Monday, February 25, 2008

Hard SF: So Hard It's Impossible ...?

This post is once again thanks to Bernita, who a few days ago wrote a boffo review of Grimspace, a new novel by Ann Aguirre. The book sounds like a winner, but I rather ungenerously used the comments to register a general SF grump. As thumbnailed by Bernita,

As the carrier of a rare gene, Sirantha Jax has the ability to jump ships through space -- a talent that cuts into her life expectancy but makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp.

This is a well-established science fiction trope, that navigating though FTL requires some form of human intuition. (My grump is that this is a sort of authorial special pleading - more on this below.) The intuitive talent may be, as evidently in Grimspace, a rare genetic trait, and usually one that exacts some price from anyone so gifted. Or it may be old fashioned seat of the pants piloting skill, something that can be learned through study and discipline - though probably also benefiting from genetic inheritance, in this case happily rendering the person exceptionally attractive to the gender of preference. Broadly speaking these two types are Luke Skywalker and Han Solo respectively.

In one form or other this is what Romance in all its subgenres is all about. Romance is essentially different from realistic fiction, which is why much of the writing advice you hear is wrong, especially about characterization but also background. In Romance, the knights are bolder, the ladies fairer, the mean streets grittier, and a round trip ticket to the space station costs $100,000, not $20 million. Yeah, my Princess Catherine is tall and has red hair - you gotta problem with tall redheads, take it up with her, not me.

Does this expose my grump at Bernita's blog as bullshit, and incidentally show that hard SF is a contradiction in terms? A curious and little noticed characteristic of Romance is that although it is fundamentally non-realistic, authors in the Romance genres are often quite preoccupied by various types of realism. The author of realistic mainstream fiction does not have to research Anysuburb, USA, in order to write about it. The author of a novel set in Henry VIII's court, or aboard a frigate in 1794, or involving a murder investigation, has some reading up to do.

So does the author whose novel takes place in a completely imaginary royal court, or aboard a starship. The standards of credibility are different, but they are no less demanding and maybe more. People who habitually read the Romance genres tend to know their stuff, and they can tell the difference between a real royal court and one apparently filled with present day 'Murricans who raided a chest full of stage costumes. (Ladies: Show attitude by all means, but a little feminist rhetoric goes a long, long ways.) Starships can work any number of ways, but shipboard organization and procedures are either spaceworthy or not, and it shows.

Science fiction, however, has some peculiar problems - technologies in which, in the real world, we have made too much progress. Spaceship navigation, FTL or otherwise, is a good example. As noted earlier, you'll find FTLs that require rare special gifts or highly trained piloting skills (or both). What you probably won't find in SF of recent decades is an FTL transit that requires classical navigating skills, like those in Heinlein's 1950s vintage YA classic, Starman Jones.

In that novel, starship astrogation (an SF term now almost fallen out of use) requires mathematical talent, to correctly calculate the ship's position and trajectory far out in deep space at speeds approaching the speed of light. The Astrogator is almost constantly on duty for the last 36 hours or so before jump, supported by a team of well trained enlisted men who take instrument readings and feed data into the ship's computer - yes, the starship Asgard has a computer. (A computerman uses a book of tables to convert base 10 numbers into binary, so they can be input into the computer. How's that for a user friendly interface?). The atmosphere in the "Worry Hole" is edge of the chair as the Astrogater solves the final rounds of course corrections, under enormous time pressure - oh, hell, read the book. That is starship navigation as it was supposed to be.

The problem is that, with present day computer technology, not only would there be no computerman with his book of table, there would be no Astrogator - the whole jump would be flown under computer control, with far greater precision and safety than brilliant, dedicated Dr. Hendrix could ever have imagined.

There is no way around this. Intuitive piloting in FTL is one thing, if your FTL is gimmicked to require it, but navigation - the haven-finding art, and for the last 500 years primarily a branch of applied mathematics and observational astronomy - is by its nature logical and regular. No, you cannot plead that this is Romance, because the Romantic archetype of the Navigator is precisely that element of reason - pressing on through night and fog with confidence, relying on mastery of theory and exacting instrumental observation.

This is not the same as intuitive seat of the pants piloting. It has a magic of its own - or had it, because those times are done now. Navigators was born, in the European tradition, around the 14th century - when, amid schematic medieval maps, we suddenly find portalan charts, so accurately drawn that at first glance we could take them for modern maps, real maps to get you where you are going. They began to die sometime in the last couple of decades. Yes, the wise yachtsman still masters celestial navigation in case the GPS system craps out, but if automated celestial navigation packages aren't available it is because GPS killed the demand.

