Tuesday, September 13, 2011

At the Speed of Story

Shuttle Endeavor docking to the ISS
Spaceships in science fiction, as was first noted by a commenter in the early days of this blog, always travel at the speed of plot. This observation is recurrent, including in comments on the previous post.

The title is a mashup of this principle with Teresa Nielsen Hayden's dictum that plot is a literary convention, while story is a force of nature.

All of which goes to explain why this blog is, in some respects, a futile effort. When story collides with other considerations (such as realistic space travel), story invariably wins.

I have first-hand experience of this problem, which I will be delving into further in upcoming posts. Suffice it for now to say that when a cool technology led me to a story, the story took over completely. And I mean completely. Among other things, not one but two battle sequences ended up on the cutting room floor. They had become distractions from the story; therefore they had to go.

There are, at best, some limited protective measures. The most obvious is to go with the flow. If your story calls for fighter jocks, you are going to need fighters for them to fly. These don't necessarily have to be space fighters - if a planetary atmosphere is handy, air fighters are legit - but you will certainly need fighters of some sort.

The implausibility of space fighters won't get you off that hook. You'll have to either make them plausible - or else say the hell with it and go with implausible ones. This is an eminently safe option. The great majority of readers will neither know nor care. Of the relatively few who do care, most will forgive you. Especially if they like the story.

Other options are available. A radical but straightforward one is to avoid telling a story. This is the strategy I have followed in this blog. I've posted only a handful of fiction snippets here, and most of those had nothing to do with space. (My only actual rocketpunk SF has been a couple of paragraphs in a very early post.)

There is a modest but real interest in 'nonfiction' space speculation. It is not too hard to find blogs or other websites that discuss and describe imaginary spacecraft without trying to tell stories in which they figure. But such is the power of story that it is always lurking, waiting for a chance to intrude. To identify your laser star or killer bus as belonging to the Zorgon Empire is to invite speculation about where or what Zorgon is and how it became an empire. Warning lights flash and sirens warble, because you are now under intrusion by an incipient story.

I ought to note here that all of this applies not just to the details of spaceships and the like, but to the entire setting. I have mentioned a few times here that there are plausible space futures that are simply not very story-conducive. But the comment threads for those posts always veer toward how to get a story out of it.

Discuss.




Last post I mentioned that there are no known cases of spacecraft docking maneuvers being filmed from a third spacecraft. There turns out to be an almost-exception: The image of the Shuttle Endeavor - on its final mission - docked up to the ISS comes was filmed from a nearby Soyuz. It comes from this rather interesting blog.

150 comments:

Tony said...

Thinking back to past disputes about what is and isn't "hard" SF, it occurred to me recently that hardness was at least as much about plausible societies, cultures, politics and economics as much as plausible science and technology. Heinlein -- at least through Starship Troopers, and possibly as late as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress -- is considered by most people you ask to be hard SF. But if you read him closely, it's pretty obvious that his entire understanding of astronautics comes from a superficial understanding of Hohmann and Oberth, while his technolgical knowledge is really at about Popular Mechanics level. But he does provide the goods where the human story is concerned. He also doesn't dwell on technology or science. He glances at it where it's necessary for context, then moves on. Similar observations could be made about Asimov, Anderson, Dickson, etc.

More modern authors seem to think think info-dumping technobabble makes their work "hard". Yet when it comes to story they make themselves almost unreadable by leaping knee-deep into political agendas, socio-cultural melodrama, or ridiculous Mary-Suism.

Just treat your technology internally consistent and matter-of-fact, make your characters and their melieu believable, and get on with the story.

Jon Mac said...

As far as what is plausible and what isn't, sometimes the story comes to the rescue by being about *how* a breakthrough happened that converted the implausible to plausible.

On the other hand, the drama of a story can also be enhanced by the "constraints" of realistic details. For instance, a tale of an 8 month trip to Mars might be much more interesting than a routine FTL 3 day warp to Altair IV, in much the same way that a wagon train in 1850 might be more adventurous than a cross country flight on Jet Blue in 2011.

I love this blog :)

Byron said...

Yes, Tony, we all know what a fan you are of Weber.
As to the blog subject, that is the biggest tension we generally face. We (Tony excluded) want to have our cake and eat it too. Actually, he's not excluded, he's just more strict with his definition of cake.
Anyway, we want hard SF and story, too. And it's often just not possible. That won't stop me from trying.
All of which goes to explain why this blog is, in some respects, a futile effort. When story collides with other considerations (such as realistic space travel), story invariably wins.
Yes and no. There are ways to rewrite the story to take into account realistic space travel, and setting it up right helps. Story might win over the tiny details, but I really don't read SF where the ships move like atmospheric craft anymore.

The great majority of readers will neither know nor care. Of the relatively few who do care, most will forgive you. Especially if they like the story.
I would add my own caveat to this. This really applies to me personally, but it might be general. The level of forgiveness is proportional to the inverse of (implausibiliy times visibility of implausibility). If you have something like Firefly, I'm willing to overlook most of it. It's not really about the spaceships. However, spaceships in something like Star Wars are a lot more central, which is a reason I'm not as into it anymore.
The Honorverse has high-profile starships, but there's a lot of thought put into them, and the model is reasonably consistent, and while physically impossible, it's at least Newtonian.
And I did pick that on purpose.

Byron said...

Jon:
As far as what is plausible and what isn't, sometimes the story comes to the rescue by being about *how* a breakthrough happened that converted the implausible to plausible.
That depends on how far you're willing to push "implausible". If we look at, say, Star Wars, it's very implausible. No technology I can think of would make that work. Actually, there is one but it's pure handwavium. And it really shouldn't be used except in its original setting.
However, FTL or a very limited reactionless drive is a lot more plausible. Actually, it's a lot less literarily implausible. Or at least my acceptance threshold is a lot lower.

Tony said...

Byron:

"Yes, Tony, we all know what a fan you are of Weber."

Actually, Weber was only foremost in my thinking WRT infodumping. I was thinking about Kratman and Ringo WRT political agendas; any number of perspective authors (feminist, sexual preference, religious) WRT melodrams; and, very specifically Kris Longknife novels WRT Mary-Suism. IOW, if I don't name names, I'm probably not talking about one specific person.

"As to the blog subject, that is the biggest tension we generally face. We (Tony excluded) want to have our cake and eat it too. Actually, he's not excluded, he's just more strict with his definition of cake."

My definition of cake is a lot more nuanced than you might think. Being from a family and personal military/defense-industry background, a good military story will likely overcome a lot of handwaving for me. Hammer's Slammers is probably the most prototypical example -- powerguns and 150 ton, fusion-powered hovertanks are enormous invocations of magitech, but the stories have a military verisimilitude which overcomes that.

"Yes and no. There are ways to rewrite the story to take into account realistic space travel, and setting it up right helps. Story might win over the tiny details, but I really don't read SF where the ships move like atmospheric craft anymore."

IOW, we can accept fusion torches, hyperdrive, even artificial gravity, but the resulting spaceships have to behave like they're still in space.

"I would add my own caveat to this. This really applies to me personally, but it might be general. The level of forgiveness is proportional to the inverse of (implausibiliy times visibility of implausibility). If you have something like Firefly, I'm willing to overlook most of it. It's not really about the spaceships. However, spaceships in something like Star Wars are a lot more central, which is a reason I'm not as into it anymore.
The Honorverse has high-profile starships, but there's a lot of thought put into them, and the model is reasonably consistent, and while physically impossible, it's at least Newtonian.
And I did pick that on purpose."


Grrrrr...Firefly. I think the fact that the readership of New Scientist voted it "The World's Best Space Sci-Fi Ever" says all that needs to be said.

WRT Honorverse astronautics, I'll tentatively agree that it's internally consistent, and might even be redeeming in another context. But the Horatio Hornblower IN SPAAAACE! story arc is truly heinous.

Mangaka2170 said...

Actually, I think I may have a plausible explanation for the existence and deployment of space fighters.

If we assume that a space force is an outgrowth of a pre-existing air force, then treating the organization of spaceships like naval vessels simply does not make sense from a development perspective.

However, if we treat this space force's spaceships as mobile bases instead of armed-to-the-teeth warships, it all comes together. A base (especially a forward one) has sufficient supplies and an organizational structure to operate for extended periods should there be supply problems, and if we assume the off-world colonial approach to providing extraterrestrial adversaries for our heroes, the vast majority of planetary defenses will take the form of laser and missile emplacements on the surface.

Now, while it's a cool idea to have our laserstars dueling with surface defenses, it's also fundamentally impractical due to the fact that these surface defenses are more heavily armored, harder to find and easier to resupply than our orbiting laserstar; the laserstar in question would simply get shot down. However, our basestar could take advantage of the planet's surface defenses' blind spot (the horizon) to avoid getting shot at, and send a plane down to high altitude to launch an airstrike against said weapons emplacement, and then boost back to orbit to be retrieved by the basestar.

Since the fighter is going to be a smaller target than the basestar or a hypothetical laserstar, it would also be harder to hit. Additionally, you would want an actual pilot aboard the plane instead of a drone for redundancy in the event of communication loss, because a remote-control drone would be dependent on constant radio contact (and you can't assume that there will be a comsat available to relay transmissions, or that the enemy won't be actively jamming), and an AI drone would most likely be a weapon of last resort rather than a mainline unit due to political inconvenience (accountability is a big one here; throughout history whenever an attack has been ordered, even with mostly automated weapons, there has always been a human being there to press the button or pull the trigger, and who here can honestly say that they'd be comfortable with the idea of a weapon selecting its own targets and firing itself with no human input other than to order the attack?).

Of course, since we're assuming that these planes are capable of descending to high altitude and returning to orbit, they must be capable of at least minimal spaceflight. Therefore, should the enemy get their hands on combat spaceships of their own these fighters (or a variant thereof) should also be capable of orbit-to-orbit target interception as well as orbit-to-surface strikes.

Another advantage of this setup is that launching an attack from orbit is less likely to put the basestar itself in danger of counterattack (since it's not doing any attacking of its own) and it allows for much greater force projection than with a laserstar (or even a group of them) of equivalent size, which would be more important on a strategic level than concentrated firepower (and yes, invading a planet would probably be strategic-level).

Anonymous said...

I agree with Rick about a good story trumping minor amounts of handwavium; you may nitpick later, but while you're watching or reading it, you're competely entranced.

Ferrell

Byron said...

Tony:
IOW, we can accept fusion torches, hyperdrive, even artificial gravity, but the resulting spaceships have to behave like they're still in space.
That's a pretty good description. And honestly, the Honorverse is about the hardest series among space opera. Yes, they have gravity manipulation and FTL, but that's about it. Everything else still works the same.
I'm not the biggest fan of the story arc chosen, but they're still quite good.
And I'm going to stop there. I don't want to reopen that debate.

Grrrrr...Firefly. I think the fact that the readership of New Scientist voted it "The World's Best Space Sci-Fi Ever" says all that needs to be said.
Point. As I said, though. The spaceship was in the background. It might have been a character in it's own right, but the show wasn't space opera.

My definition of cake is a lot more nuanced than you might think.
I never said it wasn't. What I meant was that you didn't view as cake what the rest of us did.

Ferrell:
I agree with Rick about a good story trumping minor amounts of handwavium; you may nitpick later, but while you're watching or reading it, you're competely entranced.
True. The problem arises when the hands are being waved so fast to keep the implausible in the air that they ignite from air friction.

Mangaka:
Now, while it's a cool idea to have our laserstars dueling with surface defenses, it's also fundamentally impractical due to the fact that these surface defenses are more heavily armored, harder to find and easier to resupply than our orbiting laserstar; the laserstar in question would simply get shot down. However, our basestar could take advantage of the planet's surface defenses' blind spot (the horizon) to avoid getting shot at, and send a plane down to high altitude to launch an airstrike against said weapons emplacement, and then boost back to orbit to be retrieved by the basestar.
And this is consistent with PMF how? Why a manned fighter? Why not a missile? And that's still not a space fighter. It's an aerospace fighter. And how does it get back? And why is an airstrike best anyway? Haven't you heard of SAMs? A fighter will be far easier to intercept than a kinetic at mach 20.

Jim Baerg said...

Byron said: "Honorverse is about the hardest series among space opera. Yes, they have gravity manipulation and FTL, but that's about it."

I'm inclined to rank Bujold's Vorkosigan series as slightly harder. Parly because 'wormhole' only FTL sounds like the least implausible version. However, mostly because I like her thinking about the effects of biotech advances on human society.

BTW where is the comment by 'Mangaka' from. I don't see it in this thread, to get context.

Byron said...

Jim:
I'm inclined to rank Bujold's Vorkosigan series as slightly harder. Parly because 'wormhole' only FTL sounds like the least implausible version. However, mostly because I like her thinking about the effects of biotech advances on human society.
I will admit to not having read that. It's still very hard by opera standards.

Mangaka's comment got caught in the spam filter, while I got the email. Rick can let it out, but I'll reproduce it separately in the meantime.

Byron said...

Mangaka 2170: (I in no way endorse this)
Actually, I think I may have a plausible explanation for the existence and deployment of space fighters.

If we assume that a space force is an outgrowth of a pre-existing air force, then treating the organization of spaceships like naval vessels simply does not make sense from a development perspective.

However, if we treat this space force's spaceships as mobile bases instead of armed-to-the-teeth warships, it all comes together. A base (especially a forward one) has sufficient supplies and an organizational structure to operate for extended periods should there be supply problems, and if we assume the off-world colonial approach to providing extraterrestrial adversaries for our heroes, the vast majority of planetary defenses will take the form of laser and missile emplacements on the surface.

Now, while it's a cool idea to have our laserstars dueling with surface defenses, it's also fundamentally impractical due to the fact that these surface defenses are more heavily armored, harder to find and easier to resupply than our orbiting laserstar; the laserstar in question would simply get shot down. However, our basestar could take advantage of the planet's surface defenses' blind spot (the horizon) to avoid getting shot at, and send a plane down to high altitude to launch an airstrike against said weapons emplacement, and then boost back to orbit to be retrieved by the basestar.

Since the fighter is going to be a smaller target than the basestar or a hypothetical laserstar, it would also be harder to hit. Additionally, you would want an actual pilot aboard the plane instead of a drone for redundancy in the event of communication loss, because a remote-control drone would be dependent on constant radio contact (and you can't assume that there will be a comsat available to relay transmissions, or that the enemy won't be actively jamming), and an AI drone would most likely be a weapon of last resort rather than a mainline unit due to political inconvenience (accountability is a big one here; throughout history whenever an attack has been ordered, even with mostly automated weapons, there has always been a human being there to press the button or pull the trigger, and who here can honestly say that they'd be comfortable with the idea of a weapon selecting its own targets and firing itself with no human input other than to order the attack?).

Of course, since we're assuming that these planes are capable of descending to high altitude and returning to orbit, they must be capable of at least minimal spaceflight. Therefore, should the enemy get their hands on combat spaceships of their own these fighters (or a variant thereof) should also be capable of orbit-to-orbit target interception as well as orbit-to-surface strikes.

Another advantage of this setup is that launching an attack from orbit is less likely to put the basestar itself in danger of counterattack (since it's not doing any attacking of its own) and it allows for much greater force projection than with a laserstar (or even a group of them) of equivalent size, which would be more important on a strategic level than concentrated firepower (and yes, invading a planet would probably be strategic-level).

Byron said...

