Monday, June 4, 2007

... And a Bottle of Rum

Pirates in SPAAACE !!!

There is no escaping them, no matter how high your cruise acceleration or how much reserve delta v you have in the tanks. They lurk the literary spaceways, ready to pounce on the next gilded starliner or even the next wandering tramp freighter.

Are they possible? Or - a more relevant and demanding test - are they plausible?

First, let's assume a setting with no FTL or other out and out magitech, confined for practical purposes to the Solar System. Orbital mechanics makes the paths followed by commercial ships highly predictable, so that hijacking one would have much in common with train robbery, except with no doubt that the train will be on time. The problem is that the entire line is in plain view of the main depot - even from hundreds of millions of kilometers away - so no matter where you pull the job, the dispatchers can see it and notify Pinkerton's.

Along the spacelanes, at least in normal space (e.g., no FTL), every robbery is therefore a brazen robbery. Which leads to two further observations:

1. The above applies only to robbery, not to, say, embezzlement or fraud. These remain practical ways to transfer funds to your account, as it were, but this hardly fits our image of space piracy.

2. Sticking to stickups, since the act will be brazen anywhere there is no reason to travel off into deep space somewhere to commit it. You may as well strike right after the ship undocks from a space station, so long as you're outside the immediate reach of the authorities. (And if they're on the inside of the station airlock, they can't get at you till they order up a patrol craft.)

This has a couple of advantages. You don't need to set out in your pirate ship weeks or months in advance (which everyone in the Solar System would see you doing anyway). Your ship won't be needed till just before - or just after - the heist. Even then the ship doesn't need carronades on the quarterdeck, or the equivalent; its function is more analogous to a getaway car. If you shoot it out with the authorities you're going to lose - if you could shoot it out with them and win, why didn't you just seize the station itself outright?

Which leads to a further complication. For the sake of Romance we don't want just a single act of space piracy, however brazen - we want endemic piracy, Brethren of the Coast. The sort of heist I outlined above, however, is pretty much an inherent one-off. In fact, since it won't be hard to figure out who pulled it off (who made a sudden and unscheduled departure right after the crime?), your ID will be all over the police net, and you'll have a hard time fencing your haul, or even enjoying it in peace and quiet.

Assuming, however, that the local police all see eye to eye about the severity of the offense. Here politics raises its ugly head - not ugly at all, really, in this context. For where there are Brethren of the Coast, Lords of the Isles cannot be far behind, and when the pirate wears a badge, all those messy legal complications go conveniently away. They are replaced by diplomatic and sometimes military complications.

The dirty secret of piracy has always been that - like terrorism today - it is in the eye of the beholder, as Bess told Felipe. Endemic space piracy, of the sort we would like to write about, almost always has a strong whiff of guerilla war. Whether it pits the Nasty Empire against the Noble (if scruffy) Rebels, or the Good Shepherds against the Sea Wolves, is strictly up to the author's tastes.


Carla said...

Interesting point about the inability to hide - demands originality for crime and thriller plots! Some crime capers are fun, especially if comic (The Italian Job leaps to mind), but on the whole I don't get what's so romantic about pirates and thieves (yes, including Robin Hood and Francis Drake) unless they've got another motivation that's more complicated than good old greed. Diplomatic and military complications, the dirty work of government and ends that do (or don't) justify the means, though, and I'm with you every time.

Anonymous said...

Piracy in space could work for the same reasons piracy on Earth works right now in places like Somalia and Malaysia. The pirates aren't quite enough of a problem to justify the cost (both $ and political) of putting them down. They operate out of areas with either complaisant or non-existent local law enforcement, so stopping the pirates would mean invading and "nation building" -- which nobody likes.

Manned piracy in space would require some kind of space habitat which is either run by a powerful Earth state yet tolerates piracy (the "no peace beyond the Line" model), or a space habitat which is essentially owned by pirates and can defend itself (the "Libertaria" model).

Here's the real bottleneck: where do you get the pirates? On Earth there's never been a shortage of young men willing to steal stuff and kill people, but launching people into space costs an amazing amount of money, and keeping them alive up there costs even more. Launch space is limited, so anyone doing piracy is not doing something else -- which means the profits of piracy have to support an entire space program.


