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?


Anonymous said...

Wow very interesting.

Ron Paul Media

Kedamono said...

One can look to history to see ways to have your sword and eat it too. :-)

Look how long saber dueling lasted in Europe after the invention of firearms. Or the Japanese when they gave up firearms from 1543 to 1879.

There could be a cultural reason why swords are in use: Weapons escalate to the point where any meatboy can outfit his bad self with enough chrome and pointy bits to be a holy terror on the promenade... and is promptly gunned down by the MechSWAT team.

So among the intelligentsia of the low life and the underworld, the blade comes back into fashion. But the wielders of the sword are no normal people, but hyper-enhanced swordsman, with the reflexes of a cobra and the sensitivity of a shark to the combat situation around him. A person if handed a light sabre, would have diced Obi-Wan into little 1 inch cubes.

The old trope of not using firearms on a ship because there are many things on a ship that don't take kindly to being shot is kind of out, since they like being chopped and sliced even less. (Especially if you're talking about light sabres or molecular wire swords.)

However, a shiv fight in the gangways of a ship, that's something I could see. Again, the enhanced individual will own those battlefields unless he's overwhelmed by sheer numbers. (Or someone pulls a gun and shoots him in the back.)

John Morales said...

I've seen the trope used before, typically when a code duello exists for settlement of disputes.

Though I note Klingons don't use swords.

Anonymous said...

Pikes and polearms could work, too - add a pad at the blunt end and an RCS unit at the center of mass, and you have yourself a truly multipurpose weapon.

Anonymous said...

Perfectly credible that a space faring society would have a code duello, especially an agressive one, paging Klingons. And they did having swords of a type - the batleH which was used quite effectively in quick and dirty change of command ceremonies and "this cosmos isn't big enough for the two of us" disagreements.

Would this society allow a sword on board ship? The officers most likely, if not slung on the hip, certainly stashed in the wall locker, just in case some butterbar got stupid, snotty and above himself.

The lower decks, not so much, although a D'Artagnan with an eye to the crown, girl or at least a commission could well be skilled with the steel. The other rankers would make do with the utility knives and, yes, they'd all have a minimum of one, probably a whole wardrobe. Rankers are into specialization.

One thing the Gentle Writer should keep in mind is agressive cultures have highly developed codes for showdowns, otherwise they would run out of males fairly quickly.

On the practical side, if Gentle Writer is interested in having his/her story filmed, a sword fight really helps. Nothing, but nothing, shows off male beauty and tastiness like the deadly dance.

By the way Rick, the regulation bra material is brass - lighter weight and more eye catching than bronze.

Anonymous said...

Dune suggests another approach: the technological solution. There's some magic doohickey that keeps guns and/or rayguns from working, but can't stop a good sword-thrust.

I do have a practical objection to swords on spaceships -- they're pretty long and could be unwieldy in cramped quarters. I think knives are the way to go.

Sam said...

The basic driving force behind the choice of weapon is the other guy's armour - viz. the historical difference between curved swords in the East (better at cutting through light flexible armour) and stabbing swords in the West (better at punching holes in heavier armour and finding joints). Drastic oversimplification, but you get the idea.

One version of this that I've seen - though I can't recall the reference - had force fields that would let through anything with KE less than x, where x was somewhere between that of a bullet and the tip of a rapier.

Another possibility is needing to cause slashes rather than punctures - much harder for a self-repairing space suit to deal with, for instance. So you'd probably be thinking in terms of sabres rather than rapiers - not just space duels, but space cavalry too.

Another problem is that for almost all purposes, a knife is a more practical and useful weapon - it's quicker, sneakier, more controllable, and you don't have to worry about getting stuck in doors or whacking other people across the shins when you turn around.

There are two basic reasons for swords (rather than any other weapon) - they're status markers (or part of official uniform, as in many armed forces still) and they're easier to use from horseback. (Can we have 'horses in space' as the subject of a future post? Please?)

So one reason might be 'politics'. If the Admiral sees you without your sword, your career is dead in the vacuum - or if some chinless wonder challenges you, you'd best have a socially approved implement to hand.

One also has to consider the other possibilities available to the determined thug. Simon Green's Deathstalker series (very firmly operatic indeed) uses technological decay with a wink and a nod, and the only real alternative to swords is a blaster with a very long recharge cycle.

