Monday, April 30, 2012

Into the Void

So, in my past post I explain how it's completely impossible to create realistic space opera in the Star Wars vein. No starfighters, no alien worlds, not happening. Here's Charlie Stross' dead mackrel of truth to smack you in the face once more in case you forgot: space colonization is very, very unlikely. Here's where I try to take it all back. I freely admit this is pleading a special case with a lot of assumptions. Why am I making these assumptions? Because otherwise we wouldn't have a story.

So, what do I want for my space opera?
  1. Interplanetary-scale warfare 
  2. Interplanetary empires and really alien cultures that are still just humans 
  3. Space combat that feels a bit more like Star Wars that can be enjoyed without feeling like your brains need scooped out and replaced with guacamole 
  4. Keep the tech close enough to the modern day in a plausible fashion so we don't have anachronistic schizo-tech. 
  5. Put a plausible decelerando barrier in place (cultural, technical) so that a relatively stable and static tech level for long periods of time doesn't strain credulity. 
  6. An economy and human motivations that still make sense, at least to me. 
I'm going to resolve all of that with two departures from reality, maintaining everything else as we know it. But those two assumptions could be two parts of one fundamental assumption...

Assumption 1: Rifts 

Suppose there exist rifts that can be breached by vessels using field generators. They are randomly distributed around planetary bodies but only the ones in the air are easy to access. You pop through them and are in an empty void. It's like space in that it's pretty empty and usually dark, no gravity, no air but there aren't stars or anything else like that, it's pretty empty. However, there are clumps of matter to be found that are rich in a great variety of mcguffinites. What's more, if you venture out far enough you might find another rift and find yourself on an entirely new world. 

Now the difficult part with the rifts is that you have to be in the air to get to the good ones. Trying to go through on the ground is cumbersome, especially on the return since you could smack right into the dirt. You need wiggle room. So the first vessels to pass through a rift into a void are airplanes. But you can't just slap a field generator on a bog-standard plane and send it through. No, it has to also double as a proper spaceship; pressurized cabin, proper life support, thrusters, reaction control system, radiators, etc. It can fap about in the void and upon return must be ready to hit a wall of air and restart the air-breathing engines before whacking the ground.

Assumption 2: Antigravity

So, once you're out in the void, you find mcguffinite. What does it let you do? Ah, lots of things. The big assumption here is an atomic power source and some kind of refined handwavium that, combined with ridiculous amounts of power, gives you antigravity. 

Now you can build massive, hulking ships that can hang there in the air all impressive-like and also move through the void. 

Nuclear reactors are just barely affordable for superpowers and only for special circumstances. They need to be quite a bit cheaper for our ships. Aside from that, the tech can feel pretty 20th century.

Navigating the Void

The void ships fly across planets to reach new rifts. They will need engines to use in atmo. They'll also need reaction engines for propulsion in void. Once in the void the ship aligns on the beacon for the next rift, fires up the engines and gets up to cruising speed. Because the ships have limited delta-v, the top velocity won't be ridiculous. Nobody is in orbit, speeds are slow. There's no grace to them, nothing to inspire poetry and fancy. The ships look like ugly, blunt instruments and move ponderously. They would be completely useless in conventional space but are capable enough in the void. 

Ships will need to kill velocity before making the next transition because they are slamming into atmosphere and some rifts are pretty close to sea level. 

Ship design is worth a whole post of its own. I have a host of assumptions but no certainty of whether or not I'm on the right track.

Your simplest void will be the rift you emerged from and the target you're heading for some distance away. Short runs might take a few days to traverse. A useful world could be a month out and necessitate a trip through the void to one world and then travel to the next rift and another run through the void to reach the destination.

Rifts can be detected by sensors but EM propagation within the voids are spotty. This means it's a time-consuming and expensive business to go prospecting for routes. With no beacons or fixed points of reference, ships have to rely on inertial sensors which invariably become less accurate the longer they've gone without a position update.

There's always the potential for new rifts to be out there in the void and routes can loop back on themselves. In other words, the same void can be reached from different worlds while other voids require a longer sequence of travel to reach. Therefore there is always uncertainty about whether there's a shorter way to get anywhere and finding those routes is as much luck as art.

Commercially-useful routes minimize travel time and any shorter route between important worlds is of immense value. Indirect routes to important worlds can have a significant military advantage but also carry risk. If it takes a month to travel the direct route and six months to go the indirect route, making a sneak attack through the enemy's back door could leave you vulnerable to him making a frontal assault on your front door, especially if you stripped your defenses to mount your attack. 

What are the Planets Like?  