Rick said...

Carla - good question about what makes pirates and other thieves romantic. It's worth a blog post, but short form:

Historically most piracy has been plain thuggery, like sea piracy today. (Remember the cruise ship that repulsed an attack off Somalia?) Generally it has been both loathsome and petty - small boats attacking coastal freighters and the like.

A fair proportion, though, was peer competition between merchants - e.g., Venetians v Genoese - and this becomes nearly indistinguishable from naval guerre de course. This is both grander and more ambiguous.

There's also religious/ideological piracy, corsairing, what Drake was doing. This can also be grander and more ambiguous, to the extent you care (or can be persuaded in a story to care) about infidels, or papistry.

The piracy most associated with Romance - "Pirates of the Caribbean" - actually represents the declining phase of Protestant corsairing, more or less from Drake to Sir Henry Morgan to Blackbeard.

But surely the fascination with Robin Hood, or pirates, or the Mafia, also has to do with the general fantasy of living beyond the usual constraints. As such it also has a "rebel" undertone, since the usual constraints include, especially, the powers that be.

Rick said...

Cambias - yes; piracy or the like can function when the cost to the authorities of shutting it down is too high, and it doesn't touch their vital interests.

As for the cost of space travel, that poses complications way beyond piracy. Until/unless the cost can be brought down dramatically - about a hundredfold, from $10 million per ton or passenger to low orbit to perhaps about $100,000 per ton or passenger - the sort of space future familiar in SF is not likely to happen at all.

You just can't have colonies, or even robust space stations and bases, if every interplanetary mission costs several billion dollars/euros/whatever.

Rick said...

Carla - I forgot to add that, odd as it seems, Islam probably did a lot to create the romance of piracy as we're familiar with it. I'll say more about this in an upcoming post!

Anonymous said...

Wow, there's a lot of stuff here.

If we allow for the possibility of stationary* bases that can act as useful defensive fortifications; than as a prelude to war than as an alternative to an all out offensive wars may begin with the use of pirates as auxiliary commerce raiders. Two factions in the deadlock stage before the outbreak of actual hostilities allow pirates to use their bases against each other. This allows for a shift in the economic and military balance between them, since piracy both constricts the enemies trade and also forces them to divert ship-construction to corvettes/frigates/whatever-their-patrol-craft-are-called instead of larger ship designed for the big battles.

If more than one faction undertakes this strategy it can set up an interesting dynamic between the auxiliary pirates, the spaceforce patrol craft crews, and the spaceforce line-ship crews. The Line ship crews are probably brown-nosing and button polishing while trying to ignore that while they get lots of simulator time they haven't actually seen combat yet.

I honestly don't know how difficult it would be to manage an intercept of a ship that happened to already be past the beginning of it's journey, but since it would be fairly obvious that a shipo from an unfriendly base loitering near you would be a pirate we may be stuck with that.

However if a group were to try to attack a liner immediately after it left port they wouldn't need a ship of their own at all; just use the liner as the getaway vahicle. It even comes with it's own hostages! If you need a better mnass ratio to reach you're preferred destination dump any cargo you don't want; and then set off for the nearest port unfriendly to the people you just stole from. This is probably where most pirates would get their start, hijacking a ship in their own home port and then try to modify it into a more effective and fearsome vessel. Stealing your first ship keeps your starting costs down.

Romanticizing piracy, romaticizing outlaws, heck romanticizing anybody are all really big topics. I may be able to writre a post on that a little later, but when I tried earlier it just grew out of control.

*By stationary I mean "Cannot drastically change their mocvment without outside help." Obviously anything orbiting the sun or a planet is moving, but the bases I'm thinking of can't change that movement very much without outside force.

Anonymous said...

Correction: When I said "they wouldn't need to use a ship of thier own" I was implying that they either had short range thruster power or had stowed away on board. Clearly you would need some mode of transport to board a ship as it was leaving a space station.