This is even more the case with space navigation, because normal-space (non-FTL) navigation is about as well suited to computerization as anything can be. Sure, the computer could crap out - so could the main drive. They quit putting buggy whip sockets on cars once the likelihood of completing a road trip behind a team of horses became insignificant. They will never start training spaceship navigators, if the prospect is that none of them will ever actually need to use their skills.

FTL has remained the escape hatch, now serving double duty - not only a way to get from star to star in less than decades, but a way to require human navigation, because computer algorithms can't figure it out. This was my grump, because it always feels like a bit of special pleading. How convenient. It is a well established SF trope, and it violates no law of Romance, but I still grump.

Yet what do I say to Bernita? Her counter-grump was a better one:

I shrink from a FUTURE that eliminates the human factor and human instinct in either piloting or navigation.

She's right. I don't want Linux-based spacenav packages; I want the starship Asgard.

One possible solution - the one that gave a name to this blog - is to belly up to the bar and admit that our SF stories are not about The Future, but about an imaginary world where space travel is the way we imagined it just before we started doing it - where the astrogator of a ship bound for Mars makes one last check on her circular slide rule and nods to the captain. But this is also a form of special pleading.

Are there other ways out? One way out might be to observe that our current unmanned space probes are not in fact navigated by computers. They are navigated by people, at JPL, who use computers to do a job that would be impossibly complicated without them. Unless you assume semimagical computers (and so far as I can tell, the AI people aren't even much pursuing HAL style quasi-human intelligence any more), Mission Control is going to be around for a long time to come.

So if you're building a large passenger-carrying spaceship anyway, it could make perfectly good sense to put Mission Control, or at least part of it, on board the ship, making it that much less dependent on control facilities at its ports of call - especially since these may not always be up to the very highest standards. This is Romance, after all.

What the control room crew does on watch, however, is probably not just a jazzed up version of the Enterprise bridge crew or the Asgard's worry gang. (Off watch is another matter, humans being humans.) Computers will indeed do nearly all the piloting and navigating in the usual sense - handflying a spaceship is a ding waiting to happen, as the Mir-Progress collision already demonstrated. So what are the people doing?

Oddly enough we are very hazy on that, or at least I am. I imagine much of their duties will involve monitoring and controlling the computers that actually fly the ship - maintaining software and the like, but especially performing tasks such as simming possible future maneuvers. More direct intervention will be called for only in circumstances that fall outside the flight plan, including all precomputed variations. Which is a technical way of saying "story conditions" - because if your story involves the control crew in their professional capacity, it is a pretty good bet that the ship's regular flight plan is about to get nullified.

As for the part that intuition might play in all this, in skills like navigation, intuition is what you fall back on when the problem you need to solve is not in the manual. (Or, as in Starman Jones, when the manual has been disappeared.) It may be worth noting here that computer programming itself is a notoriously intuitive art, filled with what programmers themselves call deep magic - which is why there are still so many rich geeks in Silicon Valley. No one has yet managed to automate software design, and few are holding their breath for it.

Notice that the above points apply to ordinary, practically-Newtonian interplanetary navigation, majestic in its formal certainty. FTL, if you have it, can be equally deterministic, and chances are that human control crews will still have their hands full getting around through it.

What applies to civil navigation surely applies in spades to space combat. On the one hand, without special pleading it is hard to justify laser-cannon gunners zeroing in on targets with a joystick - and all but impossible to justify the ever popular space fighter, which performs no mission an automated drone cannot do as well, with the further advantage that it is a lot easier in most cultures to write off a drone. On the other hand, the operational environment of space combat, even if formally as clean as in Attack Vector, is liable to turn out in practice to be filled with bewildering ambiguities and uncertainties. Even simple tasks get more complicated when you are being shot at.

I am not sure how all of this plays out, but one way or another, it is possible that the super automated space technology of (non-rocketpunk) Tomorrow will turn out to be at least as complicated in human terms as trying to get a word processor to print a document the way you want it to look, not the way Microsoft thinks you should want it to look. And especially when all hell is breaking loose, as it probably is.


Anonymous said...

There's a lot here.

In general I agree with points both of you made, with the added point that adding the necessity of organic control in FTL doesn't require actrually reducing our computing power. We know that the computer can navigate normal space perfectly well, but since FTL remains beyond our reach it makes for a safe redoubt for organic exceptionality. Some settings still reduce computer intelligence in addition to this, but it's not necessary.

I think the Mission Control model has legs, particularly since a Military SF setting without FTL communication would require Mission Control to be close enough to the battle to do some good. The warship the drones were actually deployed from might be a good location.

It strikes me that in addition to keeping the humans more in the loop, these tendencies also help keep things more recognizable. If the drone carrier Queen Eleanor has a crew of less than fifty you can still maintain the small crew dynamic, even if the ship itself is far higher on the scale of warship types than the crew complement would lead a modern reader to believe.

