At the start of this ongoing series, my intent was to survey the current informed conventional wisdom, as it has evolved over the last decade at places like SFConsim-l, and presented at the invaluable Atomic Rockets website.
This conventional wisdom is rather ... austere. The cold black depths of space, far from being concealing, merely cause spaceships, inevitably bright in the infrared if not visible light, to stand out against the darkness. Plausible weapon ranges are so great as to make even space speeds seem sluggish, and render anything like classical tactical maneuver impossible or irrelevant.
The tactical problems posed by open space combat under these conditions are ideally suited to automated and remote systems, without calling for any remarkable advances in AI - and leaving little reason to put human crews aboard combat spacecraft.
Hardly the stuff from which good schlock adventure is made, but the logic of physics and non-magitech engineering pushes relentlessly in that direction.
Then along come Somali teenagers with not much to lose, and Somali businessmen (in loose but accurate usage) with a good deal to gain, and suddenly future conflict looks more complicated. Here on Earth, naval planners find themselves concerned about the ability of 21st century warships to deploy boarding parties.
Outer space does not much resemble the waters off Somalia, but there is a lesson here: Solutions depend on the problem you are solving. The ability to detect a spaceship a billion kilometers away does not mean you know who is aboard, and while you know where they are going you don't know what they mean to do when they get there. There are times when simply zapping or whacking a ship from Stupendous Range won't do, and you'll need to look for an opportunity to try something else.
There are still constraints. Hijackings and boarding parties belong to that ambiguous zone where combat meets police work. In game terms these sound more like RPG scenarios than classic board wargames. If you want World War II in SPAAACE !!! - constellations of laser stars battling it out - you are pushed back toward engagements of mostly robotic forces at Stupendous Range.
Which still has its own problems. In our last exciting episode, commenter Z suggested that 'this isn't a fight anyone would show up for.' I'm not entirely sure of that. People in the 18th century built and besieged Vauban forts, even though the 'art of fortification' in that era was almost Newtonian in its determinism.
What no one does is write stories about sieges of Vauban forts. Instead people write stories about a different 18th century war technology, the frigate.
Now let's go a bit meta. This blog straddles two quite distinct projects: the human future in space, and Romance concerning the human future in space (AKA space oriented SF). Straddling them - however uneasily - is nothing new; they are almost inextricably entangled.
Most of us got our ideas about the space future from SF, and has it shaped what we expect or hope for. Take for example colonization. We explored Earth's poles, and conquered the slopes of Everest - environments that, in solar system perspective, are nearly indistinguishable from Tahiti - without any thought of colonizing them. In fact we have established a thriving permanent presence in Antarctica without 'colonizing' it.
Last year I proposed a sort of alt-future in space, one in which resource extraction and colonization (if they happen at all) are incidental byproducts of a human space presence, not its central thrust. This would be as vibrant a space future to live in as the traditional one - but like robotic space battles it is not much to write stories about. No one writes adventure schlock about the Antarctic Patrol.
Truth to be told, no matter how much we tart up our stories with Realistic [TM] scientific and tech speculation, they are all space opera at heart. And so we will go on trying to come up with plausible sounding scenarios for people in space to bash away at each other in various dramatic ways.
Related posts: A Solar System for this century, and - from the earliest days of this blog - thoughts on the genre with no name.