Anonymous said...

Another classic SF novel that manages to find a way to mix swords and spaceships is Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky. It's set in a generation ship that has been on its way for centuries or millennia. On-board civilisation collapsed long ago and is gradually being rebuilt by the descendants of the original crew, while the automated ship continues to function around them. Swords are currently the best weapons tech they have, as they gradually come to realise that there's a universe outside the ship. (In fact, if I remember right, the re-invention of the sword was a plot point.)

Banshee said...

Doc Smith waxes lyrical in Galactic Patrol about the deadly perfection of the space axes in use, and how they combine the best features of lots of other stuff.

Rick said...

Anon # 1 - I'm giving the benefit of doubt and not elfing your reply, though I suspect it's really just political spam.

Kedamono - you hit the big question, or one of the biggest - how long, and under what conditions, do blade weapons survive in a society that has guns? (Not to mention the amazing sub-case of Tokugawa Japan.)

Anon # 2 - in an abortive story I referred to a "cargo handler's wand," implicitly something that could be used rather like a polearm in a pinch.

A couple of you make the point (so to speak!) that for no-rules fighting in the confines of a spaceship, a knife is probably handier than a sword.

Several people make roughly the same suggestion: code duello, a convention pretty remote from our own culture, but not uncommon in aristocratic ones.

Something also niggles at my mind here, because the gun is to individual quarrels roughly what the atom bomb is to warfare, a reductio ad absurdum.

If a society fully assimilates the idea of "limited warfare" as the alternative to MAD, can this perhaps echo down to more personal disputes? Hmmm.

Kedamono said...

Of course the counter to "no guns on spaceships" are guns designed for spaceships. We have them right now, glaser safety rounds and the like, bullets that won't penetrate sheetrock, but will skin. Bullets that deliver all their kinetic energy to the target and destroying themselves in the process.

And of course, zero-g weapons, pistols, rifles, and automatic weapons that use various recoilless tricks to reduce if not remove recoil from a firearm. (A normal submachine gun in zero-g is called a lead hose... and as about as accurate.)

But if you want swords in space, you can have them, you just have to justify why blades are more acceptable than firearms/blasters/etc.

A code duello is one means, another is that firearms w/o safety rounds can and will damage ships, and ships are just too expensive to waste. So the ships dance about, neither one quite willing to do anything to damage their 100 billion dollar crystal chandeliers, and eventually one ship will either escape, or trap the other ship and the boarding action takes place.

Any passengers are sealed in their cabins and the rest of ship is evacuated. The crew are in their space suits, armored or not and ready to repel boarders. A really effective weapon is a heavy weight with a pointy bit on it. Shatters helmet visors really well, and breaks ribs otherwise.

nyrath said...

Obligatory Atomic Rocket link:
The Sword on the Starship

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time I had a couple of ideas involving swords and horses in future warfare.

My first one revolved around shields. Not, fancy Handwavium energy shields but real physical shields worn on the arm and made from a lightweight carbon-polymer cooked up by vat-microbes and molded into shape. The technology was cheap and easy to spread among little colony worlds and the result was that anti-ballistic protection was easy in enclosed areas like ships and space stations, particularly if you can hold the shield-wall. Outer world militias would form up their ground troops into gunmen with carbines protected by shieldmen with shields as well as hand weapons, usually big knives, hatchets or short swords. Cost to equip and train a shieldman was quite low, and as a result this became a popular means of countering the space-marines of larger powers who didn't go in for all this barbarism and stuck to more conventional tactics.

Given the difficulties of arranging a boarding action (see previous discussions on space pirates for more) this didn''t pan out for me. I still think fondly of some of my characters screaming their battle before they charged.

Horses, well there's always the Firefly solution and the arguments about the virtues of a hayburner in a low-infastructure area. In another military-SF story seed I had once upon a time I played around with using a mixture of mounted infantry and infantry in the defense of a colony world against a occupyling force reliant on power armor and space supremacy. Effectively I was working on the theory that while a horse is bigger anfd less stealthy than a human, it is also faster and is still much stealthier than a power-armored trooper or tank. All the fighting is done on foot but horses are still useful fror carrying men and supplies aroiund more quickly than you can run, and with less risk of being detected than if you use a machine. So the result was a pseudo -insurgency fought by a mixture of motivated local partisans and some conscripts trying to survive and get off this mudball, trying to stay out of their enemies' view while striking back with some cheap anti-armor weapons and explosives, puls whatever they can liberate from the enemy.