Everything you can imagine. Rocky, airless worlds like Mercury, rocky, smothered worlds like Venus, gas giants like Jupiter where a passing ship has nothing but roiling clouds and crushing pressure beneath them, and living worlds full of mystery and wonder. Some worlds contain nothing but ruins, others have primitive tribes, others have technological civilizations somewhat behind the great empires. 

Now if you take something like Star Trek or the original Battlestar Galactica, you get the ridiculous assumption that alien worlds can evolve to be exactly like some point in our own history. Star Trek had the planet of 20's mobsters and the planet of 30's Nazis and Galactica had the planet of vaguely Nazi humans as well as a Wild West planet and doubtless would have had many other incredibly stupid ideas if they'd gotten another season. And this isn't even getting into the bit about most aliens looking like humans with bumpy foreheads who speak English perfectly. 

So, how do we avoid this problem? We don't. We hit it head-on. Yes, a lot of these habitable planets are a lot like Earth, all the way down to having similar flora and fauna. And the ruins, some of them are of human civilizations we've never heard of, some of them look like ones we know, some of them even echo our own down to disturbing detail. Some ruins are fresh as if the people disappeared yesterday and others appear abandoned for thousands of years. It's like finding a microchip in a Sumerian burial site. What does this mean? It's hinting at the fundamental assumption which I won't go into just yet.

Economics and Empire Building

So, there are all these worlds out there and some worlds have the ability to project military power across the void. There's resources to be had, lands to exploit, people to enslave, and rival powers to be concerned with. What does this sound like? Empire. That's right. There can be peaceful trade between these empires or there can be war. That's the foundation of any good space opera.

Each expansionist power will want to protect knowledge of where its own homeworld is. The way to get there -- that is, the series of rifts and worlds that must be traversed -- is a supreme state secret.

The motivations and economics are all squarely comprehensible. We avoid head-thunkers like in Scalzi's Old Man's War universe. As an aside: his characters are sympathetic, believable, compelling. The conflict is suitably frightening. But the rationale of space colonization in his setting don't hold up at all. We're in a knock-down, drag-down fight to the death against alien powers and we're going to hold planets by ... putting farmers down on them? Just doing normal farmer stuff? This is in a setting where we're transplanting human minds into genetically-engineered super-soldiers. Still not sure why we're fighting with them on the ground instead of using combat bots since there's crazy-smart AI and spaceships and everything. It feels too schizo-tech, like having a coal-fired starship.

So, you have trade between civilizations across the void. You have mining activities in the void itself. Empires will view populated and developed worlds vital to defense from foreign invaders. A mixture of greed for new wealth and fear of the unknown will spur the imperial expansion.

Technology and the Decelerando 

Something that never made any sense in the Star Wars universe is that they've got 25,000 years of interstellar travel and the ships are essentially the same. No advances, seriously? Except they then have exactly that depicted in the Expanded Universe material, new military technology hitting the market all the time. How do you reconcile the two? You can't.

One explanation for a technology plateau is here's either a finite limit to how much technology can improve and thus there is a slowing of the rate of progress. The decelerando is covered quite well at Rocketpunk. Another explanation is a cultural mindset against progress. We have the example of China abandoning the treasure ships used to explore the world. There's also the other small matter of never developing gunpowder to the extent that the West did. Confucian scholars are traditionally blamed for this, rejecting new and disruptive technologies in favor of tradition. We can also consider the Tokugawa shoguns banning firearms in Japan and keeping out the foreign devils. It's important to note that China ended up invaded by strong western powers and Japan had its ports forcibly opened by Commodore Perry.

The new wrinkle in this setting will be the example set by the dead worlds surveyed by exploration fleets. There are many ruins. Some planets have survivors far below the highwater mark represented by those ruins, from steam-age technology all the way down to under-gatherers. Some worlds are right at that highwater mark, roughly on par with the technology of the empires, the only difference is that they haven't yet discovered how to enter the void on their own. But no civilization is much further advanced than that. It's like looking at at a piece of rock with the K-T Boundary and realizing that the signs point to an extraterrestrial impact. Civilizations don't get much older than this and the presence of certain technology ties it all together. I'm dubbing these "terminal technologies" for now. It's seldom clear what caused the end but something is killing off these civilizations and it's never clear what exactly did it. Some ruins have obviously gone through a nuclear war, some appear simply abandoned. Some ruins are littered with the dead as if they dropped where they stood.

