Monday, June 29, 2009

Lord Of My Own Domains II

Heraldic Arms
As the long, slow death of Compuserve reaches its final throes, the time has come at last to move my 'static' website, The Observatory, to a new domain:

I cleared up much clutter from the old site (e.g. political stuff from the early 2000s) that no one will miss, but this is as good a time as any to highlight a couple of retained items of interest to readers of this blog. (You will also note that I've added a shameless little plug for myself, both at the website and on the sidebar of this blog. What can I say? We live in a capitalist system!)

Interstellar Trade: A Primer. For much of the decade my post was the top Google result for the search terms 'interstellar trade,' which was pretty cool. Even now it ranks third, after two links to economist and NYT columnist Paul Krugman. (He once wrote a paper on STL trade!) Alas, with the move it will lose old inbound links and drop down into the long tail somewhere. But you can still find it here.

The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy. Obviously inspired by Diana Wynne Jones, encyclopedia-style thumbnail comments on space SF tropes. Winch of Atomic Rockets has done me the honor of citing quite a few of these - see his site for much, much more of interest.

The Observatory main page has a links to couple of other items, plus (scroll down) a few software toys I've written over the years.

And the comments thread for this post can serve for something I never had previously - a place to comment on Interstellar Trade and the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy, or anything else on my static site.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Affordable Interstellar Tourism ...

Trifid Nebula
Free, in fact. Okay, so it is only virtual, but still well worth the ticket price.

Scroll down about three screens at the Stars website for the Star of the Week. This weekend it is 3 Vulpeculae - click on the link to find out more about it. The site, run by University of Illinois astronomy professor emeritus Jim Kaler, features a new star most Saturdays, and the whole list is now up to 608, about a tenth of all naked eye stars. Scroll down his page for links to the other 607.

There is something very pleasing, at least to me, about reading this sort of travel-guide information about stars and other celestial objects. I get the same experience from Burnham's Celestial Handbook. In spite of my perhaps regrettable (but evidently popular) penchant for writing about how to blow stuff up, and the more respectable desire for knowledge, space travel is at bottom all about the tourist impulse.

Related links: I wrote about sky observing as a road trip, and two posts about extrasolar planets. The image of the Trifid Nebula (click on it for full size) is from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Five Things China Mieville Likes About Tolkien

Eye of Sauron
Blog cannot live by blowing up stuff in space alone, and in a small miracle of exquisite timing Carla pointed me to this intriguing China Mieville essay about Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. Go forth and read it here. Blog will be patiently awaiting your return, to take on Mieville's five points, most of them applicable to SF/F as a whole.

1) Norse Magic. Mieville applauds Tolkien for rescuing Norse mythology from Fimbulwinter and marching down like Alaric the Visigoth to sack Greco-Roman mythology. This is a bit odd to me. I admit that I grew up on an ancient tome called Myths Every Child Should Know, which relegated Northern mythology to a final chapter, and left me with a lasting impression that that is where it belongs. Yeah, Thor and his hammer, yada yada, but I never got the impression they were having much fun. No wonder they went a-Viking, just to get away from it all. Even in bowdlerized form the Greek myths were much juicier stuff.

Yes, I know I'm in trouble now, but it isn't like the Northern Thing is underrepresented in modern fantasy. It is Olympus that has been abandoned, its altars untended, while Zeus and the rest wait, with the patience of immortals, for this cycle to run its course. Among other evils unleashed upon the world, the Northern Thing gave Hollywood an excuse to under-light fantasy, the better to conceal bad acting and clumsy camera work.

2) Tragedy. Sometime around 500 AD, warrior elites who spoke an early form of English whomped on warrior elites who spoke an early form of Welsh. The losers retreated west. Whether these events were tragic depends on your perspective. The peasants probably didn't care. They stayed behind, and to deal with the new rent collectors they learned a broken form of early English, which in due course became the language of Tolkien and this blog.

But Noble Elves have been passing into the West ever since, with a big upsurge starting in 1954-55. Mieville calls LOTR a tragedy. I would call it bittersweet. Mixed in with regret for a declining ruling class is a broader conservatism, in the true sense (which has little if anything to do with modern political 'conservatism'). Middle-Earth, for all its ups and downs, is gradually going to hell in a handbasket. The Fourth Age will be less Noble than the Third, which was less than the second, and so it goes.

I agree with Mieville that Peter Jackson dropped the ball in the films by leaving out the Scouring of the Shire. (He mistakenly calls it the 'Harrowing,' and in fairness to Jackson there wasn't really time in the films.) But calling the Scouring 'petty' is Mieville's biggest miss in this whole essay. The fall of Sauron and survival of Gondor are grand and distant, nearly abstract; the rescue of the Shire is immediate, earthy, and real. And it is the hobbits' own doing. Yet it is part of the grand coolness of LOTR that Mieville and I can agree about the importance of the Scouring while totally disagreeing about why it matters.

3) The Watcher in the Water. Wow, this flies right past me! I agree with Mieville that Tolkien does good monsters, but I must have blinked and missed that one. (Confession that I've never done a second full cover-to-cover^3 read of LOTR, only skips hither and yon.)

4) Allegory. Tolkien famously bashes allegory. So does Mieville, and I agree with them both. Allegory, as Mieville says, does not believe its own landscape. There's an old saying, 'If you gotta message, use Western Union.' Heinlein and Ursula le Guin are just two of the most notable authors who did themselves no good by mounting up on a hobby horse about the present day world. (I got off to a bad start with le Guin; the first work of hers I read was the execrable 'Word for World is Forest,' so blatant in its message-tooting and villains shallower than Muroc Dry Lake that it still makes me want to nuke the whales.)

