of course the pleasures of a sleeping car. Bending history a bit, we give our turn-of-the-century express train some streamliner-era amenities like roomettes instead of open Pullman compartments. But we must have 700 miles of line, give or take, for the Hidalgo to run along.

British readers will say that many a memorable train ride has been had in half that distance, but I grew up in the American West, and we need big planets to colonize.

Thus our rail empire must serve a region at least the size of California - not just one city and its surrounds. So let's make California an island, as it was once imagined to be.* The geography won't be the same, but similar, and we'll put it off the coast of a truncated North America, doing the Atlantis thing with much of Nevada and southern Oregon. No one will really miss them.

Anticipating future posts, some of you will note that the issues of statistics and scale that apply to our railroad world are very closely akin to those of planetary colonization - how many people in our colony, how much do they need as imports, and how much do they produce for export? Too much SF has gigantic star-freighters serving outpost worlds whose demand can't fill a 20-meter cargo pod.

Here is the inevitable, necessary link to Atomic Rockets.

Ahem, back to boxcars. Since we've made our railroad empire an island, why not an independent country? Now we're moving past railroads, into a larger world. Still a pretty geeky one, because the next thing to do is give our country a few battleships. It's the early 20th century, and battleships are in. Everyone wants to be the first in their bloc to have one.

Here is where all too many imaginary countries go awry, because the temptation is always to give your country the most humongous battleships ever, battleships that make the Yamato look like a pokey gunboat. But our railroad empire has about the population of California in 1900 - a million and a half people, 2 percent of the real world US population at that time. If Teddy Roosevelt couldn't build the world's biggest battleship, our country certainly won't.

Maybe they can build a few miniature battleships, like the Scandinavians and Dutch did. Those countries were surrounded by bad tempered Great Powers, but in the Pacific, in 1900, a couple of 4000-ton ships with a pair of 8-inch guns each are something to reckon with. Admiral Dewey got American imperialism off to a rollicking start in the Philippines in 1898 with not much more than that.

Now our railroad empire is turning into a real country, and it's time to give it a name: the Republic of Santa Catalina. It thus neatly gives a nod to the protagonist of my long-suffering novel, evokes real Catalina Island, "26 miles across the sea," and has the right rhythm - don't you wish they all could be Catalina girls?

We'll need to jigger some history to cover our aspect. If the US stretches from sea to shining sea, an island off the Utah coast will be hard put to stay independent. So we need to change some history as well as geography. The usual way to slow down US expansion, or at any rate overturn the chessboard, is for the South to win the Civil War. But that has been done to death, and too many ghosts walk unburied. What does that St. Andrew's Cross mean - Stonewall and Lee; bullwhips and white hoods; both?

Happily a name drifts into mind: l'Empire de la Louisiane. It's only a name, but it evokes a slightly dark magic, warm evenings and demoiselles with flashing eyes. That's something to work with! Details to be filled in, but somehow the Louisiana Purchase never happens, and Louisiana is an independent, francophone country. It has charm, and poor heartbroken New Orleans deserves a break if only in fantasy.

Santa Catalina and its world may not exist, but we can see it: The Gilded Age mansions and swanky hotels in the capital, El Dorado, due for a shaking up one of these years. The ladies with their parasols, the workmen with their caps and radical pamphlets stuck in their pockets. The painted ladies - El Dorado, like its doppelganger, is a wide open town, a sailors' town, because the world's world's shipping is in the port along with those mini-battleships.

Around 1905 or so the battleships are transformed in a profound, subtle, and sinister way. They had been painted in handsome white, buff, and black, like Queen Victoria's ships, or old Currier & Ives prints of the Great White Fleet. Then, overnight, they turn gray - goodbye Currier & Ives, hello to warships as we know them, gray shadows racing through the mist and fog - or turning turtle like dying sea monsters as desperate men scramble across their hulls. At about the same time, the world's soldiers turn in their marching-band uniforms for businesslike khaki.

Even in the worlds of fantasy, grim realities intrude. The ladies with their parasols, strolling with their beaux along the Embarcadero, scarcely notice that the battleships have turned gray. Even less do they notice an experimental submarine slipping beneath the waves. Yet somewhere, in a few years, an archduke will be shot, or maybe this time a crown prince, and all hell will break loose.

External realities also intrude. Now that I have a world, what exactly do I do with it? Alternate history is big just now, but the thud and blunder variety, at least, leans very heavily on Top 40 history, such as the US Civil War and World War II. Little place there for an oddball pseudo-California in the Electric Age. In any case, my world is not strict Alternate History in the sense of deviating from real history at some given event - the thinking geek's version of "What if Napoleon had a B-52 at the Battle of Waterloo." Only in the meta-realm of all possible worlds can an Earth with a different geological history going back millions of years bring forth human, let alone a recognizable history. Too many butterflies will have fluttered their wings.

Social alternate history - if there is such a subgenre - would probably be more fluid. There's a large readership out there, I suspect, that can't get enough of the social world of the Belle Epoque, people on the edge of modernity. The hitch is that you have to know your stuff, and not just the difference between pre-dreadnoughts and dreadnoughts. The potential readership, probably mostly female, does know their stuff (including dreadnoughts), and they will send the book flying at the first false note. All I know about the era, except for its cool gismos, is Thorstein Veblen, My Fair Lady, and Gigi.

If I made the gizmos even cooler, I could maybe peddle it as steampunk. Steampunk, which inspired the name of this blog, is the ultimate retro SF: people in 2007 re-imagining science fiction - or Scientific Romance, as it then was called - as people around 1880-1900 might have written it, if they had written more of it, and knew what Scientific Romance would become.

The era around 1900 was the real Singularity, when everything changed. And a world that till around 1870 was not essentially different from the Middle Ages became, by 1929, essentially the world we know. As home entertainment goes, the difference between harmonica and scratchy phonograph is vastly greater than the difference between phonograph and DVD playing on an 80 inch flat screen. For my grandmother, growing up in Mississippi early last century, the idea of travel to the Moon must have been more astonishing by far than interstellar travel is now, but she sat on the couch beside me when Armstrong climbed down the ladder onto a different world.

By and large it's been good. 90 percent of the world's people are no longer peasants, and famine strikes at the world's margins, not at the heart of China and India. The war part hasn't been so great.

People knew before Homer that war was a senseless tragedy, and before the Old Testament that it was evil, but until the Singularity it really was the straggler of the Horsemen, not mowing down a tithe of what the others carried off. With the Singularity we have gotten a hand on the others, for now - the stability of the Earth's ocean-atmosphere system permitting - but the fourth horseman got wings, then superchargers, then bombs containing physics packages, and we pretty narrowly dodged a bullet.

Part of the charm of steampunk, I believe, is that the aether ships are all pre-dreadnoughts, and they are not yet painted gray.

* A charming insular alt-California can be found here - and with a trolley theme, no less.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Density of Power

'Tis the (endless) US presidential primary season, which accounts for my not keeping up with my own blog. So let's talk politics. Not, you may be relieved to know, the Iowa caucuses, though - shameless plug time again - you can read my piece here explaining this mystery of American politics to the European Courier's readers. If you have an urgent need to know my own biases this election season, here you can read my comments at Daily Kos.

Politics is about power, and political power, like power in physics and engineering, can be characterized in part by its density - how much of it is available in a given volume of space. Consider two related terms that came into popular use roughly a century ago: gunboat diplomacy and battleship diplomacy. Both mean much the same thing: If mutual understanding through dialogue is not achieving the desired results, perhaps mutual understanding through dialogue plus a handy warship or two will produce a diplomatic breakthrough.

Gunboat diplomacy and battleship diplomacy differ only in the number and caliber of guns carried by the warship (and resulting incidentals such as size and cost). A battleship is a much greater concentration of power, but paradoxically it is the gunboat that conveys more power, because behind the gunboat, implicitly, is not one battleship but an entire fleet of them. Where Teddy Roosevelt would have had to send a battleship to encourage deference to the United Fruit Company respect for the flag, Edwardian Britain needed only a gunboat flying the White Ensign to remind everyone exactly who ruled the waves.