On some level I think I was just really annoyed after reading Starship Troopers when I came up with this idea; ironically the tactics in the book bothered me much more than the politics, and so instead of writing the ususal spiel on the internet I came up with an idea where a facsimile of Heinlein's beloved voluneer Mobile Infantry get the snot kicked out of them by a bunch of conscripted dragoons and the local civilian population. I still like Heinlein, but I still hate that book.

Kedamano-The Japanese, to the best of my knowledg, did not give up guns during the Tokugawa period. They remained in use, but without the adavances in technology occuring in Europe 16th century firearms were virtually useless as personal weapons. Plus the Tokugawa regime was quite stable, which slowed the advance of gunpowder technology and the combination of tradition and the sheer practicality of the sword over the guns of the period. If a samurai was ambushed how long did he want to spend loading a matchlock?

Even as late as the Napoleonic wars muskets were largely viewed as mass-volley weapons, the accuracy of individual soldiers was so poor that they were only dangerous in big masses. Sword-armed Scots were kicking the snot out of the British army as late as the mid-18th centruy, and sword armed cavalry was used in a number of instances in the battles in the middle-east during the First World War. The period wehere swords as a category can be regarded as useless is still a bit less than a century old. Though I notice that machetes still get used plenty in third-world warfare, but for some reason we don't consider them swords.

Bullets ricochet, blades don't. Plus a blade is a lot quieter. I guess to a degree is you're going to have testosterone fueled brawls, the risks of legal censure and deaths of innocent bystanders are much lower if you have at each other with the more ancient option. Read scenes of public duels from a few centuries ago, and then compare them to gang fights where a missed shot goes through someones window. In anything less than all-out war, there's something to be said for a good old-fashioned melee.

Anonymous said...

I don't have much to say about swords on spaceships, but since Doug has brought up horses on worlds just colonized by starship as in 'Firefly, I'll mention some thought I've had on some anachronistic possibilities we get as petroleum gets scarce.

We can get all the electricity we need from nuclear fission even if nothing else works, but running mobile machinery like cars will be more difficult as oil gets scarce & expensive. It could turn out that we don't get batteries much better than the current best & alternatives to oil for liquid fuels are either very expensive or can't be scaled up to anywhere near the level that we currently use petroleum.

So given that premise, we get a world in which long distance transport is mostly by electric railway (possibly maglev) & nuclear ships. Air transport becomes much smaller, done only when it's worth paying exorbitant prices. Some short distance transport can be done by battery powered vehicles, though bicycle & walking would replace a lot of car use. I suspect farm tractors & bulldozers etc. would be powered by batteries that get switched for recharged batteries after a few hours work. Doing something similar for cars would require a network of battery recharge stations larger than the current network of gasoline stations since the range of battery cars is shorter before recharge than gasoline cars before refill.

This leaves large land areas beyond the net of electric rail & battery recharge stations in which travel would revert to muscle power: walking, horse, camel, llama, dog or reindeer sled, & canoe. Travelers in these regions could carry light weight electronic gear like satellite phones & GPS receivers, & their other gear would be made of modern light & strong materials, but they would move at pre-industrial speeds.

We get a similar situation on any colony world in which petroleum is either rare or has not yet been found & developed.

I can see Doug's horse mounted infantry being significant in a world with high tech but no adequate petroleum substitute.

Anonymous said...

Looking back at the post I wrote weeks ago, I realize that I really didn't answer the question. The problems involved in creating boarding scenarios that would make the use of melee weapons important for ship and station based combat would seem to indicate that no military is going to put it's recruits through swordplay in basic training. Knives, axes, bludgeons, and other tools might make up the arsenal of down-on-their-luck ruffians and Heroic freedom fighters on space habitats or in other enclosed environments, but swords are difficult to make, and extremely difficult to make covertly. Good steel may be easier to make than an assault laser, but for the desperate struggle most people will fiddle with the balance of an axe or just stick a meat cleaver on a pole.