The problem is that the skill set to run the Queen Eleanor is rather different from any modern military. While the need for technical skills has been increasing for some time modern basic training still follows models that emphasize other things. Most military SF maintains it's similarities to modern training models, and a lot of fans I've talked to treat this as part of a settings believability.

Take away the fighter pilots, at least some of the combat training (difficulty boarding anything), and replace it with increased emphasis on computers and technical skills, and your ship and boot camp both become hard to recognize. Barring an extremely advanced educational system you won't be grabbing your recruits when they are 19 for starters, and I have to wonder how the different requirements will affect discipline and procedure.

But if you created a military SF setting with those changes it probably would not be believable. So we keep the space fighter pilots and the space marines because it makes things seem more real to us. I kind of like Elizabeth Moon, but some of her stuff stays believable because it mimics contemporary military stuff so well, even when it shouldn't.


Anonymous said...

Ok, you talk about a few things this time: Human vs. Automation, believability in the make-up of spaceship crews, and future military structure.

First, humans will need to control computers or computer-directed vehicles. Computers, whether in fact or fiction, do not react well to emergencies. Contrary to popular belief, computers do not think; people do. Computers do what they are programed to do and that's all. That's the real reason that military robots have a live human finger on the trigger. I suspect that in the future, armed space-going drones will operate the same way, and for the same reasons; computers can't be trusted to make a decision to kill someone.

On future spacecraft, I see no reason to not include a large contingent of Mission Controllers. Doug has already made a good point for onboard mission control. As far as an FTL jump goes, it does seem to be more dramatic to have a bunch of highly trained, intensely dedicated, and disciplined individuals calculating and exacuting a complex and dangerous event with professionalism and just the right amount of sweating, then to just have the duty officer push a couple of buttons and then announce over the intercom, (in an off-hand manner) that "We've arrived at the Tau Ceti Jump Range.On behalf of TransPlanet Spaceways, have a pleasent stay."

As for the structure of the military, (at least the U.S. military), recrutes are first sent to boot camp, where they learn how to be soldiers or airmen or sailors or Marines. Then, they go to technical training to learn their specific jobs. Some then go on to advanced training. Throughout their careers, military members periodicly attend training to first; learn new job-related skills or to update old ones; and second, to expand their professional military skills. I don't see this changing except in specific details. In the future, soldiers will still be trained as soldiers and as technicians second. The tools you use to wage war may change, but the reasons for waging war won't.

I've heard much about how better computer-controlled drones or unmanned combat vehicles are than manned combat vehicles, but only the Zeroth Law makes it viable in SF. Well, aside from several technical reasons I won't go into now, another reason would be that people are imprecise and do things that are illogical. In short, people are unpredictable. While this doesn't always work against a computer, it does give the human pilot an edge.

As far as humans being needed for space exploration/combat, you've got the question wrong; humans need computers and technology to explore and conduct battles in space! Tools don't build the town, people use tools to build the town.
Ferrell Rosser

Nyrath the nearly wise said...

Yes, this is a common SF foible. In Larry Niven's short story AT THE CORE:

The mass pointer is a big transparent sphere with a number of blue lines radiating from the center. The direction of the line is the direction of a star; its length shows the star's mass. We wouldn't need pilots if the mass pointer could be hooked into an autopilot, but it can't. Dependable as it is, accurate as it is, the mass pointer is a psionic device. It needs a mind to work it.

Ships fly themselves in hyperdrive. All a pilot need do is watch for green radial lines in the mass sensor. But he has to do that frequently, because the mass sensor is a psionic device; it must be watched by a mind, not another machine.

Rick said...

Nyrath - "Psionic" is perhaps a giveaway here, because that is a term especially associated with John Campbell and his huge influence on US golden age SF. Having said that, perhaps there's a natural tendency to make FTL the Here Be Dragons zone.

I am resistant to it, partly because of my general bias against overt mystico-magic elements, and partly because my own mental image of FTL was so much shaped by Starman Jones - real FTL is an instantaneous jump. If anything mystical happens it is before transition, when you feel Dr. Hendrix' hands on your shoulders, giving you that crucial bit of confidence as you run the last correction, feed it in, and kick through to a new sky ...

Doug and Ferrell - Your replies cover so much similar ground I'll take them on together. One good point is that to the extent that automation simply reduces crew size, it is nearly invisible in stories. Think of classic Trek. The Enterprise has a crew of 400. But the crew we relate to in human terms is about the same size as the crew of Serenity - the rest are presumably just to supply enough expendable redshirts for a five year mission, or at least a three season run.

But what the Mission Control crew does is likely to be unlike our familiar para-naval image - and my sense is that SF writers haven't come to grips with it yet. We act as if either computers haven't progressed beyond the IBM 360, or the computers do everything, leaving the humans to twiddle thumbs and/or have deep and cosmic thoughts. (One could make an interesting analogy here to a contemporary 'Murrican political contest. 'Nuff said.)

