It has been some weeks since I wrote my blog entry on writing about ground combat in science fiction. I have kind of let the blog lapse in that time, and I apologize to anyone who is following. Health issues, some chronic, some transitory (bronchitis) and the need to get Exodus 5 out the door have cut into my time. And, to me, the art of writing space combat is much more involved than ground combat. I was in the Army, in infantry, and know my way around modern weapons. I also spent much of my time in my younger years in the woods, and have talked to literally hundreds of combat vets. Navy, not so much. My dad was in the Navy, but spent his war years on a training base. My brother served aboard an aircraft carrier off Vietnam, as a dental hygienist, so not a lot of information coming from there either. Also, space warfare is sure to be very different from wet naval warfare. How different? No one really knows, but based on the laws of physics, there will be differences.
Still, a good place to start is with historical wet naval warfare, from the age of galleys on up. I doubt that ships in space will work up to ramming speed and try to hit the side of an enemy vessel. Maybe in an extreme situation, but not as a common tactic. The kinetic energy of two vessels moving at high velocity would just be too much to handle. I also don’t see the Star Wars model of two ships moving up and trading broadsides as very workable. Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars, but always thought the way they handled space combats as kind of stupid. The same with space fighters. There is no air in which to bank in space. And as I will talk about later, in space, size does matter.
I have received some criticism of my own work for going into too much detail in my space combat, though others have told me that was why they loved my books. Can’t satisfy everyone. One problem I ran into was trying to let my readers know that I was not writing Star Wars or Star Trek. That required going into some detail. But the notions of Star Wars and Trek are so prevalent in our society, especially among those with a love of scifi, that I felt the need to separate myself from them. The Exodus series has also been compared to Honor Harrington. Guilty as charged, but only because there was so much in the series that made sense. I purposefully stayed away from such concepts as bomb pumped x-ray laser warheads, even though they made a lot of sense for warships trying to hit fast moving enemies at long range. Originally I thought that Weber was wrong in using lasers as close in weapons and missiles as long range attack platforms. That was my Trek upbringing. Then, looking at the problem, I realized that he was correct. Hitting something at long range with a direct fire beam weapon, while not knowing where it is at the time your beam gets there, is an exercise in futility.
Back to historical context. I think to write about future space warfare one has to have some knowledge of naval warfare in the past. The strategy and tactics of the past can give you ideas of how to construct the principles of the future. Star Wars went with the historical tactic of going broadside to broadside, which was a viable naval tactic at one time, when cannon could only hit line of sight near targets. Star Trek treated their ships, large as they were, more like dogfighting airplanes that fired on the move while dancing around each other. As ships developed better weapons the engagement ranges increased, though they were still line of sight, until better sensors (radar) and mobile platforms (spotting aircraft) allowed them to shoot at things over the horizon.
What about communications between ships. If there’s a light speed barrier then ships cannot talk to each other in real time unless they are very close. If they can talk to each other in real time, or near enough as to make no difference, then there must be a mechanism in place to allow such. Star Trek had subspace radio, which still had limitations, though they weren’t portrayed consistently in the series. At times the Enterprise talked with Earth in real time. In other episodes, though they weren’t much farther out from home, it was said that a signal would take two weeks to reach home base. Star Wars had Jedi talking on handheld devices in real time across thousands of light years. If these were broadcast devices that raises the problem of power, as a broadcast wave out to a thousand light years would be attenuated to the point where it might as well not exist. In Exodus I introduce using wormholes for communications, which bring up a whole new series of problems.
In the days of sail scout ships would often stay within line of sight of an enemy fleet, transmitting signals by flag to another ship just over the horizon (except, of course, for their masts). This would be repeated down a line of ships to the friendly fleet. A similar thing could be done in space, with lasers taking the place of signal flags, though of course that damned light speed barrier still comes into effect unless you have a workaround.
So, where do you get the historical knowledge of naval combat? Books of history, fictional but historically accurate series like Horatio Hornblower, movies like Sink the Bismarck and others. Other good sources for ideas are of course other movies and scifi series like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Wing Commander, etc. Not all the ideas are good, of course, but there are some in there, and even the bad ideas can spark some good ones. I still remember watching the minseries of the new Battlestar Galactica and being blown away when the ship deployed guns all over the hull, putting up a wall of fire that totally destroyed the incoming Cylon ships and their missiles. Watch footage of a WW2 battleship at sea during an air attack and you will see the same thing. Japanese planes flaring in the air as they try to penetrate a wall of steel. Battleships in harbor were easy targets. At sea, moving and shooting, anything but.
Book are another good source. Not all writers go into great detail, but almost all have some ideas that can spark your imagination. Weber of course goes into detail and explains his rationale most of the time. Some think he goes into too much detail, with long dumps of information. But to a writer these infodumps are gold, as long as you don’t repeat them.
I played a lot of games, from Great Naval Battles to Star Fleet Academy. I learned that battleship fighting battleship was a long drawn out proposition. Sure, the Hood went up in one salvo, but that was rare. A more likely scenario was the Bismarck being pounded into a wreck over hours of fire. Star Fleet Academy showed that low velocity missiles were easy to knock out using beam weapons. Harpoon showed how a fleet could take out waves of missiles coming at it, as long as there weren’t too many. Not all video games are that good, but all can contribute to your knowledge.
Look at how weapons have changed naval warfare, often making the obsolete again viable. Nuclear weapons made the battleship obsolete, or so it seemed. Ships were made smaller and lighter, and became vulnerable to small missiles like an Exocet. Defenses were developed to knock down the missiles, like autocannon and interceptor missiles, but again the heavy battleship became useful in its invulnerability to these small missiles. And developments like lasers may make them more or less invulnerable to nukes as well, unless they are targeted by too many weapons to handle.
What about robots. Might not warships be completely controlled by artificial intelligences in the future? They could react faster, and fight fearlessly with total logic. Possibly. But from a writer’s perspective, this is not an advantageous state of affairs. We need human, or at least understandable alien, feeling, to resonate with readers. Maybe it makes more sense that robots will fight, but where is the tension, the drama, of machine fighting machine. It is much more interesting to look in on the thoughts and feelings of beings like ourselves as they face the possibility of their own demise.
Part 2 will cover my thoughts on the size of warships, which in fiction range from small fighters to the Death Star, the size of a small moon.