Space Opera Without Magic

I enjoy reading space opera, but almost all stories that involve space ships, and in particular space ships shooting at one another, require certain levels of magic to work. There is an agreement between reader and writer that certain inconvenient facts can be glossed over, and a few magical technologies are added (or magically removed) to get things to work.

I wanted to create a setting that had space battles around distant stars, but included no magic. I was… mostly successful, but I did have to resort to using social magic to replace some of the technological magic.

The first future-techno-magic is, of course, is faster-than-light travel. Without it, it takes a long, long time to get your ships to the star system where the battle will occur. The alternative is creating a machine that can accelerate to near the speed of light and then slow back down again to arrive in the target system. I consider that to be extremely difficult — almost magic, but possible. This method also removes the immediate need for another bit of magic — artificial gravity.

So these machines with people in them are spending a few years to get to their target. Once they get there, any intelligence they have about the target system is decades old. Also, the occupants of that system will see them coming from a long way out, and have plenty of time to arrange an unpleasant welcome.

The logistics problems don’t end there, because after the battle either the ship has to wait decades for a signal to get back to the command center and for new orders to arrive, (those “new” orders possibly long-stale by the time they arrive), or command has to be sending out streams of orders all across this part of the galaxy to cover all foreseen contingencies. It would make prosecuting an interstellar military campaign really, really difficult. But it wouldn’t (quite) require magic.

The simplest solution to the logistics issues would be to have independent ships raiding planets with no larger political goal. But that wouldn’t be space opera.

Now our ships of war have arrived in a hostile place, to encounter other, somewhat similar ships.

Conventional Space Opera includes an array of magic to make such a battle meaningful. The core magic to make this happen is “shields”, sometimes called “deflectors”, that neutralize certain attacks. Shields use energy to stop lasers and other threats, and when ships are slugging it out, the strength of the shields is always an important metric of battle progress. “Shields at 29%!” or the beloved “The shields can’t take much more of this!”

Why are shields necessary? Because otherwise when an armada was heading your way, you’d send a bunch of nukes into the formation and blow the shit out of them, then resume your lunch.

Those invading ships will have all sorts of weapons designed to stop the nukes from getting close enough, but it becomes a numbers game, especially since without magic “close enough” is still a long, long way away. My cloud of nukes will cost a tiny fraction of the amount you paid to get your spaceships here.

One possible counter to that strategy is that the ships are so valuable that it would be better to capture them than to destroy them. That has actually been true for much of the history of naval warfare. But during that time, capturing the other ship was one of the fastest and safest ways to end the battle; if the ship that was losing could have sunk the other, it would have. Still, maybe that lets the combatants get close enough that a cloud of nukes is no longer an option.

Interestingly, the The Expanse series, although it includes one massive bit of super-future-tech-magic, has no magic made by humans. What stops them from using nukes in their space battles? In fact, in that series the very first act of space-violence involves a nuclear warhead, but this is received by the people of the solar system as an atrocity. So warships carry nuclear weapons, but are very hesitant to use them — not for military reasons, but for social ones. Battles once again belong to ships piloted by people shooting tiny pieces of metal at high velocity at one another.

Since there is no artificial gravity, the limits of what the ships can do are dictated by the limits of the people in them. The written version of The Expanse spends a lot of time talking about the technology used to keep people alive and functioning during battle.

In my story, I had to resort to “social magic” to get space battles back into the fun zone as well. In my case, using weapons of mass destruction is something “Only a mammal would do.” (In my story, spacefaring species are all based on a reptilian template, but now humans are out there, too.) You, mammalian reader, wouldn’t understand, not really, but just know that the reptiles have this idea of “the future” that mammals don’t seem to possess — at least, not during times of stress.

But let’s go back for a moment to the measures taken to keep a pilot alive as she flings her fighter ship into battle. Surely her frail flesh is the limiting factor for the ship. And why are there people operating the guns shooting at her? These are two tasks that, if you remove the organic component, you will improve the system dramatically.

We have discovered a new sort of Space Opera Magic, or maybe anti-magic. When Luke Skywalker straps into the gunner’s chair in the Millennium Falcon, the assumption is that he can do something better than a machine can — even though the machine is trying to tell him where to shoot the whole time.