The Fundamental Assumption 

"Someone else set up the chessboard and we're just the players on it." It's an idea I'd had a good while back for another story, Kyrn. The singularity happens, we don't know what happened during it but baseline humans are scattered among a few thousand worlds that are happily compatible to our way of living. I hadn't worked out all the details but I needn't have bothered: Stross did it before me with Singularity Sky. He did another variation of it with Missile Gap. Planetary surfaces far bigger than Earth are not new to science fiction. We have Dyson spheres and ringworlds and Alderson disks. There's been a long tradition of having alternate history worlds existing alongside us in a mutliverse: the Nazis won WWII in this timeline, the American Revolution failed in this one.  Missile Gap takes the idea of these alternate timeline "Earths" and sticks those worlds on an Alderson disk with the clear implication it was done by a vastly godlike intelligence for ends we cannot fathom. Anyone looking at a map would see our Earth and then lots of sea, brand new continents, then eventually other, familiar Earths, cities in ruins from ancient nuclear wars.

That's the clear implication staring everyone in the face in the Void setting. People will question why this is so, what the purpose is, what goals could be served, but there will never be answers. And I think that's a pretty terrifying thing. There's one kind of terror in losing your belief in a personal and loving God since the light of science only illuminates the absence and needlessness of the divine in a materialist universe. There's another kind of terror in seeing exactly the kind of evidence that that eliminates the possibilities of both a loving god and a godless cosmos. Not that anyone can even clearly articulate what "god" means in this context.

That's enough for this update. The next one will cover what warfare would actually look like in this setting. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Blogger can't number


Manual ordered list (typed in):
1. one
2. two
3. three

unordered list with blogger's function on the edit bar
  • one 
  • two 
  • three

ordered list with blogger's function on the edit bar

  1. one 
  2. two 
  3. three

Friday, April 27, 2012

Why Space Opera Makes No Sense

This is a rewrite of the premise for Into the Void. I'm breaking it into bite-sized chunks. The first part is a denouncing of conventional space opera. 

Space opera is a genre I love but it falls apart at the slightest scrutiny. We want galaxy-spanning empires with thousands of worlds and mighty starships, engines blazing, cruising the space lanes between them.  There must be aliens, humanoid and not. While there may be cosmic powers running around, bog-standard humans must still be movers and shakers in this setting. Technology may be grand but also something humans can relate to. A battle-station the size of a moon capable of blowing up planets will still have control rooms no different from what we'd find in a modern power station. Bridges will look familiar, either like WWII or modeled on whatever is contemporary. The hero's starfighter will feel like a modern jet fighter, nevermind the general consensus that "the last fighter pilot has already been born" and we're not likely to build another manned fighter after the F-22 and F-35. And let's not forget that the starfighters must dogfight like WWII aircraft with an absence of guided missiles because that just doesn't have the right flavor. And if robots are present in the setting, they will be curiously misapplied. Why don't droids fly ships? Ah, but there's a slippery slope. The moment droids start taking over human jobs you  can automate yourself out of a story. Take a droid military too far and the only human characters left are supreme commanders at consoles playing a real-life video game.

So, to sum up the reasons why space opera doesn't feel realistic:

  1. Getting into space is really expensive, really complicated, and doing so in a meaningful way will take a very, very long time. And even most of the things we can think of to do up there can be automated. We're exploring Mars with robots. The asteroid mining suggested by Planetary Resources will likely all be done with telepresence, automation, and a minimal human presence in space. 
  2. Romance withers in the face of practicality. If you asked an early 20th century futurist to envision what oil drilling in the deep ocean would look like, their heads would be spinning with the thought of giant floating cities, possibly domed cities under the water, hundreds of thousands of people involved and the potential for all the drama that goes with it. The reality is so much less interesting. 
  3. It's hard to postulate a reasonable space civilization economy. What are we going to orbit for? Why do we need all these people up there? What would we need to trade between planets, between stars? 
  4. All FTL travel in a useful time-frame involves made-up tech. Wormholes are just as dodgy as FTL drives. FTL starts moving you away from hard SF but that's not even the first problem. 
  5. The power requirements of space travel seem out of scale with everything else and ends up feeling like schizo-tech, like a self-propelled catapult with a diesel engine that is lobbing rocks with torsion springs. An X-Wing has a powerplant that can launch it from a planetary surface to orbit and propel it at superluminal velocities between worlds but its primary offensive weapon is manually-aimed laser cannons with an effective range no better than the .50 cal guns of prop fighters. 
  6. A space economy could very well be post-scarcity as we would understand it. Wars pretty much boil down to taking something you want that belongs to someone else. Land, food, minerals, energy, it's all stuff that people need to live. You don't steal food off of someone else's plate when you're all eating at a chinese buffet and even if you're an dick lacking all social graces, your dining companion can just go back up and grab another eggroll. It's not even worth the effort of smacking you for it. Space has all the free solar energy anyone could ask for, asteroids waiting to be mined, and if you don't like your neighbors you can always put a few million miles of distance between you. 
  7. Space habitats make far more sense for living than planets, especially given that it's unlikely that we're going to be finding earth-like worlds in the habitable zone of stars with oxy-nitro atmospheres and ecospheres that are compatible. In our own solar system we'd be capable of building habitats to put billions of people in orbit long, long before we could meaningfully terraform Mars or Venus and we couldn't even begin to build those habs for a long time yet. 
  8. Humanoid aliens, not happening. Hundreds or thousands of years of culture drift creating strange human societies that are different from each other and suffering culture shock? Plausible, but then we're so far in the future that we can drive ourselves nuts trying to imagine the current technology. 
  9. How advanced will AI get? On the far end we have something like the Ian Banks Culture universe where all the important decisions are handled by godlike AI's and humans are relegated to the status of pets. Even if AI doesn't become that advanced, expert systems are real and getting better all the time. It's a very real possibility that humans can be removed from the fast food experience the same way tellers have been from basic banking transactions. It's conceivable that human-driven cars will become as archaic as animal-powered vehicles; the technology exists and is safe. How far can automation go? Brian Marshall's essay Robotic Nation explores the possibilities. 
  10. Even if you could handwave away all the other practical objections and start talking about space combat, it rapidly loses cinematic interest. The endless discussion threads on Rocketpunk Manifesto have only served to convince me that I don't have the imagination to create a plausible, hard SF space opera setting. 
I could keep going with this but i think I've made my point. 

