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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

Part 1: Spaceship Wars

Torainfor writes:
I need to figure out, realistically, what kind of weapon a spaceship will have in one hundred years. I'm thinking subterfuge and misdirection will be more effective than any projectile-based nonsense. What is a "photon torpedo," anyway?
That's a dangerous word: "realistically." When it comes to writing fiction about combat in space, it is very easy to strangle your story in utero with realism. What is a photon torpedo? That's the least of your problems.

To begin with, consider this. Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space...

Sorry. The second thing to consider is that space warship designers will face the same challenges that ship designers have faced ever since the Carthaginians and Romans were disputing who owned the Mediterranean. Warship design is always a set of compromises between motive power, offensive capacity, and defensive capacity. For example, we can improve our offensive capacity by putting a tall mast amidships, so that a sharp-eyed lookout up in the crow's nest can spot the enemy earlier, but that same tall mast might in turn make our ship more visible to the enemy, thus weakening our defensive capacity.

There is never an obvious, single, perfect solution. If there were, everyone would use it, and then we'd all be right back to parity, and looking for a new way to gain some slight advantage.

Another thing to consider is that combat is evolution in extreme fast-forward. The technological history of World War II provides plenty of examples of this; for example, most combatants began the war with biplanes that flew in the 200+ MPH range, and by the end of the war everyone who was still in it was flying turbojets and crowding Mach 1. The design gap between the B-17 and B-29 alone is just ten years—the operational gap, five years—but in terms of systems engineering, the two aircraft are at least four generations apart.

We'll get down to cases later, but first, I want to throw out one more set of Big Physics Questions at you. What are your implicit assumptions?

We as SF writers have been so tainted by forty-plus years of Star Trek that a lot of important questions slide right under the table. How big is your spaceship? How much does it weigh? What is the motive power? What is the onboard environment like? We're used to dismissing these sorts of considerations with a small wave of the hand—oh, everyone has artificial gravity these days—but think that through. What is gravity? How do you "generate" it artificially? Is gravity a wave or a particle? (Trick question.) If you have the capacity to generate gravity merely for the comfort and convenience of the crew, can that capacity also be applied to propulsion, offense, or defense? Or is this best issue relegated to, "Aw, screw it. There's no artificial gravity. They have Velcro. Lots of Velcro."

And how do you deal with Newton's Laws? As mentioned before, space is big. Really big. Velocity erases distance, but how do you get your ship up to that velocity without turning your crew into greasy red smears on the aft bulkheads? Artifical gravity only sticks the crew to the deck. Changes in velocity over time are measured as G-forces; a healthy human being in good physical condition may be able to tolerate 5 G's acceleration, but not for long.

"I know! We'll equip each crewmember with a personal air supply and fill the ship with K-Y Jelly! That'll protect them!" (Joe Haldeman tried that in The Forever War. So did Heinlein in Starship Troopers. Okay, maybe not exactly K-Y Jelly.)

Good, that protects them from banging into each other or the furniture. But how do you keep their brains from sloshing around inside their skulls? It's the rapid deceleration of the squishy gray bits as they splash against the interior of the cranium that kills or causes TBI in car accidents.

Or is it perhaps time to say that this whole "realism" thing is highly overrated?

...to be continued...
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