Saturday, June 30, 2007

History: Past, Future, and Fake VI

My virtual road trip / work gig continues, but I ended up writing a post on sfconsim-l, commenting on this section of Winch Chung's Atomic Rocket pages. He's already added my commentary there - something wonderfully meta about that - and I'm certainly not above cribbing from myself, so here it is. The subject is colonization waves spreading out from Earth, which leads me to some speculation on SF chronology:

Just glancing though your section there, the key challenge for a lot of purposes is time scale - and oddly, it doesn't have much to do with ship speed; an STL civilization might expand over the long haul nearly as fast as an FTL one.

The key issue - and this comes up in all sorts of contexts - is how long does it take for a planet to go from raw young colony to major world, the kind that could and might send out colonies of its own? This is the basic problem you have to solve for settings in which anyone has a space fleet of their own but Earth.

Let me try to put a few numbers on it.

The threshold for having a space fleet is arguably lower than for colonization, because a planet of 100 million people could probably maintain starships, but probably is not feeling a big population squeeze. To be sure, on some planets the habitable area will be pretty much filled, and even on the more earthlike ones the human presence is getting pervasive, so some impulse to colonize might be developing.

Whether a planet of 10 million people - the equivalent of a single large urban region - could realistically have a diversified enough economy to maintain and operate a fleet of starships seems a bit iffy, unless they are putting a massive effort into it, so massive that it may stunt their other prospects.

The most likely scenario for a world of 10 million people sending out a colony might be that they've decided their current home sux, and they're going to try their shot at another one.

Looking at the other end, how many people for a viable colony. I'd say 10,000 at the low end, with 100,000 seeming a lot more comfortable. That's the population of one semirural county. How many machine shops and such does it have, how much can they specialize for efficiency, and oh yeah, you need raw material, a mining sector and all that.

If you can't make it you have to import it, paying starship freight instead of truck freight, and what have you got for sale? The market for colony-world curios is going to get crowded fast, and if you really do have something to sell, you'll probably need more than a one-county economy to produce it in commercial quantities.

So I would say that you usually have to put 100,000 people onto a colony planet for it to thrive. Colonies with fewer than that can hang on, but if subsidies are cut off they may die off outright, or be stuck in a marginal existence; only lucky ones will overcome it and do okay.

For a colony to really go as a largely self-sufficient postindustrial world it had better have on order of a million people - more or less the equivalent of Bakersfield and environs. I am certain that Australia has a Bakersfield, but I do not know what it is. Maybe our Oz contingent can inform us.

But once again, if they can't make it or pay starship freight for it they do without it, and the equivalent of Bakersfield has a tough challenge producing nearly all the needs of postindustrial civilization. And for exports it is good to have one sizeable airport that can double as the shuttle port and provide steady employment for a lot of the techs.

Big proviso, so hold your pitchforks. This is predicated on the 23rd century, or 28th or whatever, having about the same productive efficiencies of scale that we are used to. If you have got replicators where you shovel dirt in one end and get a washing machine or air car out the other, things are different. But you still need a wide range of human skills, very hard for small communities to provide, maintain, and keep active.

So maybe my figures could all be squeezed down by an order of magnitude, so that a colony of 10,000 is fairly viable, a colony of 100,000 can maintain a full industrial base, and one of a million people can keep its own starships in service. That helps for story settings, but you wouldn't generally expect worlds like that to be active colonizers.

Finally, and most central to time scale, how fast do colony populations grow, either from immigration or birth rate? I would call a million emigrants from Earth each year a benchmark figure for large scale colonization. That's several thousand people each day, one huge ship or several merely big ones, and it still takes a century of sustained effort to plant 100 colonies, each of a mllion people.

From the colony's point of view, people are another expensive import, if you have to pay them to come. If they can afford a ticket and house stake they will only go to desireable colonies. If someone is paying to ship people to you, you may want to know why, because colonies could be a good place to dump dissidents, minor troublemakers, and similar riffraff.

On the export side, I'm more dubious of shipping off refugees, because by definition you're dealing with lots of them, and shipping them all off world is horribly expensive. Much more so than just plucking the town crank and town pickpocket off the streets and getting them to volunteer for emigration.

But by and large you expect that mass colonization involves people who weren't doing so great on Earth, because the supply of nut enthusiasts like people on this board who would actually *like* to colonize is limited, and a million people a year is a lot.