Military procedures ... I feel a new blog post coming on. In some basic ways, war and armies have not changed since Troy. I found that adapting contemporary naval bridge procedures makes maneuvering a Renaissance galley in action far more convincing.

On the other hand, there's a tendency in military/naval SF to present military organizations that are very present day (or 20th century) - the same ranks, the same culture, even the tendency toward acronyms. But Renaissance militaries were not like that, and the fighting forces of 500 years from now probably won't be like that either.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, let me expand on the subject of Mission Control for just a moment. While modern computers may be capable of performing all thoses tasks by its self, people need to watch for the unexpected. However, Humans can't concentrate on the huge amount of data that computers can display; so humans divide up the work into manigable segments. In doing this, the Human controling that segment of the work will assure himself that everything is good, before giving the order to move ahead. This is less effecent than just leting the computer do it all, but this only works if everything goes perfectly (and we all know how often that happens). So when the power plant controller, the jump engine monitor, the jump coordinates navagator, and their back-ups, plus the division coordanators, their deputies, and the overall supervisors run all these programs half-a-dozen times before they unlock the safeties and push that final button. And that's just for a once-a-week jump. The everyday monitoring of all the other functions of a spaceship is a full time job. A round-the-clock full time job. And then there are the guys that fix things, replace things, and adjust things on a routine basis. And that's only the basic crew for a ship.As far as a warship goes, even if its a drone carrier, you still have to have people to control the drones when they're out flying around and other people to maintain them when they're back aboard the ship. Spaceship crews are probably not going to be as small as some people might believe they will be. I know that a small group, say 4-7 people, is easier to write about as well as to read about, but real crews will be somewhat larger.
Ferrell Rosser

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what elements of continuity can be found between the militaries of the ancient world and today. By this I mean that the custom, drill, and manner that we associate with armies and navies essentially date back to the 16th century. I've run into writers who figured they could just graft the military culture of the Napoleonic wars onto the Hundred Years War and it showed very clearly.

I guess that my point is that a model of training similar to modern models might not be effective in producing the kind of crew that would be most effective. If you're looking for the ability to work intuitively on the fly our present military training may not be the ideal one; in the sence of the thought patterns and behaviours that are ingrained through the training process. I'm not sure if it's possible to deliberatley train those factors though, or accurately predict the emergence of certain skills while the recruit is still a teenager. As such I find it more likely that if a new training model were to be instituted for crews for droneships likely recruits would be individuals who had already developed the desired aptitudes, who would then be put through the necessary military training.
Alternative models where the equivalent of university level indication in relevant subjects are provided in exchange for obligation of future service are of course possible.

But certain concepts that have been mainstays of military tradition for the last 500 years may not make much sense; like the division between commissionedand non-comissioned personnel. While some form of hierarchy is necessary the specific division of the commssion might not make so much sense given the degree of training and oversight responsibilities required of the common spacer.

All that aside a future that mimics the present in terms is easier to write, and it's more flattering to the modern reader besides. Depicting a different order can be interpreted as a criticism of the previous order, and the portrayals of most SF military organizations tend to be versions of modern forces. The only constant change is the lack of anti-fraternization regulations that prevent authors from developing romances between uniformed characters.

Rick said...

Ferrell - Crew size may vary widely by type. Heinlein spoke of robot freighters even in the rocketpunk era; freighters operating on regular routes between well established terminals might well offload all the human Mission Control functions to ground bases, with only computers aboard ship. You trade off a slightly greater of losing the ship in unusual circumstances against the cost saving on life support.

If the ship carries passengers anyway, it is cheaper to add a control crew, and if the ship operates in areas with poor or absent ground control centers, even pure cargo ships may carry a crew.

A broadly similar principle might apply on the military side: Ships have crews if they serve primarily as control ships, or if they carry passengers (e.g. troops). However, actual weapon platforms may normally be uncrewed, relying on onboard computers and remote human control.

Doug - Yes. I would even date it slightly later; my impression is that it was during the 17 century that armies began to take on recognizable form in terms of uniforms, drill, rank structure, etc. The armies of Louis XIV's time have a continuity with the present that the armies of the Thirty Years' War do not. Though people like Justin of Nassau in the late 16th century were introducing concepts like regular small arms drill.

I agree with you that the military conventions we are used to, which have developed since the period above, may not be appropriate to future eras, and their fighting forces might not strike us as "militaries" at all. (How much do CIA operatives, individually or as a group, fit our mental image of soldiers or an army?)