It was Britain's enormous maritime power density - embodied, in the early 20th century, by some 50 battleships and 120 cruisers, with scores of bases to support them - that allowed it to exercise sea power symbolically, with gunboats rather than battleships. Nearly a century later a relatively weaker Britain needed a task force to emphasize to Argentina that the Malvinas were still the Falklands after all.

At still lower power densities, even the prospect of sending a task force becomes uncertain; the only persuasive arguments are those you have at hand. Thus from the 16th through the 18th centuries European countries built Indiamen - large merchantmen, armed and equipped nearly as men-of-war - for oceanic trade: ships able to carry their own insurance, as it were. At the other extreme, the potential power density is so high that no battleships actually need to be built; nothing but gunboats (call the coast guard cutters) may be required.

It is not rocket science to see that power density would have its role in space as well. The Galactic Empire in Star Wars evidently does not have the power density it would like to have; otherwise a few star destroyers would be enough to keep those local systems in line, and the Death Stars could all stay in port. The Trek Federation, by contrast, seems in pretty good shape. In spite of great-power rivals like the Klingons, it is able to keep order using quasi-warships like the Enterprise - quite a bit more than a gunboat, but scarcely a full-fledged battleship.

The Firefly / Serenity 'Verse occupies a more ambiguous portion of the power-political spectrum. Serenity is no armed merchantman (impressive restraint for Hollywood SF), let alone an Indiaman, but there does not seem to be much law and order at her ports of call. Some armament might not be such a bad idea, if only Mal could afford it. The Alliance certainly has cruisers and presumably a battle fleet, but even after winning the War Between the Worlds, its power density out toward the rim seems fairly tenuous.

Power density thus determines the flavor of the setting. Where power density is very high, action is more or less limited to barroom brawls or stealthy capers - anything more and the place will be crawling with cops. The Patrol in Space Cadet and other Heinlein juveniles is at or near this level of power density. At a somewhat lower power density you get Honor Harrington, or any of the endless variations of space fleets. At lower power densities still you get RPG style scenarios - armed tramp freighters, space pirates, quasi-independent space stations, all jostling one another, but none able to impose its will with much consistancy.

The rocket science comes in making the physics assumptions fit the setting, and making the setting consistant with itself. If stellar empires are a travel year apart, they are probably not at each other's throats, because they are not in each other's face. Given such vast space, even formidable star empires face a low power density. A task force will take two years simply to reach enemy territory and return, not counting whatever time it spends doing whatever you sent it to do. Armed trading fleets - a return to something like Indiamen - might be plausible over such long distances. On the other hand, if rival battle fleets stand guard a couple of weeks' travel apart, the effective density of power is much higher, and armed merchant ships are far less likely. Determine the overall power density of a setting, and you will know what sorts of conflicts to expect there.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Spaceship and Sword

These two tropes combine, above all others, to signify space opera - the real thing; statuesque, full throated, with a bronze bra and a spear. At SFConsim-l we may look down Sir Isaac Newton's nose at "operatic drives" that don't require a ship to fly backwards in order to slow down, but plenty of SF implies such drives without being truly operatic. Once we see the flash of blades drawn, however (and they are too long to be "knives") we know we are in the operaverse.

As with space fighters, Star Wars greatly boosted the popularity of combining spaceships and swords. The theme is so much older, however, that Clarke had some fun with it back in the rocketpunk era, in Tales from the White Hart. (The story, as I recall, is "Arms Race," and specifically involves Hollywood.)

Ultimately the combination says everything about why SF and fantasy are in the same part of the bookstore. It isn't just that both are subgenres of Romance - so are mysteries, historical fiction, and romance in the usual sense, none of which are grouped either with SF/F or each other. Science fiction and fantasy are more nearly two facets of the same subgenre: tales of evening isles fantastical.

Yet close kindred though they are, spaceships and swords seem to belong to evening isles so far removed from one another that the very keel of the universe, the willing suspension of disbelief, is strained to its limits by trying to combine them. Is it possible to do it at all, now, without doing it tongue in cheek? (Comments to this blog touched on the subject here.)

Many years ago, Poul Anderson found one solution in The High Crusade - he thrust a group of medieval knights aboard an alien spaceship, more or less, and left them to cope as best they could - rather like SCA members stumbling into a Trek convention when they had no idea that Trek existed. Since these particular medieval people were nothing stupid, with a lucky break or two they coped pretty well. This is a valid solution but a pretty specialized one, and I'm not sure but that Anderson hasn't already covered the waterfront here.

I hint at an almost-solution above, in my mention of blade length. Knives are multi-purpose tools, and one of those purposes is close-quarters fighting. (A related one is shanking someone without warning.) It seems to me that spacehands might frequently or even routinely have utility knives on hand. To these we can add fire axes, and other such working tools as cargo nets, that could come in handy for other than their designed purpose.

I'm not quite sure quite how plausible space station barroom brawls are, or the ever-popular waylaying down in the service corridors, but I'm not quite ready to say that these things aren't plausible. People have a fairly impressive capacity for getting in trouble.

A sword, however, is not just an extra-long knife: Worlds of connotation separate swordfights from knife fights. Are there plausible circumstances, other than a High Crusade variation, that can justify swords aboard spaceships?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Shameless Little Plug

Some of you - those still bothering to visit here at all - have probably noticed that I haven't exactly been keeping up this last few weeks. The reason is that the US presidential campaign season is now well under way, a mere 14 months before the election. Those of you who have visited my old static site spent much time around here know that I am quite political. [On update: in moving my old website I deep sixed the outdated political pieces.]

I intend to keep politics out of this blog, but self-restraint is no excuse not to toot my own horn, and a few days ago I sold a short political analysis piece to the European Courier. They're a young analytical ezine aimed at an internationalist, mainly European audience. The money won't have us vacationing on the French Riviera, or even the Redneck Riviera, but actually getting paid to write about politics is - what can I say? - really, really cool.

And no, I don't intend to abandon this blog for the duration. (You could get to Mars faster than that, even on a Hohmann orbit, if you had a ship.) God willing and the river don't rise, I'll have a real post up here tomorrow. Meanwhile I'll bask in being a "journalist and political commentator."

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Space Fighters, Not

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas added Space Fighters to the standard arsenal of SF warfare tropes. For Hollywood it was love at first flight, partly for the cool special effects, partly for the reason I gave here. At SFConsim-l the consensus has been trying to stuff the things back in the toy box for the last eight years ... but no one listens to us.

Lucas did not invent space fighters, of course. I don't specifically recall any in the SF I read growing up, but I vividly remember one in an animated series I used to watch in grade school. (That was also a long, long time ago, and alas I have no idea what show it was.) Space fighters didn't really catch on till Lucas, though - the clearest evidence being that Trek had nothing of the sort.

So ... what exactly is a space fighter, and what does SFConsim-l have against them? If Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Babylon 5 are anything to go by, a space fighter is exactly what you would imagine: the spacegoing equivalent of a DeHavilland DH-4 or an F-16. It is a small spacecraft, about the size - and, oddly, roughly the shape - of a present-day fighter jet. It has a single pilot or at most a two-man crew, strapped into a cockpit with minimal habitability, clearly intended for short missions of only a day or so at most. We see them whooshing and gyrating across the screen, zapping away at each other. Now and then they also destroy the odd stray Death Star, which with typical bad-guy carelessness is designed to obliterate whole planets but cannot defend itself effectively against killer gnats.

(Credit to Babylon 5: not only did its Starfuries have less overt similarity to atmospheric jet fighters, they sometimes even maneuvered like spacecraft instead of airplanes - an all but unique Hollywood tribute to Sir Isaac Newton.)

So what, you may ask, do some of us have against space fighters? The atmospheric kind have been with us for more than 90 years - a shade longer than tanks - so they're no passing fad. What works in one environment, however, isn't automatically suited to a very different one, and fighter planes don't fight in space any more than tanks do. (Yes, the same false-analogy critique can be laid against the analogy of space warcraft to naval ships - but that's an issue for another post.)