For anyone still thinking we might get away with a hard SF space empire within our own solar system, Charlie Stross is ready to brutalize your dreams. Forget Star Wars, forget Gundam. Even 2001 seems a bit unrealistic. 

I will give a shout-out to John Lumpkin and his universe the Human Reach. He tries to build a hard SF military universe. His first novel is "Through Struggle, the Stars." He sticks to hard SF as much as possible. I would say it's a damn fine attempt at refuting everything I laid out above. 

In my next post I will make a special case pleading that will attempt to give us plausibility as well as space opera. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Feasters Below

This is a thought experiment, coming up with a semi-plausible explanation for cryptid monsters in a story. Will this hold up as hard science? No, of course not. I only seek to help suspend disbelief just long enough for people to enjoy the story. The premise for the story is a small town in Pennsylvania comes under siege by these beasties and the locals rally to fight them off. These monsters are not supernatural, do not have magic powers and are meant to be part of the natural world we've yet to discover.


Homo Chthonisis (Underworld Man, from the bastardized Greek chthonic/chthonian) A newly discovered member of the Homo genus in Hominidae, the great ape family. H. chthonisis replaces P. paniscus (the bonobo) as the closest extant relative to humans. Preliminary research indicates that divergence from the line leading to modern man must have taken place over two million years ago when H. habilis and H. ergaster were the dominant hominids. The extent of worldwide habitation within the deep world is unknown, nor is there even a preliminary theory of how the species has spread. Eusocial, subterranean, burrowing, this creature is every bit as much a marvel of evolution as is man.


There have been a number of cryptid hominids claims over the years from yetis to Big Foot and skunk apes, all supposed survivals of ancestral human forms. Skeptics have argued against the possibility of such creatures given human encroachment into unexplored habitats, territorial needs for supporting a viable breeding population, and the lack of any supporting evidence within the fossil record. Because of the very habitat they live in, infrequency of visits to the surface and ritual cannibalism of their dead, it becomes very clear why we have had so little contact with them.
The biggest question puzzling anthropologists is why H. chthonisis has remained successfully hidden for so long but is now suddenly thrust into contact with human civilization. Early speculation on habitat destruction zeroed in on the process of hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking,” used to increase the rate of oil and natural gas recovery from reservoir rock formations. While the wellbores never came near the deep caverns where the colonies reside, it is well-established that gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals can migrate great distances, contaminating groundwater supplies. The prevailing theory is that the subterranean ecology has been disrupted, thus forcing H. chthonisis to come to the surface for forage.

Physical Characteristics

H. chthonisis is believed to have undergone incredible selection pressures in its underground environment with physical divergences from hominid anatomy that are radical and unprecedented. Many evolutionary biologists would have flatly rejected any speculative theories concerning the existence of such creatures and find their theories woefully inadequate to explain the incontrovertible evidence lying before them.

The bodies, while seeming hairless, are covered in nearly invisible fine hairs that can detect the subtlest of air currents. The skin is gray and leathery, able to stand up to the abuse of burrowing. Their limbs are knotted with muscle like chimpanzees, pound for pound stronger than humans. They are natural contortionists and can maneuver their bodies through gaps that defy belief, a necessary skill underground.