So I don't think that blades are going to become common weapons, but that doesn't mean complete obscelesence. A number of martial arts use weapons training as a training tool, motions are similar enough that training with certain weapons has a way of improving performance in unarmed combat, or with other weapons. Sword training is still a part of some Eastern martial arts, and the older western martial arts displayed in Fechtbuchs and othewr fighting manuals usually revolved around integrated systems of wrestling and various weapons. A sword can be a useful training tool even if it is not intended to be used in combat.

Of course dueling or judicial combat can add in additional reasons, and swords have enough historical cachet to make them favoured instrument for such activities. Coming up with legal structures that allow for dueling in a futuristic setting is another matter entirely.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Cultural influences are important reasons for keeping obsolete things around, but most militarys will insist on practical weapons. What those are, we can only speculate. However, a recoiless 'bangstick' like what is used against sharks , or some sort of suped-up electric cattleprod might work. Of course, modified power tools may well find a place inside spacecraft hand-to-hand combat. Elegance be damned; if my weapon is scarier than yours and you elect not to try your luck, I win; and without all that blood and gore to clean up later.
Ferrell Rosser

Rick said...

Doug - I think you have it about right. In close quarters, edged weapons may come into play, along with brass knuckles or whatever, but I can't see a place for swords as such, other than for training and ceremonial use - where formal dueling would qualify as a ceremonial use.

Ferrell - There's always the case of Tokugawa Japan, but it's a fairly special exception, and it came into being just at the transition. A century later it probably would have been much harder to effectively dis-invent guns even in Japan.

Sword training is part of several martial arts traditions, and I think it's plausible that highly trained fighters in a post-industrial setting would include those traditions in training, without any general expectation of using swords in the field - which certainly doesn't preclude using one, if one happens to be handy.

Judicial combat would surely require conscious archaism - the interesting challenge would be making it look like more than special pleading on the author's part.

Anonymous said...

Ok, thinking about it, swords on spaceships can be justified by them being decorations, used in physical training, in sports, and if your opponents have an individual anti-energy weapon screen and gunpowder is deemed too dangerous for use inside spaceships. Of course, an alien culture would have an entirely different set of justifications; they may use swords (or sword-like weapons), in certain circumstances they may use them for traditional reasons, or even for a logical reason that humans can't understand.

Anonymous said...

Oops, again, I forgot to sign my name to my last post. Sorry.
Ferrell Rosser

Anonymous said...

Rereading the posts, I see a section that deals with having horses and spaceships. Not to burt anyone's bubble, but if you don't have access to either fossil fuels or super-long lasting batteries, you would probably use an alcohol, vegitable oil, or methame powered motor vehicles. Yeah, horses are romantic; but so are camels and llamas. However, they aren't common outside of relitively small areas, for practical reasons: modern motor vehicles are much more effective over a broader range of terrain. People use horses for many the same reasons they use swords. People will adapt and use anything for whatever purpose is needed at the time. When you can't get the best, you make do, until you can.
Ferrell Rosser

Anonymous said...

Hi Ferrel
It sounds like you are talking about fuels derived from crops to run motor vehicles. I think that can only be done on a *small* scale. The estimates I've seen for the land required to make enough biofuels to run our current transportation system are about as much as we now use to raise food. Ie: biofuels for motor vehicles would be a niche application.

If some way of making liquid fuels abundant & cheap is developed eg: extracting CO2 from the air & combining with nuclear generated hydrogen, then motor vehicles will remain common.

Obviously we also can't afford to replace all our cars with horses either. So the question is what gets used beyond the electric rail & battery recharge network, pack animals or motor vehicles running on fuels made from plant matter.

Pluses for motor vehicle

-maintenance/refueling done at users convenience more than care & feeding of animals

Pluses for pack animal

-live off land, while fuel and spare parts for motor vehicles require industrial infrastructure
-lower power, so less fuel/food required
-can go over rougher terrain (unless MV is aircraft, then it needs smooth airstrip to land unless it's a very fuel hungry helicopter)
-less damage to trail/landscape - a factor that means pack animals are allowed in wilderness preserves that restrict motor vehicles, even today.