Space, first of all, is the same environment for small ships and big ones alike. This immediately knocks the stuffing out of the implicit contrast between small, fast fighters and big, slow space dreadnoughts. Fighter planes are airplanes; battleships are ships: They operate in two entirely different fluid mediums with very different properties. Battleships can't fly, and fighter jets can't cut power and drift while making repairs. There's no such essential difference between space fighters and larger ships - and no inherent reason for the fighter to be faster or more maneuverable.

"Fast" is in fact a bit of a slippery concept when it comes to spacecraft. Speed in space is all relative to begin with; the more useful measure for a spaceship is delta v, "change in velocity" - especially, how much you can change your velocity before you run out of gas. For any given propulsion technology, the way to get more delta v isn't a more powerful engine but a bigger fuel tank. What a powerful engine does give you is higher acceleration - so you can achieve any given delta v more quickly.

"Bigger fuel tank" and "more powerful engine" are also relative - to the size of the ship, more specifically its mass, since that's what you've got to push around. They are also contradictory in a sense - a big propellant supply means more the engine has to push around, so it is hard to get both sprightly maneuver performance (high acceleration) and extended maneuver capability (ample delta v) in the same ship.

Which does suggest that a small, somewhat fighter-like spacecraft, designed for tactical operations with limited endurance, could be a good deal handier than big ships designed for long voyages. The short-range tactical ship - presumably transported to the battle zone by a "carrier," or operating from a nearby base - can carry a smaller and lighter fuel load relative to its size. It doesn't need the supplies, provisions, and life support of long-voyage ships - not even a proper zero-g toilet, let alone bunkrooms and a galley. (Also no crew of techs to keep it running: just a pilot.) The mass saved by leaving all of this out translates directly into higher acceleration: in tactical terms a more agile, "faster" ship.

So isn't this our fighter, even if it doesn't look much like the Star Wars kind?

If it's going to be a useful fighter, however, it should probably have an armament. It can't carry a very heavy one, or you lose the maneuver performance that is the fighter's reason for being. Nor can it carry much armor or other protection, for the same reason. Whatever armament and protection it does carry, however, should be sufficient to fight its enemy counterparts. If successful it destroys them or chases them off, after which it can attack bigger, slower enemy ships ... how?

Broadly speaking, space warcraft in SF use two kinds of weapons. The more familiar are beam weapons - once called ray guns; now usually imagined as lasers or something similar. The hitch here is that our small fighter can't carry a very big one, especially since the weapon needs a power supply. Big, sluggish ships, by virtue of being big and sluggish, can carry a much heavier armament - heavy enough to zap a swarm of fighters out of the sky before the fighters can do much more than scratch the big ship's paint.

Yes, the fighter is fast and maneuverable - but not faster than a laser beam. Nor is there much chance of jinking around to dodging one, at least at any range much less than Earth-Moon distance. Light travels that distance in one and a quarter seconds. Aiming is limited by the round trip (because the gunner depends on light, or a radar beam, etc., to see the target), so at Earth-Moon distance our fighter has two and a half seconds to dodge. That might be enough. But at a tenth of Earth-Moon distance - a piddly 40,000 kilometers - the fighter only has a quarter-second of dodge time.

Dodging "bullets" that come at the speed of light is no way to live long and prosper. So if fortune favors the big battalions, combat between laser-armed warcraft favors big ships that can lay down powerful zaps. Maneuver hardly enters into it.

Lasers and similar beam weapons, however, are not the only plausible space weapons. A throw pillow will wreck a space dreadnought, if you throw it fast enough, and spacecraft do go fast. Thus kinetic weapons, as described in this snippet back in April. The weapon itself is nothing more or less than a slug (or spray of slugs, like buckshot). It does, however, have to be thrown - fast and hard.

One way to throw it is to shoot it out of a gun - probably electrical, a railgun or coilgun. This, however, requires a heavy, high-power installation. As with lasers, coilguns with serious hitting power thus require big ships to carry them and their power supply. Another way to throw a slug, however, is to put it on the front end of a missile. The launching ship has to carry the missile, but this requires nothing more than a launching box, or even a clamp on the side. The third way to deliver a kinetic slug is the simplest of all: Head toward the target, fast, release the slug - then veer aside before it hits.

This last tactic has a lot in common with World War II dive bombing. In practice you would probably combine "bomb" and "missile" - the slug having a guidance motor to steer it into the target and counter any evasive moves on the target's part. Henry Cobb on SFConsim-l came up with the term lancer for this tactic and the ships used to execute it.

In contrast to zapping with lasers or similar weapons, lancer tactics favor small, agile ships. You need good maneuver performance, first to line up on collision course with your target, then to veer clear of the target - and its defensive fire envelope - after releasing your ordnance. Large size is no advantage, because the lancer ship needs no powerful on-board equipment, and because several small lancer ships are preferable to one big one. They can engage several different targets - or come at one target from several directions, boxing it in.

Now things start to look interesting, because it has probably already occurred to you that lancer ships can engage each other. In fact, if lancers are technically and tactically viable at all, the best way to protect your big ships from them might be to send your own lancers out to engage them. A battle between lancers even looks quite a bit like a dogfight, though on a vastly larger physical scale. We can imagine small, handy ships, hurtling along complex curved trajectories, trying to line up for clean shots at their enemies while avoiding getting lined up on - especially getting boxed in, where evading one enemy sends you right into the path of another.

It's taken us long enough - I've been working on this post, off and on, for about three weeks (which is why this blog has looked like a dead zone lately) - but here at last we seem to have our space fighters.

Not so fast: There are complications. In space, if I've lined up a good shot at you, you also have a good shot at me. We're heading straight at each other in a game of interplanetary chicken - given equal-performance ships, if one of us veers aside in time neither of us scores a hit; if not, we both score hits. In lancer combat you're either a live chicken or a dead duck. So much for swaggering lancer jocks knocking back green fuming Rigellian brandy and hitting on the bar girls.

The simple if unromantic solution is to leave out the pilots, or at least put them back somewhere safe, "flying" the lancers by remote control. That way you're not throwing away pilots, just some expensive hardware. There's not much reason to have a pilot in any case. Outer space is a tactically "clean" environment, without much clutter - ideal for automated systems. A lancer ship would have to be flown mostly by computer anyway; there's really not much place for silk scarf and goggles. Save the mass of pilot, cockpit, and even minimal life support and your lancer-turned-drone becomes that much more agile.

One type of decision that can't be left to an ordinary computer is a rules-of-engagement decision: shoot or don't shoot. In contemporary terms only a human being - or an artificial intelligence as sophisticated as a human being - can decide whether a car speeding toward a checkpoint carries a suicide bomber or a terrified Iraqi family. A tactical space battle, however, is very unlikely to pose that sort of question, at least in a form so immediate that it can't be decided by a human remote operator a few light-seconds away.

You could find ways around all of these complications, but at some point it becomes special pleading - like contriving a world where people have radar and guided missiles, but fight their sea battles with ironclads, really just because it would be cool. A more robust contrivance is to have your ships fight in Z-space (or whatever you choose to call it), where the local laws of physics favor spaceships that fly like airplanes. It's still contrived, but not so baroque.

For "normal" space, however - the kind with stars and planets - space fighters are a pretty dubious proposition, and you're better off without them.

Of course, if Hollywood calls and waves some money in front of me ... space fighters you want, space fighters you get.

Monday, August 6, 2007

"I am become Death, destroyer of worlds"

Sixty-two years ago today - yesterday, for most of you reading this, since I live near the tail-end of time zones - the Enola Gay dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.

Very roughly 100,000 people died: from the blast, then from the firestorm, and later from radiation. No one knows just how many, and while the death toll is still argued, "horrific" is sufficiently precise for most discussion. Amid the greater horror of World War II it was hardly a squib. The fire raid on Tokyo the previous March killed more than that; the bombing of Dresden a few weeks earlier nearly as many. The war as a whole provided several hundred Hiroshimas worth of senseless human destruction.