For subterranean-adapted creatures, it is surprising that they retain highly-developed, lemur-like eyes. The deliberate cultivation of bio-luminescent lichen in their colonies is the answer. The eyes have a fully-developed nictitating membrane, unknown in primates save for the Calabar angwantibo. The membrane is not only opaque but highly reflective and shutters the eye instantly when exposed to a bright light source. Needless to say, the result of a flashlight in a dark tunnel playing across a snarling face with eyes glinting mirror-like is enough to unnerve even the most solid researcher.

H. chtonisis’ ears are highly developed and almost seem as if they belong on another animal. They are almost bat-like, understandable given their reliance on a form of improvised echolocation. The ears are very mobile and can be raised out from the head to capture sound or tucked flat against it to protect the ear canal from debris when burrowing. The tongue is used to create a sharp clicking noise, the “ping.” While the auditory cortex is not nearly as developed and specialized as with chiroptera or cetaceans, it is more advanced than with blind humans who have developed similar techniques for coping with a lack of sight. For H. chtonisis, there is no primary sense, all are used together.

H. chthonisis possesses a more pronounced muzzle than any other ape and the jaws are used intensively in fighting. The mouth contains powerful fangs and the jaw opens to a larger degree than with any other known hominid. In combat, the attacker will instinctively maneuver for the throat and a quick kill.

The hands are well-articulated allowing for fine motor control. When the fingers are held together with hardened nails at the fore, the hands now become an excellent digging tool. The paddle-like feet help push dirt behind in tunnels and provide excellent leverage against loose material. The toes remain very nimble.

Locomotion is varied; individuals are equally at home with a bipedal gait, a kind of scurrying on all fours, and a frog-like crawl used for digging and shimmying through tunnels. They are also adept climbers and can swarm up a rock face as quickly as they move across level ground.

H. chthonisis is able to deal with anoxic environments that would cause a human to pass out and can slow respiration and metabolism so that even the foulest air can sustain them. This is an adaptation shared by the naked mole rat.

H. chthonisis is unique among known hominids, living in a eusocial arrangement similar to naked mole rats, possibly driven by similar selection pressures. There are three roles in the colony: breeding female (queen), worker, and soldier. Fertile males and females are considered part of the queen’s court; the males compete for breeding privileges and the females serve as nursemaids for the babies. Sterile males and females serve as workers with larger examples of either sex also doubling as soldiers. The species is wildly dimorphic with queens being considerably larger than members of her court. Pheromones released by the queen will keep the fertile females in a state of induced sterility. The death of the queen allows fertility to return and will precipitate a power struggle among the incipient queens until one finally asserts dominance.

All H. chthonisis pregnancies seem to result in multiple births, litters of four or five undersized and underdeveloped babies.

Despite rumors of humanzees, it is generally accepted that human beings and other great apes cannot interbreed successfully. It is accepted that human ancestors such as Cro-Magnon and other hominids such as Neanderthal were capable of interbreeding. Reports of abductions of human victims seem to follow the pattern of one colony raiding another for breeding stock. Usually juvenile fertile males are abducted but females have also been documented. Fresh sources of genes are required to keep the colonies from becoming inbred. While there are no documented cases of hybridization, the level of chromosomal similarity is greater than that  found in equines who are well-known for hybridization.


The deep world cave systems represent an entirely new biome, more reminiscent of the deep sea thermal vents than anything on the surface. The base of the food chain relies on chemosynthetic microorganisms and strange species of symbiotic lithovore lichen. The sun holds no power here. Once the energy is in the food chain, we see vaguely recognizable cave-adapted species predating on each other. There are a mixture of fish, lizards, arthropods, and mammals.

Major competition mainly comes from rival colonies.


H. chtonisis’ efforts are split between hunting, forage, and fungiculture. They are indiscriminate omnivores and will eat anything they can catch.

H. chthonisis will farm fungus in a mix of colony feces and vegetative material carried in from the lakes. This fungus represents a major dietary staple and also an emergency food supply when the hunting is scarce.

Cannibalism is a way of life in the deep caverns. Warfare with neighboring colonies is constant and raiding for territory and fresh meat is routine.

Tool Use

H. chthonisis has been observed making use of simple tools. Equipped with formidable natural weapons, they’ve not had any need to develop handmade weapons. There is evidence of the making of ropes from plant fibers, the weaving of baskets from dried plant material taken from the lakes, crude water skins, and the construction of bone and hide boats. They do not ride in these boats but use them as floating baskets when fishing. They deliberately propagate bio-luminescent lichen through their colonies.There is also evidence of fire use but it seems to have more of a ritual use than for anything practical. Any part of their behavior whose purpose cannot be immediately divined is usually attributed to religious or ritual purpose; this may simply be a deficiency of imagination the the part of the observer.

