Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Little Faux Heinlein

Since I named this blog the Rocketpunk Manifesto, perhaps it is order to offer a couple of snippets of rocketpunk. The two passages below are, so far as I know, the only ones specifically written as such. Originally posted at sfconsim-l, both are shameless imitations of Robert A. Heinlein - faking, I hope, the style of his YA classics from the 1950s, not his didactic and tedious later books.

The first is a "tell me, Professor," explaining a surprising but plausible feature of space warfare, as valid now as fifty years ago - if we are mulishly stupid enough to fight space battles, on which score history is not encouraging:

"Nothing at all?" asked John. Uncle Ray, he thought, would have plenty to say about idiots in government if he knew that the Federation's missiles did not have warheads.

"Don't need it," said Sgt. Murray. "At ten miles per second, anything that hits you - a solid slug, a water balloon, your mom's best china - packs thirty times the punch of high explosives. Don't believe me? Check it."

John took out his slipstick and checked it. He whistled. The year before he left for the Academy, a kid drag-racing on Main St. spun out at 120 mph: His convertable punched through a brick wall and ended up in the lobby of Midstate Bank. This was three hundred times faster. The empty casing of a Mark VII target-seeker rocket has a mass of 120 kilograms. At ten miles a second it will slam into its target with the whallop of an 8000-lb bomb. Whether it carries a load of TNT, a damp squib, or nothing at all, makes no difference.

This next one deals with the problem of detecting enemy ships in deep space:

"It's some old coot down in New Zealand, Lieutenant," said the corporal. "Says he's an amateur astronomer. Something about lights in Virgo. Just thank him and log it in?"

Lieutenant Nunez glanced at the system map, updated daily. "Umm, let me talk to him a moment." Well-meaning citizens were forever calling in to report airplane lights, the planet Venus, and radio masts on nearby mountains. Amateur astronomers, however, usually knew their way around the sky - sometimes better than the professionals did. Cpl. Shelby handed him the phone. "Hello? ... Yes, Mr. Murray ... Yes." Nunez started writing. "You say that right ascension is ... drifted approximately 5 arc minutes ... Thank you, Mr. Murray. You have a good evening too ... You have a very good evening, sir."

Nunez studied the map, sketched an orbit, checked it with his slide rule. "Give me GHQ, Corporal." A voice came on the line, and he was passed up. "Yes, Commander. You may want to wake up General Gordon. It looks like we just found the Belter fleet."

This passage, alas (?), is obsolete. Finding a few spaceships millions of kilometers away might seem a hopeless task, but space is mostly dark, while spacecraft are pretty bright. Even if you paint them black they are still bright, in the infrared - if they aren't, the crews have frozen to death. Moreover, rocket engines powerful enough to drive spaceships are REALLY bright, bright enough to detect in a modest-size telescope from clear across the Solar System ... so long as you point it in the right direction.

In Heinlein's day this last was enough to give space attackers a chance of eluding detection, because human lookouts get bored and lazy. Computers, however, do not. For this reason, the rule of thumb among those of us geeks who think about this stuff is that in space, Everyone Sees Everything.


Bernita said...

But, but...all readers are not geeks.

Nyrath said...

However, most Heinlein readers tend to be.

Rick said...

Bernita - Indeed they aren't ... which is why the ability to slip in an elegant "tell me, Professor," or otherwise explain non-intuitive facts, is important in science fiction.

In fact it is important in most subgenres of Romance, because a basic characteristic they share is removal from the mundane. A mystery may take place in your home town, but the solution will likely hinge on forensic pathology or the techniques of identifying insurance fraud.

The one partial exception is romance in the usual sense, since the reader is presumed to know something about falling in love, and even dare we say about sex. Yet it is only a partial exception, because a sizeable proportion of girl-hearts-boy romances include other Romance elements (e.g. historicals), thus specialized knowledge.

Writers have it tough in another way, too, because their core readership is sophisticated, and will catch them in mistakes.

Rick said...

Nyrath - yep. But as you know all too well, subtler things like the relative ease of deep-space detection are not immediately obvious even to geeks. Hence all those desperately clever attempts to come up with stealth spaceships: "What if all the radiators are in a cone facing away from the enemy ..." :)

spyscribbler said...

Hey, I'm not a geek! And I love Heinlein. :-)

I just saw on Bernita's blog that you've got a new one. Congrats! Looks to be interesting, too!

Rick said...

ISpyscribbler - if you've read much Heinlein, chances are you've become a geek without even knowing it. He slipped a lot of knowledge into those stories!

Canageek said...

I see two flaws in the Everyone Sees Everything argument.

1) It assumes all the ships involved have people on them. A robotic attack ship could drift in cold, with very minimal power running, then power up and attack.

2) It assumes that heat sinks don't improve. I know my universities engineering department likes to show off this paste they invented, where you can old a thin metal rod at one end, with the paste sprayed around the middle, and use a blowtorch to heat the other end red-hot without feeling any heat at the other. Is there a specific reason you couldn't use this principle to contain an IR signature for short periods?

Ada said...

I think the discussion about "No Stealth in Space" on was assuming time periods of weeks.

Rick said...

You are correct. On short timescales the matter could be a bit different. But on short timescales you probably only need to watch a few targets that might release chilled 'mines'.