Thursday, March 29, 2012

Space Warfare XVI: Origins and Scratch Forces

TS Golden BearNo, the configuration shown above is not proposed for any type of spacecraft. With sufficient stretching, I suppose you might justify it in a setting where ships have a magic drive, land on water, and their sea performance is the main design consideration. (If you'll buy that, which bridge do you want to purchase? The pretty one to Marin, or the massive one to Oakland?)

The vessel is the training ship Golden Bear, originally built for the Navy as an oceanographic survey ship. Her relevance to our topic comes from her oddly hybrid appearance: She looks like a not-quite-warship.

Let us suppose, for purposes of story, that some future era has space warfare, and space warcraft to do the fighting.

For the record, this is by no means an inevitable or even likely prospect, at least through the plausible midfuture, with the exception of mostly ground-based weapons intended to engage targets in Earth orbit. Not because of human moral improvement, but for the same reason Antarctica was untouched by the world wars and cold war: lack of strategic objectives.

But let us suppose it anyway. The question then becomes how these forces are developed in the first place. If they are built by existing or future terrestrial Great Powers the origin question hardly arises. Space forces then take form already fully developed, like Athena from Zeus's headache.

We can imagine Pentagon planners, or their counterparts, drawing up specifications for the spacecraft, while the service branches slug it out politically and bureaucratically to determine whether combat constellations have admirals, generals, or Space Marshals in overall command.

But what if space forces do not develop as simple outward projections of existing military establishments? A variety of scenarios might produce this result. The original international regime in space might be demilitarized, as (apart from ASATs) it is today. And when the apple of discord gets thrown it might not be contested for by terrestrial powers.

These might have more immediate concerns, namely each other. If Brazil and Nigeria are on such bad terms as to duke it out, the theater of operations is much more likely to be the South Atlantic than the asteroid belt.

Or the Earth of 2300 or 2500 may be so balkanized as to have no global Great Powers that would even daydream of space fleets. Or, on the other hand, there may be a world state, or demi-state international regime, with a blue-helmet constabulary but no force configured for major combat. Or if all else fails, the Fall of the Terran Empire could leave a welter of rising colonies, a few centuries later, to improvise their ships and military institutions.

In these scenarios the trouble in space may well begin in space. See hints along these lines (and links to further hints) in an earlier post in this series. But even without delving too deeply into the scenarios we can speculate about zero-generation space forces.

Kinetics, rather than beams, are probably (but not inevitably) the dominant weapon. Extensive space travel is pretty much a precondition here, and space travel is all about throwing weight around, fast and accurately. If you can guide a spacecraft to a destination you have at least a fair shot at steering it on collision course into a target. The basic prerequisites of a target seeker: thrusters, sensors, and guidance package, are available from every space operations boneyard.

They won't compare to the milspec'd version, but they don't have to: Their targets are also jury-rigged.

Multimegawatt laser installations combined with observatory-grade optics are less likely to be sitting around handy. Of course, if you really want lasers you can get around this. Laser-triggered fusion, or laser-boosted cargo propulsion, could make high powered lasers readily available, to be weaponized with an array of oscillating hands. But kinetics are the car bombs of space warfare, available by default.

For much the same reason, a wide variety of civil spacecraft can be pressed into war service. If cargo operations are modular, target seekers can ride on standard cargo clamps. Transport/liner types can carry espatiers, or for that matter the service techs needed to keep all sorts of space hardware in operating conditions.

But - here, finally, is the connection to the Golden Bear - survey ships are particularly well suited to wartime conversion. They presumably have a much more extensive sensor suite than most civilian types - and in space, everyone doesn't see everything unless they have appropriate sensors. They have an onboard mission control suited to managing probes, and, in interstellar setting at least, landing shuttles suitable for planets lacking - or not making available - runways and other surface facilities.

None of this makes survey ships the equivalent of purpose-built cruiser types. They have no specifically defensive features, and while they probably have extended range/endurance they have no provision for combat maneuvers. But with semi-demi-realistic space technology both of these are extremely iffy even for purpose-built warcraft.

Human factor also work neatly. Survey ships have relatively large crews, trained and accustomed to dealing with unknowns and uncertainty. Indeed, at least in principle Trek's Enterprise was a survey ship ... exploring new worlds, new civilizations, boldly going where no man has gone before. In practice, to be sure, she was hardly 'zero generation,' with an armament able to engage Klingon battlecruisers on equal terms, and plenty of redshirts to boot.