Still the atom bomb (to use an old-fashioned phrase) stands out. There was and is something that catches the attention about an entire city reduced to rubble as far as the eye can see. So do a host of details. As a geek kid the images that chilled me most were the victims of whom nothing remained but their shadows, burned like photographic negatives onto surfaces behind them at the moment of the flash. I assumed they'd been vaporized, which they probably weren't (they'd have been luckier if they had been), but it is not an image you forget.

In practical terms, though, what stood out about the atom bombs wasn't the sheer scale of destruction, but that it was wrought by a single bomb from a single plane. That is what turned all conventional military thinking on its head. Poor Alfred Nobel thought that high explosives would make war impossible, but dynamite, TNT, and the like only contain about ten times the destructive energy of plain old black powder, which which people had been cheerfully slaughtering each other for centuries. The primitive Hiroshima bomb released rather more than 1000 times its own mass in TNT equivalent energy, and by the 1950s the H-bomb improved on that by another factor of a thousand.

(If you want to know more or less everything non-classified about nuclear weapons, I recommend the Nuclear Weapons FAQ. Numerous mirror sites carry it as well.)

The Bomb did not make war impossible, but in some real and meaningful sense it has rendered war obsolescent. The wretched people of Darfur might fairly beg to differ. It is no accident, however, that since 1945 the horrors of war have been visited almost entirely upon people who were already on the margins of an industrializing world. Put most bluntly, it has been visited upon people who don't have nukes, nor the near-term prospect of getting them.*

Bismarck once said that the one thing you can't do with bayonets is sit on them. After Hiroshima, the major powers swiftly - and fortunately - realized that this is the only thing you can do with nuclear bombs. So long as you have one, any would-be attacker is restrained by the prospect of getting nuked. If you use it, you face the prospect of getting nuked in return. Nuclear defense is a non-starter, not because of all the technical problems of defending against ICBMs ("hitting a bullet with a bullet"), but because there's almost no dividing line between perfect and irrelevant. If I launch 1000 nukes at you and you stop 99 percent of them, you just kissed off ten cities. Hence the best acronym of the nuclear age: MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction.

I bring this up on this blog because there is a whole subgenre of SF, military SF, which is broadly predicated on ignoring this fairly basic reality. If I may overgeneralize a bit - not for the first time, not for the last - military SF is essentially all about World War II in SPAAACE. It may be tarted up with an extra-retro flavor, like Weber's Honor Harrington books (Napoleonic Wars in SPAAACE!) But let's not kid ourselves. Space dreadnoughts, carriers, drop-ships for planetary landings, all that cool stuff we talk about over at SFConsim-l, all is written by and for people who haunted the World War II section of their local library when they were kids. (In US public libraries, using the Dewey decimal classification system, I knew to head straight for 940.54.)

The World War II of military SF differs from the real one in one basic respect: It almost always seems to end on August 5, 1945. Even when SF geeks talk about weapons of annihilation, the favored techs are oddly roundabout - for example, the ever-popular changing of an asteroid's orbit so it smashes into a planet with dinosaur-killer force. Come on, guys 'n' gals, no need to get that complicated. If you want to slag a planet, just nuke the hell out of it. It isn't like people who know how to build starships are going to forget how to build nukes.

In typical SF settings, where interplanetary/interstellar travel takes weeks or months, the thirty-minutes-till-Doomsday element of the Cold War may be absent, but the prospect of credible nuclear defense remains nearly as illusory. Yes, your defending space fleet can engage the attackers far off in space, but it won't be like a spacegoing Midway or Salamis, because the attacker can lose 99 percent of their strike force and still annihilate your homeworld with the remaining one percent.

This makes traditional great-power warfare a pretty dubious proposition - which does not (alas) render it impossible, but does mean that such time-honored motivations as ambition and greed, or even folie de grandeur, don't quite stand up. Even foolish statesmen rarely make war without some semi-demi-plausible illusion of success. "We will cross through Belgium and reach Paris in weeks." "They'll greet us with flowers." Nuclear weapons make these illusions far harder to sustain. That leaves paranoia and outright dementia. Neither can be ruled out, sad to say, but they are not "politics by other means." They're merely beyond stupid.

Nor is there even much story material in the scenario I outlined above - the heroic space admiral nearly wipes out the enemy fleet, but the remnants still wipe out her planet. It rarely makes for a great read, and the prospect for sequels is pretty much nil.

I am not so optimistic as to suppose that the obsolescence of war means that everyone will join hands and sing "Kumbiya," or even pursue mutual understanding through dialogue as a solution to their differences. The last 62 years have provided substantial evidence to the contrary. However, the political use of force and violence may take different forms.

We already see evidence of this. Since 1945 many more governments have been overthrown by their own army than by anyone else's, making armed forces a somewhat uncertain means of ensuring national security. Most recently we have learned that deterrence doesn't work against people who think that being incinerated is the crown of martyrdom. The Osamas of the world, however, are of limited utility to rational (or even semi-rational) power players. They are not particularly reliable tools - and if you give one a nuke and they use it, can you really count on conventional "plausible deniability" to protect you from nuclear retaliation? How lucky are you feeling?

There might be something to be said for wars of assassins, a la Dune. Power players might be more disposed, if not to Kumbiya at least to mutual understanding through dialogue, if their own necks were on the line instead of just a lot of 19-year-olds and even more "collateral" victims. Really, mutual understanding through dialogue has a lot going for it. As Churchill said, jaw jaw jaw is better than war war war.

If that still falls short, even a future era of coups, assassinations, and sporadic terrorist acts is an improvement on cities blasted to rubble, and populations that leave no mark of their passing but shadows burned into the streets.

* I try not to be political here, but let's get real. As things are now, if you were the Iranians, wouldn't you want a few nukes?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lady, Hold Thy Tongue! - Part II

A bit belatedly, my follow-on to last week's post.

Writers of historical romance in the narrow sense - i.e., love stories, always integral to the Romance tradition though only part of it - have a particularly tough row to hoe when it comes to striking a balance between authenticity and, well, romance. In a world of arranged marriages, how is the heroine to marry Lord Right, even after she realizes that underneath his jerkiness he's a cool guy?

If her family and Lord Right's happen to arrange their marriage, she's lucky and so presumably is he. The only one out of luck is the author, because there's no story. (Unless - as surely sometimes happened - a couple in an arranged marriage end up discovering that they like each other a whole lot more than they first thought.) In fact, however, love matches were not unknown in the Middle Ages - they were not the expectation, and were viewed skeptically to say the least,* but they did happen. So it isn't impossible. It just has to be handled with some sensitivity to context.

First of all, the lady in question is probably not going to be fiercely opposed to arranged marriages per se. An arranged marriage is what she expects - indeed, at the outset at least, probably all she can really imagine ... until Lord Right shows up. Even when Lord Right does show up, the heroine isn't going to suddenly discover rights that no one in her society ever heard of. She'll simply know what she wants - and how irregular it is - which needn't keep her from doing whatever she can to get it.

We know what some young** women did just this. Anne Scott MacLeod, in pointing out the constraints on premodern women, also shows how desperately some struggled against those constraints. The 15th-century Paston letters, so called for the ambitious gentry family that wrote them, tell of a daughter who resisted the family plans for her: “She has since Easter [three months before this letter] been beaten once in the week or twice, sometimes twice in one day, and her head broken in two or three places.”

I don't know what finally happened to the Paston girl, and have no wish to make further acquaintance of that disagreeable bunch in order to find out. Still, the episode shows how fiercely some women fought against the fate decreed for them.

Surely a great many more gamed the system, finding allies within their families who would support the match they wanted. Put thus baldly it hardly sounds like the stuff of Romance, in any sense of the word. Yet is that all that different from what Elizabeth Bennet was doing - just with so much verve and charm that people still love her for it?

Jane Austin's world was fundamentally still the Middle Ages, merely cleaned up a bit. There was a little more law and order (which meant a lot more freedom for women, able to travel without an armed escort). Yet family and land were still everything: Marriages were for the most part still at least quasi-arranged - and young women knew damn well how much their prospects depended on making a good match, as their society defined it.

And for every medieval father who was a domestic tyrant, surely there was a medieval Mr Bennet: "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."