Yes, as a practical matter, stories can't help having implications for the real world, because that is where the authors all live. But that is no excuse for waterboarding the story to make a point.

5) Subcreation. Tolkien, as Mieville says, revolutionized worldbuilding, and changed the whole relationship of fantasy to the worlds it takes place in. His impact on science fiction worldbuilding was not quite so great. Worldbuilding of a rather literal sort was already established to SF, along with creating future technologies and the societies that wield them. As a curious little matter of convention, maps and star charts have never become standard in SF, whereas a map is de rigeur for any self respecting fantasy novel.

The hazard of worldbuilding is that it can become an end in itself, to the detriment of ever getting around to writing stories about said world. This presumably was the point of M. John Harrison's essay, mentioned by Mieville. You can read an excerpt here – nothing more is extant, since Harrison deep sixed his blog, unhelpful to his argument.

I am certainly not going to bash worldbuilding,a frequent theme of this blog. My beef, as in the space warfare series, is with the unexamined borrowing of conventions. If you want a space navy complete with dreadnoughts and light cruisers, admirals and ensigns, by all means have one – but do it by intent, not mere force of habit.

How much worldbuilding you actually need to do … depends. The basic rule is, enough to make your world real. For Catherine of Lyonesse I didn't do very much – I didn't even name the para-Seine, near the banks of which exiled Catherine lives for most of the book. The bridges across it have names, but the river is just the River. Nor did I work out a detailed back history. I didn't need to know the names of the 20-odd Saxon kings of Lyonesse. It was enough to know that 300 years before the time of the story John of Guienne crossed the Narrow Sea and put an end to them. Tragic to someone, surely, but hardly to a young royal lady whose name is Catherine de Guienne.

I'll add that realism, as such, is not central to the project. We generally would like to be realistic, or at any rate plausible, about details – how to survive a swordfight or a space battle, or the economic underpinnings of pseudo-medieval kingdoms or interstellar trade federations. But science fiction and fantasy, and their cousin genres, are not fundamentally realistic fiction. They belong to the great supergenre of Romance, in the older sense of this word – which emphatically includes romance in the modern sense, but also much more. 'It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory …'

Related links: I wrote about the Romance supergenre here, and was a bit irreverent toward LOTR here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Space Warfare III – 'Warships' in Space?

Imperial Star Destroyer
One more in a sporadic series.

As long as there have been serious shoot-em-ups in science fiction there have been space navies. The analogy is traditional and 'natural,' and even in the rocketpunk era it easily turned back occasional efforts to model the Space Force after the Air Force. Unlike aircraft missions, space missions take days or weeks, often months, not infrequently years. Crews live aboard their vehicles, unlike aircrews or tank crews.

The naval analogy also invites some ways of thinking about force deployments and space operations. In spite of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, there is some preference for drawing inspiration from the big-gun era, especially – and a bit steampunkishly – the Mahanian golden age a century ago, before the World Wars and the complications introduced by submarines and aircraft. In this schema there are broadly three warship types, with familiar and evocative names: battleships, cruisers, and corvettes.

Battleships fight other battleships, especially in fleet actions. They carry the heaviest practical armament and protection, sacrificing some speed and range in order to do so. Cruisers patrol the seaways/spaceways, often operating independently. Though no match for battleships they are formidable against anything else, and are tailored for speed and range: In the classic formulation the ideal cruiser can outrun anything it can't defeat. Corvettes, though to 'Murricans their name connotes a classic car, are lighter patrol craft and workhorses of the fleet, with the virtue of being cheap and therefore plentiful. In the late 19th century these were called gunboats, hence 'gunboat diplomacy.'

Turn the time-regress dial back from 1890 to 1790 and the first two classes become ships of the line and frigates. Corvettes are still corvettes, unless they are sloops of war, gun-brigs, or whatever have you. (Gunboats were then small vessels, often oared, with one or two heavy guns, used mainly for inshore defense.) Ships of the line are rarely seen in space, but the name 'frigate' has captured the popular imagination, and indeed is used by present-day navies.

Take another ride on the wayback machine, to around 1400 – or 400 BC – and the battleships and cruisers blur together. Galleys could be assigned more rowers for cruiser missions, or more fighting men on deck for battlefleet service. (Lesser patrol craft went by a wide variety of names, of which one, fregata, turned out to have a big future ahead of it.) The mission configurability of galleys by loadout is a hint that the three main types are not a universal law, but science fiction has drawn few analogies from the mere 2000+ years of galley warfare.

In SF some hybrid models are also popular – notoriously battlecruisers, cruiser types scaled up to battleship dimensions: dashing, powerful, and with a nasty reputation for blowing up. In space wargames there's also some popularity to using 'dreadnought' for a super battleship, rather than what dreadnoughts were historically, battleships of a later type; and perhaps even bigger classes with colorful names like Annihilator. Destroyers are also rather popular, including as major combatants, though they originated as a specialized type, 'torpedo-boat destroyers.'

Such is the quasi-standard typology. I've used it myself, which didn't keep me from making snide comments about most of these classes here. A number of people have noted that some of these assumptions, such as cruisers being 'faster' than battleships, don't translate very well into space. As practically always, your go-to source is the Atomic Rockets site, specifically here.

