Sunday, June 10, 2007

"Warp speed, Mister Sulu!"

Kedamono raises an interesting problem in a reply to my last post. He points it out in the specific context of space piracy, but it applies to space adventure of any sort: the challenge of specialization. In that classic adventure vehicle, the sailing ship, every able-bodied seaman could perform nearly every job aboard ship (in fact, that was what "able-bodied" meant) - go aloft, work the guns, take the wheel. In a pinch he could doubtless skipper a sloop, or more than a sloop. The only thing he'd be unlikely to know was celestial navigation.

This is not what we plausibly expect of spacecraft, complex vehicles whose crew functions will surely be highly skilled and specialized. Which more or less rules out some classical adventure tropes. There's a limit to how long you can keep a fusion torch drive going with duct tape; likewise, if the Engineer is felled by an alien bug or a laser zap, there's a limit to how far the grizzled old able-bodied spacer or promising lad can take over in the engine room.

In Romance this last is not a problem per se, because sensible authors give their heroes crises that they have some plausible chance of surviving, rather than falling back on "by a superhuman effort he leapt out of the pit." The more serious danger of specialization is that it risks turning the Band of Brothers into a Team of Technicians - not, it would seem, exactly the stuff of Romance.

One possible way out is the one I mentioned in my response to Doug: that aboard a largely automated ship the crew might be generalists, equivalent to naval officers, there to make decisions rather than perform technical tasks. "Is it safe to proceed with a yellow-tagged thingamajiggy?" requires a broad understanding of thingamajiggies, their function and failure modes, and what might happen if it goes out on you. It doesn't require the level of specialization that thingamajiggy repair would.

Deep automation brings its own complications (e.g., why have a crew at all?), but in any case I don't see the specialization of space crews as eliminating Romance - just changing the flavor. Perhaps even enriching it. One proto-Romance writer who might well have wished for some more specialization aboard ship was Apollonius of Rhodes, author of the Argonautica. The good ship Argo was crewed by more or less every hero who didn't get in on the Trojan War, yet aboard ship at least there wasn't much chance for them to use their varied strengths and talents. Crew billets aboard an archaic Greek pentakonter were very simple: one helmsman and 50 rowers.

Even with automation, space crew functions will probably be more complicated than that. Happily, though, the basic space crew, and how its skills mesh - not just functionally but dramatically - is already part of our culture, because that is what classic Trek did so well. The Trek universe may be a mass of inconsistencies stitched together by unconvincing retcons, and the Enterprise may look like a 1950s automobile hood ornament. (Why were Klingon battlecruisers so much cooler?) Those are not what we remember: We remember Scotty and Bones, Sulu and Uhura, each bringing not just specialized skills but a distinct perspective. "I'm a doctor, Jim, not a scriptwriter!"

As a historical note, the team of experts wasn't peculiar to Trek; it was in the spirit of the 1960s and really of the rocketpunk era. Mission: Impossible had it minus the spaceship. Ocean's Eleven had it with piracy, though also minus a spaceship. No doubt it derives in part from the Paramount Platoon of World War II renown - the Jewish kid, the Irish kid, the country kid, and so on. The Paramount Platoon wasn't very specialized in a technical sense, but its interservice rival the bomber crew was, and supplied the prototype for space crews.

The team of specialized experts also shows up about this time in quite a different outward context: the familiar quest party. The historical prototype, the Fellowship of the Ring, is more of a Paramount Platoon (and formed as such for diplomatic reasons), but the RPG world soon improved on that. Now your mage, your swordsman, your Elvish archer, your dwarvish/barbarian ax-wielder, all have roles to perform in the quest that are as specialized as control stations on the Enterprise's bridge.

In this case, good enough for fantasy quests is good enough for starships.


James said...

I can think of an interesting exception to the crew of specialists:

Real Astronauts.

On space missions there's always some redundancy and cross-training.

Although, again, this means our space pirates have to be test pilots with Ph.D.s, leading to the question of why the heck they're bothering with piracy.


Winchell said...

Yes, you mentioned on SFConSim-l that many SF thrillers use the "bomber-crew" model. Something like the movie The Guns of Navarone where each team member is fantastically skilled in one aspect of the mission, but worthless in the other aspects.

This is quite different from an "able-bodied" pirate who can step into any job on board.

Rick said...

Real astronauts are indeed crosstrained, and surely space crews will continue to be.

In fact, surely there would be a basic skill set you'd expect an "able-bodied" spacehand to have - using a space suit; handflying small craft in local operation (e.g., around a station); general knowledge of spacecraft systems, emergency procedures, etc. So many tasks are simplified if a fair number of people have these skills that surely spacecraft and space operations will be designed on that presumption.

A spaceship is basically a lot of computerized plumbing, so a lot of the skills involved in keeping one running apply equally well to life support, propulsion, weapons, and so forth.

Why would test pilots with PhDs turn pirate? Maybe the stock market crashed, and test pilots with PhDs are a dime a dozen. Or they voted the wrong way last election and now they're blacklisted for legit work.

Figure out why they turned pirate, and you have your plot!

Winchell said...

Cross training is also a good way to fill up those long boring hours when there is nothing to do, common on extended space missions.

From Passage At Arms by Glen Cook (1985)

Once the handful of novels have been read, the drama tapes have been run to death in the display tank, the music tapes have been played to boredom, once the lies have all been told and the card games have faded for lack of a playable deck, Climber people turn to studying their vessels. To what we call cross-rate training, the study of specialties other than their own.

Kedamono said...

Actually, looking at the crew of STS-117 they are mostly "mission specialists" with backgrounds across the board from Geologists to Test Pilot.