Tart it up with a little swordplay and it should work as well in 1300 as it did 500 years later.

Some medieval women, in fact, must have been more or less expected to take their own marriages in hand - if not overtly, then by being thrust into situations where they could hardly do anything else. A case in point is ladies in waiting at a royal court (or more precisely their junior counterparts, maids of honor). Families struggled fiercely to win these positions for their daughters, for the sake of influence at court. The young women themselves must have been eager to win places, not least for the better marriage prospects available at court, plus - if they played their cards well - royal favor in pursuing them.

In theory a maid of honor was as constrained as any other medieval woman, but in practice? Her father was likely as not still at his estate, only occasionally coming to court. His paternal authority would necessarily be deputized - in part, perhaps, to some family connection; the Earl of Dirtshire, perhaps, who however had more immediate concerns than supervising a third cousin once removed. Much of the authority fell on the Queen, or her Mistress of the Wardrobe - both chiefly concerned that the maid of honor not end up in the King's bed, as some of them did.

Where authority is diffuse, a sharp and tough-minded young woman will make the most of her opportunities - and if she isn't sharp and tough-minded she has no business being a romance heroine in this day and age. (Not that she ever really did.) Nor does an author who can't figure this out have any real business writing historical romance, or any other sort of historical fiction. It isn't that hard. It simply calls for a little knowledge and a little understanding - the author, too, has to game the system.

With a little finesse, a female character in a medieval or other premodern setting can get away with an awful lot. What she can't get away with, and stay believable, is sounding like a time traveller while she's doing it.

* William Cecil, writing of the ill-fated marriage of Robert Dudley and Amy Robsart (or perhaps the prospect of Elizabeth marrying Dudley) observed, 'Nuptiae carnales a laetitia incipiunt, et in luctu terminantur' - marriages made because of the hots start in joy and end in sorrow.
** If the heroine is older, she's probably a widow, with much more freedom.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lady, Hold Thy Tongue!

As a change of pace from space, our theme today is the problem of women who talk too much, particularly in historical fiction and kindred subgenres of Romance. The problem is not limited to women - though it is most conspicuous with them - and strictly speaking it isn't simply that they talk too much. It's the godawful things they say, feminist rhetoric being not the only offender but surely the worst.

Have I dug myself in deep enough yet?

This subject came up - not for the first time, not for the last - in a comment thread on Carla's blog a few days ago. (A nod in passing here to Susan Higginbotham, who wrote a spoof of bad historical romances only to learn that there's actually a novel out there with a heroine named Topaz Plantagenet. Yep.) A link via Alianore's blog led me to a 1998 article by Anne Scott MacLeod, which lays out the problem neatly. The article, in The Horn Book, deals specifically with YA hist-fic, but the problem is nearly as bad in adult historical fiction.

The problem isn't women talking, even talking back - the problem is women who sound like time tourists from 2007 even though they supposedly aren't. All too often this leads to even a worse situation, where the bad guys all have and display attitudes that are authentic to the times, while the protagonist spouts hopelessly anachronistic rhetoric.

I suspect the problem is not quite as bad in guy books, because (stereotyping madly here!) we are not looking for correctitude. Introduce us to a hero called Hrothgar the Ostrogoth, we expect a good honest barbarian, nothing more. If we learn some cool stuff about the Ostrogoths that is all to the good, but we don't really expect Hrothgar to fret about how representative democracy would be so much better than barbarian kings.

(Where guy books are more likely to go astray is having Hrothgar come up with every military innovation short of the gunpowder era. Trouble handling cavalry charges? No problem! Simply lengthen your spears into pikes, invent pike-square tactics, and teach 6th century Italian latifundia peasants that they can be world beaters just by holding their ranks. No problem!)*

Culturally, women have it tougher. A heroine isn't supposed to be casually indifferent even to minor things like brutalizing the peasants, let alone to her own marriage being treated as a real estate transaction.

Understand here that I'm speaking of Romance, in the broad sense, not bleakly serious historical fiction such as (so I gather) Kristin Lavransdatter. Romance, in all its subgenres, is not primarily about realism. Accuracy in details is desireable, and in some subgenres critical - ladies in waiting at a royal court who talk and think like the Sex and the City gals will blow the willing suspension of disbelief as quickly as starships that maneuver like airplanes.

Yet the worlds of Romance are in essence a theme park where readers go to escape our pretty boring and constraining everyday lives. In real life you may have to kiss the boss's ass, or accept that the sweeps-you-off-your-feet guy is a jerk who will be sweeping some other girl off her feet a week after the marriage. In Romance he falls completely for you, forever, and we'll see just how long the boss can stand up to a 500-megawatt UV laser focused through 10-meter mirror.

Yet it isn't enough just to believe in the hero; at some level the reader has to like them. Which includes relating to their attitudes and values. The quandary is a real one, and it probably makes some settings all but unusable for Romance. I'm not sure that anyone now can really write an antebellum Southern plantation owner as both plausible and sympathetic. American slavery is far too raw, its consequences too much with us, and they can't be swept under the rug the way they could 50 years ago. Even a "good" slaveowner would have attitudes repulsive to us now.

In more remote settings, things are easier to finesse. Classical slavery and medieval serfdom have been defunct long enough that both characters and readers can accept them as part of the world. The test becomes more personal. It's surely plausible that the lady of the estate feels some noblesse oblige toward her peasants, without requiring her - out of nowhere - to reject the basic assumptions of her culture about hierarchy and rank.

(Military experience is helpful in dealing with hierarchical cultures. An officer can and should have regard for their troops, and respect a petty officer's greater experience and knowledge, without challenging the basic social and authority distinction between the wardroom and the lower deck.)

These finesses offer plenty of variations. In Catherine of Lyonesse, the male lead is a corsair galley captain, first seen at the local bagno purchasing some galley slaves - yet so detesting the institution of galley slavery that he immediately frees his purchases, with offer of a bounty if they sign up for his crew. No, no nonsense about the Rights of Man! His concerns are more practical: he merely wants his engine room gang loyal, and able to rise up from the benches with arms in hand when it comes to push of pike.

Because this is Romance, I am pushing the limits just a bit, but only a bit. The Venetians struggled for decades before giving in to slave or convict rowers in the late 16th century. They knew the advantages of free rowers, but with 150-odd oarsmen per galley it became too expensive to man a fleet that way. William de Havilland only has to man one galley, and is willing to pay for performance. (Years later, as Lord High Admiral of Lyonesse, the cost of rowing crews will force him - rather reluctantly - to embrace sailing men-of-war instead of galleys as backbone of the royal fleet.)

I still get to have my cake and eat it too, though, because the reader comes away from the passage thinking he's a pretty decent guy for freeing some slaves, without requiring him to channel Abraham Lincoln.

When it comes to the social roles of women the finesses may require more finesse, but they are possible, and next post I'll discuss some of the available tricks.

* Martin Padway does a lot more than that in Lest Darkness Fall, but he has the excuse of being a time traveller. Elegantly, his attempt to invent artillery fails - he's not able to come up with the right mix of sulpher, charcoal, and saltpeter for a proper bang.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


A few days ago Bernita flattered me big-time in the process of tagging me. Nevertheless I decided to wimp out of accepting the tag. All the blogs I visit regularly (not that many, confessedly) make me think, including Go Fug Yourself.* That's why I keep going back. Of course the purpose of the tag isn't to hail some blogs while dismissing others to the outer darkness, but to let people know about blogs they might never otherwise stumble upon. I'll be lazy and say click on my link list.

However, mulling Bernita's tag also got me thinking about blogs in general. About half the blogs I read regularly are political, "big" blogs that everyone has heard about (where "everyone" = "US political junkies"). Most of these, however, are not really blogs at all, at least not in the sense that Rocketpunk Manifesto is a blog. They may have started as true blogs, but they've evolved into something else, Beltway ezines or political players in their own right. If I comment at Bernita's there's a good chance she'll reply; if I comment at Daily Kos I may get a hundred responses but probably not from Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, aka Kos.