The 1st 2 pluses for pack animals would become more important as liquid fuels become more expensive. So while I don't think it's a sure thing, it looks plausible that after petroleum runs out, the alternative sources of liquid fuel will be expensive enough that pack animals will be used in some situations where we would currently use motor vehicles

Anonymous said...

Ok, all of those are valid points. However, if we are talking about SF, perhaps we can "cheat" and come up with some high tech solutions to using pack animals. First, about power sources: we could write about atomic batteries that decay completely into lead and iron; innovations in fuel cell technology that quadruples effecentcy and halfs cost; a cheep synthetic fuel that only produces as exhast water, CO2, and nitrogen; a fusion reactor the size of a bread box; or even a solar-cell that is 90% effecent. As far as the terrain chewing tires and treads on motor vehicles, there are real-world prototypes of walking (ie, leg propelled) machines that can be used as the basis of future vehichles. I like animals, but prefer vehicles.
Ferrell Rosser

Anonymous said...

If we are talking about SF we can pick any assumptions that make our plot work within a fairly broad region. Ie: we avoid violating known science & if some technology is already doable then it takes some real negative handwaving to justify the characters not using it if it would be useful.

If we write a story in which people *have* to use pack animals & in a few years a super battery is developed, it will be like those 1950s stories where people in interplanetary spaceships are using sliderules. A retroactive alternate history.

BTW I was just amused to see the spell checker flagging 'sliderules'.

Anonymous said...

Again, true. However, I can see two groups of people on some far-away planet arguing about whether to breed pack animals or to try and develop an indiginous motor vehicle industry. Do you breed pack animals and spread out or do you concentrate your resources and build an industral base over time? You can do both, but only over a very long period of time, perhaps generations.
Ferrell Rosser

Rick said...

One factor in horses v motors is how horse-friendly the planet is. Can they graze on the native grass-equivalents? (Which gets to the whole question of biocompatibility.) If so they more or less feed themselves for free, and you can maintain a breeding stock with fairly little effort. If you have to put substantial effort into growing their feed it is probably self-defeating.

There's also the question of what an industrial tech can do when it is built for rugged simplicity and small scale operation. I can imagine a basic jeeplike vehicle designed to be kept going by a pretty small machine shop. It will be less cost efficient than cars and trucks built for good roads and an extensive spare parts supply chain, but it might still beat the horse.

For comparison, machinery was ousting the horse in rural America before WW II, and that was pretty much with Model T technology.

One related thing I wonder about is the tradeoff between roads and light railroad technology. I don't mean urban light rail, but a limited performance rail with literally lightweight trackage (e.g., less than 90 lb rail) on which low-power locomotives haul short trains at fairly low speeds.

Or is it wasteful to built rail lines to less than full scale specifications - the same mistake as narrow gauge in the 19th century?

Anonymous said...

I think that these are more economic questions than technological ones. However, having said that, economics do figure into most decissions, even if we're not aware of them. Going back to your question about swords and spaceships, if they are the most cost effecent weapon for the threat, then they will be used. The same with horses vs. motor vehicles. Besides, not every decission is right. Stories about the conflict these "dumb" decissions give rise to could be interesting. Anyway, we could go on and on this way without coming to a definate conclusion, just whatever solution seems right for the given situation.
Ferrell Rosser

Anonymous said...

It occurs to me that running motor vehicles on fuels derived from plant matter would be more practical on a new colony world than on earth in the near future. With billions of people on the planet we can't spare much arable land from growing food to grow plants for making fuel, but a new colony on an earthlike world with only thousands to millions can spare the land. The problem there is having the industrial infrastructure. Something that looks likely is wood burning heat engines so that the spare parts, but not the fuel have to be made & distributed. Cf: several of the colony planets during the Co-dominium era in Jerry Pournelle's Future History use steamboats on the waterways.

Re: biocompatibility - a real prize among planets for colonization would be something that is like earth in the late precambrian & early paleozoic. Ie: the air is breathable, but life is confined to the seas. That means that land plants & animals introduced from earth would spread quickly with no competition. So all the land life would be guaranteed to be compatible with humans & their domesticated animals. A very horse-friendly world.