And it got caught again. I don't know what to say. He was advocating manned fighters for a lot of reasons. They were somehow supposed to take out laserstar-immune defenses.

Tony said...

Single seat fighters I'm not seeing, but I can see small, 3-5 man gunboats, maybe with atmospheric capabilities. Simply put, having a human decision making capability on-scene can make a big difference with light time lag issues. Also, getting in closer with sensors can make a difference in the amount and detail of tactical data one can capture, even in space. That's why we send probes to other planets -- relatively small and cheap instruments can find stuff out from up close that the best instruments can't from tens or hundreds of millions of kilometers.

WRT why send a manned craft over the horizon? Because it can carry a variety of weapons and countermeasures that a missile can't, and its crew can do an on-the-spot strike evaluation, initiating an immediate re-attack if necessary. Yes, that could be managed through a remote control armed drone, but you can't jam comms from a pilot's eyes to his brains like you can from a drone to a remote control station.

Byron said...

Tony:
Not this again.
The original post was using the inability of laserstars to duel planetary defenses as the rationale for fighters. There is no planetary defense that I can see that can stand a laserstar that can't cheaply stand an airstrike. Not to mention that there's no reason to use an airstrike against fixed defenses. A kinetic or a nuke works just as well, and it's a lot cheaper.
I can see a few atmospheric bombers, but they aren't going to be more than drop-capable. There's no reason for them to be, as they can't carry enough weapons to be useful from orbit, and I don't see their survivability being better than a laserstar.

Byron said...

On manned re-targeting:
For every weapon, there is a point at which the firing is irrevocable. From that time on, it can't be stopped (unless it's shot down or something) or retargeted. For the tomahawk at maximum range, this time is almost 2 hours. That's comparable to some of the more likely kinetic deployment orbits. And you could still retarget or stop it remotely, probably to a few minutes before impact. I really don't see the problem.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Rick:

"There is a modest but real interest in 'nonfiction' space speculation."

Frankly I'm not very interested in this. The only nonfiction space speculation that makes sense to me is the immediate future - stuff we could do right now if we threw the money at it. Anything else, we'll cross that interstellar distance when we come to it.

Of course "fiction" can be applied loosely. Some people just want to paint a static picture of a pretty space station, with no story attached. Others want to write a roleplaying game rulebook, which have no plot until the players make up one of their own.



Tony:

"IOW, we can accept fusion torches, hyperdrive, even artificial gravity, but the resulting spaceships have to behave like they're still in space."

I am going to quote my own comment in the previous thread here:

"Another opinion of mine is that you get more realism leeway in human-made stuff than natural stuff. I can suspend disbelief in humans building wacky and implausible magitech, as long as it's handled reasonably consistently. Many details of the setting, particularly onboard a ship or station, can then be justified as "well, humans just felt like making it that way". But I can't so easily suspend disbelief in there being sound or friction in space, since humans didn't create space and so don't get to define how it behaves, no matter what magitech they have."

Earth-level gravity on a ship? Sure, it's magitech, but humans did make that ship. Fine by me. But do get your orbital mechanics right, unless you're explicit about your ships having such powerful antigravity drives that they can just ignore orbits entirely. In which case don't use "in orbit" as a synonym for "near a planet".

Also, if you have Earth-level artificial gravity on your ship, don't show a public service statement telling passengers that they might suffer bone loss from the lack of gravity. Duh. (Can you tell what movie I'm yelling at here?)



Byron:

"That's comparable to some of the more likely kinetic deployment orbits. And you could still retarget or stop it remotely, probably to a few minutes before impact."

Not if you're beyond the horizon from your target(s) and so can't see the missile!

Byron said...

Milo:
Not if you're beyond the horizon from your target(s) and so can't see the missile!
Luke did a fairly long analysis of that, and if you're closer than an earth diameter, you should be able to see it. (I think. It may be barely below the horizon instead.) Look in SW XII for more details.
Even then, I'm talking about kinetics fired at stationary, strategic targets. We routinely accept weapons that are completely autonomous for years after they are employed (mines) and lots of missiles have hour-plus flight times. There's no reason to worry about last-minute retargeting.

Cambias said...

I deny that there's a conflict between Story on the one hand and scientific realism on the other. Constraints encourage creativity and hard science provides plenty of constraints.

Note that I don't think a story must have accurate science -- I'm perfectly happy with a good space opera, like Bujold's stories. (Her FTL may be semi-plausible but her spacecraft and space battles are pure Star Trek handwavium.) But I do think that writers play up the imaginary conflict between story and science; I'm not sure why.

Byron said...

Cambias:
I deny that there's a conflict between Story on the one hand and scientific realism on the other. Constraints encourage creativity and hard science provides plenty of constraints.
Yes and no. The problem is that you can constrain yourself into a bad story, which can happen easily with very hard sci-fi. It's simply hard to make an exciting story with near-future tech. They then say "I can't do the story I want with strict realism, so realism goes out the window."
The second is the amount of research required to do a story on non-near future tech.
The third is "ew, math."

Geoffrey S H said...

Byron:

"A kinetic or a nuke..."

Depends on how willing you are to use weapons of that power. Yes, I know it is the cheapest most practical way, but if you want the local populace to be on speaking terms with you a century from now, for whatever reason, something like that might be a little too much power. It all depends on what story you want of course. Sending an aero drone to drop a MOAB/JDAM on the target might once be necessary.

In total war, none of this applies.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Byron:

"We routinely accept weapons that are completely autonomous for years after they are employed (mines)"

Actually, we don't anymore. I'm pretty sure international treaties have banned mines that aren't keyed to self-destruct after the battle.

Tony said...

Byron:

"Not this again.
The original post was using the inability of laserstars to duel planetary defenses as the rationale for fighters. There is no planetary defense that I can see that can stand a laserstar that can't cheaply stand an airstrike."


That doesn't follow at all. Just because you can engage a relatively slow moving (in terms of angular velocity) target close to the zenith doesn't mean you can engage a fast moving target close to your horizon. In fact, it's not likely at all considering that a planetary defense laser would be more like a large observatory telescope than an anti-aircraft artillery piece.

Before you go there, yes, there will be a horizon to hide behind and appear over, since the original setup presumed that forces in space could be safe over the planetary horizon. So there isn't 100% coverage, which would be a different issue.

Personally, I would surround a defense site with anti-aircraft weapons, just in case the enemy had fighters or gunboats that could descend into the atmosphere and attack the primary laser(s) from a low angle at high angular velocities. But money isn't infinite. Also, some of the attacking craft could easily be equipped for defense suppression.

Remember, fighter and strike aricraft exist because there are horizons. If you presume that horizons are still relevant to orbital-planet combat, then relatively small strike craft and anti-strike craft (which is what fighters are) makes some amount of sense.

"Not to mention that there's no reason to use an airstrike against fixed defenses. A kinetic or a nuke works just as well, and it's a lot cheaper."

WMDs are problematic, for what should be obvious reasons.

"I can see a few atmospheric bombers, but they aren't going to be more than drop-capable. There's no reason for them to be, as they can't carry enough weapons to be useful from orbit, and I don't see their survivability being better than a laserstar."

As should be clear from the proceeding, the point is precisely not to attack from an orbit, at an angular velocity that the planetary defense laser can handle. The point is to attack the laser's weakness, which is a high angular velocity attack at close range.

Byron said...

Geoffrey:
Depends on how willing you are to use weapons of that power.
I'm not talking about dropping asteroids. The problem is that anything that can stand a laserstar has a lot of armor. And that means a heavy weapon to get through it. Probably a ton or two of orbital kinetic, equivalent to a MOAB in energy. There's no easy way through.

Milo:
Actually, we don't anymore. I'm pretty sure international treaties have banned mines that aren't keyed to self-destruct after the battle.
Depends on the situation. The land mine ban is in effect, but it doesn't cover anti-tank or naval mines. And they were used for a century before that.

Tony:
That doesn't follow at all. Just because you can engage a relatively slow moving (in terms of angular velocity) target close to the zenith doesn't mean you can engage a fast moving target close to your horizon. In fact, it's not likely at all considering that a planetary defense laser would be more like a large observatory telescope than an anti-aircraft artillery piece.
I said cheaply. It comes with a decent bit of armor, and SAMs/ABMs are fairly cheap compared to ASAT weapons. Yes, a planetary laser has no inherent AA capability. But why not have some secondary mirrors that do? Use the same generator, and it's not all that costly to make this trick impossible. Actually, I expect that such secondaries will be standard anyway to defend against kinetics.

Before you go there, yes, there will be a horizon to hide behind and appear over, since the original setup presumed that forces in space could be safe over the planetary horizon. So there isn't 100% coverage, which would be a different issue.

Personally, I would surround a defense site with anti-aircraft weapons, just in case the enemy had fighters or gunboats that could descend into the atmosphere and attack the primary laser(s) from a low angle at high angular velocities. But money isn't infinite. Also, some of the attacking craft could easily be equipped for defense suppression.

And these attacking craft work how? They have to be able to be carried between planets, enter a hostile planet's atmosphere, fight their way to the defense laser through AA and atmospheric fighters, take out said laser, and then return to orbit. That's a very long list, and if you absolutely have to have a low-speed delivery, a cruise missile seems a much better option. It's far smaller, and you aren't going to have to write letters.
And as I stated before, retarget isn't a big deal.

Remember, fighter and strike aricraft exist because there are horizons. If you presume that horizons are still relevant to orbital-planet combat, then relatively small strike craft and anti-strike craft (which is what fighters are) makes some amount of sense.
That doesn't follow. The horizon limitations that drive scouting are far less restrictive. If I'm not concerned with the far side of a planet's surface, two ships separated by, say, 30 degrees should tell me everything I need to know. Blind spots would be on the order of 40 minutes at most.

Byron said...

Tony, continued:
WMDs are problematic, for what should be obvious reasons.
I threw that out as a suggestion. We're talking about shooting a defense laser. If an orbital kinetic can't take it out, neither can anything else short of a nuke.

As should be clear from the proceeding, the point is precisely not to attack from an orbit, at an angular velocity that the planetary defense laser can handle. The point is to attack the laser's weakness, which is a high angular velocity attack at close range.
The particular method of attack puts you in the heart of the kill zone for a lot of weapons, many of which are cheap. And those weapons will be there, particularly if the world is balkanized. And even if that is the best way (because kinetics don't work for some reason) as stated above, a cruise missile is far better. It's smaller and less massive, presumably stealthier, and expendable. The lack of return to orbit capacity alone justifies it, not to mention the carrying people bit. The only thing it can't do is change targets at the last minute. If you've come all the way from another planet and gotten to the point of shooting at defense lasers, I don't think that's an issue.

Tony said...

Re: Byron

You're arguing from the point of view that defense is absolutely superior to offense. But that's not the case. Defense is only relatively superior to offense. And it's only superior at the tactical level. At the operational level, if you can isolate a defended area you can overcome it. In the situation we seem to be discussing, the orbitals have been captured (or were ceded by the defense) and the planetary defense installations, however many of them there are, are isolated on the surface.

So you send down your close range attackers to suppress the anit-air capabilities of the defense installations -- whatever they consist of -- followed by an immediate attack on the primary defense lasers. What you don't do is sit back and bombard with missiles in order to reduce the defenses a few AAA/AAM sites at a time, giving the defenders a chance to repair or shift resources while you do strike evaluation and plan further attacks.

WRT what attack craft can do or not do, we already have large, integrated planetary defense sites and laserstars. Transatmospheric craft with plenty of delta-v and weapons payload shouldn't be a surprise.

Byron said...

Tony:
You're arguing from the point of view that defense is absolutely superior to offense. But that's not the case. Defense is only relatively superior to offense. And it's only superior at the tactical level. At the operational level, if you can isolate a defended area you can overcome it. In the situation we seem to be discussing, the orbitals have been captured (or were ceded by the defense) and the planetary defense installations, however many of them there are, are isolated on the surface.
That is not how it works. Remember, first the stuff has to get down to the surface (or into the atmosphere). This either necessitates going through any ASAT/ABM defenses, or going somewhere where they aren't. And also remember that our best estimate for the range of those kind of weapons was about 1000 km. That makes it rather hard to drop nearby. Cruise missiles will probably take lighter casualties on the way down, and even if they don't they're expendable. And lighter. And if you don't, the enemy has that space to do things like intercept you with his own fighters. And an aerospace fighter will have severe penalties compared to a comparable atmospheric one. It's larger and far more expensive, not to mention shipping.

So you send down your close range attackers to suppress the anit-air capabilities of the defense installations -- whatever they consist of -- followed by an immediate attack on the primary defense lasers. What you don't do is sit back and bombard with missiles in order to reduce the defenses a few AAA/AAM sites at a time, giving the defenders a chance to repair or shift resources while you do strike evaluation and plan further attacks.
And what makes you think that was my plan? You calculate that the defenses will kill 90% of cruise missiles. You decide to be safe, and launch 30. You launch them all at once. Three should get through to the target. Simple.
Also, they don't have to suppress the defenses. They just have to come in enough numbers to get through. And I'd estimate that you can have 10 cruise missiles per fighter cost, and at best 4 sorties per missile cost.
As an aside, remember the following. A cruise missile is more survivable, and even if survivability is equal, more likely to complete it's mission. Why?
A cruise missile's mission is to hit its target. A fighter's mission is to hit its target and get home. The defenders will still be able to shoot on the way out.

WRT what attack craft can do or not do, we already have large, integrated planetary defense sites and laserstars. Transatmospheric craft with plenty of delta-v and weapons payload shouldn't be a surprise.
I thought that PMF meant no making up new technologies. I cannot think of anything short of Orion that would allow the sort of SSTO you speak of. Even if there was such a thing, remember that the opponent can probably deploy 10 of comparable performance for every one you can. And he can build more, using the pilots of the ones he shot down.

I have a simple question:
Why would you use manned craft to deliver the weapons, in light of my points on cruise missile performance?
Answer it. No evasions, like in the above post.

Tony said...

Byron (1):

"That is not how it works. Remember, first the stuff has to get down to the surface (or into the atmosphere). This either necessitates going through any ASAT/ABM defenses, or going somewhere where they aren't. And also remember that our best estimate for the range of those kind of weapons was about 1000 km. That makes it rather hard to drop nearby."

What ASAT/ABM defenses are we talking about here? We started with a laserstar duelling a planetary defense laser installation. We stipulated that it was possible for a space invader to safe from such a system if over the horizon and (presumably, though stipulated) relatively low orbit. That means that whatever defenses exist, they're isolated and local to the laser installation(s). Even if those included ABMs, with the loss of orbital surveillance and the likely preliminary neutralization of remotely positioned surveillance radars, those ABMs could only attack something over their horizon. It would be no trouble whatsoever to include in the attack plan a reentry profile that stays below those systems horizons until deep emough in the atmopshere to render them ineffective.

Attacking isolated, fixed defenses is an exercise in engineering much more than it is an exercise in tactics. It always has been. If you know enough to avoid or neutralize the various defense capabilities, the only tactics involved are the ones you use to evade the defenders' counterattacks while you reduce the defense.

