Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fustest With the Mostest

If Wikipedia is to be trusted, apparently, US Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest never really said that (and also was never involved with the Ku Klux Klan). He did say, "git thar fust with the most men," which is close enough.

I bring this up because of Doug's comment on an earlier post that the Lanchester equations are so abstract that they merely say the obvious - if you're gonna hava a fight, it's good to have more guys. Those are the odds. Tactics are how you beat the odds. Yet one of those standard military sayings that gets bandied around is amateurs study tactics, professonals study logistics. The mark of a great general is not so much beating the odds as loading the dice.

In his next comment, however, Doug lets the cat out of the bag - confessing that the real problem with the Lanchesterian logic of deep-space combat is that it rules out cool stuff like space pirates. (Off-topic? Not in the least! This blog is fundamentally about Romance, which emphatically includes Pirates in SPAAACE!)

Logistics. The very word, like "economics," kills Romance and buries her in a shallow grave. It has a certain geek appeal to people like me - if you are inventing an imaginary trolley line, you need to know how many trolleys it runs, and how many nickels will rattle into the farebox every day. (Back in the Electric Age, when a trolley ride cost a nickel!) Logistics and economics are both crucial to realistic worldbuilding - if you want a realistic flavor - because of the same principle: If you are a pirate, raiding galleons / starliners on their voyage each year to Cockaigne, you need to know how many galleons there are to raid.

This, however, is all in the background. The reader doesn't expect to see a table of Cockaigne's imports and exports - only to see a few of the choicest samples, when the rogueish heroes break open a chest or unseal a cargo pod. Even less do we expect to see the logistic underpinnings of warfare. We only hear about the Seabees when someone attacks them and they have to shoot back.

Yet logistics includes the time dimension - the fustest, as well as the mostest - and that is where Romance and logistics meet. Every time the cavalry pennons appear over the brow of the pass just as the fort is about to fall, it means that someone got them mounted up and on the road with the sun. That trumpet blast you hear is the triumph of logistics.


Anita said...

In his history of WWI John Keegan makes the point that the brilliant Schlieffen plan which the Imperial Staff had crafted and fine turned like a Swiss watch failed because of one overlooked fact: It takes time to load thousands of men, animals and all the necessary support equipment on to trains.

This delay made a hash of the very precise timing necessary for the success of the plan. Did it result in Germany's ultimate defeat? Perhaps not, but it no doubt led to the horror of the trenches.

Good logistics won't necessarily win wars; bad will probably get your head handed to you.

Doug said...

In regards to pirates and outlaws Lanchester isn't the problem, Jeremy Bentham is.

His idea of the Panopticon is the perfect prison, where the inmates know that absolute surveilance is possibile but do not know when they are being surveiled. As a result the prisoners begin to watch each other, and actual guards become almost superfluous. We police each other.

Space is a near-Panoptic environment, I say near because there are limits to the kind of information you can gather and where you can gather it from. A meeting on a space station needs cameras and microphones in the immediate area for any surveillance, while a ship's engine signature can be watched from virtually anywhere.

But within that framework any long-term spacer will have lived his life in a world where he has been under one kind of sensor or another for most of his life. Whether it's the internal cameras of a ship or space station or the sensors of whoever is watching when his ship flies across the solar system or he does an EVA he knows that someone may or may not be watching every moment of his life. Yes, it's possible to vandalize the cameras on a space station and potentially ccreate an area like Babylon 5's downbelow, a place outside of the structure of dicipline and surveillance, but doing so goes against the grain of normal life for a spacer. Damaging the habitat you're in is not a favourably thought of behaviour.

John Calvin's Geneva may be a better example of life on a habitat than any Wild West town. Believing that you could be watched at any time tends to reinforce social conformaity; how we dress, speak, and hold ourselves are subject to the view of our fellow citizens.

So down with Space Pirates and up with Space Puritans. I bet they sneer at all those venal groundhogs from Earth. Someone with the mannerisms of an Errol Flynn character would be a pariah.

Incidentally, my comment about outlaws and pirates was not brought on by a recent movie release. You had mentioned Robin Hood in an earlier post and I was thinking about Robin Hood and Science Fiction.

The thing about logistics is that, like tactics, it can be greatly affected by the indiduals involved. At the battle of Teutoburg Wald in 8 AD three Roman Legions got slaughtered by Germans using German tactics. While the Germans were using their own tactics, their logistical model had been ripped off from the Romans by their commander Arminius. Arminius had been in Roman service commanding auxiliaries, and he was able to apply that knowledge to keep a force in the field and provisioned. But we started off talking about determinism, and Arminius's defection would seem to be a personal action that helped halt the advance of Rome. The person can affect the currents,of likelihood, and help make the improbable happen.

Rick said...