In my Human Sphere setting, one thing I try to do is avoid a lot of present-day terms, except for a handful of the most general ones, such as captain for the head honcho aboard ship. But no lieutenants, petty officers, or even admirals - I reach back instead to the 16th c. title, Captain-General, for the overall commander of a space fleet. The same applies to ship types - no battleships, cruisers, etc. The standard term for a cruiserlike warship is survey ship, a term reflecting their historical origin.

Anonymous said...

Rick, while I agree with you on most points, I'm not sure about using 16th century military ranks; modern day Air Force ranks (with slight alterations) would probably be closer to what would develop, as far as traditions go. Also, while the names of ship types might not be the same for future combat spacecraft, familiar names may be used in different ways. Future combat spacecraft might be refered to by their mission, size, capabilities, or a combination thereof. For example; a small, agile, heavily armed combat spacecraft might be called a 'fighter' out of tradition or because it fits the role, even if we wouldn't find it very close to our concept of a 'fighter'. Names evolve, like 'torpedo destroyer' being shortened to 'destroyer' or how the U.S. uses the term, 'frigate', while the Europeans use the term 'destroyer', for the same ship type. We should all remember that names are plastic and change over time.

Doug, just to clairify something you said, military training has evolved over the last 500 years into the form we know it today, because it works. That is why military training is divided into teaching recruites military disciplin and tradition; and teaching them technical skills. In most militaries, enlisted perform hands-on duties while officers learn leadership skills. In other words, enlisted do things and officers organize people to do things. Todays high tech militaries need people who can fix, maintain, and sevice very complex pieces of equipment and complicated systems. These people still need engineers and admin types. However, they all need leaders who are trained and skilled in the arts of tactics and strategy. I really don't see this changing, (well, maybe they'll bring back the Air Force style Warrent Officer ranks)except in specific details. Military ranks have also evolved over the last several centuries through tradition and need. As far as I can tell, disciplin aboard spacecraft will resymble military discilpin because it works; you have to seperate military and technical training.
Aso, you said, "Alternative models where the equivalent of university level indication in relevant subjects are provided in exchange for obligation of future service are of course possible." I'm sure you don't know this, but this describes ROTC. Anyway, the details and trapings of an organization may not carry over into another setting or time, but the need for disciplin will. Oh, and the teens you would recruite into a future astromilitary are hanging out in the equivilent of the future's video arcade. Just like today's UAV remote pilots are.

Anonymous said...

Farrell, I do know about the ROTC program, I have a friend in the ROTC program. I also have a number of friends who have served in the Canadian Forces in various capacities. I have also made a study of military history; and whgile I may have a preference for older, less politicized history I have done my share of work in more recent periods. I didn't specify the ROTC program because that presumes a university system similar to ours; and from my own experiences in that area expecting another half millenia out of that system seems a little optimisitic.

My point is that in a situation where the task of actually engaging the enemy is performed by computer systems certain things don't make sense. When every spacer needs to be highly educated in computer programming in order to be effective officers will be no exception; but by that same principle a tactical programmer is kind of worthless if he doesn't have tactical training.

The aptitude for technical skills of the kind needed to run a spacecraft may not be apparent in someone's teens however, and so you might see an increase in the average age of recruits rather than run the risk of spending all that time training someone who just didn't have the intuitive sense for programming to function on a ship of that kind.

I am quite aware of the shifts that have occured in military practice in the last few decades and centuries; though to characterize it as a strict evolution is problematic. But there are also points of rupture, points were an old order breaks down and is replaced. If humanity does expand into space and space warfare results, such a rupture may occur in the course of attempting to adapt to new realities.

Anonymous said...

Doug, I apologize if I seemed condicending; I'm ususlly more diplomatic then that. By rupture, I take it you mean a revolutionary change as opposed to an evolutionary change. I agree that revolutionary changes do occure, but still, the vast majority of the time change is evolutionary, which was my point. I obviously didn't go a very good job of making it! Anyway, my point is that you need both military disciplin and technical training in the modern military or in the military of the future. Also, I think that no matter how good you are with high tech, if you can't conform to the disciplin needed on board a spacship then you can't be used in a combat spacecraft. If you have great disciplin but no talent for high tech, you also won't be serving aboard a space-going warship. I guess my point would be that you need both, equally.

As far as programing goes, I'm not sure thateveryone will need to be able to program at an expert or geinius level, and a lot of low level programing skills would be taught during the technical training phase. Modern militaries invest 100's of millions of dollars to train their enlisted members to maintain, operate, and service highly sophisticated equipment and equipment systems. I don't see this changing much in the future. While the average age of crew members might be in the upper 20's rather than the early 20's, recuites will still be 18-19 years old because it will take years to train them. The ones who aren't sutible for military space travel will most likely be assigned to other duties. Remember, not everyone in the Navy serves in submarines, and not everyone in the Air Force flys bombers. For that matter, not everyone in the Air Force flys. A military unit is not like a civilian organization; it can't afford to be, because it's not concerned with the profit motive, but with warfare.