The availability of survey ships for war conversion depends on whether they exist. This is by no means inevitable (even given extensive human space travel). The chancy work of exploration may still be assigned to robotic probes, with mission control and the research team staying safely in Pasadena. (Or at least San Francisco's Presidio.)

Survey ships in something like the classic sense work best in settings that - conveniently for authors, if not for the inhabitants - have FTL travel but no FTL radio. Which means that to do any serious exploring, mission control must go with the mission, not stay back on Earth.

Stepping back, other considerations come into play. If the fighting breaks out in a single planet's orbital space - rather than the classic scenario of deep space war, interplanetary or interstellar - providing armament remains much the same, but the focus is likely to be on much smaller craft and much shorter missions.

Survey ships are pretty much irrelevant to such a fight. Indeed, quite apart from the specific topic of this post, combat between local forces in orbital space has a lot of 'air force' characteristics, in contrast to the traditional maritime image of deep space.


Related Links:

Atomic Rockets, of course - especially, but not exclusively, the pages on space warfare.

And previously in the Space Warfare series:

I: The Gravity Well
II: Stealth Reconsidered
III: 'Warships' in Space
IV: Mobility
V: Laser Weapons
VI: Kinetics, Part 1
VII: Kinetics, Part 2 - The Killer Bus
VIII: Orbital Combat
IX: Could Everything We Know Be Wrong?
X: Moving Targets
XI: La Zona Fronteriza
XII: Surface Warfare
XIII: The Human Factor
XIV: Things As They Ought To Be
XV: Further Reflections on Laserstars

Also ...

Battle of the Spherical War Cows: Purple v Green
Further Battles of the Spherical War Cows


Space Fighters, Not
Space Fighters, Reconsidered?

And, indulging in heresy -

Give Peace a Chance

The image of the Golden Bear comes from its Wikipedia page.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Trouble With Mars

Mars, as previously noted on this blog, has a nasty reputation for doing away with space missions from its inward neighbor. Its most recent victim was Phobos-Grunt, done away with before it left Earth parking orbit. This, by the way, is one more good reason why a human Mars mission should be robust, not a shoestring-budget stunt.

But until last post, I did not realize that Mars is hostile not only to space visitors but also to big-budget Hollywood movies. When I think about the Red Planet on the big screen I think of Mars Needs Women - it never struck me to notice a negative phenomenon, the lack of major epic Mars movies in the age of special effects.

Alyssa Rosenberg is wrong about Mars. She writes,

... there is zero reason the events of that movie need to take place on Mars, which I assume is only the setting because Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the books on which the movie is based thought it was cool.

Well, Burroughs did set his Barsoom stories there, arguably a non-zero reason in its own right. But he chose Mars for a reason - the same reason why a less pulpy author, HG Wells, choose it for his would-be colonizers of Earth. A century ago, Mars was a place of enormous interest, more than ever before and perhaps more than ever since.

This is because Percival Lowell was also wrong about Mars, and therein lies this tale. To recap, during the close opposition of 1877 the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli strained with eyeball at eyepiece to make out details of the Martian surface. During those brief moments of ideal telescopic 'seeing' he thought he glimpsed linear features on the Martian surface. He called them canali, a word that in Italian can mean either 'channels' or 'canals.'

English-speaking readers of his Mars observations naturally took the more colorful meaning - and the Mars of the imagination was born. Channels are natural features, but canals imply canal-builders.

Lowell went on to build a grand and elegant superstructure of speculation about those elusive (and, as it turned out, illusive) linear markings on the surface of Mars. It was as grand and elegant as a Martian city.

Mars was an old and dying world, argued Lowell. Its civilization was likewise old, and struggling to survive in the face of the dessication of its world. The oceans of Mars were long gone; only the mighty canal system allowed the waters of life to be captured from the annual melting of the icecaps. The irrigation they provided accounted for the seasonal changes of color observed on much of Mars.

It was a wonderful, evocative story, the ultimate struggle of civilization against relentless nature. And the power of the theme lent itself to multiple interpretations. The Mars of Wells, Burroughs, and Heinlein all derived from Schiaparelli's straining vision and Lowell's imaginative vision.

By the time I was a pre-teen this Mars was in tatters, but not entirely gone - not unlike a Martian city. The science books I was reading, mostly published in the 1950s, still had maps of Mars including the canals, even while cautioning that they were probably an optical illusion.

The end of this Mars came abruptly, and with supreme poignancy it was extinguished by space exploration. On July 14-15 1965, Mariner 4 snapped 21 images of Mars and a partial 22nd. The images were low resolution, and covered only a small part of the Martian surface. But in 1965 it was by far the best imagery of Mars anyone had ever seen. And Mariner 4's Mars looked far more like the Moon than it did like Barsoom.