Re: light rail - It might be a mistake but not as bad as having several different gauges. The light rail rolling stock can still go on the main lines, but not the reverse.

Anonymous said...

Three comments come to mind.

1) Andre Norton's _Star Guard_ includes Terran mercenary companies that are specifically low-tech, to fight on low-tech worlds. Those swords are really just being transported on spacecraft.

2) In _Dune_ and _The Forever War_ swords were the result of defensive shields which made firearms problematic.

3) An idea I am entertaining (which traces its roots back to, among other things, WH40K and Peter Hamilton) postulates devices (Hamilton calls them "valency generators") that strengthen nuclear bonds, dramatically increasing the effectiveness of armor. Assuming such armor is impervious to firearms as a result, one can further imagine that a sword or other medieval weapon, energized by the armor field of the person who wields it, would be an effective can opener. With a little more thought, and the idea that such a weapon could cut through pretty much anything, you can readily envision such a sword being thrust into a stone, to be reclaimed later by someone with access to the appropriate hardware to energize it, and thereby become King of England.

Rick said...

Chris - I read scads of older Nortons, but alas don't really remember Star Guard.

I see a subtle hitch in the mechanism you describe. Say that the armor is fantastically strong, and so is my sword - but I'm no stronger, so can I punch my supersword through supermaterial?

A variant that I'm sure I've seen proposed (maybe on SFConsim-l) is a field whose effects depend on velocity, so that it is Fantastically Strong against a 500 m/s bullet, but only of ordinary strength against a 10 m/s sword thrust.

Rick said...

Also have to add that you made a subtle quasi-slip - Since Arthur was the hero of the Britons against the Saxons, pulling the sword from the stone probably didn't make you king of England.

I call it a quasi-slip because this particular contrarity goes back at least 500 years.

Anonymous said...

Quote: Rick
"A variant that I'm sure I've seen proposed (maybe on SFConsim-l) is a field whose effects depend on velocity, so that it is Fantastically Strong against a 500 m/s bullet, but only of ordinary strength against a 10 m/s sword thrust."

Not entirely unplausible; modern police forces occasionally have problems with knife wielding criminals puncturing bullet-proof vests. Armor designed for one threat won't necessarily protect from significantly different ones.

Gridley said...

I'd like to note in passing that "sword" is just about as generic as "firearm". The Roman Gladius is certainly a sword, but looks and functions differently than a rapier, and both are unlike a cavalry saber.

Also, the sword need not be a primary weapon. The bayonet still has a place in modern armies, but not as a primary weapon. Pistols and combat knives are also widely issued. All we need are circumstances where your space marines find a niche where the bayonet and the knife both come up a little short.

Rick said...

Another old post springs back to life!

Interesting about tactical niches, though above my combat knowledge pay grade to do more than speculate.

There are plenty of reasons beside pressure leaks not to use firearms aboard spacecraft, and knives have a variety of practical functions. In very confined spaces swords are problematic.

On the other hand, the reason we're having this discussion is that swords have a load of symbolic associations, which could become relevant in tense situations.

Anonymous said...

As a fencer and SF buff, I feel that it is my duty to comment on this. While I would certainly agree that something as large as a longsword would be too awkward to use effectively in a realistically cramped spacecraft, a short (.6-1 m including grip) rapier could be very effective, although the lower end of that length range sounds almost like a really big stiletto.

There seems to be some misconception here that a sword is going to be less controllable than a knife. While I obviously cannot speak with any certainty to how this would work without gravity, a small, lightweight sword for stabbing can be just as controllable as a knife in the hands of a trained user, and it becomes as effective as a knife with surprisingly little training. One big objection to slashing swords is that in zero gravity they are going to end up making you swing around undesirably. With a stabbing weapon this is not the case.

While negligible recoil guns that don't damage the spacecraft would certainly be a better option in most circumstances, particularly if those guns were quiet, a light sword like the one I have described could be a quick and dirty stop-gap weapon before such guns are developed.

For those concerned that such a weapon would not be as useful as a knife once an opponent gets close enough to hug you, a pommel spike could be used.

Additionally, some commenters think that sword production would be an issue because of the high-quality steel required. Thile this is true for longswords and sport fencing swords (they need to be able to bend without breaking), an effective rapier meant for killing people could easily be made out of aluminum, although a tip of a different metal would probably be a good idea.