One last thing. When it comes to designing and organizing militaies, economy many times plays a subordinate part in the decission making proccess. Generals and Admirals may submit plans, but the politicians control the purse-strings and their opinions are the ones that count, in the end.

Rick said...

This gets interesting, because discontinuities can occur on lots of levels. There is an inherent discontinuity to space warfare, especially with highly automated systems, because it takes place in such a different environment. There can also be political discontinuities having nothing to do with technology.

Consider for example two familiar future history scenarios for space warfare in, say, the 24th century. In one, existing Earth powers or their successors engage in a colonial space race, eventually leading to interstellar colonial wars. Basically the 2300AD scenario. In the other, a Federation of some sort expands into a Terran Empire, then breaks up from colonial revolt in some form - a typical future history of the rocketpunk era.

In the first case, space forces evolve or are adapted from present day militaries. While they will have to change functionally, they will no doubt carry over many institutions and usages (things as basic as saluting). In our eyes they might be about as half-familiar as 18th century forces are in the other direction.

But in the other scenario, though the technological considerations are presumably the same, the social background is very different. The Terran Empire may have no true military, because a true sole superpower doesn't need one, only the equivalent of a coast guard in space and constabulary on planets.

So when the Empire breaks up and warfare breaks out, are people all going to dig into history books for Earth military usages from the pre-Imperial age? Probably not. More likely they'll organize their fighting forces ad hoc, borrowing from interstellar survey practice (hence "survey ships" in my future history), space lines, or whatever. In turn these first-generation forces will stir this stew to form new traditions handed on to later generations of the services.

This doesn't even get to the question of what the crews in these forces actually do, either in battle or during peacetime service, but it would have a huge impact on how they would look to us. In the first case we'd almost certainly recognize the personnel as military just on appearance - recognizable descendants of present day uniforms. In the latter case we might not find any of these familiar cues.

Anonymous said...

Love this post! You're getting at some of my biggest grumps...and some of the "new" ideas for stories I've had but never found time to write:

-"what will they do" - Most of what the crew does during an ASW engagement in the control room of a modern submarine is (to avoid discussing operational specifics) refining a complex model of ownship and target relative motion. We try to notice trends, predict target behavior, and place the ship with respect to the environment and other contacts. We try to refine our operating posture to deny the OPFOR the ability to detect us. Much of what is done is checking computer models and rejecting erroneous solutions to the target problem. Intuition/experience comes in here but I don't really want to be much more specific for a submarine case. (I could be more specific about a s/c case if I knew more about your setting.) Once a ship comes under fire, it will usually need to be maneuvered optimally to avoid taking damage. Again there are models to help the crew but it is not an "optimization" problem which (current) expert systems can solve. This may or not be the case in your setting. Damage control is still highly manual. Increased automation would be likely on, for instance, an AV:T torchship: due to smaller crew size and the need to be outside the ship during fusion propulsion plant operation. The skill set needed for this on a spacecraft will be truly phenomenal. The military might tolerate relatively eccentric personalities with the required ability. And there's novels there I think.

-More on what they will do. I think that damage control EVA is an under-appreciated topic in military SF. If you don't have automatic repair systems, you'd better be ready to do it with robotics, telerobotics, and good ole fashioned hand-eye coordination.

-Have you considered looking at a real mission control? contains LOTS of information on what they do there. NASA usually has at least one astronaut-served individual in Mission Control as CAPCOM (caspsule communicator). Not all CAPCOM are served astronauts, I think, but that might be what your spacecrews do when they're not space-side. Remember, even with the best radiation shielding, the dose rates outside the magnetosphere will limiting unless you posit (presently totally unknown) anti-radiation therapy. So I would expect that crewed space assets will be like modern SSBNs or strategic bombers: the vehicle has alot more endurance than any single crew. So you get multiple crews. The off-crew guys will be in training, help manage mission control, write new procedures, lend their experience to a huge variety of analysis, perhaps act as analogues to our modern Intel, Engineering Duty, and other non-line officers.

-A ship should get a *distinct* advantage (esp. in detection) when playing on home field (i.e. within light lag comms distance of strategic assets). The SOlar System SUrveillance Network (SOSSUN) is my tip of the hat to SOSUS. ASW is a team sport. Space control is and will be too. I think it would be interesting to hear about the rest of the team...who are the geeks at you future equivalent of Cornell, or MIT, or the Air Force Academy who find new/interesting ways to find and track enemy spacecraft? Who discover a way to observe a whole degree closer to the Sun? Do these people know what they're working on (ala Real Genius)? What do they do when they find out? Are they spacecrew on sabbadical at the university learning new things about stellar weather modelling? Won't it be sad when they leave their new boy/girlfriend and go off among the stars for six months? I'll bet they'll enjoy their rehab when they get back though...etc etc etc.