In fact - a further layer of irony - those images looked far more like the Moon than most of Mars. By sheer chance the regions imaged were old, cratered terrain. Probably the resolution was too low to capture any of the features now thought to be actual water-carved channels. But the reaction to Mariner 4 might have been considerably different if, say, Valles Marineris been in one of the images.

Mars, indeed, has much in common with Percival Lowell's imaginative vision. It has no canals and no civilization, but it is indeed a geologically dying world. Its oceans and rivers have long vanished - billions of years ago, not mere millions - though indications are that water still occasionally flows there.

Mars was not the only science fiction world ruined by space exploration. Habitable Venus came to an equally sudden and even more devastating end in 1962, when Mariner 2 revealed its hellish surface conditions. But Venus, veiled by its clouds, had always been a purely speculative world. Mars had named surface features, at least some of which, like Syrtis Major, are still to be found there.

But by the time space missions revealed the new Mars, the old one was already dead and buried, with no chance of a relatively graceful transition. And perhaps that is the trouble with Mars. The old Mars, with its canals and spire-topped cities, was magnificent and vivid. It had a history, with all the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome, and the tragedy that was Gibbons.

Between the Mars that still lingers in imagination and the desolate beauty of real Mars lies a canyon wider and deeper than Valles Marineris. Written SF can bridge it, but perhaps the movies - aimed at a much larger and more casual audience - cannot. How do you invite the 2012 audience to visit Mars as it was thought to be in 1912?

Then again, maybe Hollywood's trouble with Mars is simply that they have made a lot of bad Mars movies, and not so many good ones. Or, taking a middle road, Mars may be just one example of a broader phenomenon: Hollywood has an overall poor track record when it comes to the worlds of written SF. After all, except for 2001: A Space Odyssey, the best movies about space travel have not been sci-fi at all, but historical costume dramas.


The canal-era image of Mars is from the University of Alabama astronomy website.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mars Needs Princesses

Perhaps the actual, physical Mars, the one we may well visit in this century, is not in urgent need of them. But Mars of the imagination wouldn't be the worse off for a princess or two. And for one specific Mars of the imagination, Barsoom, is in absolute need of one.

A fair disclaimer: I have never met HRH Dejah Thoris in person, literarily speaking. I'm not quite sure why, and have no excuse for it. It certainly wasn't because I thought I was too good for her. I took in all of the Conan canon that I could get hold of. I even sank so low as to to read a few Gor novels. (A meeting between Dejah Thoris and John Norman would be ... interesting to contemplate. Somehow I don't think Her Highness would be the one who ended up wearing the gold slave collar.)

Ahem, and back to the point. It turns out that the upcoming film, though based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' debut novel, A Princess of Mars, will not be called A Princess of Mars. The title will have no reference at all to Dejah Thoris, a fact that has caused a bit of well-justified kerfuffle. But for that matter, the film's title evidently has no reference to Mars.

It is merely John Carter. To those of us who know our pulps - even if only by cultural osmosis - that name would be enough. But most of the moviegoing audience, even for thud-and-blunder actioners, probably never heard of the guy.

Disney, it seems, changed the title because they say that guys won't go to movies about princesses. (Or that simply have Princess in the title.) I would suspect that it depends a good deal on the princess. As one commenter to the linked piece snarked, The Princess Bride didn't seem to be hurt by having the P-word in the title.

I do not come to this subject with perfect, disinterested objectivity. As longtime readers may know, I have a certain literary interest in the subject. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies I can even identify the source of this oddity: the 1953 movie Young Bess, which I saw on TV at some impressionable age. Jean Simmons, plus (implied) galleons - what wasn't to like?

In any case, I have my own variant theory of why the Disney corporation wimped out of giving the movie its rightful royal title. It isn't, I suspect, about princesses in general but about Disney princesses. Which are a highly specialized and, by all accounts, an extremely profitable franchise. And Disney is nothing if not ruthlessly commercial.

Whatever else can be said about her, Dejah Thoris is most certainly not a Disney princess. So she must be kept strictly out of sight of four-year-old girls, their parents, and the parents' wallets. Lest brand-damaging havoc ensue.

Which still leaves the puzzling question of why they also got rid of Mars. Granted that Barsoom has only a very modest similarity to Sol IV (a lot more modest than Dejah Thoris, if Frank Frazetta was anyone to go by), it is not as if mere issues of scientific plausibility ever troubled Disney or anyone else in Hollywood.

Speculations are welcome.

