Category Archives: science fiction

Warships – Classes and Categories PART TWO

Welcome back, we left off with cruiser so it is time to move onto the big stuff!

Battlecruiser

The term battlecruiser (or battle cruiser) is one the turns up a lot and there is no doubt that it is one that still carries a certain glamour. Historically the battlecruiser is a type that first appeared at the start of the twentieth century having evolved from an earlier category ship called the armoured cruiser. The armoured cruiser was a vessel as large as a contemporary battleship, while having smaller guns, thinner armour but longer range and greater speed. As combatants they were considered second only to the battleships and would often serve as flagships on more distant postings. The battlecruiser was envisioned as a vessel carrying battleship sized guns with the then new steam turbine engines, giving them a marked advantage in both speed and firepower over their predecessors.

HMS Invincible, the first battlecruiser, although for the first few years of her existence she was referred to as a Large Armoured Cruiser.

HMS Invincible, the first battlecruiser, although for the first few years of her existence she was referred to as a Large Armoured Cruiser.

So marked that in fact that when during World War One battlecruisers came up against contemporary armoured cruisers, the result was utterly one sided. In the run up to the Great War, with the expectation of mass fleet actions, the battlecruiser was envisioned as a kind of heavy scout, one that would brush aside the enemy’s forward screen and identify the location of the main force. With their lighter armour they were not expected to engage comparably armed ships. Unfortunately in practice commanders couldn’t resist the opportunity to add extra heavy guns to the main battle line. The battle cruisers’ reputation never entirely recovered from the loss of four battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 (while only one elderly battleship was sunk) and in certain academic quarters it is questioned whether as an idea the battlecruiser was bad one from the outset. Between the two World Wars the largest warship afloat was in fact a battlecruiser – HMS Hood. The type ultimately was superseded by the last generation of battleships which could match their speed with compromising protection, I’ll cover that later.

In science fiction portrayals of the type vary mostly in terms of where it stands in the overall hierarchy. Star Trek – with the odd exception – has mostly chosen to use the term battlecruiser for the peak combatants of the Federation and other major races. Given that within the Star Trek setting speed expressed as a high warp figure is usually the measure of a vessels’ power, combined with long range these ships seem to have, the term is fairly appropriate.

A Romulan D'deridex class Warbird or battlecruiser

A Romulan D’deridex class Warbird or battlecruiser, fast, powerful and apparently the most powerful Romulan warship until the film Nemesis.

In other setting the battlecruiser is very much more of an intermediate step between cruiser and battleship.

From the board game Battlefleet Gothic

The Mar Class from the board game Battlefleet Gothic is a good example of this type.

Which in a lot of setting seems to leave the type without a clear role; is it a big cruiser or a small fast battleship? A question that mirrors the problems that bedeviled the real battlecruiser. Personally I’ve made only limited use of the term but it is one that is useful for science fiction writers giving as it does a sense of a vessel with both enhanced fighting ability but sufficient mobility for all sorts of other roles, including that of a flagship for postings further from home.

Battleship

Of all the naval terms used by SF battleship is probably the best known. Historically the battleship began in the age of sail as ‘The Line of Battle Ship’; equipped with cannons firing out of the sides of the hull. Also known as ships of the line this arrangement meant that logically squadrons and fleets of these ships fought in long lines, where each ship could bring its guns to bear unhampered by friendly ships. Ships of the Line are generally classes according to the number of guns they carried, HMS Victory in Portsmouth, with her hundred plus guns is an example of a First Rate, the most powerful ships of the age. During the 19th century The Line of Battle Ship changed from wooden walls and black powder cannons to steel hulls and steam power. The fleet with the most battleships (The United Kingdom for really all of the century) was the one that ruled the waves.

Nelson's former flagship, by curious coincidence Victory was laid down the same year Nelson was born.

Nelson’s former flagship, by curious coincidence Victory was laid down the same year Nelson was born.