The other side of colonial growth is reproductive growth. Doubling the population each generation is about the historical sustained maximum. That corresponds to 10x per century, so Deseret World might go from 100,000 people to 10 million people in 200 years.

But even doubling per century is a pretty robust population growth rate. That's roughly 1.2x per generation. Unless you're growing 'em in vats, about half the women are having three or four kids, and one way or another the society encourages and accommodates itself to this.

It's no given that postindustrial societies will generally have this population growth rate, though colony worlds may not follow the current trend in industrialized societies toward ZPG or even less.

If colony populations do tend to grow, I suspect the driving force is not the Heinleinian trope of ranchers with half a dozen marriageable - and "husband-high" - daughters, but the pervasive shortage of skilled specialists of all sorts. How this is transmitted to social attitudes I'm not sure, and no doubt can vary widely.

A colony with population doubling each century will go from 100,000 people to 10 million people in about 700 years, pushing us into the second half of the millennium.

Looking at it broadly, say that the age of colonization is around 2250-2350. That is a fairly common time frame for interstellar SF with a geocentric setting; Trek is vaguely in this era, AD2300 of course, and it's implied by some of Heinlein's interstellar stories.

After a century or so colonization from Earth sputters out, because all the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and it is increasingly costly to reach virgin planets.

Emigration from Earth to the existing colonies can continue after that, but at some point the rate will likely fall. Successful colonies will no longer want people dumped on them, unsuccessful colonies can't absorb them, so emigration falls to the level of people who can pay to go and want to go, or who the colonies are willing to pay for.

So. At some point around 2400, colonization has tapered off and emigration is tapering off. We can guess that there are at least a dozen or so full colony planets - if you can reach any you can probably reach about that many (and you need a good handful for a decent scenario).

The upward limit is about 100 or so true colony worlds, set - regardless of how many worlds are in reach of your FTL - by the postulated size of the colonization wave. A hundred million people, a hundred worlds - an average of about a million immigrants per colony, though the distribution may well be oligarchic by a power law, a handful of colonies getting a large share of total immigrants, growing to populations of up to a few tens of millions, while most have less than a million and kind of struggle along.

Beyond and between the colonies there may be planets never made into self-sustaining colonies, but remaining as outposts, and likely with some permanent populations. If someone pulls the plug on these, though, don't miss the last bus out. Same with space stations and such.

As with the chronology, I think this is a fairly classical scale for a mid-interstellar setting - when there are already established colony worlds, that you can get to by starliner, not just outpost transport or even colonization ship.

There are enough worlds for a diverse interstellar setting, but few enough that people who deal with space, at least, will have some notion of them all as distinct places. (The way "Spain" conveys something to you, or "New Delhi," but "Florianapolis" probably does not.)

A few of these colonies already in 2400 have upwards of 10 million people and some potential to colonize themselves, but these were the immigration magnets, so they probably still feel short-handed if anything, not inclined to send lots of people off.

It will take 200 or 300 years for smaller colonies with rapid population growth rates to start pushing up into the 10 million population range, and might have the impulse and capability to colonize. But it might take closer to 500 years for a substantial number of the original colonies to have much motivation to colonize.

The early goers, though, will have filled in the next layer of easy pickings. Here is where your FTL really matters - whether you can light off freely into the vastness to hunt for a suitable planet, or are constrained by a colonization sphere that is starting to grow again.

But broadly speaking, it seems that secondary colonization couldn't be expected in any serious way until sometime well after 2500, and perhaps not in a big way till sometime around 2700-3000.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Virtual Roadtrip

Actually a work gig, but also a virtual roadtrip of sorts. Anyway, it is a project I got involved in just about the same time I started this blog, and it's wrapping up - at least this phase - at the end of this week. Which is why you, my Loyal Readers, have been coming here only to find nothing, leaving you to wander away bereft.

But never fear, because next week I'll be back with yet more profundities. Until then, I'll indulge one more pretentious note by making this an open thread.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Look of the Future

One of the challenges of writing SF, at any rate for me, is forming a visual image of the setting. What do houses look like? What do people eat? What do they wear? What sort of place does the 23rd century look like, anyway?

SF's cousins among the Romance subgenres, such as historical fiction or even fantasy, do not have this problem. Hist-fic in particular has it easy - your setting looks just like whatever historical milieu you chose for the story. Before Carla or Gabriele come after me with long pointy implements, I'll hasten to add that I mean conceptually easy; there is that little matter of research.