Colony Construction

Due to the lack of weather underground, construction efforts are not so much about protection from the weather but defensive structures. Rocks will be stacked into unmortared walls to create choke points or enhance the defensive character of a location. Natural galleries will be expanded upon for living space. Fungiculture is carried out near the latrines. Colony stink is very important for identification and any individual who does not smell right is subject to attack.

The inner chambers are where the queen and her court reside. The breeding chambers with creches for the young are located adjacently.

A considerable question arises from the digging proficiency of H. chthonisis in the loose soils of the surface world. Considering the rocky conditions of the deep world and the lack of any previous knowledge of their existence -- excepting wild tribal folklore of vaguely humanoid monsters -- there are many questions raised. Why have we not seen them before? How were they able to keep themselves so well-hidden? What else might be lurking down there that we’ve yet to discover?

Psychological Characteristics

H. chthonisis represents a sidetrack on humanoid evolution, an alternative take on the human template. They are intelligent, tool-using, have speech (though difficult to recognize as such since half of what they say is beyond the range of human hearing.) The eusocial society puts most of their brainpower back in the breeding chambers of the colony; the workers and soldiers commonly encountered are clever but lack the mental acuity of the queen and her court.

While proper studies have had little chance to show progress, it is suggestive that H. chthonisis workers are smarter than chimps and the queens could be on the cusp of human-level intelligence. There is much empirical evidence of planning, strategizing, and implementation of complex actions. These are not dumb animals operating on instinct.

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Bicycle is a Killing Machine

Did a 25 mile ride over the weekend. Dipped down through Riviera Beach to catch the Blue Heron and go up Singer Island.

Lizards and sidewalks go together in South Florida like politicians and brothels. As you ride the lizards will desperately dash from one side to the other, trying to escape. There's no escape for you or them. You dodge left, they dodge left; you dodge right, they dodge right. 

The worst are the northern curly tail lizards. They're bigger than the native anoles (little lizards) and are like hitting a wombat. 

Long story short, I've given my bike a new name: Selection Pressure. I'm killing off the dumb lizards so future generations will descend from the smart lizards who know not to play in traffic. Evolution in action. 

It struck me that this would be a badass name for pretty much any kind of weapon. If I had a Star Destroyer, it would be named Selection Pressure. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Warrior Race

I'll preface this by saying it's a thought experiment that fits within the "Into the Void" setting, something I've mentioned on Rocketpunk. I'll write that up in more detail later.

A scifi staple has been the warrior race. Klingons, Predator, Kzin, the Clans from Battletech, violence is their hat. Sometimes they’re noble warriors, sometimes they’re space Mongols.

The current fashion is to consider them unrealistic. The SF utopians would argue that any race capable of the level of sophistication needed for proper space travel would be post-scarcity and have no need for conquest. Empire-building simply doesn’t make any sense when every material want is free. I would have to agree with that. Even if we don’t run with the “all advanced aliens are peaceful and nice,” it’s hard to escapes the Angels and Apes argument put forward by Arthur C. Clarke which states that any encounter between civilizations separated by millions of years of development would not be between equals; "we will find apes or angels, but not men." Any hostile race that wants the planet won’t have to ask nicely. We probably wouldn’t even be aware we were under attack until the end. See the Screwfly Solution, a classic scifi take on the subject.

the Void setting is a special case where we’re deliberately trying to allow for the classic scifi tropes in a believable fashion. Aside from the spaceships and FTL travel, any of the proud warrior races in typical scifi are pretty much using 20th/21st century technology or direct extrapolations thereof. So my specific challenge is creating a plausible warrior race with a 21st century technology base. This is not so difficult a task.

The Western powers have been violent and imperialistic. The British could be all delicate and cultured when having tea amongst peers of good breeding but could be monstrous to their own citizens of lower classes, not to mention what they did to brown people in need of a good Christian education. Still, this isn’t rising to quite the warrior culture ethos I want.

Imperial Japan is my favorite example and the model I intend to follow. Here we have a feudal culture based on violence, domination, and veneration of a dedicated warrior class. When Commodore Perry opened Japan to Western commerce, the Japanese leaders embarked on a crash course of industrialization. The Japanese may have trained their best and brightest abroad for a proper western education and thoroughly adopted American and British standards for their military but the culture still remained decidedly Japanese in flavor. The samurai status was no longer limited to social class but could be shared by any peasant conscripted by the military. Between bushido, emperor worship, imperialism and religious convictions, you have the perfect stew to make for an imperial death cult. Die for the Emperor, death before dishonor, everyone not Japanese is inferior, and we have the mandate of heaven on our side. And the levels of brutality that went along with this mentality would be right at home in Warhammer 40K.