One thing that does tend to be overlooked in regards to the battleship is its symbolic status. During the nineteen and early twentieth century, a battleship – for those that could afford them – was symbol of a countries economic prowess. While for those nations that could actually build them, they were a very tangible demonstration of that nation’s technological abilities. When in the eighteen nineties the USA made the decision to rebuild its navy – which by that stage was little more than a collection of antiques left over from the civil war – a very deliberate decision was made to have them designed and built in America, thereby demonstrating the USA’s arrival as a major power. The battleship’s usefulness in combat came from the fact that it was bigger, better armed and better protected than anything else bar another battleship. In theory anyway. Between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and World War One, a period when ship design radically changed, there was only one serious battleship clash –  Battle of Tsushima in 1905. It was also until the coming of the aircraft carrier the most expensive thing afloat. This years we saw the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, the largest battleship battle ever fought and one that ended inconclusively because battleships, with their vast price tag and build time of years, were too precious to be idly risked. Ultimately the battleship was replaced as the main combat unit by the aircraft carrier. A lot of sources will say that this was due to the destruction of the American battleships at Pearl Harbour but in fact it was the sinking of the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse off Singapore a few days latter that confirmed that power had shifted. Still the battleship remained useful until beyond the end of World War Two, not least because once equipped with suitable anti aircraft guns they were capable of shielding other ships are part of a layered defence from enemy aircraft. The last generation of battleships are often referred to as fast battleships as these vessels were as fast as the earlier battlecruisers, but without the weaker protection.

In SF probably the best example of a space battleship (in the West anyway) comes from New Battlestar Galatica, a vessel a vessel that this really more of a battlecarrier than a pure battleship but during the course of the series it was shown that a battlestar was a very capable combatant even without its fighters being able to hand out a beating.

Galactica_fights_off_missile_salvos

As well as take one.

Taking fireThe battlecarrier idea with a vessel capable of directly engaging a target but also to launch fighters. In reality the battlecarrier idea never gained much traction mainly because the flight deck large turrets both needed to occupy the same space and if aircraft were to be able to operate, they needed to be kept well clear of the water, which would make the battlecarrier a large target in a gun battle.

Which didn't stop people from dreaming.

Which didn’t stop people from dreaming.

Dreadnought

This one really isn’t a true warship class and within SF something of a personal hate. In 1906 Great Britain launched the first of a new series of battleship – HMS Dreadnought. Up to that battleships had been powered by machinery called reciprocating engines,  while their armament was a small number of large guns and larger number of smaller pieces. Dreadnought was equipped with steam turbine engines, which allowed her to go faster for longer and dispensed with the smaller guns in favour of a larger number of heavy guns. Dreadnought set the pattern that would be followed up to the end of the battleship age but up to the end of World War One a substantial number of the older type remained in service. To distinguish between the new and the old, the term dreadnought and pre-dreadnought came into use. The terms dropped out of use once the pre-dreadnoughts were retired but the term dreadnought has remained to be used in SF as a gunship even larger than a battleship.

Aircraft Carriers

The aircraft carrier is probably the most self explanatory warship class and recognizable type of warship, with its long clear fight deck and offset bridge structure, a vessel that carries a substantial number of aircraft which represent its main offensive capacity. Armament of the carrier itself is limited to self defence. The early carriers were usually conversions of battleships or battlecruisers, with the full length deck and offset bridge structure (usually called the island) developed through trial and quite a lot of error. The main advantage of a carrier is the aircraft that represented its teeth could be changed or replaced comparatively easily. A battleship with three quarters of its guns shot away is going to have to head home for repairs, a carrier that’s lost three quarters of its planes could fly on replacements within hours.

Dauntless in her post war colour scheme.

Yes, one of my own

In SF the pure aircraft or fighter carrier seems to be something of a rarity with the battlecarrier a more popular choice, likely because from a storytelling point of view a vessel that has to keep well clear of enemy ships is less exciting than one that gets in close. To a certain extent this makes some sense as a lot of setting with space fighters don’t give these craft any faster than light capability, meaning the carrier has to get into harms way to deliver its fighters. There are also possible variants to the concept, carriers for landing troops or depending on the technology level of the setting, fighters for fighting in an planet’s atmosphere is ground bases haven’t been established ( for such ships I used the term drop fighter carrier )

Other Misc terms

Monitor  

A term originating from the American Civil War, this type was low freeboard vessel (not much hull above the waterline) with turret mounted armament. During World War One the term changed to refer to a shallow draft vessel ( not much hull below the waterline ) designed for shore bombardment.