But. Space is not really an ocean, and space war forces aren't navies. A few things to think about:

Even without demimagical high level AI, robotics and remote systems will surely be pervasive in space, as they already are. Robotic systems are cheap compared to the cost of spacecraft, they don't require heavy and expensive life support, and no letters saying 'We deeply regret' need to be sent to their families. Human presence, by and large, will be reserved for functions that cannot readily be automated, such as high level decisions – especially Open Fire! and Cease Firing!

Even within the traditional schema, this suggests odd consequences. A corvette has more need of a human crew than a battleship does. A squadron of battleships blazing away at their enemy counterparts in open space does not really call for a lot of high-level decision making, just intensive number crunching. Exercising gunboat diplomacy, on the other hand, or ordering a suspicious spacecraft to stand by for boarding and inspection, calls for policy judgment.

And suppose for a moment that kinetic weapons are dominant. This evokes an image of 'missile ships,' but is that really how it plays out? Say that an enemy war force (of whatever composition) is on orbit from Mars to Ceres, and Earth wants to send a force to intercept it. This does not call for missile ships, it calls for missiles. By definition you don't expect to recover kinetic weapons; their whole purpose is to smash into their target. Expendable buses can use all their propellant for a fast intercept, and use their own mass for whacking the enemy. If you need some battle managers closer than light minutes away, send a control craft along behind them, perhaps fitted with defensive – but not offensive – armament.

If beam weapons are dominant the picture is slightly more classical, but only slightly. Laser platforms don't cannonball themselves into the enemy, and since they are expensive and (unless wrecked) reusable, you would like to recover them if you can. But there is still no inherent reason to put a crew aboard one. It zaps, and is zapped back. The prospects of repairing it in the heat of battle are iffy, or more than iffy, and the repair crew with its life support is an additional expense and vulnerability.

Repairs after battle are more plausible, and for extended missions you might well want maintenance techs as well as a command staff, plus supplies, workshops, and other logistic facilities. But the spacecraft needed to carry all this are more like transport auxiliaries than men-of-war. They might also be largely modular, more like trains than ships. For that matter, fit a military space station with drive engine and tankage and you have a mobile support base. If you win, it becomes an orbital base supporting your forces around the objective. What it never becomes is a 'battleship,' or anything that fits the familiar warship typology.

It isn't even a Death Star, because while it may carry defensive armament there is no particular reason to mount a huge weapon laser aboard it, and good reason not to. If you scale the whole thing down for long range patrol you might call it a cruiser, but really it resembles a cruiser not much more than raiding cavalry does.

Thus, in broad (and sketchy) outline we have a picture of space forces that has little in common with traditional naval fleets. The largest spacecraft, perhaps, are mobile military stations with command and logistic facilities and personnel, not intended for direct fighting. They control and support weapon platforms, some of which might be quite big, whether these are laser platform or kinetic killer buses. You probably also have remote sensor platforms. And you no doubt have patrol/inspection craft, manned and fairly small, to put boots in the airlock when called for.

Taken as a whole you might call it a fleet. But it more nearly resembles a mobile, distributed, and networked fortification, deploying in action into a three-dimensional array of weapon emplacements, observation posts, and patrol details, all backed up by a command and logistics center. (Armies in SPAAACE !!!) Very little of it fits our template of 'space warships,' because it is designed for space, not simply borrowed from the sea.

Okay, your turn. You may fire when ready.

Related links: Part I and Part II of this series. And I took on the unglamorous little detail of logistics here.

Image source page.

Monday, June 22, 2009

More Speeeed!

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launch
Launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, thanks to a tip by Tammy. See full sized image here. As part of the overall experiment, the Centaur upper stage will slam into the lunar surface, with an impact energy I guesstimate as comparable to 10 tons of TNT.

I sort of badmouthed the Moon here, but this is pretty cool!

Admin note: Google seems to have tentatively fixed the glitch that hampered redirect from the previous .blogspot URL of this blog. Of course, if you haven't been able to find your way here, you won't be able to read this notice. :-(

Saturday, June 20, 2009


For your weekend entertainment and edification: Via Atrios (a political blogger, but also evidently a train buff), this very cool clip of the Eurostar high speed train blasting from Paris Gare du Nord to London St. Pancras, 303 miles = ~488 km in 2 hours 3 minutes.

By space standards this is a modest 0.07 km/s - but the visual reference points are a lot closer. High speed rail travel is about the fastest sense of speed you can actually experience. Enjoy!

Update: A link I forgot to add when I posted this, on the prospect that we may get high speed trains here in 'Murrica.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Futures of Power Politics: Tank Commander

Coercion by itself is a dangerously narrow base of power. As Bismarck said, the one thing you can't do with bayonets is sit on them. States and other political entities – those of the past, and those of the future – depend on legitimacy, which transmutes the iron of naked power into the gold of authority.

I have speculated before on this blog about the different forms that power politics of the future might take from the familiar state system of the relatively recent past. But whatever the structures, they are unlikely to stand up very well unless they they can also transmute power into authority with something approaching the efficiency that states have achieved. For this reason – to grab a handy example from the bag – those futures dominated by megacorps, corporations writ mighty, face a basic challenge, or at any rate the megacorps do. If they are to survive in power very long they will need a lot of brand loyalty.

And the legitimacy problem does not just apply to general populations. Most immediately it applies to the human instruments of power. From Lawyers, Guns, and Money, via Kung Fu Monkey ('Your monkey's kung fu is not strong'), a thought provoking essay on how power is lost in the current era. Here's the nutshell passage: It deals with a late 20th century event, but the intended context is early 21st century, in fact immediately contemporary. Its implications for the broader future should be obvious.