I haven't a clue of what "Anglo-Saxons"* and their world looked like. I vaguely picture, say, a 7th c. king as an English country squire dressed up like a Viking, and his palace as resembling a very well-found barn - not very specific, and probably not very accurate. As for Rome, everyone knows what HollyRome looks like, which has not much to do with what real Rome looked like. (And real Rome, and Romans, in Constantine's day probably didn't look all that much like they did in Caesar's day. Certainly the army by that time looked hardly at all like our familiar image of legionaries.) Still you can research it, which is a big, big help.

Fantasy has it almost as easy, though theoretically it shouldn't. We know how fantasy worlds look: more or less like the Middle Ages looked, for the most part, with whatever detailed flavoring fits the tone. Traditional fantasy almost always evokes some part of the past, directly or indirectly. Urban fantasy takes place in a skewed present, so it looks just like the world around us ... just a bit skewed.

Science fiction does not have these advantages, since it usually has to evoke the future, not the past. And the future has been grossly deficient in providing us with research materials.

Pause to answer the person in the back row asking why it even matters. Sci-fi movies and TV shows actually have to show us their future worlds; written SF does not. But before you can write it you have to make it up, which for me means visualizing it more or less as if it were a movie - for which I have to be the set and costume designer, as well as director and of course screenwriter.

We used to know what the future looked like. Cities loosely resembled Manhattan, but with els and elevated freeways weaving around each other at 50th floor level. People dressed badly, in antiseptic and unisex outfits, except for the heroine, whose antiseptic unisex outfit was remarkably skimpy, and the villain, who wore a flowing cape over his. The urban planning derives from Metropolis (1927); I am not quite sure where the costume style originated.

This style lasted long enough to influence original Trek, and it is still the quick thumbnail way to convey "this is the future" to an audience. It is pretty boring, though (except for the cool rapid transit lines), and it gradually wore out its welcome. It was further challenged by a counterstyle that also has deep roots, but only came to the fore with Star Wars - doing what fantasy had been doing all along, stealing from the Middle Ages.

As a visual strategy, this has some definite advantages. Whatever the Middle Ages were, they were not antiseptic; a medievalesque world will not be mistaken for a hospital. Long dresses with lowcut bodices look great, even more of an advantage. For some SF worlds, such as Dune, the style also fits well with the overall flavor of the work. Still there is a certain plausibility strain about a future in which the SCA apparently took over and the whole 37th century looks like one big Pennsic War.

In recent times, different approaches to the visual future have appeared. Babylon 5 dressed its humans not that much differently than we dress today, with only the sorts of detailing changes that happen decade by decade. Firefly drew its inspiration mainly from the Old West - except for Inara, who didn't dress at all like Miss Kitty's girls upstairs at the Long Branch, favoring instead rather timeless retro-sexy dresses (which needless to say worked nicely).

For settings in the next few centuries, this approach makes a great deal of sense. There have only been two really major changes in Western clothing in the last 500 years or so - men switched from tights (trunk-hose) to trousers in the 17th century, and women started wearing shorter dresses or pants in the 20th. Everything else has been pretty minor and transitory - essentially whatever the fashion industry could come up with to make last year's styles passé, so you'll have to shop for this year's.

Cities have changed enormously, of course - most of all becoming vastly larger. In the late 19th century, steel and concrete allowed them to go up, giving us both Manhattan and Metropolis; in the 20th century the trolley car and then the automobile allowed them to spread out, giving us Los Angeles. But a drive through any California exurb will show that our domestic architecture is mostly pilferage from the past - the McMansion at the corner is pseudo-Spanish, the next one pseudo-Tudor, and so on. "Futuristic" houses - the kind that looked like steel and concrete bubbles - never caught on, and are too dead now to even be retro styles. (Spherical rooms are just not convenient.)

I know nothing of interior decorating, as my wife will readily attest, but my impression is that, like clothing, it mostly goes through arbitrary style changes - cluttered with bric-a-brac one decade, spare and clean next decade.

By this line of reasoning, the future is at heart just another decade, so far as its appearance and flavor go. It may be in this century, just a few decades away, or it may be dozens of decades from now, but will think of itself as the present. In 2430 the one thing you won't want to look like is 2420.

Maybe. What should the future look like?

* I put "Anglo-Saxons" in quotes because most of them had no clue that that's what they were supposed to be - they simply called themselves English.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Goodbye, Westphalia

First of all an apology to my Faithful Readers for still coming around after I've been dark for over a week. A little work, a little birthday train ride, and pretty soon you have to hack through jungle that's grown up around the ancient site of a blog.

