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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

Part 2: Building the TCS Insolvent

In Part 1, AJW308 gave us all some good advice: "The trick here is not to parrot any sci-fi we've seen." The hard part when writing space opera is to pay adequate homage to the hoary tropes of the genre and yet still bring something seemingly fresh to the table. SF writers often being latent engineers, the usual temptation is to do this by really working over the science angle and trying to think of something that's just a few steps beyond today's state of the art, that no one else has thought of and used already. Going back to Jules Verne's Robur the Conqueror or H. G. Wells' The War in the Air, it seems every generation produces at least one writer who has "really done the math and figured it all out," and a generation later, every one of those writers is in turn cursed to seem terribly quaint.
Hey, Bertie! That Kaiser's fleet of invincible armored zeppelins sure brought America to her knees, didn't it?
There is always the possibility of a game-changer. Yesterday's wild speculation has a way of becoming tomorrow's mundane fact, and there's always the possibility we might discover something tomorrow that rewrites the rule book next week. Magnetic monopoles, for example: there's something the existence of which is consistently predicted by theoretical physics, and yet no one's ever actually seen or made one, but if we ever do see or make one the ramifications will be staggering.

Still, I think it's worth parroting one particular and famous hunk of sci-fi we've all seen:
Space... The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations—
And do what? Sell them something? Buy something from them? Conquer and enslave them? Eat them? Find out if they have any groovy drugs? Con them into trading us their unused continent in exchange for a small box full of shiny beads and Snickers bars?

Oh, I see; we're just going out there to meet them, understand them, and appreciate their diversity. And you want me to wear a red shirt and possibly die a horrible death just so you can do that. Yeah, right, thanks for the offer, if anyone wants me I'll be in the holodeck. Computer, begin program, Planet of the Nymphomaniac Cheerleaders, chapter two.

When brainstorming about your space warship, then, don't begin by thinking of Einstein and Newton. Instead, think of the vons: von Clausewitz, von Mises, and von Hayek. Von Clausewitz laid down the first principle:
War is only politics conducted by other means.
Governments don't build warships just for the fun of it. They build them to serve a political purpose, and this purpose, however badly it may be misperceived by the people making the decisions, determines almost everything else that follows. What is the political reason for your space warship's existence? To show off the government's wealth and power? To remind the more remote districts that they're still under the royal thumb? To scare the heck out of the potential enemy in the next war? To remind the losers in the last war not to try that again? Or is it being built simply to generate lots of well-paid jobs in Senator Featherbed's home state?

Next, consider the economics. No matter whether the state of the art is a trireme, a 100-gun square-rigger, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, or a mighty space dreadnought, all great warships throughout the ages have shared three common characteristics: they're hellaciously expensive to build, even more hellaciously expensive to operate, and the money to do this has to come from somewhere. Even in the most insane and despotic Galactic Empire, His Exalted Immortal Majestic Omnimpotency Emperor Squalidus the First can't simply decree that the finest warship ever shall be built. He's got to tax somebody, rob somebody, starve somebody, or at least give up the solid gold toilets in his favorite concubine's summer palace in order to fund it.

Thus we return to Clausewitz in reciprocal form, and remember that Politics is only feudal warfare conducted by other means. For be they in the Senate, the Parliament, or the Conclave of Worlds, the sorts of turf battles that take place over the funding for major government programs are terrible to behold, and not things to be witnessed by the weak of stomach.

And all of this happens long before some poor grunt out on the frontier actually has to use the latest McNamara's Nightmare in combat, of course...

...to be continued...
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