Tank Commander is far more dangerous than Tank Man. Tank Man can simply be shot; most seem to believe that Tank Man was later executed, far out of sight of the international media. The regime survives if Tank Man dies, even if the death of Tank Man isn't the optimal outcome. The regime dies, however, if Tank Commander refuses to run over Tank Man. Eisenstein used the Odessa Steps to demonstrate the corruption of the Czarist regime, but the regime didn't die until the soldiers refused to shoot the demonstrators. The successor regime didn't die until Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank in August 1991. While there's some mystery as to the fate of Tank Man, I don't doubt that the CCP found Tank Commander and put a bullet in the back of his head at the first opportunity.
Read the whole essay. Discuss.

Related links: I discussed the Westphalian state system – AKA the universe of the 'Diplomacy' board – and its possible successors here and here, and applied it to a speculative scenario about Mars here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lord Of My Own Domains

Some of you may have noticed - as commenter Ian did - that you are now getting redirected from to (This was happening seamlessly for a few days, and now seems to bring up a formal redirect message - go figure.)

All of this is an indirect byproduct of the long, slow death of Compuserve. My old static website, 'The Observatory,' with my Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and some other good stuff, evaporates at the end of the month. So I ponied up for a new domain, and decided in the process to have my own domain for Rocketpunk Manifesto as well.

I'll also be making some small fiddles with the layout, which (I hope) won't cause the whole thing to vanish! Meanwhile, bear with me and if need be keep checking back!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Space Warfare II - Stealth Reconsidered

Second in a sporadic series.

Space is vast and dark, so for diurnal creatures like us it seems like a good place to hide in. But the darkness of space is exactly why it is mostly not a good place to hide: Objects such as spacecraft tend to be bright, if not in visible light then in the infrared. Drive engines are really bright, as is any large power source not perfectly efficient. Thus the popular rule of thumb in haunts like SFConsim-l, that 'everyone sees everything.'

In the rocketpunk era, before automated detectors, this was not so much of a problem. Human lookouts get bored and nod off or goof off; even if conscientious they may slip into a sort of highway hypnosis and miss a faint 'star' drifting across the starfield. Automated scan is annoyingly non-deficient in these respects.

Physics and technology are similarly unfriendly to decoys. For an accelerating decoy to be mistaken for a ship it must have the mass of a ship, or else passive scan will reveal a suspiciously low power backwash. But if the decoy is as big and heavy as a ship, with a drive engine as powerful as a ship's drive, it will be more or less expensive as a ship, and you may as well go the rest of the way and arm the thing.

A great many electrons have been spilled in vain trying to wiggle out of these conundrums. Of course with a sufficiently large array of oscillating hands you can defeat any inconvenient physics; tactical FTL for example, or (less problematic from a causality standpoint) discontinuity fields that space subs can dive into.

For this series of discussions, however, I am ignoring outright magitech and concentrating on plausible midfuture technologies using known physical principles. Yes, 'plausible midfuture' is a slippery phrase (and a topic for a future post), but it gives us something to hang our hat on. The realm of coilguns and fusion drives is at least defined enough for people to know what they disagree about. In this realm the arguments outlined above are pretty robust.

That said, politics is more complicated and difficult than physics, and so is warfare. Targets will go out of their way, perhaps literally, to be unhelpful. 'Stealth' in the currently popular sense of making yourself invisible to tracking tech looks like a nonstarter, but there are many other ways to be stealthy, even in space.

In the comments to Part I of this series, commenter Mark brought up orbital decoys. The relationship between mass and thrust that gives away low-mass accelerating objects does not apply to non-accelerating objects, in orbit for example. Long range scan then reveals only how bright things are, not how heavy.

This generally is an advantage to the defender. We can assume that in a space setting, important planets (or moons, whatever) have a lot of orbital clutter, from major stations to space junk, as well as defensive forces and decoys. It will be hard for an approaching attacker to tell which is what. Even visual imagery may not be helpful, if warcraft are not obviously and outwardly different from civil types (or can be made so). The Beziers solution, blow it all away, may not be practical for a variety of reasons.

For deep space attackers hiding in the clutter is problematic, but there are other forms of stealth and deception. In Heinlein's Between Planets the Venus rebels seize Earth's military-civil orbital station, including its stockpile of nukes, by arriving aboard a scheduled space liner. Better security measures should have foiled this, but you can say that of many successful operations, and it is not hard to come up with scenarios for military raiders approaching on civil orbits.

For major forces this is harder to bring off. Vast space armadas probably won't be mistaken for Hanseatic merchantmen, but there is the opposite ploy of using relatively cheaper civil craft (perhaps obsolescent ones) to bulk up a task force – or simulate one, drawing the other side into a wild goose chase. How this works depends in part on secondary factors that are dealer's (or author's) choice. Drive engines may have a distinct signature that identifies models or even individual ships, but this is by no means a given. Just don't have 'drive signature characteristic of a Vikrant class cruiser' and 'estimated drive power of 2.5 to 7.0 gigawatts' in the same story. (Or at least have a quick explanation for the differing specificity of results.)

All of these deceptions are on the operational scale, but there are also smaller-scale tactical or 'micro-tactical' deceptions. Opaque 'smoke' can throw off precision targeting. The hidden ship presumably can't fire lasers through it, but it can launch missiles through it (at least if some other ship is providing targeting data). A small target-seeker warhead probably does not carry a scan suite equivalent to that carried by a large warcraft, and cheap flare- or chaff-like decoys only need to confuse its sensors for a few second, and create a few meters' worth of error, to turn a hit into a miss.

