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.

Buck Rodgers Cosmology

There is a certain class of Space Opera that has what I call “Buck Rodgers Cosmology.” In these stories it is never quite certain what a planet is. You see sentences like “It was still morning on [planet].” Or perhaps “It’s summer on [planet], so dress accordingly.”

And of course we’re all familiar with the “jungle planet”, the “tropical paradise planet”, and the “snow planet”, all of which are entire planets with only one climate zone, and that climate is easily recognized as one of the many on our own rock. So even though we live and interact with a shining counterexample our entire lives, we all too often are presented with a planet that apparently has no poles. Or perhaps it’s in a multi-star system that somehow warms all parts of the globe evenly.

I call it Buck Rodgers Cosmology because early Buck Rodgers adventures joyfully embraced a vague idea of planets that didn’t even seem to be related to stars.

Recently I read some not-very-good-but-for-some-reason-I-read-it-anyway-so-maybe-it-had-a-certain-charm Space Opera, and while the author seemed to have a certain grasp of stars, planets, and whatnot, it seemed that most of the time the planets managed to avoid any of the consequences of being spherical.

While I was reading this thing, I rolled my eyes and moved on. I wonder if the writer knowingly embraced Buck Rodgers Cosmology. I wonder if he made a conscious decision to make planets so easily characterized in order to make destinations more like those in Earth-bound adventure stories. One planet is Hawaii, another planet is Switzerland, and another is Arizona. In fact, these stories are actually set on Earth, an Earth in disguise, at a time when it takes many days to reach Hawaii, and where the inhabitants of Hawaii have blue skin. They’re not space stories at all.

In the end, I decided Buck Rodgers Cosmology was no less valid than the whole Faster-Than-Light-Without-Relativity conceit. It’s a storytelling device, and if the reader is willing to embrace it, then we can all get along.

The story I mentioned above also had big space battles that led to giant spaceships “listing to port” when they were badly damaged. I am far less forgiving of that phrase. The writer is drawing a parallel with modern sailing ships, but sinking boats list because of gravity. There’s too much water coming in on one side, and gravity tips the boat to that side. No gravity in space. No listing. No “port” even, though that could be defined in some sort of ridiculous three-dimensional fleet coordinate system.

I have read a great deal of space opera where opposing fleets of spaceships are all in the same plane.

The thing is, there’s another phrase for a stricken ship that’s more accurate and just as poignant. Stricken naval ships list, stricken spaceships tumble. It’s that simple. And tumbling makes rescue all the more difficult.

So I’ll give you the Buck Rodgers Cosmology, but I won’t give you stupid fleet mechanics. The former provides a storytelling shorthand, the latter is just wrong.

3

The Phoenix Conspiracy

“You were up late last night,” the light of my life said on Sunday.

“Really?” I said around a yawn. I had been reading, you see, and kind of lost track of time. I’d got caught up in a space opera called The Phoenix Conspiracy, and I wanted to see how it played out.

Space Opera, for the uninitiated, is what you get when you put Horatio Hornblower into space (where he goes by the alias James T. Kirk). They are pulp romance novels wrapped with that old-west feel that Out There it doesn’t matter where you come from; if you kick enough ass you will rise to the top.

The knock against space opera (he says like there’s only one) is that usually the conflict is between the hero and some totally bad guy. Black and white. Why is the bad guy doing all those evil things? Because he’s evil! To roughly quote a member of the Kansas Bunch: Why would he destroy the world? It’s where he keeps all his stuff!

I am happy to report that, despite other warts, the primary driver of conflict in The Phoenix Conspiracy by Richard Sanders was between two people on the same side who have a very different take on events. The hero, Calvin, is commander of a super-high-tech spy ship. He’s not a disciplinarian, rather he uses his personal relationships with his crew to get the most out of them. He has had some notable successes. Then he gets a new Executive Officer, a Totally Hot woman who technically outranks him. She’s from the regular navy, and she’s totally smokin’ hot. In management style, Summers is the polar opposite of Calvin. And hot.

