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.
My problem with a lot of interstellar stories is the extreme unlikelihood that two species meeting for the first time are anywhere near the same level of technical prowess. It would almost(?) always end up as bow-n-arrow against magic.
What I loved about the Expanse was that you had an arms trade somewhat leveling the playing field, but everyone started at the same place (early spacefaring humans) and luck, tech and inequality led to the underdogs relying on desperate ploys, fully aware that asymmetric warfare was the only way to have a stochastic chance of winning. It’s why I liked Ender’s Game (and whatever the book was where they kept sending the poor guy into the “one battle” you’re required to fight in, because the mortality rate is 99%). If you want realism, the conflict should be wildly uneven, and require taking extreme long-shots to be a real contest.
That is a legitimate complaint that I quietly ignored. In my story, humans had not achieved interstellar travel at all, and were scooped up by other guys who had it. So I guess you could argue that the technology spreads itself, and isn’t necessarily “owned” by the species using it. So when there’s an imbalance, it’s only a matter of a century or three before things even out.
In my story I do have the players express some concern as they get closer to their rival’s core worlds, that there will have been game-changing inventions in the many years they are in flight. Meanwhile, new knowledge is making its way from home to the spaceships, but there is a limit to how much of that they can apply. The farther you get from your own R&D facilities and the closer to theirs, the greater the imbalance.
There is another species that is here and there, once great conquerors, now evidently disinterested in that game. While they have a few surprises for our friends, they may have simply outgrown the space opera ethic. Perhaps sufficient technology makes the game uninteresting, which then creates a balance among the younger spacefaring species. Conquering the galaxy is something you do before you graduate.
The “things will equalize over the centuries” conceit is assuming, of course, that all these species are of roughly the same intelligence. That’s the biggest hidden assumption in my world (that I’m aware of).