In space, everyone sees everything. But in war, no one can be quite sure what they are seeing.

Related links: Part I of this series is here. And some of these points grew out of discussion of space piracy here, here, and here.

Update: This post also generated discussion at SFConsim-l, much of it covering different ground from the comment thread. Yahoo Groups has lame threading, but the discussion spins off from my pimping post here.

Death to Cable 'News'

Iranian demonstratorTake it out behind the barn and put it out of its misery.

This is a 'Murrica-specific recommendation; for all I know, cable news elsewhere may be fine. But some interesting news about power politics has been happening in a place that has had a lot of interesting power politics since Cyrus the Great ... and you would never know it if you had to depend on the US cable news networks. Thank God for the Internet!

This has been a public service news flash. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Diverting the River of Time

A review of Psychohistorical Crisis, by Donald Kingsbury (New York: Tor, 1996).

Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, as commenter Ian M. pointed out here, was written at a time when the intellectual climate favored determinism. People in rocketpunk era SF thought nothing of rainfall being scheduled for next Tuesday morning. Freud was much in vogue, and evidently promised to draw out even the murky depths of human impulses and put them on the couch for analysis and adjustment. (This perhaps explains why Hari Seldon's imagined discipline is called psychohistory, though it is much more like a ramped up sociology and economics.)

Chaos as an idea did not yet really exist. The world of the early 1940s was nothing if not chaotic, but in a way that itself seemed all too dreadfully predictable, World War II the unfinished business of World War I. Perceptive observers had already guessed as much, one dubbing the Treaty of Versailles 'a peace to end all peace.'* So there was plenty of attraction in the idea that intelligent people might be able to figure out a way to formally predict – and act to preclude – cataclysms that seemed all too predictable.

Time has not been friendly to this confidence in predictability, but Foundation Trilogy had an enormous intellectual impact on me when I read it in the Golden Age of SF, 7th and 8th grade. (It also had an intellectual impact on both Newt Gingrich and left-leaning economist Paul Krugman; make of that what you will.) What I learned was that history wasn't just made by Rocket Rangers zooming around and zapping bad guys; ideas could shake more worlds than fleets of interstellar hyperdreadnoughts.

At age 14 it wasn't obvious to me how Asimov had painted himself into a corner. In fact it wasn't even obvious to Asimov how to paint himself back out of it. The problem he had was how to make a story out of Seldon Crises, when their outcome was known in advance (at least to the psychohistorians of the Second Foundation). He got through the first few by showing how skilled statecraft could ease the inevitable transition – in modern parlance allow a 'soft landing' – whereas stupidity made the inevitable much rockier to live through.

But after a few cycles this appeal began to pall, and Asimov had to fall back on a diabolus ex machina, the Mule, to shake up the game by knocking over the chessboard. Many years later he retconned the whole Foundation-verse into his robot stories, which as I argue (in the above link) works in robot terms but not at all in Foundation terms. Asimov missed a subtler point – namely that Seldonian psychohistory carries the seeds of its own disruption. Anyone who works it out can act to manipulate the future in the same way that Seldon himself did, but perhaps to different ends. What happens when rival Seldon Plans collide?

I'm not the first to come up with this. Donald Kingsbury did so some years earlier, and also did something about it: He wrote Psychohistorical Crisis, dealing with precisely the question of rival psychohistorians. Lacking permission from Asimov's estate to set it overtly in the Foundation-verse he does the next best thing, placing his story in a transparent knockoff. Blatant imitation is all too common in SF/F, but this is imitation with a purpose, and it works.

I won't deal here with the plot, or the intriguing little gadget (called a fam, for 'familiar') that Kingsbury comes up with to put a bit of contemporary gloss on Asimov's 50s-esque SF technology. For that, and his plausible retcon of 'Cloun-the-Stubborn' (albeit less tragic than the original Mule), read the book. The flavor is appropriately Asimovian. If you are looking for action of the biff-bam-pow sort this is not the book for you, any more than Foundation Trilogy was.

I agree with commenter Jim Baerg, here, that Kingsbury does a nice job of portraying some the local complexities beneath the surface of the Second Galactic Empire. He also corrects a few minor Asimovian slips. The Empire's capital world, Splendid Wisdom, has a trillion people, versus a pitiful 40 billion on original Trantor. Given a city-planet about the size of Earth, even a trillion people yields a population density only comparable to San Francisco – Trantor wouldn't even be suburban, with a population less than seven times that of present-day Earth.

When the characters visit the human ancestral planet, Rith, things go off the track a bit. It is fun stuff in itself (the Pyramids still stand, as they likely would after a mere 80,000 years, and the Great Pyramid has been tackily restored). But Kingsbury somewhat violates his own argument about the difficulty of reconstructing history of the very remote past, while an archeological replica violates Checkhov's Law in a big, rumbling, four-engined way. The final confrontation of psychohistorians feels rushed as a scene, but both the logic and the implied ethics are gracefully Asimovian.

These are quibbles. I imagine the whole thing would be a bit lost on someone who never read the Foundation Trilogy, but if you did read it - and if you haven't, you should - Psychohistorical Crisis is well worth taking out for a spin.