"Cruise missiles...they're expendable. And lighter...the enemy has that space to do things like intercept you with his own fighters...And an aerospace fighter will have severe penalties compared to a comparable atmospheric one. It's larger and far more expensive, not to mention shipping...And what makes you think that was my plan? You calculate that the defenses will kill 90% of cruise missiles. You decide to be safe, and launch 30. You launch them all at once. Three should get through to the target. Simple...Also, they don't have to suppress the defenses. They just have to come in enough numbers to get through. And I'd estimate that you can have 10 cruise missiles per fighter cost, and at best 4 sorties per missile cost.
As an aside, remember the following. A cruise missile is more survivable, and even if survivability is equal, more likely to complete it's mission. Why?
A cruise missile's mission is to hit its target. A fighter's mission is to hit its target and get home. The defenders will still be able to shoot on the way out."


Saturation attack is indeed one option, but I wouldn't use cruise missiles for one. (We certainly don't use them that way today.) I would use ballistic RVs for something like that. Also, a saturation attack does indeed suppress the defenses. It just does it by occupying and hopefully overloading them, rather than destroying them.

WRT the idea that cruise missiles are cheaper, you're ignorign the fact that manned craft can carry more than one weapon per sorty, can carry much more sophisticated countermeassures, and can be used for more than one mission. I would in fact expect them anned craft to execute a standoff defense suppression and maybe even a standoff primary target attack. That's how SEAD is done with anti-radar missiles today. Their value against a defense site is the ability to react in real time to tactical contingencies -- which of course could be the difference between success and failure.

WRT defensive atmospheric fighters, sure, they could exist. But they would be just another defense capability that needed to be suppressed. That's how one has to think in amphibious warfare -- whcih space invasion is just another version of, conceptually. You inventory known defensive capabilities and develop a systematic plan for reducing them.

Tony said...

Byron (2):

"I thought that PMF meant no making up new technologies."

Sorry, Byron, but when we're talking laserstars and planetary defenses, we're talking way beyond the PMF. We're talking interstellar level warfare. (There's never going to a be Mars v
Earth war in the PMF.) At that point transatmospheric craft with decent atmospheric performance are just another capability you're likely to have available.

"I have a simple question:
Why would you use manned craft to deliver the weapons, in light of my points on cruise missile performance?
Answer it. No evasions, like in the above post."


I didn't evade anything. I just discussed the problem at a level (operational) that you weren't considering. At that level, tactics are just implementation details. To attack an isolated defenseive emplacement, first you must isolate it. That was assumed, so I then went into how isolation at the operational level reduced the tactics to a game of rock/paper/scissors.

At the tactical level, I think manned craft would have a place because they are more responsive to emerging tactical events. If they are too vulnerable, then I would probably try a saturation attack with ballistic weapons, seeing as I have the orbital gauge. Cruise missiles are too expensive for saturation attack. Their strength is penetration to a target without sophisticated local defenses. We've already eliminated that possibility by supposing strong, sophisticated local defenses.

But below a certain level of vulnerability, I would always choose manned close supervision of weapons employment over remote control. It's just more flexible and responsive.

Brian/neutrino78x said...

In my opinion, you guys are making far too complex a definition of Hard SF.

To me, Hard SF just means that the science is hard. That is to say, no FTL, no "gravity floors" (as seen in ST and SW), no sound in space, no acceleration faster than 1 G or so for prolonged periods of time without acceleration protection of some kind (liquid acceleration tanks etc), and the propulsion system has to known.

In other words "tachyon drive" isn't Hard SF because tachyons have never been observed in nature, and it isn't clear why you want to use them for propulsion.

Anyway, that's my definition. To me, having an "implausible" story in terms of human behavior does not make it less Hard SF.

Brian said...

Tony, I think a Mars vs Earth war is far more plausible than an interstellar war, given physics as we understand it today, that is to say, there is no FTL.

I would argue that there will be no wars between separate star systems. You're not going to start a war if it takes 20 years to get to the enemy (that is to say, 20 light-years away). War with an enemy that goes from system to system destroying things, yes. But war where ships regularly go between stars to fight, no.

Whereas, Mars is much closer; at the speed of light, as close as 15 minutes, and no farther than about 45 minutes, and at chemical propulsion speeds, six months.

Plus, wars between colonies on Mars or colonies on moons orbiting the same planet would be even more likely. But my post is getting too long again, argh.

Tony said...

Brian/neutrino78x:

"In my opinion, you guys are making far too complex a definition of Hard SF.

To me, Hard SF just means that the science is hard. That is to say, no FTL, no "gravity floors" (as seen in ST and SW), no sound in space, no acceleration faster than 1 G or so for prolonged periods of time without acceleration protection of some kind (liquid acceleration tanks etc), and the propulsion system has to known."


Hard SF is not defined as "lacking any speculative elements whatsoever". From the wikipedia article "Hard science fiction":

"There is a degree of flexibility in how far from "real science" a story can stray before it leaves the realm of hard SF. Some authors scrupulously avoid such technology as faster-than-light travel, while others accept such notions (sometimes referred to as "enabling devices", since they allow the story to take place) but focus on realistically depicting the worlds that such a technology might make possible. In this view, a story's scientific "hardness" is less a matter of the absolute accuracy of the science content than of the rigor and consistency with which the various ideas and possibilities are worked out."

Tony said...

Brian:

"Tony, I think a Mars vs Earth war is far more plausible than an interstellar war, given physics as we understand it today, that is to say, there is no FTL."

Sorry, Brian, but we were discussing an attack on planetary defenses, that planet having an atmosphere capable of supporting maneuverable aircraft. That unoquically mean an interstellar context, IMO.

WRT the likelihood of interstellar war, that's a question of assumptions. If two planets can trade profitably, they can fight a war. The scale of the war will be defined by the scale of the trade. If they can only trade a little bit, ocassionally, war will be a little bit at a time, ocassionally. If they trade in large volumes, all of the time, then war could also be engaged in large volumes, over a long period of time. If they don't trade, then there's no reason for war, and war could only result from irrational reasons. (Please don't take this as encouragment to write or film stories about religious war; that trope has been done to death -- be creative.)

Brian/neutrino78x said...

I'm still waiting for a movie about a battle between Mars colonies. :) Like, maybe one is communist (as in actually communist like the USSR or China), and the other is Libertarian (like the Libertarian Party in the USA), and the communists decide the Libertarians have to be destroyed...I consider myself a moderate liberal, but in such a war I would definitely be with the libertarians.

Anybody know of a book like that?

Also I wish they had made sequels to Red Planet (val kilmer movie), a movie about a Mars in which the atmosphere has been made breathable with genetically engineered bacteria (there is also, IIRC, a reference to nuclear weapons having been used to warm the surface, which is not a desirable scenario to me, but whatever lol).

Geoffrey S H said...

@Byron:

"And an aerospace fighter will have severe penalties compared to a comparable atmospheric one. It's larger and far more expensive, not to mention shipping."

I'm sure Tony would not attack that planet without the capability to ship fighters of equivalent performance.

"Even if there was such a thing, remember that the opponent can probably deploy 10 of comparable performance for every one you can. And he can build more, using the pilots of the ones he shot down."


Again, I'm sure the scenario assumes that way, way beyond the pmf, in an age of reaching other planets “quickly”, such a scenario would not even occur unless we could transport a planet's worth of ordnance to combat a planet's worth of defence ordinance, to put it crudely. If the entire planet is a first world state, then its defences will need a fantastical amount of even cheap nukes to over come. Wouldn't make a guess for laser-star power though.

mithril said...

personally, i've started using a modification of something Tony said in the previous blog discussion to define hard scifi.

'hard scifi just has to be plausible to a fairly high standard.'

Brian said...

Tony I'm not a SF writer or any other kind of writer, just a fan of SF. :) And I know about the wikipedia article, but like I said, my definition of Hard SF is much more narrow. If the science is plausible -- if the laws of physics are not violated -- it is Hard SF, to me. Which means Ben Bova is in the Hard SF category. I do agree with you that there are degrees of Hard SF. :)

As far as Earth vs Mars, Mars does have an atmosphere that can support aircraft, and aircraft on Mars to do science have been proposed (By Zubrin among others). But I don't know that lack of an atmosphere with the same properties as Earth means they couldn't have a war. Maybe the craft that battle on Mars would be short range rocket powered VTOL as opposed to aircraft. :)

http://marsairplane.larc.nasa.gov/platform.html

http://www.jmcgowan.com/marsplane.html

(of course those are not manned aircraft..)

Geoffrey S H said...

@Brian

"Ben Bova is in the Hard SF category."

Didn't he once write about a space craft swerving from side to side (in the opening of Asteroid Wars III I think)?

Tony said...

Geoffrey S H:

"@Brian

"Ben Bova is in the Hard SF category."

Didn't he once write about a space craft swerving from side to side (in the opening of Asteroid Wars III I think)?"


I for one intend not to argue this anymore. Brian is just a values dissonance outlier.

Byron said...

Tony:
What ASAT/ABM defenses are we talking about here? We started with a laserstar duelling a planetary defense laser installation. We stipulated that it was possible for a space invader to safe from such a system if over the horizon and (presumably, though stipulated) relatively low orbit. That means that whatever defenses exist, they're isolated and local to the laser installation(s). Even if those included ABMs, with the loss of orbital surveillance and the likely preliminary neutralization of remotely positioned surveillance radars, those ABMs could only attack something over their horizon. It would be no trouble whatsoever to include in the attack plan a reentry profile that stays below those systems horizons until deep emough in the atmopshere to render them ineffective.
So you've somehow managed to eliminate the close-in defenses before you get rid of the long-range ones. Good work. Now explain how.

Saturation attack is indeed one option, but I wouldn't use cruise missiles for one. (We certainly don't use them that way today.) I would use ballistic RVs for something like that. Also, a saturation attack does indeed suppress the defenses. It just does it by occupying and hopefully overloading them, rather than destroying them.
That would also be my first choice. I'm working under the assumption that the target must be, for some reason, taken out by an airstrike of some sort.

WRT the idea that cruise missiles are cheaper, you're ignorign the fact that manned craft can carry more than one weapon per sorty, can carry much more sophisticated countermeassures, and can be used for more than one mission.
I am not. What I am taking into account is that manned craft are also a lot more expensive, and I don't expect loss rates to be that dissimilar.
Keep in mind that I'm assuming one cruise missile is enough.
I did some calculations with the numbers I gave earlier (1 fighter = 10 missiles, 1 sortie = .25 missiles). Assuming the same loss rate, break even wasn't possible at 10%, and at 6% it took 50.5 missions. Even at 0% it still took 13.3 missions. Even if missile losses are higher than aircraft losses, you still really can't win.

I would in fact expect them anned craft to execute a standoff defense suppression and maybe even a standoff primary target attack. That's how SEAD is done with anti-radar missiles today. Their value against a defense site is the ability to react in real time to tactical contingencies -- which of course could be the difference between success and failure.
Point. However, a cruise missile and an aircraft work in far more similar environments than do a orbit to surface cruise missile and an aerospace fighter. An air fighter has to have twice a cruise missile's range. An aerospace fighter has to get back to orbit. That's not easy.

Byron said...

Oh, and I'm not ignoring the rest. I'll get to it later. Suffice it to say that the entire discussion is somewhat strange, as I expect kinetics to suppress these kind of sites.

Geoffrey S H said...

Maybe to bring all this back to topic a bit...

Other than Honor Harrington, and Heinlein, can anyone perhaps point to any resonably hard sf stories (or stories with really good hard sf elements that compliment the story) within any recent space operas? What about t.v?

Jnani said...

WRT the atmospheric fighter/bombers attacking planetary defense lasers, that sounds like an awesome scene. All the problems the fighter/bomber would face (the SAM sites, aerobraking through the atmosphere and reaching the proper location, hitting the main engine after the mission was complete for a rocking egress back to orbit) simply make the scene more exciting. In fact, the more things that go wrong for the fighter/bomber, the more interesting the scene is. A well executed attack would be more boring than an entirely FUBAR mission with missiles exploding everywhere, which could either end in an unexpected triumph (yay!) or a high-altitude ejection, leading to a high-stakes futuristic behind-enemy-lines situation (yay!!).

I guess what I'm trying to say is, science does create problems. Good writers find ways to use those problems to create good scenes, with good drama. Bad writer's ignore them and pretend they don't exist.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Tony:

"WRT the idea that cruise missiles are cheaper, you're ignorign the fact that manned craft can carry more than one weapon per sorty,"

As do MIRVs, cluster bombs...

Tony said...

Byron:

"So you've somehow managed to eliminate the close-in defenses before you get rid of the long-range ones. Good work. Now explain how."

I would expect to have to neutralize the local defenses before I can get at the primary weapon(s). That's why local defenses exist. How I would do it depends on the nature, effectiveness, and density of those defenses. It could be anything from a saturation attack with ballistically delivered warheads to a low angle attack with manned strike craft. You picks your technological assumptions and you gets your story. (Since story is what we're really supposed to be talking abut here.)

"That would also be my first choice. I'm working under the assumption that the target must be, for some reason, taken out by an airstrike of some sort."

Possibly the local defenses are sufficient to absorb a high angle saturtaion attack. Then you have to get a bit more sophisticated, and it may include manned strike craft for either a standoff-standoff or standoff-direct attack.*

*In [defense suppression]-[primary target attack] terms.

"I am not. What I am taking into account is that manned craft are also a lot more expensive, and I don't expect loss rates to be that dissimilar.
Keep in mind that I'm assuming one cruise missile is enough.
I did some calculations with the numbers I gave earlier (1 fighter = 10 missiles, 1 sortie = .25 missiles). Assuming the same loss rate, break even wasn't possible at 10%, and at 6% it took 50.5 missions. Even at 0% it still took 13.3 missions. Even if missile losses are higher than aircraft losses, you still really can't win."


You're making assumptions I wouldn't make. I wouldn't send in manned craft unless I expected no more than one or two units lost to bad luck. That's why I equipped them with standoff defense suppression munitions.

"Point. However, a cruise missile and an aircraft work in far more similar environments than do a orbit to surface cruise missile and an aerospace fighter. An air fighter has to have twice a cruise missile's range. An aerospace fighter has to get back to orbit. That's not easy."

I consider getting back to orbit the least of my problems. Remember, I'm of the opinion that we're fighting an interstellar war here, to even be talking about planetary defenses. Given that, and given the fact that you need to have the kind of enabling technologies that entails, I don't think ground-to-orbit delta-v is that big a deal at all.

Tony said...

Byron:

"Oh, and I'm not ignoring the rest. I'll get to it later. Suffice it to say that the entire discussion is somewhat strange, as I expect kinetics to suppress these kind of sites."

I wouldn't expect that at all. If you can employ kinetics, they'd have to expect that and be ready for it. Unless of course you're imagining a control-the-orbitals-and-you-win environment, in which case if they're still resisting, you get to nuke them without penalty. And then this whole discussion is moot.

Byron said...

Tony:
Sorry, Byron, but when we're talking laserstars and planetary defenses, we're talking way beyond the PMF. We're talking interstellar level warfare. (There's never going to a be Mars v Earth war in the PMF.) At that point transatmospheric craft with decent atmospheric performance are just another capability you're likely to have available.
First off, let me clear something up. You are playing devil's advocate, right? This is not your preferred method for attacking defense lasers?

Second, could we skip the feud over the definition of PMF? I'm viewing it as a spherical cow more than a specific environment.

I didn't evade anything. I just discussed the problem at a level (operational) that you weren't considering. At that level, tactics are just implementation details. To attack an isolated defenseive emplacement, first you must isolate it. That was assumed, so I then went into how isolation at the operational level reduced the tactics to a game of rock/paper/scissors.

