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. 

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