Speaking of Mars - the real one, in this case, or at least an arguably Plausible Midfuture one - a reader, Chris Gerrib, contacted me to let me know that he has a science fiction novel coming out, Pirates of Mars. If Mars can't have princesses, at least it can have pirates. Author and book were featured a few days ago on John Scalzi's 'Whatever' blog.

The image comes from the Mars page at

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sailing Distant Seas

Horses have a time-honored place on interstellar colony planets. As with so much involving space, plausible or otherwise, I first encountered this image in the Heinlein juveniles. It probably gained its widest reach in popular culture more recently, in Firefly. I do not recall, now, whether the show explained why worlds settled centuries from now would have people riding around on horseback.

For a Heinlein reader no explanation was needed. Horses, he pointed out, manufactured their replacements, saving the expense of shipping them out from Earth. (Or the Alliance core worlds, or wherever advanced technology is firmly established.)

It was all quite plausible sounding. Which shot two varmints with one gun, because it also made Bat Durston seem plausible. He didn't need to sing to his trusty spaceship, or even give it a treat of sugar, because he could do those things with an actual horse. (Is sugar good for horses?)

Enough about horses. As you might anticipate from the title, this post considers a nautical variation of that trope, the use of sailing ships. My old future history had a colony world named Seychelle, a 'pelagic' planet with most its population living in the archipelago of Myrianesia.

The geology of such a world poses its own questions. Is Myrianesia a nearly-flooded continent, a supra-Hawaii shield volcano system, or some other type of feature not found on Earth. Could a planet with minimal dry land develop complex life, or even be suitable for terraforming?

But given such a world, much of its transport would have to move by sea, even at early stages of colonization. Limited and costly imports of marine technology invite solutions utilizing local materials and power sources - and wind power for sea transport is a technology known to work.

Sailing ships, unlike horses, do not reproduce. (D'oh!) But they don't need fuel, and the power plants presumably won't need to be imported from Earth. Nor require teams of outrageously specialized maintenance techs to keep them running.

Technical considerations aside, when it comes to the Rule of Cool, sailing ships rank very high, and that of course is the real motivation for this discussion. In my future history, Seychelle becomes one of the most important colony worlds, center of a trading empire. By that time it is industrialized enough that sailing vessels are no longer the basis of local surface trade. But the sail seamanship tradition has become part of the culture, and part of the training of University starship crews.

A link to Atomic Rockets for the hell of it, though it has no page on sailing ships, if any mention of them at all.

It all seems rather pretty (for values of pretty that resemble mine), and even plausible. But the inevitable niggles arise. Sailing ships don't require lab-coated techs to keep them going, but they do require rated able seamen, and in substantial numbers.

To put things in historical perspective, steam was making major inroads into ocean trade by the mid-19th century. By the start of the high industrial era, about a century ago, sailing ships survived only in marginal trades. And that was in competition with steam engines that by today's standards were, well, steampunk technology - massive, clumsy, inefficient maintenance hogs.

Which - alas! - makes it hard to believe that a robust young colony would would not be able to find better solutions (cheaper, faster, easier to maintain, etc.) for its maritime transport needs than sailing vessels, no matter how beautiful to the romantic eye and mind.

Backslidden colonies - another popular operatic trope - might be a somewhat different matter. I am not quite sure that even backslidden worlds would simply recapitulate the terrestrial past. If they retain partial knowledge or capabilities they might have an odd mix of techs. If they lost practically everything their eventual rebuilding could be unlike any of our familiar images. (For one reference point, compare Chinese junks to western ships of comparable techlevel.) But backslidden worlds may be a topic for another post.

A more meta response is to say that any setting with colony worlds sufficiently Earthlike for oceangoing ships of any sort is, for all practical purposes, space opera. And space opera is essentially a branch of fantasy with SF trappings. It is not just beyond the Plausible Midfuture: It has no more to do with the PMF than dragons do, and niggles about its technology are merely ... niggles.

The equally meta response to which is that the (pseudo-) plausibility of worlds is part of their essence. A world with flying sailing ships is one sort of beast. A world that purports to have recognizable schooners sets itself a different standard for the willing suspension of disbelief. And having set that standard it must live up to it, or pay the price of not quite seeming believable to the reader.


Via Wikipedia comes this image of an Oracle racing craft of the type I sometimes see training for America's Cup. (Apparently this is the Swedish version of Wikipedia, but the image seems to reference a German prize. Go figure.) To my traditionalist eye the Oracle racers are not things of beauty, but they are astonishingly fast. Modern sailing tech certainly books right along!