I think the romanticization of outlaws comes down to two factors:

1) The personal freedom angle Rich already mentioned. Medieval serfs telling tales about Robin Hood is the best example of this, but modern population face much more social regulation than they ever did. (though obviously our standard of living is higher) The idea of being able to tell your boss and the local cop who likes to throw his weight around where to shove it and live in the greenwood or on a ship has a definite appeal.

2) Independance of action. This ties into the above point but deserves it's own mention. Key to most stories in the larger genre of Romance is action taken for personal purpose. The really dramatic bits of the three musketters are not related to the character's status as soldiers of France, it is when D'Artagnan, Athos, Aramis or Porthos find themselves taking action on a point that matters to them personally. Love, Hate, Friendship, Personal Loyalty, Personal Obligation; these are at the core of many dramas, and make for stronger connections than more abstract fellings.

Well the thing about an outlaw is that, while he is dependant on crime to survive, he sets his own rules and hours or is obligated to a leader who is closer to him than the head of a government or company. What loyalty and duty are expected are within the confines of a smaller group, and are more personal. In general the outlaw is perceived as more capable to focus on personal motivation.

Nyrath the nearly wise said...

Dare I mention Poul Anderson's The Star Fox? In the novel, Our Heroes take advantage of the fact that the laws authorizing Letters of Marque and Reprisal were still on the books. They create the first interstellar Privateer.

There is a bit more here about Letters of Marque, scroll down to the quote from Space Skimmer.

However, the fact there is no stealth in space really puts a crimp in things.

As noted in the RPG Traveller, it is much more likely that piracy will take the form of some species of hijacking. Members of the crew, passengers, or both will suddenly produce weapons and capture the bridge crew. Then they will alter course for the Barbary Planetoid.

Nyrath the nearly wise said...

In the game Triplanetary, they steal an idea from Alan E. Nourse's Raiders From the Rings. Deep in the asteroid belt is the pirate asteroid, surrounded by deadly orbiting meteor streams that are certain death to enter. Unless you have the secret chart of the safe route.

Kedamono said...

But that begs the question: How did the chart get made in the first place? Hmm?

Well, it could have been made using the brute force method and lots and lots of probes or spaceships. :-)

Or you do what everyone else will do: Watch those "deadly meteor streams" and plot the position and orbit of each one until you have them all plotted and then you can find the "safe course" through them.

That, or you put a 10 megaton bomb in a container on a timer and then wait for it to go down the rabbit hole...

Kedamono said...

That's "Cargo container". Sorry.

Rick said...

Doug - I took "stationary" to mean in a fixed orbit, as opposed to ships that can change orbit. Orbital forts can be targeted by missiles at Stupendous Range - though whether the missile gets through defenses is another matter.

Commerce raiding has another effect - besides diverting funds from a battle force to patrol/escort craft, more fundamentally it diverts funds from the cargo ships. It raises their "protection rent." Note that in purely economic terms it makes no matter the rent goes to pay for escort ships or goes to the pirates themselves as protection money. Which leads to:

Nyrath - hijacking does seem more practical than waylaying ships in deep space, especially since - let's face it - boarding a spaceship is just not a practical tactic. I can see storming the airlock of a ship docked up, or even boarding from a space taxi, but either way depending pretty much on catching the crew off guard.

But the other practical option is extortion, either tactically of individual ships, or strategically of shipping lines.

Nyrath said...

The Traveller RPG points out that a ship captain with a crushing mortgage on their ship might very well be tempted to hijack their own ship.

In one of the stories collected in THE COMPLETE VENUS EQUILATERAL by George O. Smith, the very first space pirate goes the extortionist route. In the novel, there really isn't any way to overhaul and board a spacecraft.

So the pirate uses anti-ship weapons to destroy a couple of freighters in route. Then he announces that space shipping has become dangerous, but for the low-low fee of one dollar per ton of cargo (sent to an untraceable Swiss bank account), he would ensure that freighter spacecraft wouldn't accidentally be hit by missiles.

Kedamono said...

I remember when I learned how to "work the system", in Traveller and make tons of money as a free trader. I had figured out which worlds sold stuff like radioactives on the cheap, and which worlds paid said items with heaps of cash.

I also was overpaying my mortgage[1] payments on my ship, (it was a 20 year Free Trader, with 20 years left to pay off), so here I thought I'd be able to pay off my ship in a couple of months.

