New Hope for Space War


I’m on the Space War panel at Balticon, how & why.  Fun topic though in all candor, a bit implausible.

The main problem is that travel in space is likely to be slow, expensive, & a bit dangerous.  Given this, it is likely that space travel itself will be reserved for moving stuff that is light weight & of very high value:  information, pharmaceuticals, experts, embryos, the “unobtainium” that features in Avatar, and so on.  Bullets satisfy neither test & even nukes have a hard time.

And if it takes a century to get over to the enemy’s star, why bother having the war?  And what are you fighting about anyway?  To have a war you have to be close enough to do some damage in a reasonable time frame & similar enough to have common — if opposed — objectives.

I owe the initial observation about the high costs of space travel to Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize winning economist.  In the spirit of not pointing out problems without also pointing out a solution, he has found an economically viable use for space war:  as a way to generating a badly-needed stimulus, a kind of weaponized Keynesianism.

Given that there is now new hope for space war, and to get me in the right frame of mind for the panel, I list ten of my favorite space war novels:

  1. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.  The number one space war novel.  The evil octopi are defeated by our germs. Great idea; two problems:  1) germs have to co-evolve to be effective against a host; ours probably would have no effect on the Martians and 2) real octopi are fun:  they play pranks on their experimenters & are great communicators as well.  With their ability to change skin color at will, octopi are practically eight-tentacled color television sets.
  2. The Lensman series by E. E. “Doc” Smith.  Six deathless volumes, each with at least two space-shaking interstellar battles. Chlorine breathers beware!  The oxygen breathers of the galaxy have found your secret base & are going to reduce it to a glowing pile of molten rock.
  3. Which is pretty much what happens to the lunar military base in Arthur Clarke‘s Earthlight.  Three Federation cruisers duel it out to a jointly fatal draw with a lunar fortress.  The war is about mineral rights & induced by attacks of mutually assured dementia, making the physics (this is Arthur C. Clarke!), the war, & the politics pretty realistic.
  4. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.  Heinlein wrote about space suits in his pre-WWII SF, then used ideas from his stories when helping to design pressure suits for our fighter pilots in WWII, then used ideas from those pressure suits for his Have Spacesuit, Will Travel juvenile and for Starship Troopers: a beautiful example of the inter-relationship of reality & SF.  The space combats are a bit less stupid than most; Heinlein understands something of the difficulty of taking a space war to an underground enemy.
  5. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.  This is partly a reaction to the Vietnam War & partly a reaction against Starship Troopers.  The forever war starts by accident, proceeds by error, and lasts for over a thousand years:  both humans & aliens are restricted to sub-light travel, so the war plays out in slow motion.  One of the few successful space war stories that works with existing physics.
  6. Keith Laumer’s Bolo Series.  Laumer wrote a long series of stories about Bolos, giant sentient tanks that are every adolescent male’s dream weapon.  In practice, they would likely be an economic & military disaster:  witness some of the late stage Nazi vehicles:  mechanically problematic, too heavy for bridges, & absorbing a disproportionate share of the military budget.  See Arthur Clarke’s delightful story Superiority.
  7. Dan Simmon‘s Hyperion series, especially the 2nd volume, The Fall of Hyperion, which concludes with a beautifully realized space battle between two fleets for control of a planetary system.  The inevitable confusion & long delays of such a battle are foregrounded.
  8. Catherine Asaro‘s Skolian Empire series.  Asaro has a physics background, gets existing physics right, & invents as much as she needs to keep the action fast-moving & interstellar.  The space combats are realistic:  long periods of nothing, brief high velocity exchanges of fire & then more long pauses while the surviving opponents regroup & turn around.  They remind me of the lance combats in White’s The Once & Future King.
  9. David Weber’s Honorverse series, starting with Manticore Station.  Weber is another author who tries to “get it right”.  The politics are modeled on the dueling ship combats of the Napoleonic wars, with wormholes to get realtime star to star travel without invoking faster-than-light mechanics (which would imply time-travel & a lot of confusion:  it is very rough on a space navy to first have triumphantly triumphed & then never to have been in the first place!).  He sets up the physics & weapons so that the ships even have broadsides, includes relativistic time dilation, and so on.  Weber’s Honor Harrington owes her “H’s” and general command style to C. S. Forester‘s Horatio Hornblower.  In a video game version of the Honorverse, it turned out that realistic implementing the physics/combat implied a near-planet maneuver (wish I could remember what it was) that invalided much of the combat in the novels.  With the infinite authority of the auteur, Weber passed a treaty that banned the disastrous trick.
  10. And I’ll finish with John G. Henry‘s Lost Fleet series.  The first six volumes reset Xenophon’s Anabasis in a medium-future space-faring context, again with wormholes connecting selected star systems.  A nearly destroyed fleet has to work its way back home in the face of enemy attack, mutiny, and sheer running out of resources.  Henry’s focuses on the many conflicting pressures on his commander, Jack Geary, as Geary balances military requirements, the demands of honor, & the imperatives of law, democracy, and a forbidden love.  The space combat — Henry used to be a ship driver in the US Navy – takes place in four dimensions and with admirable clarity about the command difficulties created by the finite speed of light:  if the enemy is on the far side of a solar system, he will see your maneuver only hours after you make it — and you will see his response hours after that.  You have to factor his response — and the responses of your detached units — into every move you make.  It is like blindfolded chess where you don’t find out the enemy’s move until after you have made three more moves of your own.  And your pieces are moving on their own.

And a couple of titles to avoid:

  • Anything by C. J. Cherryh, as least as far as space combat goes.  I remember reading one of her novels where the defenders had an advantage because they were at rest. In space, both sides are at rest with respect to themselves; the comment & resulting tactics were just nonsense.  Nonsense on stilts.
  • Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai series.  Omni-competent genetically enhanced uber soldiers trash lots of stooges.  The “ho” meets the “hum”.

So, my minimal requirement for space war in science fiction(not counting the golden classics of one’s youth of course) is that the humans, the physics, & the space war should make at least a bit of sense.

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