Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pirates in SPAAACE !!! - Reconsidered

Somali pirates did not put to sea to further the cause of space opera, but space opera is an unintended beneficiary of their depradations, because we now have an excuse to reconsider a time honored trope: space piracy. Reread this recent post, and this older one. I have usually distinguished hard SF (and retro-hard rocketpunk) from space opera, but of course it is nearly all space opera at heart, no matter how well we tart it up with realistic details. And because we do want to tart it up, we can look to the waters off Somalia for lessons.

Apart from piracy as such, one of my commenters brought up another traditional form of malfeasance at sea, barratry, a name given to many crimes, the one of special SF interest being scuttling a ship to cover theft of its cargo. As I noted in the comments, this is an eminently practical space crime, indeed one that could already have been committed. If a commercial space launch blows up or sends its payload into the Indian Ocean, who knows if there was really a satellite aboard? (For that matter a launch sabotaged by commercial rivals surely also counts as barratry.)

One form of space piracy is a first cousin of barratry. If you can divert cargo spacecraft onto orbits to nowhere, under the right conditions you can divert one to Port Royal. Unlike barratry, there's no concealing this crime, no uncertainty whether a crime was committed, and you know the address of the receiver of stolen merchandise. How you serve a warrant is another matter, but like barratry this sort of piracy is a white collar crime and requires an insider.

What about 'real' piracy – forcible hijacking of spacecraft? The strategic lesson of Somalia piracy is a timeless one: It thrives along lawless coasts. And the first tactical lesson is that real pirates don't fly the Jolly Roger. The traditional image of space pirates striking out of the interplanetary vastness is unlikely, because a pirate ship on a nonstandard orbit is declaring itself to the entire solar system, putting potential victims on alert and giving any patrol force weeks to respond. Pirates will strike in crowded space, where their mother ships are indistinguishable from a host of civil craft.

Contrary to SF tradition, the asteroid belt makes a lousy pirate lair. It is vastly too big, a billion kilometers across, its shipping lanes likewise farflung. But since space piracy is brazen wherever you commit it, why not Earth orbital space? This will surely be the most crowded part of space for centuries to come, and the first to have a shadow side. Given hundreds of spacecraft, many in similar orbits, and a steady flow of inter-orbit shuttle craft moving among them, we have suitable physical conditions for brazen piracy. Distances in Earth orbital space are hundreds of times greater than in the waters off Somalia, and the Space Patrol can't be everywhere.

Boarding in space has its challenges. You can't board a spacecraft simply by bringing a small craft alongside and scrambling up a line – or can you? The defenders can easily jam the airlock, and cutting your way in is difficult, at minimum requiring costly specialized equipment. But pirates don't have to break into the pressure cabin to threaten passengers and crew, and effectively hold them hostage. Cut the power supply, disable the radiators – technically sophisticated pirates might even be able to hotwire the propulsion system and divert the ship without needing to directly overpower the crew.

Future versions of Captain Phillips will improvise 'nonlethal' means of defense. Evasive maneuver is a classic means of defense; attitude thrusters might also be used as fire hoses to keep boarders at bay. Putting defensive armament on civil spacecraft will be problematic for all the same reasons it is today.

The real challenge for our orbital pirates is not making captures, but where to take them. Pirates need a Port Royal, a place where the art of asking no questions trumps orbital mechanics. So why doesn't the Space Patrol simply blast it out of orbit? That is where politics come in. In rocketpunk days the default assumption was a Federation, a 'sole superpower' taken to the max. No room there for Port Royal, not in Earth orbit, not in the Kuiper Belt.

Remove the Federation and things aren't so easy. Take your pick of a Patrol paralyzed by dysfunctional legalism, or rival national patrols paralyzed by dysfunctional mutual antagonism – save, perhaps, a tacit mutual agreement that Port Royal is worth more as an intelligence-gathering asset than as blasted wreckage. Mix in whatever combination and stir to taste. The conditions needed for organized orbital piracy may be unlikely, but where commerce is rich but authority weak or uncertain, it could happen.

Lurking beyond piracy are questions about space warfare. I have been in the school of thought that sees space combat as dominated by the laws of physics and the vastness of space, where 'everyone sees everything,' and battles are fought by automated systems engaging each other at Stupendous Range. But what if real space conflicts end up happening in crowded space, where at Stupendous Range you can't easily distinguish hostile forces from civilian craft including friendly ones?