Anita - I didn't know that, and one irony is that this is just the sort of thing the German General Staff was famous for, literally making the trains run on time.

Doug - My oh my, you are opening a really big can of worms on the whole subject of spacers. American SF, at least, is very heavily infused with a libertarian ethos, and not just because of Heinlein - essentially we make space the Wild West. But as you say, this has very little to do with what we'd plausibly expect of life in space.

I'm sure I will be blogging about this, but first I have to think about it ...

Arminius changed some history - certainly for Varro and those legions he did - but would the Germans otherwise have become fully romanized, as the Gauls did? Or was the German forest essentially a place Rome could not really go?

Maybe Gabriele will come around and comment on this, since it is sort of on her turf!

Anonymous said...

Doug's comment about Space Puritans is an interesting one -- don't assume that Puritans can't be pirates. Historically, places like Boston supported their share of "privateers." The collars may not have been as frilly, but the guns worked the same.

In the perfect-information environment of space, pirates can still operate -- they just have to be clever. Base themselves in "choke points" with suitably chaotic politics, so they can intercept merchants when they've finished their burn and can't evade.

Example: for a forthcoming story about pirates intercepting Lunar helium payloads, I put the raiders at L-1, near where the payloads launched from the Moon begin the fall down to Earth. The payloads are moving very slowly there, so a quick burn from L-1 can intercept them. Until they start their intercept burn, the pirates are peaceful "Lunar Resource Satellites" duly registered and legal.


Bernita said...

Hmm, Moon deals with pirates, and Modesitt with logistics.

Doug said...

Bernita - I've read Elizabeth Moon on the subject, but her pirate bands are based in a universe with FTL. Ships can be intercepted by pirates in an uninhabited system along a route or in an inhabited one. If the system is inhabited retreating through FTL takes them out of sensor range and they can then evade further scrutiny. They can bring goods to port pretending to be an honest merchant or they can offload goods onto another ship either at a base or in space to, meaning that the trading ship will lack any destinctive characteristics of the raiding ship.

In a non-FTL system any attempt to draw close enough to a ship to board is going to be clearly visible to anyone looking the right way at the right time. Even barring a distress call that could be heard by anyone in the system and lead them to point their telescopes in the right direction sooner or later someone is going to spot the pirate ship while it is pirating. Once that occurs the ship can be tracked, and at some point the pirates are going to need a port or a base. Under these circumstances any port that gives aid to a ship that has been identified as a pirate will be getting a visit from a taskforce some time soon; since as I recall that would be an act of war. Chances are the regions harbouring pirates would not be up to a full-scale war against the regions they are robbing, since presumnably the robbed has more resources than the robber.

And that would be the problem Cambias. Without any uncertainty about where the perpetrators of the crime had gone it would be quite simple to take measures to stop them. Without a horizon or islands around to use to keep out of sight any act of piracy would be in full view of the solar system.

This also applies to Rebel groups, the only real places to hide are inside of habitats, otherwise tracking down a rebel base is just too easy. If there is a rebellion it will be less space battles and more sabotage and knifings. Of course you have internal sensors to worry about, but those are much easier to smash than telescopes on the far side of the system.

Anonymous said...


I covered that in my story. The pirates are perfectly legal right up to the moment they start pirating. Then their flag government is shocked, shocked to discover these seemingly honest entrepreneurs were actually pirates. Some hapless political dissident gets arrested for the crime, and things continue. The story, of course, is about the inevitable response.


Anita said...

Re pirating in outer space. Perfectly possible. Sure, them what be in charge see/hear it happening, but what they see/hear took place minutes, hours, even days ago. By the time they saddle up, bad boys have split with the girl and the gold. FTL ships may exist, but electro-magnetic radiation is still taking its sweet time getting from one place to another. At a certain distance and beyond, all information transmitted by e-m radiation is out of date.

Yes, the targeted ship could send a FTL courier begging for help, but if Uncle Albert is right and he seems to be, moving even a tiny mass at near light speed, let alone FTL, has an enormous energy bill attached. FTL ships could be an once a generation luxury.

The ultimate hand wavium in science fiction is communications.

Rick said...

I can see I'll need another front page post to deal with the issues raised here!

Anonymous said...

I had been arguing with my close friend on this issue for quite a while, base on your ideas prove that I am right, let me show him your webpage then I am sure it must make him buy me a drink, lol, thanks.

- Kris

Canageek said...

This makes me think of a little problem the US is having.

The US would like people to stop entering it from Mexico. So they build a very expensive, state of the art wall. Fences, cameras, etc. Yet somehome people keep learning which cameras are down for maintenance, aren't being looked at, etc.

If the US today can't keep people from walking across the desert and climbing a fence, what says that even if the tech exists, the future goverment will be able to stop pirates halfway across the solar system?