They probably could have worked through the style differences, with time, but there is no time and Calvin almost instantly is compelled to keep secrets from her. Her last commander lied to her, almost implicating her in treason, and she’s not going down that road again. (Her former commander did notice, however, that she was very attractive.)

Have you gotten tired of hearing how hot Summers is? Yeah, I did too, during the third lengthy description of her, which came somewhere around chapter two. She’s also good at chess and is an excellent tactician, and knows how to run a tight ship. Did I mention she’s hot? ‘Cause dude, she’s really hot.

Another thing I liked about this book: None of the classic bad-guy mistakes. No “Leave this one for me.” No “Since you cannot escape I’ll tell you my whole plan.” No “I want this to be poetic.” The conflict escalates, Calvin’s weaknesses are exploited (a hero with weaknesses!), stakes rise. No one makes The Blunder that lets the other succeed. At the end of the conflict between the two, the stakes are very high indeed, though how the stakes are perceived by the two could not be more different. They both do things they’re going to have to live with later.

Meanwhile, of course, there’s a threat against the Empire, and both Navy and Intelligence Wing are likely infiltrated. Enemies are deep inside human space. And so forth. It’s satisfyingly complex. The story is set in the happy FTL≠TT (Faster-than-light ≠ time travel) alternate physics that we all love, and there’s just enough talk of ‘depth into alterdspace’ and ‘eighty percent potential’ to make it sound like they know exactly how things work, even if we don’t.

So, as space opera goes, this is a pretty good example. There are some things that bugged the heck out of me, however. ‘Port’ and ‘starboard’ in space. Multi-Terabyte thumb drives but no mobile phones. Being able to dock in an Intelligence Wing ship and somehow walk down the jetway (yes, jetway) and having no one suspect you’re in Intelligence Wing. For all the windows in these space ships, you’d think there’d be one that could allow the people on the space station to look at the boat that just docked.

There were multiple cases of computer hacking, some silly, one realistic. They got a dumbass to type his password for them. That’s how real hackers work.

And then there’s on-board romance. It seems to be par for the course in this military, to the point where it’s not even considered whether a relationship might affect performance (even when it demonstrably did). Sure, if your whole life is in the military, you’re going to find your life-partner there, too. And that’s OK. But in this navy you don’t get the sense that they have any rules about that stuff at all. The regulations would even help increase tension in some cases. Better tell her how you feel, Shen, before she’s promoted above you.

But that gets to my root complaint. Despite the relaxed command style of Calvin, there were several characters here who I just couldn’t picture in a uniform at all. Even a lenient commander will have come up through the ranks and will have been given a dressing-down over trifling details. If he doesn’t take those to heart, he’s not going to find himself in command. Here we have naval officers (well, Intelligence Wing officers — the connection is ambiguous) who are slobs.

You could argue that they are there for their intelligence and their ability to analyze data and reach surprising conclusions. You could argue that this is where the navy puts bright kids who don’t fit the mold. I’ll follow you down that road. It would have taken only one sentence somewhere in the early chapters to establish that. It would have made it all the more perplexing that Summers was put on this boat.

Which reminds me. The Nighthawk has special powers even the Navy doesn’t know about. How the heck does Summers end up there? I mean, sure, she has a ‘spectacular figure’, but she’s also navy. How does Intel Wing agree to that?

But slack must be cut here. It’s a story that happily embraces its genre, one I like, and it does a pretty good job of it. It shines just where most pulp fiction fails — it makes the conflict grounded, human, and sympathetic on both sides. You know Calvin has to prevail, but you don’t want Summers to get hurt when he does. Honestly, not too many worries on that score, but the fact I cared tells you what you need to know. That and the book-readin-machine glowing well into the wee hours of the night. If you like the genre, I heartily encourage you to give this one a try.

Note: Normally down here I mention that if you buy the book I reviewed by using the link in this episode I get a kickback. It’s part of my journalistic integrity (snerk). This time, however, you couldn’t pay for the book if you wanted to (as far as I can tell). It’s free. So maybe you should consider this Classic Flame 26MM8404E451 Captiva Electric Fireplace and Media Console With Included Glowing Ember Bed Realistic Resin Logs, which costs only… wait for it… $1.15 billion. With a ‘b’.