At the tactical level, I think manned craft would have a place because they are more responsive to emerging tactical events. If they are too vulnerable, then I would probably try a saturation attack with ballistic weapons, seeing as I have the orbital gauge. Cruise missiles are too expensive for saturation attack. Their strength is penetration to a target without sophisticated local defenses. We've already eliminated that possibility by supposing strong, sophisticated local defenses.

And how do you suppose a manned craft will be better able to react? As opposed to a drone, that is? It's going to be hiding a couple hundred kilometers away launching (gasp) cruise missiles at its target. They're just a little smaller. They could be controlled from orbit (or an unmanned relay) just as well.
As to the human element, I'm not even sure that's necessary. Look at both the F-4G vs the F-16 and the EA-6B vs the EF-18G. In each case, better electronics allow the crew to be 50%. The enemy will be trying to jam, which means you might end up with lasers. And those work a lot better if you can see the thing you're talking to. And if you can see your missile and you're in an airplane, bye-bye.

But below a certain level of vulnerability, I would always choose manned close supervision of weapons employment over remote control. It's just more flexible and responsive.
True. However, I don't think that's enough to justify the cost, mass, and risk to humans.

Geoffrey:
I'm sure Tony would not attack that planet without the capability to ship fighters of equivalent performance.
But that's going to cost a bucketload of money. If you've reached the point where an atmospheric fighter doesn't significantly outperform an aerospace fighter of the same cost, then we're a long, long, ways out of PMF.
(To be continued)

Geoffrey S H said...

@Byron:

"...then we're a long, long, ways out of PMF."

Couldn't agree more. Thousands of years, at least (assuming technological changes occur to allow that sort of thing).

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

I guess that after writing 15 posts explicitly in the Space Warfare series, along with many other similar ones, I have no one but myself to blame for how quickly this thread got to combat operations!

My take is that if you have the techlevel for aerospace planes that can come down into ground clutter, fight there, and return to orbit, you can probably solve the jitter and other issues that make Stupendous Range laser fire problematic, and lay down major zaps on approaching fighters before the horizon becomes an issue.

Having said that, all it takes is a throwaway sentence to say that it hasn't worked out that way in your setting.


Back to the broader issue, there is a whole line of argument that 'Hard SF' is more a matter of style than the actual science/tech of a setting. I don't have links, but I know I've seen this argument made.

Though it seems to be made mostly by people who don't much like hard SF, or at any rate what they call hard SF.

Also I mostly agree with Tony that classic writers like Heinlein actually said rather little about their technology. Which helps explain why 'torch' has become a general term for uber-high performance reaction drives.

Starman Jones has profound and silly errors in its FTL, but has such cool descriptions of what goes on in a starship control room that I completely ignore its scientific sins.

Thucydides said...

I'm not really clear how the thread got onto such a tangent about what are essentially 1950 era Space Bombers (which were updates of the 1940 era "Silverbird", and now resurrected as the "Common Aero Vehicle" or CAV)

From a practical point of view, Silverbirds, RoBos or CAVs are all stationed on the ground in a hardened and protected facility to be launched on command. From a story point of view, much of the action would take place in the ready room as pilots swap war stories, the hanger as the crusty crew cheif wrings every last ounce of performance from sensitive, balky, high performance machinery and the ops center where the commanding officer oversees the operation and translates political decisions into actions.

Blasting into space and carrying out an action would probably be the culminating moment of the story rather than the heart of it, indeed a clever writer could probably do a story or series where the squadron never actually launches (or maybe only launches the annual test and qualification flights).

KraKon said...

One option is to have your story revolve around a piece of technology. That way you integrate hard science and its specificities into the plot, MAKING the story rather than being in the backrgound.

Problem: Find technology interesting enough.

Tony said...

Rick:

"My take is that if you have the techlevel for aerospace planes that can come down into ground clutter, fight there, and return to orbit, you can probably solve the jitter and other issues that make Stupendous Range laser fire problematic, and lay down major zaps on approaching fighters before the horizon becomes an issue."

The way I've been approaching it is that the planetary defense installations have significantly less than 100% coverage, and, being optimized for attacking targets in space, cannot deal effectively with low angle, high angular velocity threats. That's where all of the talk of local defenses and using planetary horizons to cover an attacker's approach comes from.

Tony said...

Byron:

"First off, let me clear something up. You are playing devil's advocate, right? This is not your preferred method for attacking defense lasers?"

No, I am not playing devil's advocate. I'm exploring all the reasons why manned strike craft cannot be ruled out a priori. As a little bit of background, I have deep suspicions of any approach that winds up strightjacketing itself into a monoculture. That's why I have serious reservations about laserstars. I would equal reservations about kineticstars, missilestars, casaba-howitzerstars, whateverstars.

Aside from not ruling out fighters, I'm trying to communicate basic tactical and operational principles. They can all be summarized by the simple observation that all means of attack and all means of defense have both strengths and weaknesses. The job of the attacker or defender is to minimize his weaknesses and maximize his strengths. The job of the opponent is to find ways to pick apart the enemy's array and capitalize on any exposed weaknesses.

Saying that one would for certain use a narrow range of weapons and command-control types to attack a given type of target is simply unprofessional in the context of covering weaknesses and exploiting strengths. One has to use what one has, yes. But one does not have to limit his options based on some theory of what is or isn't effective, especially when the answer is so dependent on technical assumptions.

"Second, could we skip the feud over the definition of PMF? I'm viewing it as a spherical cow more than a specific environment."

So am I. But we have to recognize that there are certain prerequisites for a given situation to exist, and those prerequisites affect what options are reasonable available.

"And how do you suppose a manned craft will be better able to react? As opposed to a drone, that is? It's going to be hiding a couple hundred kilometers away launching (gasp) cruise missiles at its target. They're just a little smaller. They could be controlled from orbit (or an unmanned relay) just as well."

Manned craft don't rely on comm links that can be jammed. They're actually in the battlespace, meaning their crews can more accurately estimate what's happening in real time. IOW, they are a proven answer to the "the map is not the terrain" problem.

"As to the human element, I'm not even sure that's necessary...And if you can see your missile and you're in an airplane, bye-bye."

I wouldn't expect to directly command a missile if doing so would be too risky. As for the rest, if it boils down to a single-seat configuration, fine. I think it might not, but that is dependent on technological assumptions.

"True. However, I don't think that's enough to justify the cost, mass, and risk to humans."

Cost, mass, and risk are dependent on so many things that I'm certainly not prepared to make such a summary judgment. That's why I'm focussing on things that should not lose their relative value over centuries or millenia, rather than technical specifics that might change tomorrow.

Thucydides said...

Probably the best way to attack a ground based defense laser is to infiltrate a commando unit and blow the thing up with satchel charges or hand held rocket launchers. This kind of moots many of the points about cruise missiles and aerospace fighters (although the smart guys in SEAL TEAM 7 will use these to create confusion and cover their entry and exit...)

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Probably the best way to attack a ground based defense laser is to infiltrate a commando unit and blow the thing up with satchel charges or hand held rocket launchers. This kind of moots many of the points about cruise missiles and aerospace fighters (although the smart guys in SEAL TEAM 7 will use these to create confusion and cover their entry and exit...)"

You'd have to mount a pretty major attack to cover the insertion, seeing as you'd have to get the team within 30-40 kilometers of the objective to make a foot-mobile infiltration practical. Even if the insertion were made successfully, it's unlikely that there would be no civilian communities between the insertion point and the objective. Avoiding their inhabitants would be a bit of a trick, especially carrying enough firepower to break into a ground installation designed to resist orbital bombardment and strategic beam attack. Finally, given the wartime footing, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if the planetary defenses had trained ground troops assigned to their installations, in order to deter or, if necessary, resist a ground attack.

Brian/neutrino78x said...

Geoffrey S, I do not recall Ben Bova mentioning anything that swerved from side to side. :-/

Although I would consider that a nitpick, since, compared to Forever War -- which is a really good book, and mostly Hard SF, don't get me wrong -- the propulsion systems mentioned in Bova's Grand Tour series constitute Hard SF to a much greater degree.

Also I don't think there will ever be interstellar trade, to any significant degree, unless it turns out that FTL is real. So far the nearest remotely Earth like planet in another star system is like 20 ly away, right. So if you decide to want to buy something from a civilization there, you wouldn't get it for 20 years. Same with waging war, I don't think anyone is going to send a fleet to fight a war 20 years in the future. I think they would just let it go.

Any kind of space battle, imo, would be inside a solar system.

Geoffrey S H said...

Maybe establishing why we are attacking this world, and what our aims are might provide some more depth to this discussion.

Tony said...

Brian/neutrino78x:

"Also I don't think there will ever be interstellar trade, to any significant degree, unless it turns out that FTL is real. So far the nearest remotely Earth like planet in another star system is like 20 ly away, right. So if you decide to want to buy something from a civilization there, you wouldn't get it for 20 years. Same with waging war, I don't think anyone is going to send a fleet to fight a war 20 years in the future. I think they would just let it go.

Any kind of space battle, imo, would be inside a solar system."


It's highly unlikely for a solar system to have more than one habitable planet. It's also highly unlikely that people living on or around asteroids or gas giant moons would ever be able to develop the economy to successfully challenge the economy of a habitable planet. Not having to dedicate resources to life support and artificial gravity is a huge advantage in both population increase and economic development.

And, before anyone goes there, no, I don't think free solar power in space is that big of an advantage. It still takes time, effort, and resources to exploit.

WRT interstellar war, we're not going to have multiple large planetary economies without multiple habitable planets. That means an insterstellar context. We're not going to have war between those planets without significant trade. That means we aren't going to have the prospect of invading habitable planets without FTL.

If one presumes multiple habitable planets with STL interstellar communications, then you have the case discussed above -- a large planetary economy dominating a solar system. If we have no interstellar travel, then once again we'll have a large planetary economy (Earth's) dominating a solar system (The one we already occupy). Space invading habitable planets is a trope pretty much dependent on relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous FTL travel.

Geoffrey S H:

"Maybe establishing why we are attacking this world, and what our aims are might provide some more depth to this discussion."

We're attempting to invade a habitable planet, or at least eliminate its ability to affect the use of its orbitals. Given the likelhood that the Martians and the Belters are never going to develop the economic resources to successfully compete with Earth in a military sense, we're presuming an interstellar civilization with the FTL to make interstellar war possible.

Anonymous said...

Submarine-based anti-orbital laser or missile defences would only be vulnerable to attack from air or space when at or near the surface to fire or launch at their targets, so an alternate approach would be needed to deal with them.

An invading force might have to insert its own submarines from orbit. It would probably be impractical to transport a conventional attack submarine into orbit, across space, and then down from orbit in the face of hostile fire, so several midget submarines could be used instead.

Only one in ten or twenty would be manned, with the rest being semi-autonomous unmanned vehicles, or perhaps even long-range torpedoes in their own right. The manned craft would tell the unmanned ones where to search, and would give the firing order if an enemy laser/missile sub was detected.

R.C.

(Sorry if this comment appeared twice, but it didn't come up the first time I refreshed the page.)

Tony said...

Anonymous:

"Submarine-based anti-orbital laser or missile defences would only be vulnerable to attack from air or space when at or near the surface to fire or launch at their targets, so an alternate approach would be needed to deal with them."

Target and destroy the space surveillance system, which has to be on the surface, no matter what the submarines do. That leaves the submarines stooging around under water waiting for a fire mission that never comes. If some or all of the submarines come to the surface to do their own surveillance, then you engage them in whatever way seems best.

Thucydides said...

The space power simply has to drop a small asteroid into the ocean basin to deal with the submarine threat

Anonymous said...

The Space Surveillance System could potentially be very hard to take out if it used a large number of hobby-telescope sized passive sensors, which could be hidden relatively easily on a planet's surface. Solar-powered UAVs might be similarly hard to detect. Even if the submarines had to do their own surveillance, they could release a sensor-equipped buoy to the surface to track and lock on their targets, and only come to the surface for long enough to fire, and then submerge.

R.C.

Anonymous said...

Thucydides:

Wouldn't an asteroid large enough to reliably destroy or disable every anti-orbital submarine in a basin also cause catastrophic damage to settlements and farmland on the coasts surrounding that basin? Even if the attackers have no moral qualms about causing such devastation, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, if they want the planet badly enough to take control of its orbital space, they presumably want it mostly intact.

R.C.

Tony said...

If you rely exclusively on submarines in the deep ocean basins, that means you aren't concerned with close-in targets. (Otherwise you'd have to have installations spread across the continental sized land masses too.) That gives the system a designed minimum range of something like 10-20k kilometers, maybe more, depending on the maximum target angular velocity constraint. Then you add in a maximum range requirement of hundreds of thousands of kilometers and the requirement that the system provide fast scans for real time tactical data. I don't think hobby sized telescopes are going to be sufficient. In addition to

Citizen Joe said...

The trick to plausibility is to bait the hook with uncertainty. As much as science professors would like you to think otherwise, we really don't know how much of the Universe works. We can witness and measure events, and even have moderately successful predictive rules, within our narrow band of understanding. But we don't actually KNOW a lot. For example, we can measure and experience gravity and predict its effects, but we don't actually KNOW what the phenomenon is or why it works. We've had to come up with technobabble of 'dark matter' to account for massive discrepancies in our theory. We also don't know what space is... not the stuff that's in it, but actual space itself. Our observations indicate that space itself is expanding... and at faster that light speeds.

So, you toss out the notion that someone has figured out some trick or gimmick having to do with something we don't currently understand, and if done right, it makes the 'magic' plausible.

Tony said...

Citizen Joe:

"We also don't know what space is... not the stuff that's in it, but actual space itself. Our observations indicate that space itself is expanding... and at faster that light speeds."

No single piece of space is expanding faster than light. In fact, the expansion is almost immeasurably miniscule at human or even planetary scales. Now what is factual is that over long distances -- longer than the radius of the observable universe, an event will not be seen by an observer because the uniform expansion of all of the intervening space will in effect be faster than light.

WRT what space is, it can be thought of as a function of time, in the sense that the universe is an engine for turning time into space. No, not literally, but the single variable in the size of the universe seems to be the length of time since the Big Bang.

Rick said...

Manned craft don't rely on comm links that can be jammed.

If you're relying on sensors that can be jammed, you can be effectively blinded. I agree that a human crew is not rendered utterly helpless in that situation. But the crew is rendered very marginally helpful, pretty much mission killed.

Having said that, I largely agree with Tony's big picture of things. A habitable planet will tend to socially dominate its planetary system.

On the other hand, if planets are balkanized, as Earth is, there is no 'the' to exercise domination. You can imagine scenarios where space is formally demilitarized, and mosquito military forces gradually take form due to lack of any clear supervision. Which is due in turn to the reluctance of the planetary great powers to launch massive defense expenditures into deep space.

Tony said...

Rick:

"If you're relying on sensors that can be jammed, you can be effectively blinded. I agree that a human crew is not rendered utterly helpless in that situation. But the crew is rendered very marginally helpful, pretty much mission killed."

The mere existence of jamming is tactically useful information. For example, there was a lot of talk about "GPS jammers" prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is rumored -- and certainly physically possible -- that the jammers were triangulated and JDAMed, or possibly even actively attacked by anti-radiation missiles with jammer-seeking guidance upgrades. Even if neither countermeasure was undertaken IRL, it's not because they couldn't have been, had someone wanted to.