"Big" blogs are not part of a conversation in the way that smaller ones are - they can't be, simply because they are big. I imagine that everyone writing a litblog hopes that they'll hit it big and the world will flock to their blog, but something would be lost in the process, and that something is the ongoing conversation. It's like the difference between a club performance and a stadium concert.

For now, at least, it's good to be playing the club circuit.

* Because I'm writing about a royal court, and court ladies could make the Fug gals seem gentle by comparison. Though the entire late 16th century desperately needed a serious fugging, and never got one. What were those people thinking?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Long May She Wave

It's the Fourth of July, and I'm 'Murrican, so today's theme is sort of a gimme. The United States of America is 231 years old today. This is young as countries go, or so we feel, though if uninterrupted independence is the measure the US is one of the oldest countries in the world. If political continuity is the measure, the two-century-plus club is even smaller. The UK is the only other major power I can think of that has suffered neither occupation nor revolution since 1776. Among mid-rank powers, Sweden and Switzerland, I believe, but few European countries escaped both Napoleon and Hitler, and avoided revolution to boot. Outside of Europe, even fewer escaped both colonialism and revolution. Thailand, perhaps?

Still, 231 years is only about 5 percent of recorded history. In SF we deal routinely with eras reaching that far into the future, and much further.

2238: Roll it around in you mind and taste it. In what may be called the loose consensus future of SF, it is probably the early age of star travel. The solar colonies are long-established by now, and their limitations clear (canned air is expensive). Yet the starships have been heading out for a generation or two, maybe a century, and the first raw young colonies have been founded.

Closer to home (at least my home), the 2238 off-year Congressional election should be looming, plus local details like the governor of California. (Will she be a VR star? Not the first actor elected here.) Jockeying for the 2240 presidential nominations should be well under way. We won't worry about the frontrunners' names - by then the Bushes and Kennedys have perhaps gone the way of the Adamses, and more than 200 years after Barack Obama*, Americans are long inured to names that would once have seemed exotic. But what party labels are they running under?

This is the first place where I feel the niggle of futurity. (Yes, there is another whole set of SF futures where Murica by 2238 has gone the way of Mycenae, leaving only crumbling ruins and growing legends. I am dealing here with "classical" futures, not the post-apocalyptic ones.)

The Democratic and Republican parties have themselves been around a long time, 150 years - in fact, the Democrats since the first recognizable American presidential election, that of 1800. (Just to confuse junior high school students, however, they were then called "Republicans.") Still, the parties are not integral to to my sense of continuity the way the basic political order is.

In just over a hundred years they have reversed their geographical bases; today's blue states mostly voted for McKinley in 1896, and today's red states for William Jennings Bryan. So I would more than half expect the US political parties of 2238 to have different names; even if the names have persisted, what they stand for may have changed. (God forbid, but in 2238 I might have to be a Republican.)

All this, to be sure, is very linear, and I can think of any number of variations. Some are the obvious disagreeable ones - no one in 2238 wonders who will win in 2040, because it will be a 99 percent landslide as all elections have been for generations. Other variations are interesting rather than merely nasty. Perhaps the 2238 presidential election will be uncontested because it has been a ceremonial office for 150 years: What matters, as in any parliamentary republic, is who becomes Speaker of the House. (The US could be converted to an effectively parliamentary system without amending a word of the Constitution.)

Still more interesting, in the spirit of this post, is a 2238 in which who becomes the next US president is no more important, and less immediate, than who is elected Governor of California this fall - the prospect of a colony on Ramona hangs on the balance. To the general public it may be less interesting and perhaps no more consequential than whom Princess Margaret, future Queen of the Anglosphere, is dating.

Broadening the scope of speculation just a bit, are the Saxe-Coburgs Windsors still on the throne? 231 years is fairly long in dynastic terms, long enough for the Royal Family to have changed in course of nature - no need for archaic stuff like princes buried under a stairwell. Or has the monarchy gone the way of the House of Lords and become elective? Or did it cease to draw tourists and get quietly abolished by the Post Office Act of 2103?

The point is that in 2238 we can still imagine a sort of half-recognizable world. There might even be baseball. (No doubt there will also be some back-and-forth ball game or other, but only sports historians would care about its past.) We can imagine the US to still be here in some form - even, from time to time, standing in its haphazard way for the things we want it to stand for on the 4th.

In the conventions of July 4th rhetoric we say the Stars and Stripes will wave forever free. I imagine other countries have their equivalent. But history takes a longer view, and so does SF. Let's take another jump, this time twice as far, 462 years, which happens to land us on the nice round number of 2700.

It feels a lot further from home. This is not a matter of technical change, because an unspoken convention of most mid-future SF is that postindustrial technology reaches a mature level in a couple of hundred years, after which further progress is mostly gradual refinement, like the evolution from the galleon of Drake's day to the frigate of John Paul Jones's. This is historically plausible. Airliners went from box kites to the Boeing 707 in 40 years; 40 years later they are essentially just refined variations. Most air passengers would not know an early model 707 from a present-day jet - till it spooled up its engines; the scream of bare turbojets would sound like something was terribly wrong.

What is unnerving about 2700 is not that the starships are faster and safer than the my-God-were-they-brave ships of 2238. What is unnerving is that it is hard to imagine the Presidential election of 2700. Six hundred and ninety-three years are too much history under the bridge. Even if there is still a United States, someone called its president, and something called an election, the content will surely have been changed out of recognition.

Go 693 years in the other direction and you are in 1314 - you just missed the Battle of Bannockburn by a day or two.** Aye, here's to the Cross of St. Andrew, and all that. And you're three months late to save Jacques de Molay from the stake. Technology changed far less between 1314 and 1776 (except in warfare) than between 1776 and this morning, but that didn't keep everything else from changing. 1314 is a far, far place, as 2700 surely will be.

Yet even so there are continuities. There is, quite emphatically, no UK in 1314, but there is an English monarch, from whom Elizabeth II/I claims descent - I imagine she's descended from Robert the Bruce, as well. Magna Carta is over a century old, and it has been twelve years since Edward I summoned the Model Parliament: What touches all, should be approved of all, and it is also clear that common dangers should be met by measures agreed upon in common.

So even in the year 2700, all is not lost for the Fourth of July. I can plausibly imagine that, 693 years from now, the United States or its lineal descendents thrive. I can even plausibly imagine that, however much its institutions have changed, they have remained true to the principle that government belongs in the public square, not behind palace walls.

* Neither prediction nor endorsement - but the whole idea that a black man with a Middle Eastern sounding name is a leading contender is way cool.

** The date of Bannockburn is June 24, but that is by the Julian calendar - the back-projected Gregorian date would be about July 2-3.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

History: Past, Future, and Fake VI

My virtual road trip / work gig continues, but I ended up writing a post on sfconsim-l, commenting on this section of Winch Chung's Atomic Rocket pages. He's already added my commentary there - something wonderfully meta about that - and I'm certainly not above cribbing from myself, so here it is. The subject is colonization waves spreading out from Earth, which leads me to some speculation on SF chronology:

Just glancing though your section there, the key challenge for a lot of purposes is time scale - and oddly, it doesn't have much to do with ship speed; an STL civilization might expand over the long haul nearly as fast as an FTL one.

The key issue - and this comes up in all sorts of contexts - is how long does it take for a planet to go from raw young colony to major world, the kind that could and might send out colonies of its own? This is the basic problem you have to solve for settings in which anyone has a space fleet of their own but Earth.

Let me try to put a few numbers on it.

The threshold for having a space fleet is arguably lower than for colonization, because a planet of 100 million people could probably maintain starships, but probably is not feeling a big population squeeze. To be sure, on some planets the habitable area will be pretty much filled, and even on the more earthlike ones the human presence is getting pervasive, so some impulse to colonize might be developing.

Whether a planet of 10 million people - the equivalent of a single large urban region - could realistically have a diversified enough economy to maintain and operate a fleet of starships seems a bit iffy, unless they are putting a massive effort into it, so massive that it may stunt their other prospects.

The most likely scenario for a world of 10 million people sending out a colony might be that they've decided their current home sux, and they're going to try their shot at another one.