Psychohistory is unlikely to be revived as a science fiction trope; indeed it never became a standard trope the first time around, unlike Asimovian robots that all but killed off the old hostile kind. All the same the original Foundation Trilogy established a crucial trope, the grand sweep of history. It was not the first; Olaf Stapledon dealt with far vaster eras of time. But Asimov – with some background help from Sir Edward Gibbon – gave us the Fall of the Galactic Empire, the backwards Interregnum that follows, and the implied rise of a Second Empire.

So, let's discuss history in the context of SF. I dealt with the theme in a group of posts starting here. Which themes, analogies, and ripoffs have reached their sell-by date and are due for retirement? What new historical themes and parallels, less drawn on thus far, might replace them?

* This later became the title of a book about one of Versaille's stepchildren, the modern Middle East.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Space Warfare I - The Gravity Well

First in a sporadic series.

A traditional assumption in science fiction is that ships in orbit have an enormous advantage over enemies on the ground. Heinlein, evoking the Hornblower-verse, called it the gravity gauge. In general the advantages of high ground are obvious, and the image of fighting from the top of a gravity well versus fighting from the bottom is vivid. But it is also very likely wrong.

In the rocketpunk era of the 1950s there was little reason to think so. The development of bombers up to that time emphasized speed and altitude, from the B-17 and its British counterparts to the pressurized B-29, then the jet powered B-47, B-52, and V-bombers, then the supersonic B-58 and Mach 3 B-70. But the B-70 ended up getting canceled, and by the time 'Dr. Strangelove' came out in 1964 the B-52s were flying near treetop level. 'Under the radar' has now become a common metaphor.

To be sure, the B-70 fell victim not just to improvements in Soviet air defense but to competition from ICBMs that flew much higher and faster still. Even after four decades of effort and enormous expense, strategic missile defense remains uncertain at best. But this is largely a matter of short warning times, compact warheads, and most of all the conundrum that strategic nuclear defense is ineffectual unless it is perfect.

Large spacecraft arriving from deep space (such as an interplanetary armada) are quite another matter. They are much bigger targets, perhaps 100-1000 times the cross section of a warhead, and their approach track will probably be known long in advance. Once they arrive they have nowhere to hide and nothing to take cover behind. In a rock throwing contest at the gravity well, holding the high ground means no concealment, while the low ground means being able to take cover in the underbrush.

Not even the gravity well itself, as it turns out, offers much advantage. Sure, an orbiting ship can easily throw rocks at the surface, the rocks needing only a small kick to send them down from orbit. But by the standards of space tech, throwing rocks up to orbital altitude is also not very hard. Simple, single-stage boosters in the V-2 / SCUD class will do the job nicely. You'll still need a target seeker in order to hit anything, but sending it up there is not a big problem.

Nor is delivering a punch – the target's own kinetic energy will see to that. Suppose the target seeker is hanging like a popup fly, stationary relative to the Earth at the moment of impact. The target runs into it at, say, typical low orbit speed of 7.8 km/s. As Sancho Panza said in the musical play and film Man of La Mancha, 'whether the pitcher hits the rock or the rock hits the pitcher, it is going to be bad for the pitcher.' Each kilogram of impactor delivers a kinetic whack of about 30.5 megajoules, equivalent to rather more than 7 kg of TNT. (In some circles, I am honored to say, this has come to be known as 7 ricks.)

The target ship can engage the (relatively) oncoming missile, but it has only a short window, perhaps two or three minutes from launch to intercept. What really tilts the contest in favor of the side on the ground, however, is that as US Navy doctrine says, it is better to shoot the archers, not the arrows – and the archers can conceal themselves amid a planetful of ground clutter. Surface-to-space missiles can be carried by stealth aircraft or by submarines, or they can be launched from the backs of trucks. In this last case, even if the spacecraft engages and destroys the 'archer' once revealed by launch, all it has achieved is to blow up a truck. The planetary defenders' tracking system can use passive scan, hard to detect, and the command and control system is even harder to detect.

Some of these factors apply most strongly against ships in low orbit. Against ships in higher orbit, surface-to-space missiles – in contemporary usage ASATS, anti-satellite missiles – must be larger and more expensive, take longer to reach their targets, and have lower relative impact velocities. Hitting a target at an orbital altitude of one Earth radius, about 6400 km, requires an ICBM class booster, and the target will have about half an hour to engage it (or take evasive action). If the target ship is in high orbit, hitting it requires the equivalent of a deep space mission. But the ship is also farther away from any surface target it might be intending to attack.

If beam weapons are available, some of these calculations change. The ship can use lasers (or whatever) against missiles coming up from the surface. But the defender can also fire beams from the surface, and photons are untroubled by any gravity well short of a black hole. Laser cannons are less expendable than a truck launcher, but surface-based lasers are still likely to be much cheaper than similar lasers in space that need a spacecraft to carry them. Power supply and waste heat disposal are also easier to arrange on the surface than in space.

Yes, for story purposes you can handwave all this as needed. It is also true that if the attacker's objective is sheer devastation, nuclear bombardment from high orbit will do the job. (So will the ever popular asteroid toss, but this is just a Rube Goldberg way to get the same effect.) The technical possibility of overcoming enormous attrition rates by sheer overkill is a general fact of life in the nuclear age.

Nevertheless, the general upshot – so to speak – of the shortage of ground cover in space is that the presumed high-ground advantage in a gravity well fight pretty much evaporates. Instead, space forces engaging a planetary surface defense face disadvantages comparable to those historically faced by naval forces engaging coastal batteries. They are both exposed and vulnerable, far more so than the defenders. Their one strategic advantage is that they can change their mind and leave, an option not open to surface/shore defenses. Hostile space forces can also plausibly blockade a planet from high orbit, 'distant, storm-beaten ships' cutting it off from interplanetary commerce. But getting close to a hostile planet (or even one just partly hostile) places spacecraft at a severe disadvantage.