While this still seems a little nichey, I feel that a sword like this would be more plausible than previous commenters seem to feel, especially considering that many modern military combat 'knives' are themselves big enough to qualify as short swords. In particular, kukris, commonly employed by ghurkas, can be up to 20 inches long.

Rick said...

I don't really think of a sword as less controllable than a knife - control will depend on user skill.

My concern is mainly about managing a long blade in very confined spaces. And my primary mental image of 'sword' is a la d'Artagnan.

Weapons that blur the distinction between short sword and long knife seem better suited to the sort of scenario I picture. Say, boarding a ship under false pretenses, then a fight at the airlocks, these being about as compact as the vestibule of a train. If your ships are roomier, you can bring longer weapons into play.

What you call a weapon with a 50 cm blade strikes me as a matter of flavor, or putting it a different way, the social context. 'Knife' connotes utilitarian and back alley; 'sword' has a deep rooted aristo connotation.

Which, per my previous comment, can have its own practical value in appropriate settings. A knife conveys threat; a sword also conveys authority.

Anonymous said...

I think (as someone who has done quite a bit of martial arts involving sharp things) that there's a fundamental difference between a sword and a knife.

With a sword you can threaten from outside grabbing range. With a knife you can't.

If you're close enough to use it, you're close enough to be grabbed which means the odds of winning are about the same as they are in Russian Roulette.

That makes a knife a weapon of desperate last resort or far more plausibly, a concealable murder weapon for use against an unaware opponent.

Armour changes this equation a bit though. If armour is as effective as say late medieval plate, then there is a role for knives in poking through the few vulnerable spots while grappling, but otherwise 'knife fighting' is pretty much Russian Roulette unless you're using it on an unaware opponent.

If you doubt me, there's a very instructive experiment. Dress in some cheap white overalls and use a marker pen to simulate the knife.

Rick said...

Welcome to the comment boards - and another thread that refuses to
die. Your thought experiment is sufficiently persuasive that I'll spare my overalls, if I had any.

At what length (more or less) does an elongated knife become tactically a sword - I'd guess 50 cm or so?

But a spinoff implication of your point seems to be that there is a level of close quarters - 'grabbing range' at which any edged weapon fight is Russian roulette, because you're too close for tactical swordplay.

This has consequences for a fight at the airlocks, or similar scenarios, depending on how big the airlock is. Flip side, I can imagine that at about 1 meter a sword exerts more effective control than a gun, because a gun barrel can be slapped aside.

All of which is somewhat uninformed speculation on my part, so your observations are most welcome.

Gridley said...

Actually, a sword can be knocked aside as well. Medieval and Renaissance instructional manuals on the sword include both grasping your own blade above the guard and grabbing your opponent's blade. Ring maille (chainmail) guantlets are strongly recommended, Do Not Try This At Home.

Also, I think the Russian Roullete analogy leaves something to be desired; a trained knife fighter has a significant edge over a novice on Earth (yes, I've taken lessons); it seems reasonable to assume this would apply in zero-G as well, though the techniques would be different.

And do remember the bayonet! That turns something with the mass of a knife into something with very nearly the utility of a spear - it becomes a weapon that can be used beyond "grabbing range."

Rick said...

If you're wearing armor - and armor can be expected in these scenarios, though hardly the traditional kind - I imagine a lot of these things play out differently.

But I'll just sit back and listen, since my knowledge is thoroughly minimal.

Anonymous said...

Gridley. What I was getting at is that control of distance is very important with edged weapons. A knife guy might in principle make a novice too scared to close, say by slashing at their limbs but that's no substitute for being able to control distance with a long blade.

If we're assuming a knife against a trained but unarmed fighter though, let me quote someone with proven expertise. A formidable karate instructor who was also the 'bouncer of last resort' on Merseyside in my youth and someone who encountered knife attacks regularly for years (and who had been stabbed multiple times)

"FAI-Do you have any specific advice on dealing with a person coming at you with a weapon – a knife for example?