How things play out in those conditions could be very different – more complex, and because of the human element more interesting than robotic battles fought in the middle of nowhere.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cooler Than Monorails ...!

Proposed US high speed rail routes
What looks like a serious effort to build a high speed rail network in the United States, something about 50 years overdue. (Really, what an embarrassment that those cheese eating surrender monkeys have the fastest trains in the world.)

Alll abooooard!

Monorails, by the way, were never really that cool, indeed one of the more gimmicky ideas of the rocketpunk era. It isn't as if the problem of providing a smooth, comfortable ride at moderate speed hadn't already been pretty elegantly solved before the Disneyland monorail was more than a gleam in Uncle Walt's eye. Truth to be told I feel much the same way about maglevs. If you really need to go more than 500 km/h to get where you're going in a reasonable time, it may be a sign that The Future will still have a niche for jet planes.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Yo Ho Ho and a Bagful of Khat

There is nothing quite like pirates in the morning news to make you feel like you just woke up in an alternate history.

In principle this ought to be no big deal by now. After all, once the word jihad started appearing in the news nothing should seem weird anymore. If you are younger than about 35 this is the only world you have ever known - bear with my boomer old-farthood when I say that this stuff once seemed utterly remote from contemporary politics. But in fact it was too remote. A vague image of 'fanatical Mohammedans' lingered in the popular culture (I got the phrase from Hornblower and the Hotspur), but the Crusades and all that had pretty much faded into the background. We know that Richard the Lionheart fought Saladin (they also made peace), but what we remember is his imaginary triumphant return at the end of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood movies.

Pirates are different. The golden age of piracy in Hollywood was decades ago - Captain Blood, The Crimson Pirate, and dozens of others, starring the likes of Errol Flynn and Maureen O'Hara. The genre faded away about when Westerns did, the underappreciated Swashbuckler (1976) being a very late entry. But in the meantime the old films had spawned a ride at Disneyland; in due course the ride spawned Captain Jack Sparrow and Mistress Elizabeth Swann, and pirates are as rock solid in the popular culture as they ever have been.

To a purist, for example me, the Pirates of the Caribbean films are hardly 'real' pirate movies at all. They suffer from contemporary Hollywood's assumption that 12 year old boys won't sit still for mere flashing swords and swinging from the rigging, but need lots of ghoulies and mumbo jumbo. Still the new films have the trappings, and have helped keep the pirate mythos very much alive in the popular culture.

Which is why Kevin Drum, one of the sharper political bloggers out there, missed the point when he griped about 'the endless rounds of joking and snark that [pirates] provoke.' If you listen to the laughter there is a nervous edge to it. Not because we're afraid of the Somali pirates as such - they are a long ways away, and as pirates go they are not particularly cutthroats. It's the weirdness. Who dreamed that the missile cruiser USS Bainbridge would engage in a mission so instantly familiar to its namesake 200 years ago? Or that Barack Obama would join Thomas Jefferson on the short list of US presidents who have ordered naval action against pirates?

Drum was right in his larger point, so I won't add to the legion of uninformed bloviators about what to do about the Somali pirates. Go here for an interesting take from an informed naval blogger. In a nutshell this blogger's argument is that the pirates are by no means the worst people running around with guns in Somalia. In fact, compared to the truly vicious piracy in Southeast Asian waters, now largely suppressed, the Somali pirates seem like relatively honorable thieves - practically gentlemen of the corso. (Don't get me wrong - if you think the pirate's life is for you, remember that it will be longer if you avoid getting mixed up with Navy SEALs, or anyone who names ships after people like William Bainbridge or Jean Bart.)

Pirates have appeared before in this blog, though not contemporary ones. One argument against space piracy - that nothing so atavistic could possibly happen In The Future - has pretty well been dropped by three well-placed sniper rounds. (Bravo zulu, guys!) Here we are in the third millennium and piracy is alive and well. Not even furtive stuff, but brazen and well organized, the real deal. Piracy in space still has other problems, because it would be hard to board space freighters from the equivalent of a rubber boat even if some spacelane were as lawless as the waters off Somalia.

But in a world where naval officers in the year 2007 are carrying out antipirate operations, weirdness alone is no longer an argument for implausibility.