I'll turn from the technical challenges of space piracy to look at some of the possibilities of future power politics, or specifically one of them, neomedievalism.

No, I am not speaking of these guys, nor of their cousins who follow this social system. Neomedievalism in the sense I'm using it here is a genuine academic jargon term. To explain it, and the title of this piece, geekitude follows.

The Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648. Everyone agreed to quit leaping to the defense of their neighbors' persecuted Catholics or Protestants: henceforth, membership in the Kings' Club counted for more than religion did. A king could make his subjects go to whatever church he wanted to - even create one all of his own, as Henry VIII had* - and the other kings wouldn't bother him over it.

In technical terms, kings were recognized as sovereigns. (A couple of republics also got to be sovereigns, like Venice and the Dutch.) A sovereign has a local monopoly of force at home - even the Second Amendment still means it's you versus the Army. Abroad, sovereigns deal only with each other: marrying their sons to each other's daughters, making treaties and breaking them, sending armies and fleets around to nab each other's provinces. Such is the international order that grew out of the Treaty of Westphalia.

Anyone who has played Risk or Diplomacy has enjoyed the pleasures of being a sovereign, in so far as those pleasures relate to foreign affairs. (Regarding domestic pleasures, there's no simulation game that I know of, but the phrase "It's good to be King" conveys them pretty well.)

Some of you, whose geekitude extends in other directions than the formal theory of international affairs, may wonder how exactly all of this differs from barons marrying each other's daughters and besieging each other's castles, or any other variation on those pretty timeless themes. The answer is that barons, though they had their own armed followings, and a recognized right to use them at times, were also answerable to the king - who sometimes came around to make them answer with their heads.

Well, you say, the kings were sovereigns, weren't they? A medieval king could have as many mistresses as Louis XIV, and enjoy their company in a good deal more casual comfort. What a medieval king couldn't do, however, is summon his army and be entirely sure that it would show up - or that part of it wouldn't show up on the other side. This was not a problem for Louis XIV, at least not once he showed everyone who was boss after the Froude.

That is what distinguishes a Westphalian system; it what Louis XIV and a Diplomacy player have in common that Henry II did not. The Diplomacy player has to worry that her ally will stab her in the back; she doesn't have to worry that her own playing pieces will. (Or fight over her hand in marriage, an occupational hazard for reigning queens.)

The international relations of a non-Westphalian system can't be represented by a classical Diplomacy or Risk style game - or by filching from the history of 1750 or 1900 - because the lines between sovereignty and non-sovereignty, and between international and domestic affairs, are blurred. Dukes, or other entities such as Free and Imperial Cities or even trading companies, can have obligations to higher sovereigns, yet also have military forces of their own and considerable latitude in using them.

All of this is interesting, and necessary for understanding the historical past, or fictional worlds modeled on the past. It also has obvious possibilities for a science-fiction future - in fact, variations on it are already well-established SF tropes. Some futures are dominated by corporations that have their own military forces; it may be ambiguous whether they have entirely supplanted national states or merely muscled their way to the table. In interstellar futures, trade federations or associations of Free Traders regularly show up with fighting fleets, whether or not they directly rule planets or have much else on common with states as we know them.

What is odd - not only curious odd, but a bit spooky odd, is that academic scholars in International Affairs felt that they needed a jargon term for this type of international system, and called it neomedievalism. Why are SF tropes being analysed in the solemn pages of the Journal of International Studies, where they probably never heard of Hober Mallow or Nicholas van Rijn?

They're talking about it because of a fair bit of evidence that we live in a post-Westphalian world. Whatever you think of it, what exactly is the Palestinian Authority? It has some of the attributes of a state, but not all of them. In a different way what exactly is the European Union, superceding above familiar France, Germany, and so on? As yet another variation, what exactly is Scotland now, and why have English people taken to displaying the Cross of St. George?

(American states were also just a bit anomalous in the Westphalian system, though the anomaly was resolved for practical purposes in 1865.)

Neomedievalism means lots of things. Some of them are rather admirable, like the global influence of NGOs ("non-governmental organizations") like Human Rights Watch. Some of them are thoroughly repulsive, and probably don't need to be spelled out. What they add up to is the possibility, maybe the likelihood, that the world politics of the 21st century will be essentially different from the familiar model of great-power rivalry.

From an SF point of view this is fascinating, even though it may not be completely fun to live through.