Landing craft

Ranging from small boats to medium sized ships, these vessels are designed to deliver troops and materials without needing a proper dock.

Q-Ship

Now this is an odd but fun one. By World War One sonar had not been invented, making the detection and hunting of submarines difficult. One of less crazy idea (and by god there were some crazy ones) was the Q-Ship, a converted civilian ship – usually a small tramp steamer – with its cargo holds often filled with barrels for added buoyancy and a few guns carefully concealed. This allowed it to continue to masquerade as a transport, one large enough to be worth destroying but small enough not to be worth a torpedo. When encountered, the sub would hopefully surface to attack with its deck gun at which point the Q-ship would drop its disguise and open fire. The actual history of the Q-ships includes some anecdotes which even fiction writers would struggle to make up.

 

Conclusion

So there we have it, a basic guide  to ship classifications but as I said on this topic where there is no such thing as one single right answer. As ever thoughts and comments welcome.

 

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Warships – Classes and Categories PART ONE

It’s no secret that science fiction tends to borrow pretty vigorously from history, this goes double for any SF that makes even the most casual contact with military affairs. Battleships, battlecruisers, frigates, destroyers, all of these terms are merrily thrown around but to what do most of them refer? Well I thought I might instead take more of an overview examination of some of the terms I’ve been throwing around in my Ships of the Fleet series and provide something of a quick primer for anyone considering writing science fiction.

First off to what is meant by the term ‘Class’? Quite simply this refers a number of ships built to the same or very similar design, the name of a class is usually either the name of the first to be built or the theme along which they have been named – an example of this being the British C Class light cruisers where the names of individual ships as might be expected all started with the letter C.

Yes I took this photograph in Ireland, no I did not photoshop the sky.

The Battle of Jutland veteran HMS Caroline, yes I took this photograph in Ireland, no I did not photoshop the sky.

Classes of ships that have been built in large number may be broken down into sub-classes as experience with the earlier ships or improvement in technology results in changes to the design. As ships get further into their service career then individual ships of a class will often begin to diverge, as some receive upgrades or are re-purposed for different roles. An example of this in science fiction can be found in David Webers On Basilisk Station with the hero commanding a ship with non-standard and experimental armament. On a final note often a class could receive a overall nickname, there was a class of British battleships that went by the nickname The Wobbly Eight due to their slightly questionable ability to sail in a straight line!

Now moving onto categories, my own area of interest is military vessels from about the mid eighteen hundreds to the mid nineteen hundreds and in my own work, it’s from this period I took inspiration. The first thing to realise it that there is no right or wrong answer, historically categories have been decidedly fluid. Terms have come and gone, with ships re-catagorized. Some category names were chosen because they sounds impressive, while other to sound cheaper to a fleet’s political master. The running order is going to be roughly smallest to largest with some historical and science fiction examples followed by thoughts on how it might be used in a science fiction.

Corvette

The first and smallest of types I intend to cover, during the age of sail the corvette was the smallest type of regular warship. Used for inshore work (meaning close to the coast) and general patrolling. During the late nineteenth century the term dropped out of use to be revived during World War Two and applied to small, easy to build patrol ships that could be produced in large numbers. The armament of these vessels was extremely limited – usually whatever was available – and in practical terms the only opponents against which they stood a fair chance were submarines or single aircraft. Certainly these were far from ideal vessels but were a demonstration that in the real world a balance has to be sought between quantity and quality or to put it another way – quantity is a quality all of its own. These vessels had no place in fleet actions and instead were used as convoy escorts. Often only marginally faster than the ships they escorted, this was their main flaw as surfaced submarines could often outrun them. Post war the corvette has mostly remained a inshore vessel although some are used as a fast attack type.