-I don't think that the commissioned/non-commissioned system will endure on something like a six month cruise in an AV:T ship either. Spacecrew and their attendant life support systems are heavy. Each one of those crew will need to be multiply cross trained (like astronauts). They'll all need to field day (like astronauts). They'll all need to haul supplies (like astronauts). I don't see an artifical cultural distinction helping much there.

Andy P.

Anonymous said...

A whole crew composed of Warrent Officers, with maybe a couple of commissioned officers in charge? Sounds reasonable. EVA damage control is an issue that needs to be more fully explored. The way you compared combat spacecraft and submarine operations was great, very logical. The multiple crew concept makes sense as well. Whoever, I do think that instead of dodging or avoid detection, combat spacecraft should concentrate on Electronic Warfare, by blinding or confusing their opponents sensors. The first one to defeate the other's jamming and gets a hit usually wins.

I think that the propulsion system used would influence the style of space combat as much as the political climate would. If the propulion systems are a low thrust torch drive, a short duration-high-thrust drive, or something in between, the character of a space military will be different depending on the system used. One would be more like a carrier/fighter (or armed drone) style of operation and the other would likely more like space cruisers.

I do think that local control of armed drones would be a distict advantage over long distance control, due to light-speed lag. Combat between two drone armed spacecraft would be one of maneuver and distruption of the other's sensors and command links to its drones. As far as FTL goes, the specific type would determin the style of military operations as much as the political set up would. Anyway, nice to hear from you Andy. Your comments are well thought out and have a slightly different take on the subject that make me thinking along some new lines!
Ferrell Rosser

Rick said...

Andy and Ferrell - Rambling through both of these replies together. First the whole question of ranks and the officer/enlisted distinction. Disclosure that I was heavily influenced by Heinlein's Space Patrol with its all-officer crews, but as a kid I misunderstood the reason. I thought it was because spaceships were complex, but the real reason was authority over nukes.

Ranks themselves are inevitable, but the officer/enlisted distinction is historical - basically officers were the aristos or gentry, enlisteds the commoners. Note that Rome did it differently. Centurions rose from the ranks - think of them as warrant officers - and rose right up to be primus pilum of a cohort, more or less a colonel.

The "officer track" was the cursus honorarium of the senatorial elite, and it combined civil offices with what I believe we would call field grade assignments.

I tend to follow this somewhat in my future setting. The overall commander of a fleet is not necessarily a military officer in our sense, but a responsible representative of the polity, with responsibilities as much diplomatic as military. It makes sense to pick for this post someone with previous experience in space service, but how much depends on the expected mission.

At a lower level, I can see much of the crew as equivalent to warrant officers: highly trained specialists, or at least highly trained specialists in training. Presumably there are at least a few people equivalent to commissioned officers, and with the same basic role of setting direction and taking responsibility. It may not be a separate track, however, but something you get promoted to if you have that aptitude.

A very good point about radiation, and the possibility that space duty is a fairly small component of a service career, most of it being spent in "shore duty" - much of the latter, unlike today, being much the same duty functions as underway, but performed in ground (or station) based mission control centers rather than shipboard ones.

As to the observations about current submarine practice (wonderfully hedged, I gather, to avoid straying into classified realms), I am going to have to come back to that one tomorrow, either here or on the front page.

I'll say that at least for normal space I'm in the everyone sees everything school, a basic difference from submarine warfare. However, uncertainty is just pushed back a level - you may know exactly where an enemy ship is, and its current orbit, but you don't know what it intends to do next. And that is presumably what human operators spend their time thinking about: What will they do, and what should we do to counter it?

Anonymous said...

Just a quick thought as far as the question of navigation in FTL goes. "Star Wars", for all of its flaws on the physics side, seems to get about the right place for dramatic tension in Hyperspace navigation. Computers that require careful submission from organic intelligence to do anything other than very basic very safe jumps. Jumps themselves are pretty boring to the point where no one even needs to babysit the computer until just as you return to real space. Honestly that sounds about like navigation might be in normal space for any non-torch drive.

Rick said...

I hadn't thought about it, but the Star Wars FTL doesn't have any involvement with the Force, et al., does it?

Space navigation in general is pretty much the epitome of 'rocket science.' It is simple in principle, extremely demanding in practice, but follow correct procedures you'll get where you intended to go.

In most cases - when you aren't escaping from imperial star destroyers - the biggest human skill factor may be making the subtle tradeoffs, as between travel time and propellant consumption, for the optimum payoff.

Anonymous said...