Looking at the other end, how many people for a viable colony. I'd say 10,000 at the low end, with 100,000 seeming a lot more comfortable. That's the population of one semirural county. How many machine shops and such does it have, how much can they specialize for efficiency, and oh yeah, you need raw material, a mining sector and all that.

If you can't make it you have to import it, paying starship freight instead of truck freight, and what have you got for sale? The market for colony-world curios is going to get crowded fast, and if you really do have something to sell, you'll probably need more than a one-county economy to produce it in commercial quantities.

So I would say that you usually have to put 100,000 people onto a colony planet for it to thrive. Colonies with fewer than that can hang on, but if subsidies are cut off they may die off outright, or be stuck in a marginal existence; only lucky ones will overcome it and do okay.

For a colony to really go as a largely self-sufficient postindustrial world it had better have on order of a million people - more or less the equivalent of Bakersfield and environs. I am certain that Australia has a Bakersfield, but I do not know what it is. Maybe our Oz contingent can inform us.

But once again, if they can't make it or pay starship freight for it they do without it, and the equivalent of Bakersfield has a tough challenge producing nearly all the needs of postindustrial civilization. And for exports it is good to have one sizeable airport that can double as the shuttle port and provide steady employment for a lot of the techs.

Big proviso, so hold your pitchforks. This is predicated on the 23rd century, or 28th or whatever, having about the same productive efficiencies of scale that we are used to. If you have got replicators where you shovel dirt in one end and get a washing machine or air car out the other, things are different. But you still need a wide range of human skills, very hard for small communities to provide, maintain, and keep active.

So maybe my figures could all be squeezed down by an order of magnitude, so that a colony of 10,000 is fairly viable, a colony of 100,000 can maintain a full industrial base, and one of a million people can keep its own starships in service. That helps for story settings, but you wouldn't generally expect worlds like that to be active colonizers.

Finally, and most central to time scale, how fast do colony populations grow, either from immigration or birth rate? I would call a million emigrants from Earth each year a benchmark figure for large scale colonization. That's several thousand people each day, one huge ship or several merely big ones, and it still takes a century of sustained effort to plant 100 colonies, each of a mllion people.

From the colony's point of view, people are another expensive import, if you have to pay them to come. If they can afford a ticket and house stake they will only go to desireable colonies. If someone is paying to ship people to you, you may want to know why, because colonies could be a good place to dump dissidents, minor troublemakers, and similar riffraff.

On the export side, I'm more dubious of shipping off refugees, because by definition you're dealing with lots of them, and shipping them all off world is horribly expensive. Much more so than just plucking the town crank and town pickpocket off the streets and getting them to volunteer for emigration.

But by and large you expect that mass colonization involves people who weren't doing so great on Earth, because the supply of nut enthusiasts like people on this board who would actually *like* to colonize is limited, and a million people a year is a lot.

The other side of colonial growth is reproductive growth. Doubling the population each generation is about the historical sustained maximum. That corresponds to 10x per century, so Deseret World might go from 100,000 people to 10 million people in 200 years.

But even doubling per century is a pretty robust population growth rate. That's roughly 1.2x per generation. Unless you're growing 'em in vats, about half the women are having three or four kids, and one way or another the society encourages and accommodates itself to this.

It's no given that postindustrial societies will generally have this population growth rate, though colony worlds may not follow the current trend in industrialized societies toward ZPG or even less.

If colony populations do tend to grow, I suspect the driving force is not the Heinleinian trope of ranchers with half a dozen marriageable - and "husband-high" - daughters, but the pervasive shortage of skilled specialists of all sorts. How this is transmitted to social attitudes I'm not sure, and no doubt can vary widely.

A colony with population doubling each century will go from 100,000 people to 10 million people in about 700 years, pushing us into the second half of the millennium.

Looking at it broadly, say that the age of colonization is around 2250-2350. That is a fairly common time frame for interstellar SF with a geocentric setting; Trek is vaguely in this era, AD2300 of course, and it's implied by some of Heinlein's interstellar stories.

After a century or so colonization from Earth sputters out, because all the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and it is increasingly costly to reach virgin planets.

Emigration from Earth to the existing colonies can continue after that, but at some point the rate will likely fall. Successful colonies will no longer want people dumped on them, unsuccessful colonies can't absorb them, so emigration falls to the level of people who can pay to go and want to go, or who the colonies are willing to pay for.

So. At some point around 2400, colonization has tapered off and emigration is tapering off. We can guess that there are at least a dozen or so full colony planets - if you can reach any you can probably reach about that many (and you need a good handful for a decent scenario).

The upward limit is about 100 or so true colony worlds, set - regardless of how many worlds are in reach of your FTL - by the postulated size of the colonization wave. A hundred million people, a hundred worlds - an average of about a million immigrants per colony, though the distribution may well be oligarchic by a power law, a handful of colonies getting a large share of total immigrants, growing to populations of up to a few tens of millions, while most have less than a million and kind of struggle along.

Beyond and between the colonies there may be planets never made into self-sustaining colonies, but remaining as outposts, and likely with some permanent populations. If someone pulls the plug on these, though, don't miss the last bus out. Same with space stations and such.

As with the chronology, I think this is a fairly classical scale for a mid-interstellar setting - when there are already established colony worlds, that you can get to by starliner, not just outpost transport or even colonization ship.

There are enough worlds for a diverse interstellar setting, but few enough that people who deal with space, at least, will have some notion of them all as distinct places. (The way "Spain" conveys something to you, or "New Delhi," but "Florianapolis" probably does not.)

A few of these colonies already in 2400 have upwards of 10 million people and some potential to colonize themselves, but these were the immigration magnets, so they probably still feel short-handed if anything, not inclined to send lots of people off.

It will take 200 or 300 years for smaller colonies with rapid population growth rates to start pushing up into the 10 million population range, and might have the impulse and capability to colonize. But it might take closer to 500 years for a substantial number of the original colonies to have much motivation to colonize.

The early goers, though, will have filled in the next layer of easy pickings. Here is where your FTL really matters - whether you can light off freely into the vastness to hunt for a suitable planet, or are constrained by a colonization sphere that is starting to grow again.

But broadly speaking, it seems that secondary colonization couldn't be expected in any serious way until sometime well after 2500, and perhaps not in a big way till sometime around 2700-3000.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Virtual Roadtrip

Actually a work gig, but also a virtual roadtrip of sorts. Anyway, it is a project I got involved in just about the same time I started this blog, and it's wrapping up - at least this phase - at the end of this week. Which is why you, my Loyal Readers, have been coming here only to find nothing, leaving you to wander away bereft.

But never fear, because next week I'll be back with yet more profundities. Until then, I'll indulge one more pretentious note by making this an open thread.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Look of the Future

One of the challenges of writing SF, at any rate for me, is forming a visual image of the setting. What do houses look like? What do people eat? What do they wear? What sort of place does the 23rd century look like, anyway?

SF's cousins among the Romance subgenres, such as historical fiction or even fantasy, do not have this problem. Hist-fic in particular has it easy - your setting looks just like whatever historical milieu you chose for the story. Before Carla or Gabriele come after me with long pointy implements, I'll hasten to add that I mean conceptually easy; there is that little matter of research.

I haven't a clue of what "Anglo-Saxons"* and their world looked like. I vaguely picture, say, a 7th c. king as an English country squire dressed up like a Viking, and his palace as resembling a very well-found barn - not very specific, and probably not very accurate. As for Rome, everyone knows what HollyRome looks like, which has not much to do with what real Rome looked like. (And real Rome, and Romans, in Constantine's day probably didn't look all that much like they did in Caesar's day. Certainly the army by that time looked hardly at all like our familiar image of legionaries.) Still you can research it, which is a big, big help.

Fantasy has it almost as easy, though theoretically it shouldn't. We know how fantasy worlds look: more or less like the Middle Ages looked, for the most part, with whatever detailed flavoring fits the tone. Traditional fantasy almost always evokes some part of the past, directly or indirectly. Urban fantasy takes place in a skewed present, so it looks just like the world around us ... just a bit skewed.