Unlike most of the issues we'll take up when we discuss deep space warfare, this has fairly immediate practical implications. Surface-to-orbit warfare disadvantages all spacefaring powers, because space access is easier denied than defended. Second and third-tier powers, with no space presence themselves, can hold space hostage by threatening orbital installations and departing or returning orbiters. The one piece of good news here is that while SCUD class boosters are already all too proliferated, this is not the case for orbital target seekers capable of zeroing in to hit a ship. Moreover, such target seekers cannot effectively be developed in secret, because they can only be reliably tested in space.

Which is why I did not start this piece with a pro forma objection to militarizing space. For anyone interested in real world(s) spacefaring, the objection is not pro forma; it is eminently (and imminently) practical. All spacefaring powers, and those that wish to become spacefaring, have a shared interest in a treaty regime that discourages development and testing of ASATS that could end up denying space to everyone. Whether this will actually happen is of course anyone's guess, but the fact that some such treaty is in the interest of all major players cannot hurt its prospects.

Related link: I shoot down space fighters here.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ah, Grasshopper ...

Two passings this week deserve a note here, actor David Carradine and fantasy novelist David Eddings.

Carradine was the star of the TV show Kung Fu (1972-75). So far as I know, Kung Fu was the first, or nearly the first, instance of what has since then become pervasive, the incorporation of East Asian themes into our pop culture and adventure mythology. Sure, the evil Doctor Fu Manchu is much older, but he was a bad guy, and probably not one the audience was expected to learn anything from. But the Shaolin monks in Kung Fu did have useful lessons to teach - even if, true to Hollywood, these were mostly about how to beat the crap out of people.

Now we speak of 'Google fu,' kids probably know more about ninjas than knights, and manga/anime has become integral to comix culture and I suspect to our visual language.

I never read any of Eddings' books. Whether fairly or unfairly I had the impression that they were Tolkien knockoffs, and if I wanted a fix I just pulled down LOTR again. Plus, the 'high fantasy' elements are not what most appeals to me in fantasy lit. But - not unlike Kung Fu - Eddings' work helps mark the absorption of those tropes into our popular imagination. This was not inevitable. LOTR might have remained one of a kind, a book everyone into SF/F read, but never giving rise to genre fantasy as we now know it. I hope he rounded out all his series, not leaving his fans to ponder loose ends that can never be tied down.

Requiscat in pace.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

White Space?

In our last exciting episode we discussed weak tropes in SF, specifically Hollywood sci-fi. (Which is arguably a distinct genre, but save that for another day.) Most of these shortcomings have no consequences beyond SF itself. NASA understands realistic spacecraft physics, and people in the future will wear believable future clothing without thinking twice about it.

But in the comment thread, Ian M. brought up an issue with larger significance, the all too pervasive whiteness of SF. As it happens, this has been a matter of contentious debate in the SF discussosphere, a debate dubbed RaceFail '09. I was only vaguely aware of it, like events on an extrasolar planet. But like extrasolar planets it is topical to this blog, so here we go:

Rather than try and reconstruct an argument sprawling across cyberspace, I'll start with one part of it, triggered by a (forthcoming?) new recent book by Patricia Wrede, The Thirteenth Child. I have read and liked a couple of her earlier books. This one is historical fantasy set in a parallel frontier 'Murrica, with surviving megafauna (mastodons and such), and magic. The setting would not send me running for a copy. I dislike magic, never got that excited by the American frontier thing, and don't think mastodons would be half as much fun in a book as they'd be in a movie or graphic novel where you can see them.

But what caused the uproar is what Wrede leaves out: In 'Columbia,' the First Nations aren't even zeroth nations, the New World having no human population till Columbus shows up. Wrede explains:

The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem ...
I appreciate her problem. Noble Savages and just plain savages are equally boring. Her solution I sort of blink at. Even at the level I grew up with as a kid, it means no First Thanksgiving, no Indian scouts, no circling the wagons, no broken arrow or peace pipe. No corn (maize, to some of you), which has been so modified under cultivation that its wild precursors are uncertain. For that matter no Skraelings - so how come the King of Vinland didn't order the Pilgrims to convert to Lutheranism or move on?

Other commentators had a stronger reaction:
There are only two reasons I can think of to eliminate an entire race of people from alternate history fiction: to explore the impact it has on everything else, or because the author is a racist ass.
With that we are, so to speak, off to the races. If you want to try and cut your way through the thicket, grab your machete and follow the link above, or maybe go here. Both linked pieces take the same side of the argument, for the simple reason that that's what I mostly came across in my own brief reconnaissance.

Now, what to make of it? My first, unthought reaction is that it feels like time travel to 'Murrica in the 1970s, which I already visited the old fashioned way. I am proudly 'Murrican, but one thing the Pilgrims brought over was boatloads of self righteousness. Along with that corn, we've been cultivating it ever since. Throwing accusations of racism so freely around comes fairly close to Godwin's Law.

But. Here is a post from a real Indian (i.e. not First Nations) about how problematic genre fantasy can be for someone from a nonwestern background. In micro form, you and anyone like you are mostly written out of it. The issues raised are valid, equally so for SF, even if a lot of the other people raising them online are obnoxious.