GARY-My personal thing is, if you can’t hit him with anything -a chair, a table, a lamp-stand, – then as he comes at you, charge in and trap his weapon hand – half-turn him away from you and take the opportunity, if it’s possible, to push him down anything – like a flight of stairs, out of anything – like a window, or under something – like a passing vehicle. I teach my students a particular method that was taught to me by the two Korean teachers I told you about (Part One, Issue No. 38. Editor) in which you have to get control of the weapon hand and concentrate, no matter what, in holding that weapon in the opponent’s own hand – even if it means getting your own hand cut in the process. You do it by locking his thumb against the knife,. . . you then bend his elbow in a circular motion and plunge the weapon back into him." (this article is more than a bit gruesome but provides very good insight into the tried and tested working practices of a 'bouncer of last resort')

As you can see, his preferred options are a) improvise a weapon you can use to keep the knife at range, b) throw the guy away from you and c) stab him with his own knife (there was also d) when he taught me, which is try very hard not to get stabbed while hitting them repeatedly until they're KO'd)

The point being, control range if you can using a) or b) and if that fails, go kamikazi with c) or d)

Anonymous said...


The more I think about the implications of armour, the more I think it may provide a useful role for a short bladed weapons. The big problem with knives as weapons is that they're indiscriminately dangerous to unprotected humans, as illustrated by the anecdotal stuff linked in my previous post. With armour though, I think you might get a tactical situation where you can in effect wrestle for control, then apply the knife to a vital point once control is achieved. Nothing like the fast vicious chaos of the sort of encounters described in the link, but more like a very tactical and cold-blooded game of physical chess.

Rick said...

Or would modern armor be impervious to a knife? (Or for that matter a sword?) Medieval armor had joints you could stab through, but we should be able to avoid that.

In this case, 'if it comes to hand strokes' we are pretty much back to clubs, or in the sage advice of Gary, throwing the guy in front of a bus if one happens to be coming.

Davyd said...

As a practitioner of western martial arts, I'd like to reinforce the notion that distance is a huge thing, and the big advantage of a sword is it lets you be farther away. I'll disagree on the thought that once one is at grappling distance the sword is useless, though - half-swording and pommel strikes are always an option, and since one could bang a sword on armour all day long and not do anything except give the bloke a headache, period trainers did a /lot/ of work on wrestling while holding a four-foot-long sword.

As to the armour comment: it will /always/ be weaker at the joints. It has to be; the inside of your knee, armpit and elbow can only be covered by a material that compresses. Certainly we can postulate a material that is tough to cut or stab, but if we want swords in our story we won't do that, will we? And in the hey-day of plate armour, more people were taken out by knives - rondels or misericords - than be swords anyway. (You used your sword to knock him down, and then stabbed him with the dagger, which was short and solid enough to actually punch through a breastplate if you did it right. If you had time, you could use your sword as a hammer.)

But the thing I really wanted to comment on was the availablity issue. And that's easy: weapon laws. In Canada, there's no law against carrying a sword but there are stiff laws against guns, with the result that gang fights often feature swords - usually crappy wall-hangers that some idiot has tried to sharpen, but still swords. In Oz this is getting bad enough that the Crown is preparring to ban swords outright, much to the dismay of martial artists and collectors everywhere.

Rick said...

Catching up on this one!

Certainly we can postulate a material that is tough to cut or stab, but if we want swords in our story we won't do that, will we?

Well, no - but this is one of those tricky things. If the overall techlevel suggests that we 'should' have such a material, it seems like special pleading not to have it.

Swords as a response to gun control are quite plausible! (Remember that actual fact doesn't *have* to be plausible, but in this case it is.) But it can also be self-limiting in just the way you mention ...

'When swords are outlawed, only outlaws will have swords.'

Canageek said...

I know I'm a year out of date (A big chunk of this was reading through most of the Starfighter comments before giving up), but Davyd, I've not heard of any swords being used in fights up here in Canada. Lots of knives, but no swords.

That said, I do like the idea of short blades being common; No risk of damaging the ship, a thrusting blade would be more use in close quarters, and you can still call them swords. Also, there is no detonation, so they are less risky around flammable gasses and such. They could still spark, but it isn't instant death.
On that note: Haven't a number of NASA craft used either pure oxygen or high-pressure air for the atmosphere? Either of those is an instant reason you can't use guns: The detonation would create a fireball.