The fundamental problem with MIJI (Meaconing, Intrusion, Jamming, and Interference) is that one has to radiate. And radiating makes you a target.

Anonymous said...

Tony said:"The mere existence of jamming is tactically useful information. For example, there was a lot of talk about "GPS jammers" prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is rumored -- and certainly physically possible -- that the jammers were triangulated and JDAMed, or possibly even actively attacked by anti-radiation missiles with jammer-seeking guidance upgrades. Even if neither countermeasure was undertaken IRL, it's not because they couldn't have been, had someone wanted to.

The fundamental problem with MIJI (Meaconing, Intrusion, Jamming, and Interference) is that one has to radiate. And radiating makes you a target."

I spent 20 years in the Air Force being such a target; after reading these posts, it seems to me that any attack on a planet from orbit (either from a galatic empire against the whole planet, or your interplanetary neighbor wanting to grab your nation), will have to mean employing several types of weapons, tactics, and strategies, all at once. Imagine all of WWII's invasions happening over the course of a long weekend; that should give you an idea as to the scale and destructiveness of such an interplanetary war. You cn't view the employment of any weapon-system in isolation; it isn't a game where each side takes turns; everything happens in an increadiby short span of time.

Ferrell

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"I spent 20 years in the Air Force being such a target; after reading these posts, it seems to me that any attack on a planet from orbit (either from a galatic empire against the whole planet, or your interplanetary neighbor wanting to grab your nation), will have to mean employing several types of weapons, tactics, and strategies, all at once. Imagine all of WWII's invasions happening over the course of a long weekend; that should give you an idea as to the scale and destructiveness of such an interplanetary war. You cn't view the employment of any weapon-system in isolation; it isn't a game where each side takes turns; everything happens in an increadiby short span of time."

I'm not so sure about an "incredibly short span of time". If I were mounting a planetary attack, I'd treat it like a siege, and approach it in a very methodical manner. Otherwise, +10.

Thucydides said...

Once again we are looking at this as if the two sides are evenly matched.

The side in space has access to gigawatts of energy, even moving around in space with a small craft is proof of that (especially if they are going faster than minimum energy trajectories). They can stage attacks on a planet over a short period of time like a meteor shower, or can invoke physical effects like filling the upper atmosphere with plasma (from re-entering meteors or space debris) to screw up comms and radar, EMP pulses that damage the power grid and many types of weapons and computers or even deploying mirrors to disrupt weather, plant growth and marine organisms. Having the food chain disrupted is a much harder thing to fix.

If we are talking interstellar war, then the same sorts of energies that allow FTL could presumably allow relatavistic attacks against the planet or perhaps disruption of the Sun (which would really ruin your day)

The Spacers might have the same lopsided advantage over the Ground pounders that the classic lines might apply:

Whatever happens, we have got

The Maxim gun, and they have not.


This isn't very good for story, and may actually be in the back of some authors minds (evenly matched space fleets in classic space opera are much more interesting).

Geoffrey S H said...

"The side in space has access to gigawatts of energy, even moving around in space with a small craft is proof of that (especially if they are going faster than minimum energy trajectories). They can stage attacks on a planet over a short period of time like a meteor shower, or can invoke physical effects like filling the upper atmosphere with plasma (from re-entering meteors or space debris) to screw up comms and radar, EMP pulses that damage the power grid and many types of weapons and computers or even deploying mirrors to disrupt weather, plant growth and marine organisms. Having the food chain disrupted is a much harder thing to fix."

The inhabitants might have their own advaced technologies- science-fictional levels of burrowing technology to build massive bunks safe from bombardment, with the capability to manufacture anti-orbital weapons might be one. Not yet decided wether that could be put in a hard-sf story or not, but if the tachyon drive was done well in Forever War, then I suppose so.

Anonymous said...

Geoffrey S H said:"The inhabitants might have their own advaced technologies- science-fictional levels of burrowing technology to build massive bunks safe from bombardment, with the capability to manufacture anti-orbital weapons might be one. Not yet decided wether that could be put in a hard-sf story or not, but if the tachyon drive was done well in Forever War, then I suppose so."

Here's one for you: a planet with esentually 1950's technology has discovered FTL and trys to invade a world that doesn't have FTL, but has much more advanced technology, including a small but significant anti-matter production industry. That should make an interesting story.

Ferrell

Tony said...

Re: Thucydides

If you're taking the time and effort to reduce defenses, it's because you don't want to do things like screw up the planet's ecology or depopulate it.

Thucydides said...

Tony, going by your own assertion that only a planetary power can deliver the economic, political, demographic and military horsepower to dominate a Solar System, then the defeat of the planetary power has to be pretty overwhelming and absolute if you want to be declared the winner of such a contest. No Space power that has gone to war against the Planetary power could risk a lesser outcome.

Having to refight an opponent who is not willing to accept defeat and has the resources to continue the fight is asking for a continuing series of wars, probably of increasing scale and scope over an extended period of time. Consider France vs Germany in various iterations between the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War (which pretty much resolved the issue by crushing the social and political institutions of Nazi Germany and incorporating both France and Germany into the larger Anglo-American sphere of influence).

This may happen by default anyway, since the Space power(s) will be much smaller to begin with and have limited ability to achieve an absolute victory, while the Planetary power will have much less ability to project power beyond low orbit and cis-lunar space (in the case of our own Solar System). An added complication is the various Space powers may be just as Balkanized as Earth, and devote most of their resources against each other. In this sort of environment, the stories will be more akin to John LeCarre's cold war spy novels.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Tony:

"That means we aren't going to have the prospect of invading habitable planets without FTL."

Or a terraformed Mars.

Which is not as easy as some people think. Padding the air to the right density alone will be hard.



Thucydides:

"The space power simply has to drop a small asteroid into the ocean basin to deal with the submarine threat"

Once again, dropping asteroids large enough to cause damage over a large geographical area (an entire sea) is not "simple". Asteroids like that are simply too heavy to move, especially on short notice.



R.C.:

"Wouldn't an asteroid large enough to reliably destroy or disable every anti-orbital submarine in a basin also cause catastrophic damage to settlements and farmland on the coasts surrounding that basin?"

Yes, it would. In fact, since tsunamis travel along the seafloor, it'll actually do way more damage to the coasts than to ships. Surface ships are basically unaffected, and a submarine that isn't [i]too[/i] close to the bottom will too.

Now maybe a meteor-caused tsunami would behave a little differently than the normal kind. At the least I'd expect a submarine-killing shockwave in the area surrounding the impact, although I don't know how far it would travel.


"Even if the attackers have no moral qualms about causing such devastation, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, if they want the planet badly enough to take control of its orbital space, they presumably want it mostly intact."

They might be willing to damage some stretches of coastline, though, as long as they don't take out every coast on the planet.



Tony:

"If you rely exclusively on submarines in the deep ocean basins, that means you aren't concerned with close-in targets. (Otherwise you'd have to have installations spread across the continental sized land masses too.)"

Remember that spaceships orbit, so if an enemy isn't currently in range of any of your defenses, you can simply predict its orbital path wait for it to cross a location you can reach - provided that it isn't critical you be able to take the enemy out quickly, and that the enemy isn't in an elliptical orbit (in which case it may only be targetable during perigee).

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Citizen Joe:

"For example, we can measure and experience gravity and predict its effects, but we don't actually KNOW what the phenomenon is or why it works."

Curvature of space. Einstein answered that.



Thucydides:

"filling the upper atmosphere with plasma (from re-entering meteors or space debris) to screw up comms and radar"

I'd think that attacking communications satellites would be a more cost-effective way of accomplishing that.


"or even deploying mirrors to disrupt weather, plant growth and marine organisms. Having the food chain disrupted is a much harder thing to fix."

Scorched earth tactics are only a good idea if you don't care to use the planet you're capturing afterwards.

Ideally you'd aim for something like Krakatoa - intense cold and famine for a year or two, followed by normal life resuming. This is accomplishable with only a few Tsar Bombas, particularly if targeted at strategic locations (i.e., ground that's inclined to generate lots of dust).


"The Spacers might have the same lopsided advantage over the Ground pounders that the classic lines might apply:"

Remember, just that the people on the ground are defending their own planet and so don't need to travel through space doesn't mean they don't have space-age technology.

I agree that if a space-age faction attacks a lower-tech faction (or one that has the technological expertise for space presence, but not the infrastructure), the former will probably win. But that's really an unfair matchup.

A balanced war should be between opponents of roughly the same techlevel.



Ferrell:

"Here's one for you: a planet with esentually 1950's technology has discovered FTL and trys to invade a world that doesn't have FTL, but has much more advanced technology, including a small but significant anti-matter production industry. That should make an interesting story."

My thoughts: the imperialists' only advantage is superior mobility. They can easily choose their battles, staying well out of retaliation range when they're not ready to fight. First they'd try to eliminate the defenders' space capability (you only said they had no FTL, not no space), most likely using hit-and-run and blitzkrieg tactics. Then they'd start chucking slow but very-long-range weapons at the planet, knowing that the defenders are helpless to attempt a counterattack.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Tony, going by your own assertion that only a planetary power can deliver the economic, political, demographic and military horsepower to dominate a Solar System, then the defeat of the planetary power has to be pretty overwhelming and absolute if you want to be declared the winner of such a contest. No Space power that has gone to war against the Planetary power could risk a lesser outcome."

Why do you think I've been presuming an interstellar warfare context?

Jim Baerg said...

Ferrell: "Here's one for you: a planet with esentually 1950's technology has discovered FTL and trys to invade a world that doesn't have FTL, but has much more advanced technology, including a small but significant anti-matter production industry. That should make an interesting story."

Have you read the short story "The Road Not Taken" by Harry Turtledove? The assumption there was that antigravity & FTL were things that could be stumbled upon by anyone with much more than a bronze age technology. A species with early gunpoweder tech + ag & FTL finds 21st century earth & tries to invade. Not fun for the invaders.

Geoffrey S H said...

I do have an idea for three characters escaping from a repressive regime on a clock-punk type world, hitching in with some rocketpunk-style traders going between systems, and ending up (and living) on a more modern tech world. otherwise, nothing like that though Ferrell. A more restrained version of "The Road not taken" might be an interesting challenge though.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm..."the Road not Taken" by Turtledove? I'll have to check it out. Thanks.

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

How did this interesting topic turn into Episode XXXVII of the Starship Vs. Planet War argument?

Thucydides said...

Actually I was presuming a Solar System conflict. If Interstellar is in the mix, the energies being unleashed could devastate planets or possibly even stars.....

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Actually I was presuming a Solar System conflict. If Interstellar is in the mix, the energies being unleashed could devastate planets or possibly even stars....."

Except for an inter-species war of mutual extermination, what would be the point?

Tony said...

Anon:

"How did this interesting topic turn into Episode XXXVII of the Starship Vs. Planet War argument?"

Easy enough...

Aside from the application of standard rhetorical skills, the effectiveness of storytelling relies on supplying the reader with a plausible setting, action, and resolution. Space opera (which seems to be the most durable SF narrative subject) often requires space war. War, whether in space or on a planet, is about people and places. So space war has planets in it, which need to be invaded or at least neutralized. So discussion of how to approach these things plausibly will always be popular and well-subscribed.

Thucydides said...

Except for an inter-species war of mutual extermination, what would be the point?

More spectacular fireworks for movie goers....

Anonymous said...

There is a very strong school of thought that all stories need conflict: man vs. man; man vs. wild; man vs. society; man vs. self; sci fi demands man vs. aliens. While conflict does not necessarly mean war, war is the most powerful stage to set conflict; numerous smaller conflicts nesseled inside larger conflicts.

Ferrell

Rick said...

Welcome (perhaps?) to a new commenter!

Maybe establishing why we are attacking this world, and what our aims are might provide some more depth to this discussion.

An effective tactic, but it leaves you vulnerable to the intrusion of story. An uncontrollable force that can lead, as they say at the Court of la Trémouille, to distressingly unpredictable results.

(Well, they say it in para-French, but the point is the same.)

How did this interesting topic turn into Episode XXXVII of the Starship Vs. Planet War argument?

Because the intrusion of story frequently involves blowing stuff up.

(BTW, I encourage 'Anonymous' posters to sign a name or handle, to help the conversation stay not too tangled up.)

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"More spectacular fireworks for movie goers...."

Except that the vast majority of the audience isn't the "lowest common denominator" that various agendized complainers want to make them out to be. They know war isn't about wanton destruction. Even purposefull mass slaughter has a definite place in the mindspace -- it's what Mongols and people with Death Stars and creepy terrorists do. About once per movie -- or even series of movies -- to establish the eevulness of the antagonists is enough.

Cambias said...

Sorry about that: I'm the anonymous griping about "Episode XXXVII." Clicked the wrong button and too lazy to fix it.

I was just a little disappointed to see another round of the endless "yes it is vs. no it isn't" battle over spaceships/starships attacking planets. Because it's always an argument based on different baseline assumptions.

Tony said...

Cambias:

"I was just a little disappointed to see another round of the endless "yes it is vs. no it isn't" battle over spaceships/starships attacking planets. Because it's always an argument based on different baseline assumptions."

There wouldn't be any discussion if everybody agreed about everything. As for conflicting assumption, I for one find Rocketman Punkifesto a ray of sunshine in world full of discussion spaces where underlying assumptions are governed by strict orthodoxies enforced with ham-hamded obnoxiousness.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Tony:

"There wouldn't be any discussion if everybody agreed about everything."

The problem isn't that we aren't agreeing, but that we keep arguing and rearguing the same old subjects rather than coming up with new ideas.

Tony said...

Milo:

"The problem isn't that we aren't agreeing, but that we keep arguing and rearguing the same old subjects rather than coming up with new ideas."

Point. But I honestly and sincerely think it's a feature, not a bug. Wars are fought over concrete objectives. Even in space war, those objectives will be related to or on planets. All good SF takes that into consideration. It's not mistake that we do as well.

The obsessed Scholar said...

I did this:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15017484

Which may be of some interest.

Tony said...

Ghrurrrrrr!?*

A billionth of a second is equivalent to about a third of a meter of travel at the speed of light. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if their distance measurement over 732 km was off by a meter or two.

*My bad immitation of a kzinti growl of puzzlement.

The obsessed Scholar said...

Sorry, meant to say "I found this" not "I did this".

*Shrug* either way it's still interesting.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



I have to agree with Tony here. This sounds like a measurement error. It would take very rigorous testing to convince me otherwise.

Anonymous said...

While I'm sure that the researchers measured the distance as accurately as humanly possible, (and I think it would be cool if they did find superluminal particles), the peer review will probably find some error and the speed of the neutrinos will be close to, but not more than, the speed of light. I still hope I'm wrong, though.

Ferrell

Sabersonic said...

To be honest, when I read the contents of the blog entry and especially the statement of "When story collides with other considerations (such as realistic space travel), story invariably wins." sounds suspeciously Hollywood. It reminded me too much of a certain Atomic Rockets Article.

As for the story conflict discussion, why don't we try something slightly different than just another Spacecraft vs. Planetary Defenses such as the evolution of governments? I'm pretty sure there are ample story hooks on socio-political revolutionaries who have arguments and debates against the guardians of the status quo of the pre-IP space age. Space and especially interplanetary space is radically different enough to make the intergration of time honored stories of war, frontier settlement, and foreign adventure in addition to cultural, society, and economical extrapollation to IN SPACE difficult at best. So should government theory and organization be any different on such a grand scale?