The question for me is, what are a writer's responsibilities to their audience? My struggling-to-get-published novel, Catherine of Lyonesse, is full of white people. Since it is set in a parallel Western Europe in the early 16th century, this is not implausible. Due to differences of time line, even a seaman interested in exploration has heard only rumors of an archipelago somewhere west across the Ocean Sea. That rumored land does have parallel First Nations, but my characters will only find out about them if I get to write a sequel.

A more immediately practical concern, for both my characters and for me, is the Monites, adherents of a monotheistic faith modeled on a real one currently much in the news. When the story first took form in my mind, many years ago, Islam was not much in the news. I could fight a para-Battle of Lepanto with hardly a thought to real-world political implications - at least I thought I could. Now that is impossible. Anything I say about 'Monites' will inevitably be read in contemporary context.

In this case the issue isn't precisely race (or strictly SF), but the distinction is barely visible in an ion microscope. I am left, and anyone writing in these genres is left, with a problem not unlike Wrede's. Dismissing entire peoples out of mind (or using them only as handy bad guys) is grotesque, and so is rigidly adhering to a don't-offend-anyone checklist. But the problem won't go away, so I'll throw it open to discussion.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Shooting Sci-Fi Tropes in a Barrel

Via Winch of Atomic Rockets (don't leave Earth without it), a link to Six Sci-Fi Movie Conventions (That Need to Die). 'Convention' here means trope, not a hotel full of people in funky costumes. They are listed in 'countdown' order - rather appropriate, since the countdown itself originated as a movie gimmick - and I'll summarize them in the same order here:

6. Ships' bridges with exploding computer panels and no seatbelts
5. 'Newton, Einstein, Sulak': potted future history in three names
4. Magic character saver / plot killer tools
3. One planet, one culture
2. The 2D ocean of space
1. 18th century infantry of the future

Of these, #6 and #2 pretty well explain themselves. Trek is the iconic violator of #5, naming a couple of Famous Historical People plus one more from our future. Corny, yes, but I'm inclined to give it a pass for at least conveying the idea that there is a history between our present and the era of the story.

The Sonic Screwdriver of Dr. Who is the exemplar of #4, and author John Hart calls such magical gadgets 'plot fixers,' but in fact they are just the opposite. They save the main characters, but at the price of killing plots, or at least sending scriptwriters frantically searching for a retcon. The most notorious such device, unmentioned in the article, is the Trek transporter room. This was originally a simple, innocent budget saver; too late did Roddenberry discover that it made getting out of tight spots all too easy. The implications, and awkward workarounds, have bedevilled Trek right up to the new film.

If colonizable planets are plentiful (for whatever value of 'colonizable'), they plausibly get a pass on #3. The initial colonizers are likely to be a cohesive group, and other groups will look for other worlds to settle. Yet even under this assumption, subsequent immigration could produce 'Chinatowns' - and the more developed, cosmopolitan, and therefore important the colony, the greater the chance that it will draw enough varied immigrants to form their own communities. Alien intelligent races might have a single planetwide culture on their homeworld, but if they are human-like enough to be played by Screen Actors' Guild members with latex foreheads they probably won't.

For the last, #1, the author badmouths infantry in general, ignoring recent historical evidence that boots on the ground still have military utility. (Even more recently we learned the same about naval boarding parties.) But this is no excuse for having future infantry form in line, apparently ready to fight the Battle of Blenheim.

Often, to be sure, this blunder flows from a more general one, unfathomably stupid bad guys, no different from the half dozen ninjas who attack our hero one at a time. In fact the only movie I can think of that showed equally stupid good guys - at least, the protagonist's side - is the film version of Starship Troopers. This movie also had an unusually vivid instance of #2, the crippled Rodger Young 'sinking' out of orbit. Newton weeps, or laughs until he cries.

(Heinlein's book is problematic in far subtler ways, but that is for another blog post.)

None of these bad tropes, as Hart acknowledges, is due merely to unfathomably stupid Hollywood. 'One planet, one culture' is in part a borrowing of the conventions of terrestrial travel literature. If, per Shogun, you want to portray the encounter of Europeans and Japanese, trying to deal with the Ainu would just clutter things up. SF aliens also tend to be metaphors, and one metaphor per metaphor is a pretty solid guideline. Likewise, in various ways, with all the other lame tropes. Even those notoriously unrealistic Hollywood spaceships are perfectly realistic when viewed from a relevant frame of reference:

The general audience is historically happier watching space ships woosh by shooting glowing bolts of energy than they are watching a slowly rotating spaceship lazily drift across the screen. If you're putting tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, you go for the shooty-wooshy space ships every time, pure and simple.
What could be more realistic than that?

All the same these tropes are long past their sell-by date. But they will only get pulled from the shelves when scriptwriters (or authors of books intended to pimp themselves to Hollywood) come up with better alternatives, meaning a) they work at least as well in dramatic terms, and b) they can be seen to work well, by directors who frittered away their youth learning filmmaking instead of physics.

As one example, consider the spacegoing equivalent of #1: space battles fought at ranges more appropriate to Trafalgar than Jutland, let alone Midway. One starting point is to borrow from the well-established film convention of 20th century seafights: Bad guy ship shown firing toward the right, then cut to good guy ship shown firing back toward the left. For added impact, position one ship in low orbit of a moon or planet. From the other ship we see the moon in the distant backdrop - making it instantly and vividly clear that these ships are duking it out at Stupendous Range.

What tropes of Hollywood sci-fi (or fantasy, period-piece, etc.) annoy you? And how would you deal with them, if Hollywood came knocking at your door?