Of course, it’s very cheap to just rip off the Japanese. So my imperial death cult warrior race moves across an ocean and starts with a simple premise: what happens if New World diseases proved far more lethal than Old World diseases?

So, we start with the Aztecs. What have they got going for them as a potential industrialized imperial death cult in the making?
1. A death cult religion. Oooooh yeah. Pyramids of human skulls, ritual cannibalism, blood sacrifice to keep the sun circling the Earth. These guys have it in spades.
2. Warrior tradition to support the capture of slaves for the sacrifices. Yup.
3. Cultural ability to assimilate new ideas and not simply get steamrolled by more advanced neighbors. We never got to see this because they were killed off too quickly.

So, how would things progress?

1. First contact. Columbus returns from his first voyage. New World discovered, Europe is interested.
2. Subsequent voyages establish the wealth of the New World but also the lethality of their diseases. Conquistadors try to dominate with horses and firearms but succumb to disease before they can destroy the existing social order.
3. If we accept the premise of the book 1491, the Americas were heavily populated by vast numbers of Indians. Disease caused a 90% die-off and so the depopulated lands encountered by Europeans over the next hundreds of years are not the way things were but post-apocalyptic. Therefore Europeans in this setting coming to the Americas are more in the situation of the Brits trying to conquer China or India -- they may have better weapons and technology but there are millions and millions of locals.
4. Europeans will try to throw their weight around in the Americas and make some significant advances but the native power structures will remain in place. They will not be displayed, supplanted, or destroyed.
5. Prolonged existence will allow for cultural and technological diffusion. The Mesoamerican cultures will eventually be able to confront the Europeans on equal terms, building sailing ships, making guns and swords, adopting draft animals and the wheel. The Aztecs get a first-mover advantage with science presented in the context of their own religious idiom. To those still coming to terms with the new learning, it’s all seeming like magic and therefore a practical demonstration of the inferiority of their own gods. So even as the religion and culture of the Aztecs is adopted, political and economic rivalries will ensure that there is still a vigorous competition between the factions. Pretty similar to the way Europe can be all Christian and yet the various nation-states continued to war and all believe God was on their side and not the other guy’s.
6. Not all of the American native cultures should be strong enough to resist European incursion so there should be a number of colonies that establish footholds. However, the intensity of native resistance would see them less like what occurred in our own history with the Americas and more like the Crusaders in the Middle-East. The Crusader kingdoms all failed in time.
7. The Aztec culture led the war against the Europeans and becomes the dominant influence. Just as Hellenistic culture spread across the ancient world and made converts of those whose cultures were not as strong, Aztec thinking spreads through the Americas. Given the continued existential threat represented by Europe, what eventually forms is a continental military alliance. To European eyes, the Americans would all be one giant, undifferentiated Indian Horde but they are in fact an alliance of nations.
8. Science was practiced by the religious caste and so two branches descended, traditional and experimental theology. The traditional branch ran the society, propitiating the gods, directing sacrifices and other superstitious, magical bullshit. The experimental branch used science but the gods got all the credit. Used science to heal the sick? Praise the gods. Experimentally develop superior methods of agriculture? The blessing of the gods. While the experimental theologians lost the magical appreciation of the gods, they accepted an abstracted and idealized interpretation. Sort of like deists who did not believe in a literal and personal god as did most Christians but still accepted the concept of a Divine Architect of the Universe.
9. Some historians described pre-Crusade islamic culture as having mellowed from the original conquering hordes, developing science and learning. The crusades forced the Muslims to return to militancy, destroying a peaceful and enlightened way of existence. While the Aztec cultures were already warlike, hundreds of years of conflict with the Europeans made them even more imperialistic.
10. By their late development the Aztec cultures had accepted the concept of domination and submission. Those that did not conquer would be themselves conquered. It is the role of the dominant to dominate all. Those who are weak are to be dominated. There is no other way. The faithful might believe in the literal need of human blood to propitiate the gods while the educated know there is no demonstrable proof that this works but appreciate the psychological effects of mass human sacrifice in keeping the vassal states subjugated.
11. With the European powers kicked out of the Americas, the different cultures basically broke down into two categories -- peers and vassals. Peers were too strong to be conquered by one or the other while the vassals could be subjugated and ill-treated. At this point you had the elite families and everyone else. The power centers were the priesthood, military, farmers and craftsmen.
12. Eventual political developments made it clear that foreign territories must be conquered or else the demands of the warriors for glory and the priesthood for sacrifice would tear the empire apart.