Also, if this subject had been discussed in previous entries, forgive me in that my memory fluctuates that much unfortunately.

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Scott said...

At the least I'd expect a submarine-killing shockwave in the area surrounding the impact, although I don't know how far it would travel.

I wouldn't even expect that. During the Crossroad Able test at Bikini Atoll, the USS Skate survived being 400 yards from the detonation point of a 23kt device. 'Severely damaged,' but I don't know what that actually entailed. I have read descriptions from some of the other subs present that their only damage was that the hatches had lifted off their seals, allowing some water into the ship. Crossroads Baker was much nastier, but I'm not sure which model would be better for an oceanic kinetic strike.

Keep in mind that 400m is basically dead-on, in kinetic/nuclear terms, especially with a moving target.

=====

Now, every story needs conflict. Conflict does not have to equal combat, however.

Rick said...

The topic hasn't just been discussed - it's an ongoing theme of this blog. And in this particular case I plead innocent to the Hollywood connection. My comments on the dominating power of story are based on first hand experience, which Hollywood experience merely confirms.


Regarding the CERN particles, one cautionary note is that from reading Language Log, it seems that in spite of the Beeb's historic reputation, its science reporting can be iffy to just plain dubious.

But it does remind me of a line I read just a few weeks ago (though I forget who said it): the great discovery moments in science aren't marked by shouts of "Eureka!" but by someone saying, "That's odd."

Tony said...

Scott:

"I wouldn't even expect that. During the Crossroad Able test at Bikini Atoll, the USS Skate survived being 400 yards from the detonation point of a 23kt device. 'Severely damaged,' but I don't know what that actually entailed. I have read descriptions from some of the other subs present that their only damage was that the hatches had lifted off their seals, allowing some water into the ship. Crossroads Baker was much nastier, but I'm not sure which model would be better for an oceanic kinetic strike.

Keep in mind that 400m is basically dead-on, in kinetic/nuclear terms, especially with a moving target."


Water is kind of funny. An airburst above the surface of a body of water will slightly deform the surface and transfer some energy to the water, but the surface interface with the air will mostly reflect the blast because air is way more compressible.

Underwater explosions, on the other hand, give the explosion no place to go without compressing (as much as possible) and transfering energy into the water. The results of the Crossroads tests bear this out:

Crossroads Able:

Skate, 400 yards from surface zero, damaged but not sunk

Crossroads Baker:

Pilotfish, 363 yards from surface zero, sunk

Skipjack, 800 yards from surface zero, sunk

Apogon, 850 yards from surface zero, sunk

"Now, every story needs conflict. Conflict does not have to equal combat, however."

Well, in purely technical terms, whether it's a fistfight or a nuclear war, conflict does equal combat, or at least "mutual affray", as the legalspeak goes. I've seen very few movies worth watching where the conflict does not involve at least a few punches and kicks. Even Penny on the Big Bang Theory resorts to the proverbial tough girl punch in her antagonist's upper arm from time to time.

In any case, battle warms the cockles of our homo sapien hearts more often than not, especially when we don't have to be in it. The ancient Greeks thought it was good instruction for youths to watch bttles from a safe distance. And, if we are honest with ourselves, who isn't interested in combat footage on the TV news?

Tony said...

Sabersonic:

"As for the story conflict discussion, why don't we try something slightly different than just another Spacecraft vs. Planetary Defenses such as the evolution of governments? I'm pretty sure there are ample story hooks on socio-political revolutionaries who have arguments and debates against the guardians of the status quo of the pre-IP space age. Space and especially interplanetary space is radically different enough to make the intergration of time honored stories of war, frontier settlement, and foreign adventure in addition to cultural, society, and economical extrapollation to IN SPACE difficult at best. So should government theory and organization be any different on such a grand scale?"

Let's presume that for the story to be interesting to a broad enough audience, the characters have to be recognizably human or anthropomorphizable. In that case, unless you have a particular philosophical axe to grind, all of human politics boils down to what the Athenians told the Melians: "The strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must." (And people who do grind philosophical axes generally fail to recognize this truth, making their arguments agonizingly infantile and assinine.)

Having said that, I don't mean to stifle discussion and debate. But I will predict that people's arguments will fall into two broad categories: unrealistic fantasy or summary realism.

jollyreaper said...

Regarding the question about recent, good hard SF books -- I forget if I've mentioned this book yet but it's by a contributor to the sfconsim group.

http://www.thehumanreach.net/

Wormholes has allowed humanity to reach nearby stars, where nations fiercely compete to settle new colony worlds. War is imminent between Earth's top powers, China and Japan, for reasons that no one fully understands.

Neil Mercer, a freshly commissioned officer in the United States Space Force, is assigned to shepherd a senior spy on a covert mission that risks drawing America into the conflict. In a story featuring high adventure, interstellar intrigue and some of the most scientifically realistic space combat depicted in fiction, Neil and his comrades must face difficult questions about duty, citizenship and national interest as they struggle to discover why the war threatens to engulf every nation on Earth.

Through Struggle, the Stars, a novel of 115,000 words, is recommended for fans of Tom Clancy, Patrick O'Brian, and Robert Heinlein. The e-book is available for $3.99.


Pros:
* first-time author, really ambitious world-building
* a lot of skull-sweat was put into making things as realistic as possible. Your mileage may vary but this ain't Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica
* Really fits into the Plausible Mid-Future we've been talking about
* Politics remains confusing and murky, no white hats on one side with mustache-twirling and black hats on the other
* Author lays ideas out and follows through on them. If you read carefully and consider the likely consequences, you won't be surprised when they play out.
* While he's planning on telling a larger story, the novel itself is a complete story. You're not left with a cliffhanger.

Cons:
* I'd say the main character got to see a little more action than seems plausible in the modern era but is not quite as out of place compared to what officers saw in the Napoleonic Wars. True, accurate biographies could be taken for fiction if you didn't know any better.

* The author admitted to not trying to overly flesh out advances in infantry weapons and tech. So there's some likely weapons I think we'll be seeing in the next 50 years regardless of whether or not we get into space that are not present in this story. But this is quibble territory. Give in to all the possible quibbles and nobody will be able to tell a story about anything.

Hearty recommendation. I read it on the kindle app for my ipod. You can get it on other ereaders or in dead tree format.

jollyreaper said...

Just a few more tidbits on the Human Reach setting. The author declared a few things by fiat:

1. Expert systems exist but there are no AI's, no androids. Humans aren't automated out of a job.

2. The 21st century is left sketchy in his setting so that he avoids any 1990's Eugenics Wars nonsense like in Trek. One of the major events is an asteroid impact that wiped out millions of people and created a public sense of fear in human extinction.

3. Wormhole farming becomes a practical commercial enterprise. Small, unmanned, antimatter-powered starships are used to ferry the far end of the wormhole to a distant star. Once stabilized, manned ships can pass through and exploit that system.

4. A number of proto-Earth planets exist. Only one planet has fossil evidence of complex, higher lifeforms and they were obliterated by an extinction-level event. Most life is limited to microbes and simple plants, just enough to create nice oxy-nitro atmospheres for us to live in. so by author fiat it just so happens that there are plenty of nice planets that don't need a whole lot of work. There's philosophical and religious implications as humans try to accept what they find.

5. Resurgent nationalism sees the need for national prestige projects and offworld colonies are the best way of staging a competitive genitalia-measuring contest. While the colonies are horrendous money-sinks, everyone knows they have to get in on the ground floor for the land grab or be forever shut out, even though there are supposed to be hundreds of potential planets in nearby space and it would take hundreds of years to fill up the ones already claimed by the existing powers.

6. The geopolitical situation is not incredibly far off from where we're at today. China is the preeminent superpower on Earth and in space. The United States is a fairly strong regional power but nowhere in the same league. Japan is a fierce rival of China and we are an important ally. While a colony or two has become independent, most are still clients of the founding nations and not independent.

7. An arms race has seen the creation of major star-faring fleets but most fights to this point have been small, regional actions, just a few ships at a time. There's never been a serious interstellar war. Major combat doctrines have never been put to the test.

You might not agree with every author fiat here but I think he goes a long way towards justifying his setting and it should fit well within the suspension of disbelief for most readers.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Regarding the question about recent, good hard SF books -- I forget if I've mentioned this book yet but it's by a contributor to the sfconsim group.

http://www.thehumanreach.net/"


Hmmm...looking at the web site, I'd have to say that the story can't be all that realistic.

To read the timeline, humans have been expanding their little wormhole empire as fast as physically possible, without the slightest hint of consolidation. Doesn't seem very likely to me, especially considering the expense. You might be able to make the case that it's a bubble, like tulipomania or Web .5. But in that case the main problem in the story would be the inevitable collapse, withdrawal, and retrenchment.

He's got a space warship classification system using late 20th Century USN terms (frigate, destroyer, cruiser, battleship, carrier) mapped to mass. Really!?

He has a spaceship named Kuwait City, in a destroyer class named after battles. First of all, destroyers in US service aren't named after battles, but prominent figures in naval history. Second, there was no battle at Kuwait City. There was only a minor (and very confused) skirmish outside Kuwait International Airport. One would think a journalist who had reported professionally on all of the places in the Middle East that he claims to have, including Kuwait, would have known that.

IOW, the author is making some pretty obvious and egregious mistakes in his promotional materials. He doesn't even provide a .pdf version in his e-copies. Tell me again why I should put out good money for this?

jollyreaper said...


Hmmm...looking at the web site, I'd have to say that the story can't be all that realistic.


Frankly, I'd have been surprised as hell if you liked it.

To read the timeline, humans have been expanding their little wormhole empire as fast as physically possible, without the slightest hint of consolidation. Doesn't seem very likely to me, especially considering the expense. You might be able to make the case that it's a bubble, like tulipomania or Web .5. But in that case the main problem in the story would be the inevitable collapse, withdrawal, and retrenchment.


And here we come to your bugbear about metastable systems. Yes, it's not going to last forever. The inevitable collapse would make for "interesting times." He's trying to set up a tale that covers the first interstellar war. So yes, it's something that can collapse, will collapse, and is the basis for the conflict in the story.

And yes, the expansion is going on recklessly and as national prestige projects, as I said. Whoever owns the most systems is the winner, even if they can't possibly utilize even a fraction of a percent of the planetary resources. Nobody is sure how the future is going to play out but everyone is scrambling to keep from getting left out. And the contracts for paying for the development and support of all this infrastructure are incredibly lucrative.

He's got a space warship classification system using late 20th Century USN terms (frigate, destroyer, cruiser, battleship, carrier) mapped to mass. Really!?

For reader convenience. I'd personally have argued for a different naming convention but there's absolutely nothing that says we wouldn't do something nonsensical in the future. After all, just look at how confusing our terminology has gotten for where the names frigate, destroyer, and corvette came from and how they're actually employed. Hell, Starbucks calls their smallest coffee size a medium even though the very name indicates it should fall between the small and large size.

He has a spaceship named Kuwait City, in a destroyer class named after battles. First of all, destroyers in US service aren't named after battles, but prominent figures in naval history. Second,


There also used to be a tradition of not naming ships after living people and we didn't used to name our carriers after presidents. Time and tradition can change.

there was no battle at Kuwait City. There was only a minor (and very confused) skirmish outside Kuwait International Airport. One would think a journalist who had reported professionally on all of the places in the Middle East that he claims to have, including Kuwait, would have known that.


Future history, dude. The battle it's named after probably hasn't happened yet.

IOW, the author is making some pretty obvious and egregious mistakes in his promotional materials. He doesn't even provide a .pdf version in his e-copies. Tell me again why I should put out good money for this?

I'd never ask you to read it. You're the last person in the world I would suggest for providing useful, constructive feedback.

jollyreaper said...

One last thing, @Tony. I know we're supposed to stay away from personal attacks so consider this an observation instead.

When talking about possible scifi futures, there's a whole cloud of assumptions and possibilities we can talk about. There's what's possible, what's likely, and what's unlikely. What actually has happened in history is a mix of all three.

We can argue in circles and never arrive at a set of answers that will satisfy everyone. That's why futurism has been such an amusingly inaccurate field. Probably the only consensus we can truly arrive at is that whatever we think is going to happen is going to be wrong though I'm sure some dissenter will rail against that as well.

When an author creates his setting, he has to make some assumptions and stick with them. He does so because if he doesn't then he'll never be able to get anything done. It all goes into that great old beast we call the suspension of disbelief. Every person has his own limits and not everyone will agree. Some people might find the technology of a story fine but the characters simplistic and unrealistic. Others might enjoy the characters but poor science ruins the story. It's impossible to satisfy all the people all the time.

Tony, some of your objections have a pretty practical basis and there's plenty of evidence backing you up. "You don't have teenage admirals in charge of fleets, not outside of anime" or "It's unlikely in any plausible future that Cuba could support the construction of a nuclear aircraft carrier." But there's other assumptions that could really go either way and essentially come down to a matter of opinion and aesthetics.

Your problem is that you cannot separate the practical objections from the personal opinions and act as if the weight of all human knowledge is backing up your side of the argument. Not everyone who disagrees with you is W-R-O-N-G, even if you think they are.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Frankly, I'd have been surprised as hell if you liked it."

Actually, I don't have a problem with the overall concept, just the timeline and mistakes on some very easy to verify details.

"And here we come to your bugbear about metastable systems...

And yes, the expansion is going on recklessly and as national prestige projects, as I said. Whoever owns the most systems is the winner, even if they can't possibly utilize even a fraction of a percent of the planetary resources. Nobody is sure how the future is going to play out but everyone is scrambling to keep from getting left out. And the contracts for paying for the development and support of all this infrastructure are incredibly lucrative."


Metastable systems, long or short lived, have nothing to do with it. The timeline is just too ambitious, even given the internal justifications. In the game of international prestige, for example, quality is more important than quantity. For example, in the first Space Age, being first to something was the important goal, not how much you did it. Being first to the Moon won the game in the 1960s. The rest of the Apollo program was done with equipment and funds already programmed in 1969. I doubt interstellar exploration would be all that different, especially since actually going places doesn't tell you much more than you can see through some space-based telescopes, given reasonable extrapolations about increased size and sensitivity over the next hundred or so years (none of which require great technological leaps forward, just the money to build and launch them).

I just don't find so much going places so soon to be all that likely. That's especially truw when you add in the rare resources that the imagined spacecraft are using -- antimatter and He3. Those are just about the hardest things to come by, the former because it requires ridiculously large amounts of energy to produce and store, the latter because it's just rare, period.

It seems to me that the author has fallen into the old, old SF trap of wanting to set his tory close enough to the present so that he doesn't have to deal with too much technological and social change, but then trying to stuff centuries of progress and exploration into a one-century bag.

"For reader convenience...Hell, Starbucks calls their smallest coffee size a medium even though the very name indicates it should fall between the small and large size.

Hardly a good enough justification, especially since he's leaning on Winch Chung's work as inspiration.

"There also used to be a tradition of not naming ships after living people and we didn't used to name our carriers after presidents. Time and tradition can change."

The first carrier named after a President was Franklin D. Roosevelt, commissioned in 1945. Also, not naming after live people was a tradition, not an officially sanctioned naming convention.

"Future history, dude. The battle it's named after probably hasn't happened yet."