Interestingly enough, the Commander of the mission, Frederick Sturckow, served as the pilot of two other missions and he's now the pilot of this mission.

The only other person who has as many missions under his belt, James Reilly, served on Mir and ISS, and is a mission specialist on this mission. When he not in space, he is the Payloads and Procedures Operations lead for the Astronaut Office ISS Branch.

But this gets me thinking. A non-RP spaceship would be highly automated, and the level of automation could get to the point where if you know how to drive a car, you can pilot a spaceship.

Now a RP spaceship would need the bomber crew setup. The most important person would be the ship's "Astrogator" and his slipsticks. Anything happens to him, and you're looking at a long trip to nowhere...

Doug said...

I don't think you really need to start off with astronaut-grade recruits, as Winchell pointed out all that time in transit gives lots of time for on the job training and cross-training. They may not be the cream of the crop but I think most people could be molded into generalists who can work in any of the major sections under the guidance of the chief or master of that section, who would need a higher level of proficiency.

However the times when you really need a specialist are going to be the times when things are busted up. Any monkey can use the navicomp to get around the system, but a real Astrogater can plot you a course with a sextant and a calender. Most of the crew can probably handle the use and maintenance of the heat radiators, drives, algae tanks, or the reactor. But when the computers are shot to hell and the ship is on the verge of collapse that is when you need specialists, or a lot of luck and ingenuity. Of course for those times you want generalists anyways, sinmce losing most of your life-support techs is bad news unless some of the others can take up the slack.

Rick said...

Kedamono - thinking about it, it makes sense that most of the people aboard a research mission would be research specialists of one sort or other. I picture a survey ship crew as being roughly one-third spacehands who run the ship and two-thirds science types, etc. But as you say, the higher the automation level the more ship operation becomes basic skills you expect most people in space to have.

Doug - In a non-rocketpunk setting, I don't think the trope of "the computer's gone blooey, but the Astrogator will get us there with a sextant" really holds up. Computers would be so integral to the technology that anything that knocks out all your computer power would probably wreck the ship anyway.

Putting it another way, computers are to spaceship what blocks and tackle are to sailing ships - you may have to jury-rig them if a spar is shot away, but they're basic tools you could hardly imagine working without.

So I'd picture a scenario more like "the nav station is shot to hell, but we can jury rig to conn her using the engineering computer."

Winchell said...

Though there were those amusing early SF stories.

There was one by Arthur C. Clarke called "Into the Comet" where the spacecraft's computer gets zapped by the static charge on the comet and the coma interferes with radio communication with Ground Control.

So the astrogator has the engineer jury rig about fifty abacuses and enlists the entire crew to do calculations.

In Joan Vinge's The Outcasts of Heaven's Belt, a civil war reduces the technological level of the civilizations living there. Unfortunately there are no habitable planets, everybody is living in deteriorating orbital habitats.

In the Discus colonies, they are face with the task of predicting the orbits of all the colonies, ore asteroids, and spacecraft. This is a real challenge when there are no surviving computers.

There are computation centers, where hordes of children do segments of calculation longhand, in cold rooms. The better you get, the closer you are allowed to sit to the central heater. Once you get to the inner ring, you are allowed to use one of the precious few hand calculators that still work.

Carla said...

"Figure out why they turned pirate, and you have your plot!"

Exactly so - and speaking as a technically-challenged reader, I'd likely focus on that and take the technology, specialised or otherwise, on trust.

Rick said...

Carla - most readers probably would. But I suspect that readers smell authenticity (or in SF plausibility) of details even without having independent knowledge to judge by. A well-researched Rome or starship feels right.

I think it is the presence, or absence, of subtle slips that creep in - the equivalent of a journey taking a month of arduous travel, then a similar journey later being made easily in a couple of days. We may not catch less obvious ones, but they niggle at us if present.

Jean Remy said...

If you want pirates without having to strain your brainpan figuring out why potentially high-value specialist would turn pirates, start them as privateers.

Privateers could have started as traders down on their luck, or volunteer crews eager to serve their nation/colony/corporation, or anything in between. They are equipped and trained by the specialist from the Navy/Space Force/Private Army, probably at a base that "Does Not Exist" and then set loose on enemy shipping, making sure all traces of their origin is erased.

If you really need them to be pirates because you don't want the messy complexity of interplanetary politics to muddy things up, simple: The two star nations signed a treaty. The privateers are now a rather embarrassing secret they'd rather not have come out, so they basically disavow privateers, perhaps even start hunting down their own. Self-preservation plus the training plus the experience on how to run shipping interdiction, and voila, pirates with PhD's.

Do some reading on the "Golden Age of Piracy" in the Caribbean. Beyond the swashbuckling image we have today were some really shady politics with the colonial nations and the use of privateers. Regional governors, so far from the supervision of the Crown, were hardly paragons of virtue. In some respects the entire region was a low-intensity war zone, with most of those "wars" undeclared and difficult to even prove. Fun times.

Of course if you are using a universe where space travel is common enough to have Free Traders, then we can assume it doesn't take a PhD to fly the things. The only reason we send PhD Astronauts now is not to fly the vehicle, or even maintain it, but to run experiments. The Space Shuttle may seem like a freighter delivering cargo to orbit, but it is in fact a science vessel.

Rick said...

Short answer: Yes. See my posts just prior to this one, and a couple from this last spring. There is a long tradition of privateers drifting into (and sometimes back out of) piracy.

As for the Spanish Main, low intensity war is correct. The saying in the 16th and 17th centuries was 'no peace beyond the Line.' (Meaning the line drawn by the Treaty of Tordasillas in 1494.)