About the idea that a future control room aboard a spaceship for a human crew would be very boring as most of the work would be done by computer, I have this observation:

I work in the television industry, which semi-recently made the jump from linear editing systems (VCR/Tape deck to deck editing) to non-linear editing (computer based editing). The current systems we used, compared to what was used 10-15 years ago, makes many things ridiculously easy. A simple fade out used to take numerous passes to make a reality - now I can do ten in less that ten seconds, and if I don't like them, get rid of them.

The idea was that the editing process was to become much easier, need less people, and cost less man hours. So why, you may ask, are we still working seven days a week, 18 hours a day? Because when computers make an individual process easy, people don't expect the same thing as before - people start asking for more. Now, instead of doing the same edits and working less, edits have become more complicated, leading to shows that would have taken years to do in linear editing days.

This is not a perfect analogy, but it is another way to look at the situation. When a computer can get you from a transfer orbit onto a 10 meter wide landing pad, how much more will the company that owns the ship expect from their crew? Autopilot (in addition to other advances) led to the longest ever bombing mission during Operation Iraqi Freedom, from Louisiana to Iraq(!) in one non-stop flight. How much more will they expect, or be capable of, when they don't need to use slide rules in space?

Rick said...

If you're a newcomer, welcome to the comment boards! (Welcome even if you're a regular.)

This is a very good point, which I'll have to take up in a future post.

In some cases it could raise the same paradox as office productivity software - is an office more productive because it generates more PowerPoints?

Daniel said...

One thing that you all seemed to have missed: (the comments are long, so I speed-read.) The difference between civilian crew requirements and military crew requirements. The M.V. Rt. Hon. Paul J Martin carries 24 people (found ). compare that to the Spruance's complement of 334, in spite of the Spruance being smaller.

Civilian ships don't need much in the way of crew. More crew means more paychecks, and when they get into trouble, they either call for help or abandon ship.

Military ships, on the other hand, are packed with people so that if something breaks, there will be plenty of people around to fix it. Plus, multiply redundant crew structure means that if one dies, you don't lose the only plumber, for example.

I recommend reading _The_Dread_ _Empire's_Fall_ by Walter Jon Williams. He also has a very straight forward FTL: wormholes. You fly in one end, instantly coming out the other. IIRC, computers do a lot of navigating because its all calculating orbits in a torchship.

Plus, he has a good take on space fighters: they don't actually fight. Instead, they guide missiles launched from the big ships.

Rick said...

Welcome to the comment threads!

Cargo ships today carry small crews; space cargo missions will probably be unmanned. In fact, on both the civil and military side I think the only craft with crews aboard will be those designed for carrying people.

Civil or military, a lot of them will be functionally transports and broadly similar in design. Then there will be some civil craft that carry work crews of one sort or another, and their military counterparts.

Spacecraft may not be amenable to much onboard repair, depending on the sorts of things that go wrong.

Anonymous said...

One again, your article is very nice

Canageek said...

I know, I'm very late to the party, but two points:

The first is military ships tend to avoid automation. Civilian ships embrace automation, as it saves huge amounts of money. However, military ships need the ability to transfer resources on the fly if things get damaged. Well, there are no interchangeable machines, but one person can be moved from point A to point B with ease. Now, this may be changing, but this is how things were explained to me. A ship in combat can expect to have a lot of damage done to it, breaking machines. An automated ship can't work around this, while a manual one can move people from one area to another.

The other problem I see is you are making the standard hard-SF writer error: You are extrapolating things to the end of the curve. Think about it; A lot of SF writers go 'if this is possible, it will happen' ; Sure, we will get software that will automatically fly ships through hyperspace for us. That doesn't mean we will get them when we first go into hyperspace, there will probably be years of ships before we work out all the bugs in the software enough to rely on it.

Lets propose a scenario: Hyperspace isn't like navigating through normal space, with Newtonian physics. Instead it is an energy optimization problem, like finding a path through a mountain range that accumulates the lowest total amount of vertical distance, or like folding a protein.

Computers SUCK at this type of math. They can calculate the energy of a given fold, but they are terrible at finding the lowest point in a near-infinite number of combinations. A recent study used a custom made video game to get human players to optimize the structures. It took very little time for most human players to be able to beat the computer.

Is there something special amount humans? No, humans are just better at looking at a system and intuitively figuring out the rules then computers are. Have you ever tried to get a computer to identify a shoulder on a curve? They aren't bad at finding maxima and minimua, but finding the tip of two overlaid peaks? I can do a better job, every time. The researchers have then been able to learn a lot of the rules those players used and feed them back into the computer code.

So what I'm saying, is look into complex computer problems. Then set your story early enough in the timeline of interstellar travel that the programmers are still catching up to the human mind.
"But why can't the humans just describe the rules they use?" Well, have you ever tried to totally document something you do without thinking about it? It is damn hard.