That's really reaching. Every other mentioned US destroyer has a historical battle namesake. And all of the ships mentioned in the dramatis personae have historical precedents. Also, given SF authors' tendency to want to honor people or things they know with ship or planet names, I find it a lot more likely that he was thinking of 2/27/91 rather than any other battle date, past or future.

"I'd never ask you to read it. You're the last person in the world I would suggest for providing useful, constructive feedback."

Let's not get personal. You're making claims of SF hardness and general realism that the evidence doesn't support. Those are what I'm addressing.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

One last thing, @Tony. I know we're supposed to stay away from personal attacks so consider this an observation instead.

...

Tony, some of your objections have a pretty practical basis and there's plenty of evidence backing you up. "You don't have teenage admirals in charge of fleets, not outside of anime" or "It's unlikely in any plausible future that Cuba could support the construction of a nuclear aircraft carrier." But there's other assumptions that could really go either way and essentially come down to a matter of opinion and aesthetics.

Your problem is that you cannot separate the practical objections from the personal opinions and act as if the weight of all human knowledge is backing up your side of the argument. Not everyone who disagrees with you is W-R-O-N-G, even if you think they are."


We're not getting personal, but I have a "problem"? That's an interesting game to play.

But you know what, I'm not going to take it personally. I'm simply going to observe that opinions are just that -- opinions. Nobody has to agree with them or even respond to them. But if somebody wants to respond to them, they would be polite -- at least, but also demonstrating that they actually know the subject -- if they would address those opinions directly, rather than trying to suss out what they think is wrong with the opinion maker.

jollyreaper said...


It seems to me that the author has fallen into the old, old SF trap of wanting to set his tory close enough to the present so that he doesn't have to deal with too much technological and social change, but then trying to stuff centuries of progress and exploration into a one-century bag.


I know what you're saying here, I've seen plenty of examples of this very mistake. I don't feel the novel falls into that category. There are certainly things I think would be different but for me that all falls under the category of "willing suspension of disbelief."

Depending on how hard you set the hardness meter, the only stories possibly allowed are Next Sunday, AD.

You can get into an entire argument about whether warfare is likely in a space setting, whether we would even have nation-states by this point in history, etc etc. He's making some assumptions and running with them.

Personally, I think there's going to be a lot more automation involved in transportation over the next hundred years. I think having a human at the controls of a vehicle will feel as anachronistic as using an animal for the power source.

One game-changer I'm imagining that should be feasible in ground combat in the next 40 years is the tackler robot. Now I'm sure an actual implementation of the idea would look different but I'm thinking of something like a robotic octopus with padded arms. It rolls rapidly towards the target and makes a flying leap, some arms used for tackling and other arms used for softening the impact. The idea is that this is a non-lethal weapon that can perfectly restrain human beings without killing them.

I'm really curious as to how telepresence will evolve on the battlefield. Right now it works well enough for remotely piloting aerial drones. Will we reach the point where humans can sit back in a bunker with perfect situation awareness? Or would it progress in stages? I've got a suspicion that it might work like K-9 teams where it's a human handler and a robot that is sent into dangerous situations. The robot is sent in to tackle the gunman, perform recon in a stand-off, etc.

I think there's going to be room for humans carrying guns and doing bad things to each other far into the PMF but the particulars will get strange and woolly.

jollyreaper said...

But you know what, I'm not going to take it personally. I'm simply going to observe that opinions are just that -- opinions. Nobody has to agree with them or even respond to them. But if somebody wants to respond to them, they would be polite -- at least, but also demonstrating that they actually know the subject -- if they would address those opinions directly, rather than trying to suss out what they think is wrong with the opinion maker.

What I'm getting at particularly is how you never let things rest neatly with a difference of opinion -- your opinion is right, the other is wrong. There's never any wiggle room.

I think it's safe to say that the future history as depicted in the Human Reach is going to be almost entirely if not completely unlike how things actually play out. But I find it to be a very interesting speculative exercise.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"I know what you're saying here, I've seen plenty of examples of this very mistake. I don't feel the novel falls into that category. There are certainly things I think would be different but for me that all falls under the category of "willing suspension of disbelief."

Depending on how hard you set the hardness meter, the only stories possibly allowed are Next Sunday, AD."


See, that's just it -- I could much more readily accept and supend disbelief on only moderately advanced technologies and recognizable nation states 3-400 years from now than I can accept all of the things that are claimed to have happened in the novel, but only a little more than a hundred years in the future. I think writers would do better to work in that direction than trying to sell a put-up job that requires acceptance of a ridiculously compressed timeline.

"Personally, I think there's going to be a lot more automation involved in transportation over the next hundred years. I think having a human at the controls of a vehicle will feel as anachronistic as using an animal for the power source."

Except that humans won't put up with that. Having final human control over your life is what allows people to get on planes and ships, even if humans sometimes make mistakes. That's because the human in control is accountable and it's his ass too. Maybe you can find some people who would trust their lives exclusively to programming and hardware, but I doubt it will ever be enough to change our fundamental direct oversight relationship with control ctechnology.

One game-changer I'm imagining...

I'm really curious as to how telepresence will evolve on the battlefield...

I think there's going to be room for humans carrying guns and doing bad things to each other far into the PMF but the particulars will get strange and woolly.


I' have no doubt those things will be tried. But less-lethal technology is not likely to prevail on a battlefield where the opponent is perfectly willing to be lethal. Also, while telepresence is every .mil porn fanboy's wet dream, I wouldn't give a plug nickel for a telepresence robot squad against a live squad of even semi-trained infantry.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"What I'm getting at particularly is how you never let things rest neatly with a difference of opinion -- your opinion is right, the other is wrong. There's never any wiggle room.

I think it's safe to say that the future history as depicted in the Human Reach is going to be almost entirely if not completely unlike how things actually play out. But I find it to be a very interesting speculative exercise."


And you're not even listening to what I'm saying. I find the idea intriguing. Promoting wormholes out of the quantum foam and relativistically moving them to nearby stars is just about my favorite form of FTL. I just find the setup unbelievable and some mistakes made with details to be inescapbable.

It's not that I'm inflexible, J. It's that I don't think I have to put up with shoddy crap. Of course, I fully agree that I might seem inflexible to people who are more flexible about certain things, but that's a relative measure, not an absolute one.*

*Bif, fat, fvcking hint.

Thucydides said...

And you're not even listening to what I'm saying. I find the idea intriguing. Promoting wormholes out of the quantum foam and relativistically moving them to nearby stars is just about my favorite form of FTL. I just find the setup unbelievable and some mistakes made with details to be inescapbable.

I havn't been to Atomic Rockets for a while, so I missed this one. Tony is correct in one key point; while it may be possible storywise to use handwavium to create wormholes and antimatter powered ships, it is simply impossible for relatavistic starships to have carried the wormholes any great distance in the timeline being suggested here. Assuming that all these things are possible starting tomorrow morning; only a handfull of stars will have been reached by wormhole line layers by 2111, and most nations or organizations will still be waiting with baited breath for the line layer to arrive at the target star around 2700 AD.

This is a variation of the Forever War, which Haldeman sidestepped by having the wormholes being a preexisting cosmic artifact anchored by collapsars (presumably small black holes based on the description).

As for the rest, the author is free to make whatever assumptions he/she wants, it is up to the reader to decide if they enhance or detract from the story (or if they actually are the story!) Going in the opposite direction, I like some of Ralph Peter's works (Red Army, the War in 2020 etc.) because he starts with the people and sees how they react and change to the circumstances and assumptions he creates as a writer. I find these works much more readable than a Tom Clancy like devotion to the hardware and just slipping people in to push the buttons (and some authors are obviously pushing buttons among the readers here...)

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



You know, most science fiction stories could shift their official date by a few centuries this or that and you wouldn't really notice. They all just take place in "the future" anyway. It's the story that people pay attention to.



Tony:

"Except that humans won't put up with that. Having final human control over your life is what allows people to get on planes and ships, even if humans sometimes make mistakes."

Elevators are fully automated and are difficult to impossible to escape from after a malfunction, aside from waiting for an elaborate rescue. People still use them, in part because elevators are simple enough that there's not much that can go wrong.

That said, I expect that vehicles in more complicated environments will still have a human at the controls, even if that human's job is just to program the computer when departing and then do nothing for the remainder of the trip unless an unusual circumstance comes up.

Spaceships, though, might be robust enough that they can be adequately piloted by ground-based mission control, although the passengers would still feel more comfortable having a pilot onboard.

Geoffrey S H said...

I for one am glad that he made a mention of heat radiators and acceleration in his work.

Consider it a good stepping stone to harder sf.

Geoffrey S H said...

I for one am glad that he made a mention of heat radiators and acceleration in his work.

Consider it a good stepping stone to harder sf.

Geoffrey S H said...

Blogger double posted, sorry.

John Lumpkin said...

For what it's worth, it was my intention that the ship Kuwait City was named after a battle that hasn't happened as of 2011.

And there's a pdf version available on Smashwords, but the site may not let you download the 20 percent sample in that format, if that was your concern -- not my preference, just the way SW does business, but it probably wouldn't hurt for me to put a pdf sample together and make it available on the web site.

And I don't think I had a dateline from Kuwait from my reporting days -- we landed and spent the night in a "palace" there. (It was like a Holiday Inn with a guarded gate but no bar.) This was before taking a day trip into Iraq, and here's one of my Iraq datelines, if you're concerned about bona fides: http://bit.ly/no2F4M.

Thanks for the discussion.

Best,
John

Tony said...

Milo:

"Spaceships, though, might be robust enough that they can be adequately piloted by ground-based mission control, although the passengers would still feel more comfortable having a pilot onboard."

All historic manned spaceships have been essentially controlled from the ground. Gagarin was actually locked out of the control system. Theoretically, he would only have been given control in an emergency by having the lock combination read up to him from the ground. But IRL, Korolev had good enough sense to give Gagarin an envelope with the combination, in case the radio failed. Even a lot of crew mediated control inputs have been more in the nature of the crew following orders from mission control, than the crew doing things for themselves, based on their own judgment.

But please note that the crews have always been given a manual control opportunity for all critical flight functions. I can't imagine any future manned spacecraft, no matter how reliable control systems get, that doesn't have at least one crewmwmber that could be called on to do the pilot job competently and reliably, "just in case".

Tony said...

John Lumpkin:

"For what it's worth, it was my intention that the ship Kuwait City was named after a battle that hasn't happened as of 2011.

...

And I don't think I had a dateline from Kuwait from my reporting days -- we landed and spent the night in a "palace" there. (It was like a Holiday Inn with a guarded gate but no bar.) This was before taking a day trip into Iraq, and here's one of my Iraq datelines, if you're concerned about bona fides: http://bit.ly/no2F4M.


Please. I would be the last person to gainsay you. If you say that's how it is, then that's how it is.

It just seemed that in a list of historical battle namesakes, including all of the other apparent historical references, there would be one that was future historical. On top of that, given your demonstrated interest in the region, one would expect no mistakes on historical events there.

But I didn't have all of the data. Mea culpa.

Tony said...

John Lumpkin:

Having said all of that, I still find the timeline way too compressed to be credible.

John Lumpkin said...

Tony:

Fair enough. I'm generally pretty forum-averse (read: lurker) and don't want to thread-hijack, so if you're interested feel free to shoot me an e-mail and I'll try to describe the thinking behind the date. Can't promise it'll satisfy :)

Cheers,
JL

jollyreaper said...


"Except that humans won't put up with that. Having final human control over your life is what allows people to get on planes and ships, even if humans sometimes make mistakes."


I hear what you're saying and it seems like a convincing argument but I think that it's going to be a generational bias like not trusting a lady doctor or a lady scientist to know what she's talking about, or even prefacing the occupation with "lady" in the first place.

We have a bias towards thinking human beings are better than machines at "thinking" things. And I'd say the best human is still probably better than the best expert system. But how many times do you get the world's top expert? My bus driver isn't Mario Andretti, he's some minimum wage schlub yakking on a cell phone. I'd trust a computer driver over him. If I have my choice of top doctors in the world to see me when I have a problem, I'll take the human. If I'm having to deal with a harried and overworked doctor who's not paying enough goddamn attention to catch my problems, I'd rather go in the magic scanner box and let the autodoc catch the problems on my scan.

The comment above about elevators is a pretty good example. Used to have elevator operators, wouldn't trust a machine. You used to have to drive with a mechanic, couldn't trust the car to operate faultlessly for an entire drive. It's amazing what people get used to.

Tony said...

Re: jollyreaper

Elevators have very simple and predictable operating environments. That's why they can be automated for normal operations. They still tell you to stay out of them in a fire. Why? Because it's still not safe to trust your life to control logic or an interruptable power supply in an abnormal operating environment.

It's the same thing with aircraft or water transportation. The big difference is that people can't just avoid an aircraft or vessel when they're already aboard. So you carry a human pilot. And that's not generational.

BTW, the best expert system is only as reliable as the domain knowledge of the programmers and their ability to transform that knowledge into running code. But programmers are rarely also real domain experts. So they can only program what a domain expert can (imperfectly) communicate to them. And who's to say that the prgorammers are matched to the best experts, or the best experts can adequately communicate what they know. People who are really good at something in fact tend to not be able to tell others how they know what they know.

On top of all of that, expert systems are designed to handle routine operations. They are intentionally programmed to ask for human help when things go too far off nominal. And the vast majority of things that stump expert systems don't require an ace to solve, just somebody with professional -- or even just technical -- experience in the problem domain. So install and run all the expert systems you want, you still need the human to deal with emergencies.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Tony:

"They still tell you to stay out of them in a fire. Why? Because it's still not safe to trust your life to control logic or an interruptable power supply in an abnormal operating environment."

Actually, that's because of what I said about an elevator being difficult to escape if it stops moving somewhere other than at one of its proper stops.

A fire significantly increases the chance of getting stuck in the shaft midway between floors due to an interruptible power supply, as well as creating the risk of the fire actually destroying the wires holding the elevator up and causing it to plummet (with almost certainly lethal results). Having a human operator would not help with either problem, since dead power is still dead power even if a human is giving the commands. Having the elevator be human-muscle-powered rather than just human-driven would help with the interruptible power supply, but not with the plummeting hazard.

Additionally, the small confined space of an elevator makes it harder to see your surroundings and so you have no idea how close you are to hazardous fire or rubble. A staircase is an open space that leaves you with a better sense of your surroundings and more freedom of movement to dodge obstacles.

None of these have anything to do with the elevator's programming being inadequate.

Tony said...

Milo:

"None of these have anything to do with the elevator's programming being inadequate."

No, they don't, because an elevator can be avoided in an emergency, so it's programming is irrelevant. But an in-flight or at-sea emergency occurs in such a way that being aboard can't be avoided.

jollyreaper said...

No, they don't, because an elevator can be avoided in an emergency

Unless you're in the elevator when the emergency happens.

jollyreaper said...


On top of all of that, expert systems are designed to handle routine operations. They are intentionally programmed to ask for human help when things go too far off nominal. And the vast majority of things that stump expert systems don't require an ace to solve, just somebody with professional -- or even just technical -- experience in the problem domain. So install and run all the expert systems you want, you still need the human to deal with emergencies.


Total pilot error is at fault for over 50% of crashes.

http://planecrashinfo.com/cause.htm

We'd like to point to problems like that Airbus crash where the flight control system overrode the pilot's commands in that low pass at the air show or Captain Sully making that herculean effort to save his aircraft, something that no computer could have been programmed to handle safely. But what about middling pilots? How many cases do we have of inadequate training, fatigue, or some other stupid factor that ends in smoking ruin?