Perhaps the machine’s sensors can be jammed. But… clearly sensors in the optical range of the spectrum work just fine, or Luke and Han wouldn’t be able to see the ships out there. Maybe they should hook up one of those fancy new smart phones to the targeting computer and then just stay out of the way. Or if the sensor has to be organic, I’m sure the techs down in the lab could grow a bunch of retinas to put into the targeting sensors. Aiming those guns is just not a job for people.

Nevertheless I wanted strike craft in my space battles. They’re fun! But what non-magical means can one use to justify putting living creatures in them? Two ingredients are needed: Something to make remote control impractical, and no artificial intelligence.

Remote control becomes impractical if the space battle is over a large enough theater that the speed of light introduces a lag between controller and ship, plus there are opportunities for the other side to intercept or block the signal. So it’s not too hand-wavy to rule that out.

AI can be a little tricky, though. It could be argued that true AI just may never happen, but how “intelligent” does a fighter pilot need to be, anyway? Any organic cleverness lost will be far outweighed by massive performance enhancements to the ship and to the utter fearlessness of the guidance system. Or perhaps tunable fearlessness. If we have machines now that can carry a pizza through city traffic to your door, it doesn’t seem a reach to believe that with a few hundred years of further research we can’t come up with a system expert enough to do space battles.

Once more I resorted to taboo. AI is another Slippery Slope to Extinction, something careful, long-view reptilian minds would not contemplate. Super-expert systems are treading too close to the edge.

In my story creating genetically-modified pilots that can handle greater stress is considered taboo, also — after all, modifying your species is another future-threatening activity — but perhaps not every reptile-template species in my story adheres to that taboo as strongly, which creates an asymmetry in the space battle that the good guys have to deal with.

In some ways, eliminating magic makes space opera more difficult to write. By design space opera resembles old Horatio Hornblower stories, and inherits much from the battles in those old stories (with airplanes added). And while I found myself cringing at my own hand-waving to preserve some of my favorite space opera elements, eliminating magic also created complexities for the occupants of that universe that can be turned into interesting conflicts.

The people who started the war will be long-dead by the time it is over. The soldiers on the front lines have no illusion that they will ever understand the outcome. And through it all, no one, anywhere, can see the big picture.

The Places I’ve Made

If I could get paid for the settings I’ve imagined, I’d be retired now. I’ve spent more than one November bouncing around a world I’ve imagined, looking for a story.

Remembering Topstar

Perhaps the most extreme example of that was Remembering Topstar. The setting is awesome. It’s a planet, you see, that’s quite a bit warmer than ours, so that only the poles can support life. At one pole there are people. They don’t know day and night, they only know seasons. Eventually they start to wonder what (or who) might be at the other pole.

I wrote it as an adventure story, and I think that was the right call. But it never found its mojo.

Setting details:

Metal is rare (a colleague suggested the planet’s sun be a red giant, an older star, which would mean there was less iron around when the planet formed). The traveling party brings with it a massive Foucault’s Pendulum to measure their latitude, and it represents an immense investment, comparable to us building a Superconducting Supercollider.

As the party moves south, wind and rain and jungle and creatures that live in the jungle get very, very, nasty. Then there’s the entirely devastating moment when the scientists with their pendulum tell you that you’ve barely left your front porch.

What a great place to put a story! Maybe I need to imagine that setting, then imagine Jules Verne growing up in that setting, and then write the story he would. A science fiction adventure story written by someone who lived on that world.

Glass Archipelago

Then there is Glass Archipelago. Miami, not long from now, when southern Florida is under water. Some of the towers have fallen, providing breakwaters protecting the remaining ones from the ravages of the superstorms that sweep across the Atlantic. Each tower stands as a city-state, ruled by a feudal overlord.

The oceans are almost completely dead of complex life; algae blooms have grown to just be the new normal and the water has no oxygen. While you might think aquatic mammals would still be all right, none of them are vegetarian, not even baleen whales. They all are gone.

The buildings make their living harvesting algae and sending it off to processing plants on the new US coastline, hundreds of miles away.

