Monday, February 13, 2012

Sirius Voyager

Sirius Voyager
The name should belong to a starship, not a merely terrestrial (more precisely maritime!) oil tanker. Cargo ships have some wonderfully cool names; there are also tankers out there named Cygnus Voyager and Orion Voyager, and - albeit less starship-esque - a freighter Aegean Falcon. Other name choices are more doubtful. A Smarty recently visited SF Bay, and Pretty Time came in today.

And I personally would think more than twice before giving an oil tanker the name Target.

Now, on to the topic of this post, interstellar trade. Obviously this lies beyond the plausible midfuture. Unless FTL turns out to be not only possible but practical, it almost certainly lies in Science Fantasyland. (Isn't it convenient how all those jump points are only a few AU from Earth, not out somewhere in the really flat space between galaxy clusters.)

Firefly's good ship Serenity was not, nominally, a starship. And it did not launch the Free Trader trope in science fiction. So far as I'm aware, that honor goes to Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. Later, Heinlein also had Free Traders (with a couple of interesting cultural twists) in Citizen of the Galaxy. But Poul Anderson probably had more to do with the post-Asimov development of the trope.

Much later, the Traveller game also gave it a boost - I recall people saying at the time that Firefly reminded them of a Traveller scenario.

It should go without saying here that we are not discussing the plausible midfuture. Probably not any future, save fictional ones. This is as good a place as any to link to a piece about Interstellar Trade that I wrote some years ago on my old static website. And regular readers here will recognize features of my estimates for space costs. In the old piece I am incredibly optimistic about orbital shuttles - this is one of those things you have to be incredibly optimistic about, if you want extensive and affordable space travel.

One thing I would change is my analysis of passenger traffic, which I then argued would be distinctly sparse relative to cargo traffic. On second thought, I would now say that human capital, in the form of passengers with various forms of expertise - from diplomats to musicians - would probably be a substantial fraction of interstellar trade. (Once you push the assumption sliders hard enough to get interstellar trade at all.)

But back to, specifically, Free Traders. Unlike so many space tropes this one is not a direct steal from premodern maritime history. Merchant ships in the age of sail routinely carried some armament. But the most impressively armed merchantmen, Indiamen, were operated by monopoly companies with deep ties to state patronage. (Criticism of entities like the Honourable East India Company was a major subtext of Adam Smith.)

In an earlier era the link between the (city-) state and muscular trading was even more direct. Venice owned its merchant galleys, chartering them out to operators but tightly regulating their actual voyages. The Genoese were more freewheeling, but were in due course muscled aside by the better-organized Venetians.

Having said that, for purposes of opera I am rather partial to the idea of trade networks that are only loosely tied to individual planets, based instead on chains of orbital stations. Is this plausible, even for generous interpretations of that word? If you go at your underlying assumptions with hammer and tongs, and work them over long enough, you can probably make practically anything seem plausible.

A colony planet and orbital stationers are not in a good position to exercise coercion against each other. A station that bombs its downside planet eliminates its reason for being. A planet that ASATs its orbital station cuts itself off from the rest of human space. Which leaves them at a natural impasse - which, however, can also make for a working trade arrangement.

In turn, trade federations can tussle or downright fight over stations while nearly ignoring the planets those stations orbit. For a planet, a change of control over its overhead station merely means a different set of rapacious middlemen.

You probably don't want to run this through the Plause-O-Meter with an overly sensitive setting. But if you're going for opera anyway, some variation on this scenario might work as well as anything.

Individual independent (or para-independent) ships are a somewhat different matter. To my virtual eye they look less plausible, but perhaps I am just not trying hard enough.


The image of Sirius Voyager was taken by photographer 'PW,' and posted on the wonderful Marine Traffic website.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rules of the Road

Twice in the past few days I have heard ships in the Bay sound five short horn blasts - an unmistakable warning of danger, or at least doubt about another vessel's actions that could very quickly lead to danger.

I bring this up - regretfully - because a recent comment thread got out of hand. A regular commenter left in disgust, and I had to call out another regular commenter by name. Arguably I have no one to blame but myself: The Internet is not renowned for an elevated level of discourse, and this blog has touched on both politics and religion, famously explosive topics.

But so far I have never elfed a commenter, nor intentionally deleted a comment that was not obvious spam. (Ugg boots, fake Swiss watches; that sort of thing.) I hope I never have to, but I'll do so if it becomes the only way to keep the comment threads from degenerating.

A secondary note on politics. I am, by 'Murrican standards, a center-lefty - I supported Hillary in the 2008 primaries, but am now an enthusiastic supporter of President Clinton Obama [typos can be sooo awkward!]. I refrain from censoring contrary views, and (usually?) from pushing my own - doing so would impoverish the blog. It does become frustrating when rival positions are expounded so much in comments as to become a sort of implicit misrepresentation of the blog's Official Position.

Having said this, I will not actually promulgate Rules of the Road here, because I don't want to get bogged down in sub-paragraphs and all that. On the whole, you who comment here have set a pretty damn good example, and on the whole I commend all of you.

So carry on ... with a modicum of good sense.

The image of the liner Andrea Doria sinking after a collision was snapped by famed photographer Harry A. Trask.