The empire as it currently stands is not a happy place but it’s unclear if it will fail any time soon. It has become an engine of conquest and internal power struggles seem to keep the leadership sharp and prevents the development of decadence and incompetence rather than tear things apart with infighting.

It is difficult to describe the interplay between power bases in this culture. When looked at from one perspective you see the priesthood, the military establishment and the producers who build, manufacture, and grow things. When looked at another way there are the elite families whose members comprise the leadership positions within the priesthood and military as well as the major production centers. The priesthood is the smallest of the triad but seem to hold the greatest power. But the priesthood is divided between the traditional and the experimentalists. The traditionalists ally with the military because they both believe in conquest and blood and still-beating hearts offered to the gods. The experimentalists tend to favor the pursuits of industry and pure experimentation and work closely with the producers to keep society going. The elite tend not to be devout fundamentalists but the common man in the empire is a true believer. Rough figures, priesthood is 5% of the population, military 10%, the rest are producers (factories, farms, bureaucracy, etc.) Numbers subject to change. Overall they should have population pressures similar to China. Prosperity means way too many people. Fortunately, they have places to send them.

At the end of the day the religion calls for conquest and blood and so the faithful believe in achieving exactly that. The priests are happy. A warrior without a war is a fairly useless thing. Wars provide glory and honor and opportunity for advancement and lots of sacrificial victims. The military is happy. The producers know that they need the raw material provided by conquest to keep the empire going; they need new territory to deploy their wealth pumps in. And the elites know that the constant cycle of war and expansion keep the inherent cultural violence focused outwards. If they stop it will turn inward and begin an orgy of destructive violence. The noble families are fecund and there can only be one firstborn. All the other sons tend to go into the priesthood or the military. Endless wars are the safety valve for a surplus population.

Warfare for the industrial Aztecs is either ceremonial or practical. Practical warfare is the policy of conquest where they use the  most efficient weapon for the job and are fighting for keeps. Ceremonial warfare is just as deadly but operates under a host of rules and is used to settle internal disputes, much like trial by combat with picked champions in feudal Europe. Some bloodletting would be purely religious in nature and warriors offered up for this sort of ceremonial combat would be considered sacrifices.

So while not everybody in the race is a warrior, obviously, the whole culture buys into the ethos which is a mix of religion, martial enthusiasm and national myth. Kicking ass is righteous and the gods approve. Anything that aids ass-kicking is righteous.

What does this look like in practice? These guys will destroy you. They will obliterate your military capacity. They will happily destroy a city or three as an object lesson. They will recruit locals to be quislings and are Darth Vader-style ruthless about going through underlings until they find people who can make things happen. There’s no soft talk about this being for the best or betterment of mankind. You exist to be used. A regular tribute of sacrificial victims will be used locally and others will be shipped to the capital city to die on the great temple pyramids. Quisling representatives are guests of honor so that they can be impressed with the full power of the Aztec and how utterly fucked they are. Resistance is futile. You think that you can go along with the plan and survive. This is wrong. Your resources will be taken at a ruinous and unsustainable rate. Flagging production will see ultimatums and killings until there’s nothing left to give. You will then be exterminated in a giant ritual sacrifice to the last man, woman, and child and you are too broken by this point to resist. Aztec settlers will be moved in to colonize and take over production. The whole cycle might take two or three generations.

Access to fresh tributary worlds via the void have kept the empire expanding. It’s an evil but highly successful system and shows no sign of internal rot. If it’s going to be destroyed, it will take significant outside pressure. You do not want to get into a serious war against them.

Monday, April 9, 2012


The word "horsefeathers" is "Used to express disagreement, disbelief, or frustration." It is a way of calling nonsense. The stronger "bullshit" also means nonsense but implies that the promulgator of the BS is speaking to you "without truth-relevant motivation."

I would submit a new word to the lexicon: dinofeathers. It means "I may concede the fact is correct but I am not happy about it, usually on grounds of personal aesthetics."

Big, scaly thunder lizard chasing you down? This is metal as fuck.

This is Priscilla, Queen of the Jurassic.

Warm-blooded makes them faster and deadlier. Awesome. Erect tails act as counterbalance, helps them run faster. Terrifying. Add feathers to nature's perfect killing machine and what do you get? 

The dinosaurs of my childhood don't wear drag! George Lucas must have a long-lost brother and he went into paleontology.

Yeah, yeah. I know they're probably right on this one. T-rex looks like a giant, angry chicken. They've got the fossil evidence. Now you'll go and tell me why we can't have jetpacks, flying cars and combat mecha. Aw, dinofeathers. 
First post! But since I'm the only one capable of posting here, this is an even smaller accomplishment than it might seem.