Setting Details:

Not too far under the ocean’s surface the city of Miami still exists, and there’s a good living to be made scavenging. There is another culture, the rafters, who live on giant rafts and make a living skin-diving for loot.

There are naval bases, nuclear power plants, medical research facilities, and on and on, all now lying under the ocean. Also, some of the algae produces serious hallucinogens.

My attempts at a story in this setting so far centered on a rafter, and I’m pretty sure that’s a good vector. Special bonus: living in the open on a raft her whole life, she’s got pretty serious claustrophobia.

Math House

Which brings us to Math House. Isaac Asimov once imagined a science he called “Future History”, in which the movement of large enough populations could be predicted statistically. The great Hari Seldon predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire and using Big Math created the conditions for the following dark ages to be as short and benign as possible.

But what if the Galactic Empire had discovered Future History first? Would they not use it as a tool to prolong their dominance? Would not statistics become a tool of the oppressor?

Yeah, that’s probably not a hypothetical anymore. In the Math House world, math unsanctioned by the government has been outlawed. When math is outlawed, only outlaws do math.

There are the titular math houses, underground hideaways where the art is advanced. When the cops bust them, they do their best to convince the authorities that they are just watching the (required) television and doing drugs. Drugs are not legal, but they are sold by extralegal government arms, and not buying drugs will put a red flag in your file.

The math houses advertise themselves to potential members by posting elaborate puzzles embedded in graffiti. The clues will be scattered all over the city and it will take some serious math to work it out. If you can solve the puzzle and get to the right door with the right greeting, you have proved yourself worthy.

There are tiers to the math houses; finding the truly elite houses requires “publishing” through graffiti something new or innovative.

The best part of this world is that the cops who hunt the math-heads have to learn a lot of math. Eventually each of them realizes that their own success puts them on the suspect list.

Seems like a story in this world almost writes itself. Apparently not for me.

The End

I’m not sure this one belongs on the list. The world is blasted. The Armageddon wasn’t (entirely) nuclear, it happened when wizards went into a bare-knuckle brawl and wiped each other out, along with the planet. Now there is almost no fertile soil and crazy-ass creatures roam the spaces between, starved to the point of insanity.

Now there is just pain hunger and the occasional artifact, showing up when it is least welcome.

I did start to put a story in this setting, or at the very least a character study. The narrative gets rolling with what I have only now realized is the only actual human in the story dying.

Everything is poison. Everything is dead. Everything wants to kill you. Which is all just the way of things, no big deal, unless you are motivated by love.

The Garden

This year’s effort. Although I found some story possibilities late in the process, this is one of the most complete worlds I have ever built. Earth is gone (probably), and the last of humanity are really expensive hitchhikers riding alien battle fleets.

The core observation is that reptiles are much better-suited for interstellar space travel than mammals are. In this world, reptiles can be put into cryosleep, allowing them to slumber through the years of interstellar travel, while mammals, and humans in particular, must live through those years.

It creates an entirely different view of time between the two allies.

Why do the reptiles go to the extravagant expense of having humans on their ship? Because when shit gets crazy the mammals can burn brightly and reveal solutions. The reptiles, with their long view, are consumate strategists, but humans are the master tacticians. Decades of planning will go into each battle, but once all the shit is going down, having a mammal in charge is an enormous tactical advantage.

Historical Interlude:
I’ve been led to believe that George Washington was a great planner and logistics guy. However, word on the street is that he really sucked at adapting his plans as the battle unfolded. In my story, the lizards are like George Washington, and the partnership with humanity has given our favorite reptilian conquerors a massive advantage over their also-George-Washington rivals. The humans bring a fluidity to battle they have never known before.

Every human on those boats is there to help their hosts win battles, and negotiations, and perhaps, (unofficially) political rivalries. Every human is measured by the service they can provide to the ship. Perhaps fifteen percent of conceptions reach adulthood, and that’s just the way it is.

As a setting, it’s a tight, closed world where tiny things become big things, and so the powers that be work overtime to prevent the tiny things. Seems like a volatile world to write a story in. Volatile means interesting.

In conclusion

If you need a place to set your action, call me.