I'm not sitting here telling you humans are worthless, I'm not telling you blah blah the wave of the future is automation, I'm not even predicting which way it will go.

All I'm saying is that there's room for making a convincing argument for human control and room for making a convincing argument for machine control. And I think there's a very huge emotional content to this argument that goes beyond the statistics. I could buy a story where a human operator is along for the ride even if he has literally nothing to do put keep triggering a dead man's switch. I could also buy a story where all transportation is automated and even if a personal flying craft the joystick is there to tell the computer where the passenger wants to go and is translated into proper flight instructions from there, avoiding stalls, collisions, and controlled flight into terrain.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Unless you're in the elevator when the emergency happens."

And sometimes you're on an aircraft where nothing the pilot can do can save you. But that doesn't invalidate the point that control systems, no matter how sophisticated -- and some elevator control systems are very sophisticated, BTW -- are not considered safe for human life all on their own.

"Total pilot error is at fault for over 50% of crashes.

http://planecrashinfo.com/cause.htm

We'd like to point to problems like that Airbus crash where the flight control system overrode the pilot's commands in that low pass at the air show or Captain Sully making that herculean effort to save his aircraft, something that no computer could have been programmed to handle safely. But what about middling pilots? How many cases do we have of inadequate training, fatigue, or some other stupid factor that ends in smoking ruin?"


The above misses the point. Yes, humans are fallible. But human-caused accidents are a different subject from in-flight emergencies. Even if the human isn't Cap'n Sully or Neil Armstrong, he gives you a better chance in an emergency than a machine does. One of the dirty little secrets of airmanship is how many accidents and incidents are avoided everyday by merely average human skill. Ever gone on YouTube and watched a few crosswind landing montages?

Also, there are many cases of in-flight emergencies where disaster was not totally avoided, but signifcantly mitigated by pilot action. I happen to personally know several people who are alive today thanks to this phenomenon.

"All I'm saying is that there's...room for making a convincing argument for machine control."

With current or reasonably foreseable computer technology? I don't think a rational argument can be made. Computers are great aids and assistants. But you can't program into them what every experienced pilot knows and can do. As I stated eariler, there are just things that we can't reduce to code, and there's not even any convincing theory of how we could in the future.

Thucydides said...

For very high performance aircraft, the joystick really is disconnected from the control surfaces, and simply informs the flight control computers which direction the pilot wants to go. The F-16 was the first aircraft to do this, being dynamically unstable in flight without constant microsecond corrections by the control system.

For most spacecraft, this isn't really required (watch the docking sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey to get an idea of the reaction times needed) except for the final few meters of the journey (better keep the docking ring lined up with the target).

Shuttles or reentry vehicles are a class of spacecraft which need lightning fast "reflexes" beyond direct human input, so will be largely computer controlled as well. The final place we will find computers in the lead is tactical systems like close in missile defense, triggering high speed weapons to deflect or destroy incomming missiles (lasers, railguns, anti missiles; take your pick), but even there the human hand is needed if only to initiate the fire/no fire sequence.

Anonymous said...

The argument shouldn't be either human control or computer control, but to what extent computers enhance human control.

Ferrell

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"For very high performance aircraft, the joystick really is disconnected from the control surfaces, and simply informs the flight control computers which direction the pilot wants to go. The F-16 was the first aircraft to do this, being dynamically unstable in flight without constant microsecond corrections by the control system."

The point to make here is that the system is not designed to relieve the pilot of decision making. It is designed to lessen his workload and buffer against inadvertent departures. Also, in the event that the aircraft does take an excursion outside the programmed flight envelope, the pilot can override the safeties.

Ferrell:

"The argument shouldn't be either human control or computer control, but to what extent computers enhance human control."

I would agree, but there's a certain outlook that sees perfect machines as naturally replacing fallible humans.

Apropos of this discussion, I was reading today that a lot of supmarket chains are removing or reducing self checkout systems. It turns out that less than 20% of transactions are made at them, which is down from a high of (IIRC) 23%. It seems like even with something seemingly as simple as point-of-sale interactions, people just want to deal with people.

Now I know that somebody is going to argue that this is all generational. But less than 20% acceptance after ten years? I don't think that's generational.

Anonymous said...

My job is to test and repair electronics...I don't believe people will ever succeed in building a "perfect" machine; even the "build a machine that designs a machine that designs a machine..." type of evolutionary method of creating a "perfect" machine would take untold generations and never reach a conclusion...just like 'natural' evolution is still an ongoing proccess.

Ferrell

Tony said...

I don't know about the perfectability of hardware, but I'm pretty sure from my experience in developing and maintaining software, we are far, far, o so far away from getting software to do as good as even average people.

Rick said...

Very belated welcome to another new commenter, who found his book being taken in vain in this discussion.

I have not read John Lumpkin's book, so I have no informed opinion about how convincing the backstory is or isn't. I infer that the book is intended as essentially space opera with Plausible [TM] detailing.

My bias is for a longer time scale for space expansion - but I'm someone who liked Firefly and never bothered to watch (the modern) Battlestar Galactica, so it is a matter of biases.

I'll note that a growing number of rapid transit lines are automated, involving more complex operation and longer travel times than elevators. OTOH, I doubt their automation is absolute; the trains may not have drivers, but I'm sure the control center has dispatchers on duty.

In principle, whether a form of transport can be automated depends on how many (and frequent) failure modes it has where a 'pilot' could recover and prevent or mitigate failure, but there is also a cultural element that might play out differently over time.

If we get 'true' automobiles, and people become comfortable with putting the car on total cruise control, attitudes toward automated aircraft (or spacecraft) could change - perhaps even if they really shouldn't change.

Note that much of what we call automatic or robotic is really remote-control. Our interplanetary spacecraft DO have operating crews - it is just that the crews all live much closer to Pasadena than to the spacecraft they are controlling.

Tony said...

Rick:

"If we get 'true' automobiles, and people become comfortable with putting the car on total cruise control, attitudes toward automated aircraft (or spacecraft) could change - perhaps even if they really shouldn't change."

I think attitudes towars fully automatic cars would be moderated by the ability to fail safe by pulling over and stopping.

"Note that much of what we call automatic or robotic is really remote-control. Our interplanetary spacecraft DO have operating crews - it is just that the crews all live much closer to Pasadena than to the spacecraft they are controlling."

Yeah, but your pilots have to live in places like Pasadena, San Dimas, or La Canada. And they have to socialize with people like Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Rick:

"OTOH, I doubt their automation is absolute; the trains may not have drivers, but I'm sure the control center has dispatchers on duty."

It should be noted that even human workers are subject to occasional performance reviews, and have to answer to their employers and to traffic control authorities. Just how little external control is necessary before you can count as "autonomous"?

jollyreaper said...

I have not read John Lumpkin's book, so I have no informed opinion about how convincing the backstory is or isn't. I infer that the book is intended as essentially space opera with Plausible [TM] detailing.

I'd describe it as "plausible space opera." There's an entire debate as to whether or not we'd have war in space. He makes the minimum number of assumptions to get us into space while still maintaining plausible rival factions with competing interests. The ships move and fight in as plausible a fashion as we can imagine, but there is a bias against total automation. My personal guess is that if we don't have access to some kind of nifty FTL shortcut in the near future, by the time we can actually build plausible starships they're going to be self-aware AI models like from the Culture. I'm not saying this with the assumption that hard AI is around the corner, more like if it takes us a thousand years to develop the tech for proper starships then we'll probably have hard AI if it's possible.

He makes the assumption that hard AI can't happen to keep the humans closer to the center of the story. You don't have manned starfighters, you don't have a perky ensign and the ship's android cooking up new technologies Starfleet R&D couldn't imagine.

While I'm sure there's nits to pick, they're not going to be the obvious ones you'd imagine when someone says "space opera."

My bias is for a longer time scale for space expansion - but I'm someone who liked Firefly and never bothered to watch (the modern) Battlestar Galactica, so it is a matter of biases.

A lot can be excused in how the show takes itself. Firefly always struck me as just this side of tongue in cheek and is so enjoyable that the absurdities can either be overlooked or celebrated. I'm harsher on Galactica because it took itself so goddamn seriously and yet was so cheesy.

In principle, whether a form of transport can be automated depends on how many (and frequent) failure modes it has where a 'pilot' could recover and prevent or mitigate failure, but there is also a cultural element that might play out differently over time.

It's kind of funny to see what we think will be easy and what we think will be hard, what will come sooner and what will come later. The Golden Age scifi with starships flying around without computers is always good for a laugh. I think the robotics revolution is right on the cusp of exploding. Not saying we'll have replicants walking around, just that we're going to see a lot of changes in the way things are done. A lot of jobs we assumed were too complicated for computers are getting automated away. I'm not just talking cashiers or tollbooth attendants. It's not so much that we're talking about an over-estimation of what a computer is capable of, more like we over-estimate what a human brings to the table.

Currently fast food restaurants have experimented with automation and have found humans to be cheaper and more reliable than machines. It's unclear how longer this will remain so.

Versatile robot arm
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CayFbmpuyIc&feature=related

Anonymous said...

Just a nitpick...elevators lost their operators because regular passengers could operate the simpler controls. People might be ok with THEIR cars driving them around, but leary of some airline's machine flying them sans pilots.

I do look forward to reading "The Human Reach"...sounds like the kind of story I'd like.


Ferrell

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"The Golden Age scifi with starships flying around without computers is always good for a laugh."

Only for people who have no technological perspective. Electrical an nuclear engineering, using slipsticks and relatively simple electromechanical calculators, had advanced so quickly and had accomplished so much by 1945 that it was hard to imagine what they couldn't accomplish. Also, what we do with computers now wasn't left undone back then. It was just done with electromechanical integrators purpose-built for each task. Or, if a task couldn't be totally automated through the engineer's art, they found creative ways to meld man and machine to accomplish the task.

Let's put it another way. In 500 BC, cutting edge naval technology was based on manual labor -- rowing. In 1900 AD, cutting edge naval technology was based on manual labor -- shovelling coal. This is an observation that the Golden Age writers (born in the first quarter of the 20th century) would have been culturally and intellectually much closer too.

"I think the robotics revolution is right on the cusp of exploding.

...

Currently fast food restaurants have experimented with automation and have found humans to be cheaper and more reliable than machines. It's unclear how longer this will remain so."


What I think is abundantly clear is that a lot of people simply don't understand how computers, especially software, work. Computers are much faster and have much more storage than they used to. But they still do precisely the same things they did forty years ago. Heck, the latest version of linux is still programmed in C and hand-crafted assembly language.

Yes, computers can really whiz through scripted procedures. People have found some pretty neat ways to synthesize numerous scripted procedures into very complex applications. Heuristic tools have been applied to allow systems to learn by doing, after a (very elementary) fashion. But robotics and all other types of computing are firmly grounded in conceptual models that have been almost completely explored.

Everything we do to extend our capabilities is done through brute force -- more speed and more power. We're eventually going to run into a wall with that, IMO sooner rather than later.

John Lumpkin said...

Thanks, Rick, for the welcome. I've lurked here for quite some time. And thanks, too, for some sage advice you've provided over on SFConSim.

I'll let others characterize the hardness of the novel, but I sure tried not to violate any laws of physics. In a few places I filled in some scientific blanks (such as regarding wormholes and exoplanets) with the fairly advantageous assumptions.

And this may be relevant to your original point in the blog post. I came at the novel's assumptions from two directions: One, a desire to not screw up the science, and two, a desire to tell the kind of story I wanted to tell, with Earth nations in space, geopolitical conflict and espionage, interesting flawed characters, and so on. I hemmed myself in by trying to observe the laws of physics, and then I engineered future history into where I wanted it to be.

And there's lots of assumptions that underlie that future history, about politics, economics and culture, all fed by deeper assumptions about human nature. These social sciences are (thankfully) a lot less deterministic than hard sciences, and the socially oriented assumptions are open to challenge. And that's fine! I'm not trying to predict the future -- that would be a far different book -- I just wanted to build one that would be satisfyingly plausible and also unique and interesting enough to keep people turning pages.

Rick said...

John - You make an important point that I often forget myself: The Plausible Midfuture is meant to be just what it says, plausible, not necessarily 'likely.'

It is a funny thing. In a high fantasy novel you can give careful attention to, say, viable cavalry tactics, combine them with outright magic - indeed, modify them to take account of outright magic - and everyone pretty much agrees to take the story on its own terms.

But whenever we deal with space, especially with any nod to the physics of actual space travel, we all get tangled up between the world(s) of the story and the things we think people might actually do in space in the less-than-remote future.

This is pretty much a built-in challenge, and probably should be regarded as a feature, not a bug.

Raymond said...

In the name of His Noodliness, I command this thread to rise again!

(Sorry for the thread necromancy, really. I miss a chunk of comments, come back later, and find myself with ghosts.)

Having read the Lumpkin novel in question within the last two weeks (and no, this thread wasn't the catalyst, just a happy coincidence), some randomly-ordered points:

- Good job on the first novel, John. Looking forward to the next.

- For those quibbling about the timeframe, a) each major power has low-to-mid single-digit numbers of colonies (and low populations on each), b) most of the wormholes go to/from red dwarfs, at least partly because of resolution limits of the telescopes used to find habitable planets, and especially c) there is actually a plausible explanation of the swiftness of the interstellar land grab. It's not simply a bubble, the powers-that-be are thinking very long-term, and the crux of it is a piece of reasonably-plausible astronomy mixed with the realities and priorities of power. I think even Tony would accede to the justification. (No spoilers, obviously, unless the denizens of the thread waive their rights.)

- That said, putting it a century ahead of where it is wouldn't really hurt.

- I thought the handling of automation was fine. A lot of things were left to computer control once the decisions were made (by humans), nobody was manually aiming lasers at targets thousands of klicks distant, and things like software upgrades and infowar attacks factored in at appropriate times. It was the kind of balanced approach that didn't have me scratching my head nor cringing.

- I think there probably should've been a couple more ships named after battles to come; details like that give the future a lived-in sheen without having to write future-history essays. Also, the Kuwait City wouldn't stick out so much.

- Oh, and Thucydides, the wormhole-carrying craft sent out relativistically were micro-assemblies, not full starships, and relativistic wormholes actually work like rockets due to local mass conservation - you just get to leave the power supply back home and shoot a powerful laser or particle beam through it.

Raymond said...

Bah, out of habit and forgot to check the email box.

jollyreaper said...

I'm certainly looking forward to the next one.

Rick said...

No law requires comment threads to die! (After all, my original Space Fighters, Not post still gets comments after 4+ years.

Interesting points about the novel!

John Lumpkin said...

Thank you, sirs, for the kind words about the novel, and Rick for that front-page link as well. Hard at work on the sequel.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Huh? This thread isn't dead?



Raymond:

"It's not simply a bubble, the powers-that-be are thinking very long-term,"

If your goals are long-term, why rush to grab land now?

Raymond said...

Milo:

"If your goals are long-term, why rush to grab land now?"

In the context of the book in question:

1. There's already been a costly asteroid hit, creating a psychological imperative.

2. We've got wormhole tech, which makes the energy cost vastly lower.

3. Due to the nature of wormhole chains, later claims are dependent on earlier ones.

4. Everyone else is doing it, which given 3) leads to a now-or-never approach.