The GM, however, didn't see it that way, he was unworldly in that aspect. (I wasn't, my parents taught me the benefit of paying off your principle early, you saved a lot on interest payments.) He maintained I had to pay off the principal and the 20 years worth of interest that would have accrued!

So I setup four months worth of payments and then left the Spinward Marches for the Sword worlds. Changed the VIN, transponder, and repainted and re-christened the ship, as well as taking on a Sword Worlds name. The game didn't last much longer after that.

[1] Paying a mortgage on a ship showed that Miller had to hock his house to publish the game, and that he really didn't have an idea of how real life merchants operated. You probably have investors and if you owned a home, that's mortgaged to the hilt, though I'd just sell mine to make the down payment on the ship. But that's another subject.

Anonymous said...

The trouble with hijacking is that it's near impossible to repeat it. If you were on the crew or a passenger than your biometrics will undoubtedly be checked by port security, and if you're crew there may be police background checks as well. So you do your heist and then you find another way of operating or another line of work.

Boarding is extremely difficult with one ship, but not all that difficult with two or more. With one ship the problem is that while the pirate captain needs to keep the freighter and cargo relatively intact the freighter captain has no such restrictions. He can wait until the pirate is very close before either firing weapons or using his engines as a weapon or ramming.

The solution is to go in with two ships, with one ship matchiong velocities with the target far enough away that it can defend itself against a surpirse attack. The second closes and prepares to dock, and the ultimatum is sent. If the freighter tries to use force against the boarders it can be blasted out of the sky even if it suceeds.

Now there another factor that comes into play here: If a given ship and captain have a reputation for leaving no survivors even if their demands are met then there is little motivation to surrender. If on the other hand the freighter's crew can believe they will get better treatment through cooperation than there is a greater chance of surrender. Having a reputation for being true to your word is very useful for issuing ultimatums; particularly if the freighter captain can check his database on the captain and ship.

All this changes if the freighter is carrying it's cargo in detachable pods, as is suggested in "The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy"

Rick said...

Kedamono - I do use a "mortgage" in modeling interstellar trade (or whatever) as a sort of accounting device. The ship does have to get paid for somehow, and since it's a big capital expense, one way or another you'll want to spread out the cost over time - either taking out a loan to buy it, or if you own it outright, putting away some of your proceeds each year as a fund to buy its eventual replacement.

But my model is only for working out the underlying economics, and says nothing of how the deal is actually structured - as you say, chances are the partners in the venture have all mortgaged their houses to the hilt, or sold them, to raise the money for the ship and cargo.

In theory there'd be a simple solution to a mulish lender who refused to let you pay off in advance - simply put the money in an account, and let the interest the account accrues make the payments. But your solution was more fun.

Doug - reliable identity checking spoils a lot of familiar plots!

For boarding, the "two ships" can simply be your ship, and a space taxi (or gig, or whatever you call a "ship's boat") that does the actual boarding. What you still don't get is classic boarding against resistance.

Reputation matters! In an environment where you can destroy a ship but not forcibly capture one, you depend on the victim's willingness to surrender. So you want a reputation for ruthlessness against those who don't surrender, but leniency toward those who do.

Unknown said...

The intricacies of the political environment or the social atmosphere of the time of space piracy are largely irrelevant. What needs to be conjectured are the actual logistics of performing a "raid".

Canageek said...

I agree on the points about privateers. Suppose the colonies around Jupiter and Saturn are in a cold war. Each sponsor privateers. Most trading ships use solar sails or ion drives, since they are cheap and reliable. So they float along, carrying ore from the asteroid belt, helium from the gas giants, whatever. Then suddenly a ship that LOOKS like a trader alters course, turning on its Orion Drive, chemical rockets, whatever, something that allows for a hard burn, and catches up. Then they order the ship to jettison the cargo pod it is dragging behind it, or it will blow them up, and loot whatever they can from the scrap. Then the privateers fly back to the moons of Jupiter. The Saternian goverment complains, and the Jupiternians make a lot of noise about finding these vile criminals, and throw someone into jail (or at least report that they have doneso) and life carries on.