Science fiction does not have these advantages, since it usually has to evoke the future, not the past. And the future has been grossly deficient in providing us with research materials.

Pause to answer the person in the back row asking why it even matters. Sci-fi movies and TV shows actually have to show us their future worlds; written SF does not. But before you can write it you have to make it up, which for me means visualizing it more or less as if it were a movie - for which I have to be the set and costume designer, as well as director and of course screenwriter.

We used to know what the future looked like. Cities loosely resembled Manhattan, but with els and elevated freeways weaving around each other at 50th floor level. People dressed badly, in antiseptic and unisex outfits, except for the heroine, whose antiseptic unisex outfit was remarkably skimpy, and the villain, who wore a flowing cape over his. The urban planning derives from Metropolis (1927); I am not quite sure where the costume style originated.

This style lasted long enough to influence original Trek, and it is still the quick thumbnail way to convey "this is the future" to an audience. It is pretty boring, though (except for the cool rapid transit lines), and it gradually wore out its welcome. It was further challenged by a counterstyle that also has deep roots, but only came to the fore with Star Wars - doing what fantasy had been doing all along, stealing from the Middle Ages.

As a visual strategy, this has some definite advantages. Whatever the Middle Ages were, they were not antiseptic; a medievalesque world will not be mistaken for a hospital. Long dresses with lowcut bodices look great, even more of an advantage. For some SF worlds, such as Dune, the style also fits well with the overall flavor of the work. Still there is a certain plausibility strain about a future in which the SCA apparently took over and the whole 37th century looks like one big Pennsic War.

In recent times, different approaches to the visual future have appeared. Babylon 5 dressed its humans not that much differently than we dress today, with only the sorts of detailing changes that happen decade by decade. Firefly drew its inspiration mainly from the Old West - except for Inara, who didn't dress at all like Miss Kitty's girls upstairs at the Long Branch, favoring instead rather timeless retro-sexy dresses (which needless to say worked nicely).

For settings in the next few centuries, this approach makes a great deal of sense. There have only been two really major changes in Western clothing in the last 500 years or so - men switched from tights (trunk-hose) to trousers in the 17th century, and women started wearing shorter dresses or pants in the 20th. Everything else has been pretty minor and transitory - essentially whatever the fashion industry could come up with to make last year's styles passé, so you'll have to shop for this year's.

Cities have changed enormously, of course - most of all becoming vastly larger. In the late 19th century, steel and concrete allowed them to go up, giving us both Manhattan and Metropolis; in the 20th century the trolley car and then the automobile allowed them to spread out, giving us Los Angeles. But a drive through any California exurb will show that our domestic architecture is mostly pilferage from the past - the McMansion at the corner is pseudo-Spanish, the next one pseudo-Tudor, and so on. "Futuristic" houses - the kind that looked like steel and concrete bubbles - never caught on, and are too dead now to even be retro styles. (Spherical rooms are just not convenient.)

I know nothing of interior decorating, as my wife will readily attest, but my impression is that, like clothing, it mostly goes through arbitrary style changes - cluttered with bric-a-brac one decade, spare and clean next decade.

By this line of reasoning, the future is at heart just another decade, so far as its appearance and flavor go. It may be in this century, just a few decades away, or it may be dozens of decades from now, but will think of itself as the present. In 2430 the one thing you won't want to look like is 2420.

Maybe. What should the future look like?

* I put "Anglo-Saxons" in quotes because most of them had no clue that that's what they were supposed to be - they simply called themselves English.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Goodbye, Westphalia

First of all an apology to my Faithful Readers for still coming around after I've been dark for over a week. A little work, a little birthday train ride, and pretty soon you have to hack through jungle that's grown up around the ancient site of a blog.

I'll turn from the technical challenges of space piracy to look at some of the possibilities of future power politics, or specifically one of them, neomedievalism.

No, I am not speaking of these guys, nor of their cousins who follow this social system. Neomedievalism in the sense I'm using it here is a genuine academic jargon term. To explain it, and the title of this piece, geekitude follows.

The Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648. Everyone agreed to quit leaping to the defense of their neighbors' persecuted Catholics or Protestants: henceforth, membership in the Kings' Club counted for more than religion did. A king could make his subjects go to whatever church he wanted to - even create one all of his own, as Henry VIII had* - and the other kings wouldn't bother him over it.

In technical terms, kings were recognized as sovereigns. (A couple of republics also got to be sovereigns, like Venice and the Dutch.) A sovereign has a local monopoly of force at home - even the Second Amendment still means it's you versus the Army. Abroad, sovereigns deal only with each other: marrying their sons to each other's daughters, making treaties and breaking them, sending armies and fleets around to nab each other's provinces. Such is the international order that grew out of the Treaty of Westphalia.

Anyone who has played Risk or Diplomacy has enjoyed the pleasures of being a sovereign, in so far as those pleasures relate to foreign affairs. (Regarding domestic pleasures, there's no simulation game that I know of, but the phrase "It's good to be King" conveys them pretty well.)

Some of you, whose geekitude extends in other directions than the formal theory of international affairs, may wonder how exactly all of this differs from barons marrying each other's daughters and besieging each other's castles, or any other variation on those pretty timeless themes. The answer is that barons, though they had their own armed followings, and a recognized right to use them at times, were also answerable to the king - who sometimes came around to make them answer with their heads.

Well, you say, the kings were sovereigns, weren't they? A medieval king could have as many mistresses as Louis XIV, and enjoy their company in a good deal more casual comfort. What a medieval king couldn't do, however, is summon his army and be entirely sure that it would show up - or that part of it wouldn't show up on the other side. This was not a problem for Louis XIV, at least not once he showed everyone who was boss after the Froude.

That is what distinguishes a Westphalian system; it what Louis XIV and a Diplomacy player have in common that Henry II did not. The Diplomacy player has to worry that her ally will stab her in the back; she doesn't have to worry that her own playing pieces will. (Or fight over her hand in marriage, an occupational hazard for reigning queens.)

The international relations of a non-Westphalian system can't be represented by a classical Diplomacy or Risk style game - or by filching from the history of 1750 or 1900 - because the lines between sovereignty and non-sovereignty, and between international and domestic affairs, are blurred. Dukes, or other entities such as Free and Imperial Cities or even trading companies, can have obligations to higher sovereigns, yet also have military forces of their own and considerable latitude in using them.

All of this is interesting, and necessary for understanding the historical past, or fictional worlds modeled on the past. It also has obvious possibilities for a science-fiction future - in fact, variations on it are already well-established SF tropes. Some futures are dominated by corporations that have their own military forces; it may be ambiguous whether they have entirely supplanted national states or merely muscled their way to the table. In interstellar futures, trade federations or associations of Free Traders regularly show up with fighting fleets, whether or not they directly rule planets or have much else on common with states as we know them.

What is odd - not only curious odd, but a bit spooky odd, is that academic scholars in International Affairs felt that they needed a jargon term for this type of international system, and called it neomedievalism. Why are SF tropes being analysed in the solemn pages of the Journal of International Studies, where they probably never heard of Hober Mallow or Nicholas van Rijn?

They're talking about it because of a fair bit of evidence that we live in a post-Westphalian world. Whatever you think of it, what exactly is the Palestinian Authority? It has some of the attributes of a state, but not all of them. In a different way what exactly is the European Union, superceding above familiar France, Germany, and so on? As yet another variation, what exactly is Scotland now, and why have English people taken to displaying the Cross of St. George?

(American states were also just a bit anomalous in the Westphalian system, though the anomaly was resolved for practical purposes in 1865.)

Neomedievalism means lots of things. Some of them are rather admirable, like the global influence of NGOs ("non-governmental organizations") like Human Rights Watch. Some of them are thoroughly repulsive, and probably don't need to be spelled out. What they add up to is the possibility, maybe the likelihood, that the world politics of the 21st century will be essentially different from the familiar model of great-power rivalry.

From an SF point of view this is fascinating, even though it may not be completely fun to live through.

* It was more complicated than that, but the bottom line remains: Without Anne Boleyn's flashing eyes, no Church of England as we know it.