* It was more complicated than that, but the bottom line remains: Without Anne Boleyn's flashing eyes, no Church of England as we know it.

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.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Privateers and Ghazis

One of the points to come out of the comments on my last post is that while the outlaw life has a certain transgressive thrill in its own right, it works much better for Romance if pirates (or outlaws of whatever sort) aren't in it just for robbery, but for some higher cause as well - getting one back at the Evil Empire, or whatever. This also goes hand in hand with giving the pirate some social standing, even respectability.

Historical precedents are not hard to find. Piracy today is alive and well, but unrelievedly squalid. Yet a couple of hundred years ago true piracy, "against all flags," was just one end of a spectrum of sea-raiding that also included corsairing, privateering, and naval commerce raiding by official warships. (Corsair today is synonymous with pirate, but there was a distinction - corsairs were more or less selective in their victims, at least in theory targeting only Christians, or Spaniards, or whomever.)

Much of the glamour of piracy is a spillover from these semilegitimate forms of sea robbery - in Howard Pyle's wonderful illustration Attack on a Galleon (1905), the galleon is obviously Spanish, with a Catholic icon on her lofty poop - superstitious Papists, the lot of 'em - while the attackers are implicitly good English Protestants. You don't need Fox's Book of Martyrs to know which side to root for here.

It wasn't always that way. The ancient world had plenty of piracy (the word pirate is from Latin, after all), but so far as I can tell it had almost none of the semi-respectable variations, such as privateering.* For that matter, it did not even have naval commerce raiding - or at least, none that our sources saw fit to mention. In Thucydides, navies fight each other, and launch shore raids, but they don't raid each other's merchant shipping. Sparta had no merchant marine, but its ally Corinth did, and on the other side Athens certainly did. It's hard for me to imagine that Athenian triremes never nabbed Corinthian merchantmen, and vice versa, but it never made the papers.

Compare this to the great age of sail. Anyone who has read their Hornblower, or Aubrey and Maturin, or Bolitho, or any of that genre, knows that prize money was a leading preoccupation of naval officers and seamen. "For even Aristotle would be moved by prize-money," says Captain Aubrey to Maturin, early on - unaware, perhaps, that Aristotle never heard of such a thing. These characters are from the annals of Romance, not history, but history bears them out. Commerce-raiding, guerre de course, was an established naval strategy, and part of its appeal was that it could largely pay for itself - if not from the actual proceeds of looting, then from the eagerness of seafarers to fit out privateers.

This contrast might be laid to technical differences between sailing ships and galleys - galleys, with large crews and small holds, could not stay at sea for long raiding cruises. Yet medieval Mediterranean seamen had no problem using galleys for commerce raiding; the Barbary corsairs got their start that way. Earlier still, when the Genoese came up short against the Venetians in fleet battles they switched to commerce raiding in the next war and won that round. The continuum from naval commerce raiding through privateering and corsairing to outright piracy can be traced back in the medieval Mediterranean till it's lost in the haze around AD 1000 or so.

I have a theory about this, worth what you paid for it: that the culture of prize-money at sea was borrowed from Islamic civilization. From early on there was a Muslim tradition of ghazis, freelance holy warriors who lived on the proceeds of raiding the infidel - really, just timeless desert raiding, but now with a gloss of respectability since it was being done in God's cause.

The Barbary corsairs were in this business, but it wasn't peculiar to them, or to Muslims - the Knights of Malta were in effect Christian corsairs robbing Muslims, and Drake and the other English sea dogs were Protestant corsairs robbing Catholics. Yet the idea of combining good old plundering with fighting for a cause had to originate somewhere, since it was absent from the ancient world, and the ghazi tradition came into play at the right time to explain the difference.

So when you go to see Pirates of the Caribbean, remember to thank the Muslims for making a pirate's life glamorous, not just nasty, brutish, and short.

Which I suspect is not the only unwitting contribution that Islamic civilization has made to the Western tradition of Romance.

* The exception to prove the rule is Sextus Pompey's resistance to the Second Triumvirate, which included a raiding war at sea till he was defeated by Marcus Agrippa in 36 BC. (Admiral, architect - a talented guy was Agrippa.) Whether anyone in the late Republic's civil wars was fighting for a higher cause is doubtful, but this is the only classical instance I know of commerce raiding for any objective beyond plunder itself.

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.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Robinson's First Law

Gosh, I'm famous now! (Read to the bottom of the comic.)