Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hard SF and fighters

It's time for me to wrestle with one of the big issues in hard science fiction: ship-to-ship combat. Namely, how to make it both accurate and plausible.

This includes the eternal question of one-man fighter craft in space. The general hard SF consensus is that they don't work. See Atomic Rockets and Rocketpunk. There's plenty more out there, if you go looking. However, the reason they resonate so heavily with readers is because they bring a personal agency to war in space. War in space or on earth involves far more randomness and loss of control than the human mind is inclined to handle, from what I've seen. I suspect this is why they say there are no atheists in foxholes.

Put a guy in a fighter (plane or spaceship) and he's got a say in his fate. Much more dramatic.

It's difficult to read and write situations where the characters have little control and are subject to large amounts of randomness, maybe because the writer's hand becomes obvious. When anybody could die, there's no reason it has to be the MC unless the writer was gunning for him.

I'll take a step back, here. Five years ago (in the story, before the beginning of Course Corrections) the independence movement spearheaded by the McBrides was caught in a pincer maneuver between a handful of security cutters and the Jovian Militia's main frigate, the Peacekeeper. As they were an undisciplined group of ships, it was something of a slaughter. A few people did escape, some were captured, many were killed.

I'm working on writing that scenario, because I've gone long enough without knowing exactly what happened there. Been getting scraps here and there from my characters and now it's time to sit them down and get the whole story out. Just working on the outline has brought out some interesting stuff.

On the other hand, I've got to work out just what sort of ship the Peacekeeper is and how it goes about its business. Unlike a lot of science fiction, I'm working at a relatively low technology level -- even for hard SF, it would seem. My spaceships rarely break a thousand kilometers a second. They're armed with ultraviolet lasers (also used for communication) and rail guns throwing iron slugs. I've been debating explosive missiles, nuclear or otherwise, but really you only need to hit a ship and the hard vacuum will supply the explosion (outward, as the ship decompresses).

Getting back to fighters, I readily accept the uselessness of a human pilot in such a situation. No problem for me in swapping fighters for unmanned drones flown by a combination of AI and neurally jacked-in pilots back on the frigate. Still, the only justification that I can find for even simple drones is... lines of fire? Angles? The target ships will try to scatter in all directions (don't forget that there are three dimensions to work with) and the Peacekeeper can't catch them all but still wants some sort of netting action to keep the high-value targets from escaping.

They need to cripple their targets, quickly and efficiently. That only requires a clear shot at some part of the engines. Maybe they don't need drones. Or the drones are mainly for rescue and recovery.

And whatever happens, Maggie and a few other people still need to get out in one piece. 

Plenty of thinking to do.

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