The science fiction view of the corvette has retained the idea of it being a small ship but often as a more front line combatant. That said the most famous corvette in SF-

tantiveivfinal

The CR90 corvette or possibly questionably named ‘blockade runner’

ended up demonstrating the inherent limitation of the corvette concept as it was chased down and crippled with relative ease by a more combat focused vessel. The Homeworld video game series presented the corvette as a small strike vessel – a missing link – larger than one man fighters but smaller than capital ships and unable to travel faster than light on their own. While in literature some books of David Drake’s RCN series were based upon a corvette class ship and for the would be writer this last point is worth considering. If you are planning story which will see a young officer gain their first command, it is worth remembering most fleets tend to start people off with something small and cheap like a corvette, in case they bend it. Command of something big and expensive is definitely not given to someone because they made the previous captain loose their sh*t – yes JJ Abrams Trek, I am looking at you. In a science fiction setting a corvette type ship could be presented at something used primarily within a single system, not really capable of deep space work but useful for various internal security duties.

Frigate

The term frigate in the age of sail was a fast maneuverable vessel that could serve with the main fleet, acting as its eyes and ears. Away from the fleet frigates performed long distance patrolling, escorts and raiding. to use later terminology the frigate might be thought of as a cruiser, although at that point in time the term was applied to any warship that was operating on its own. The armament was carried on a single deck and at least during the Napoleonic Wars there was something of a convention that ships of the line didn’t shoot at frigates unless provoked. Arguably during the late nineteenth century the frigate  evolved into the battleship

The ironclad HMS Warrior 1860, officially classed as a frigate because of her single gundeck but in practice probably capable of slugging it out with anything else afloat.

The ironclad HMS Warrior 1860, officially classed as a frigate because of her single gundeck but in practice probably capable of slugging it out with anything else afloat.

The term had dropped out of use by the start of the twentieth century but during World War Two it would be revived and applied to a category of vessel that could loosely be described as a larger, faster, more deep water capable version of the corvette. While more combat capable than corvettes these were still primarily patrol and convoy escort vessels, not really fast enough for fleet deployments nor armed for such work. The recognition of this limitation resulted in later frigates being designed for greater speed, sufficient to keep up with the fleet, while their role remain the defence of other ships.

In science fiction once again the video game Homeworld has made use of the term as the smallest capital ship with a number of specialist designs.

The always fun multibeam frigate and embodiment of 'if you're going to do it you may as well over do it'

The always fun multibeam frigate, the embodiment of ‘if you’re going to do it you may as well over do it’

While the Mass Effect prefers to present the type as a fast moving and maneuverable strike vessel able to redeploy quickly around the battlefield

Mass_Effect_Normandy_SR2

and look good while doing it

In literature David Weber’s Honorverse setting which borrows heavily from the Napoleonic Wars period but only briefly mentions as a type being phased out of service. For would be science fiction writers the frigate is possibly another type with which to start of their wet behind the ears hero. Capable of more deep space operations, with a frigate the hero can boldly go that bit further.

Destroyer

The first main fleet type we’ve examined so far, unlike the corvette and frigate the destroyer’s genesis is a good deal more recent. In the late nineteenth century the first self propelled torpedoes were invented (prior to this any weapon designed to strike underwater was called a torpedo) which was a potential game changer in naval warfare. A very small vessel equipped with torpedoes could in theory sink even the biggest warship; the French in particular seized upon this much to the concern of Britain – the leading owner of big warships. In theory large expensive battleships could be swarmed under by large numbers of small, fast, inexpensive torpedo boats. In practice these small torpedo boats never really lived up to the billing but their existence demanded a remedy. The solution to and ultimately replacement for the torpedo boat was the torpedo boat destroyer, later shortened to the destroyer. Unlike the frigate and corvette, the destroyer was always intended as a fleet vessel, with the pace to keep up with the main battle fleet. Although not much larger than contemporary frigates, destroyers usually had much shorter range as much internal space was given over to engines and armament rather than fuel supply. The early destroyers were still pretty small, boats rather than ships, so operated in groups often lead by a small cruiser. By World War Two destroyers had grown large enough to dispense with the cruiser but still operated in groups. Their role was generally to mount torpedo attacks against larger enemy ships while at the same time screening against enemy destroyers and later submarines. The other rather brutal truth about destroyers of the world wars, is that they were still small and quick enough to build that they could be viewed by commanders as somewhat expendable, if in the course of being expended they absorbed a hit intended for something more expensive.  The modern destroyer is really the primary surface combatant and unlike their predecessors really too expensive and large to be fielded in groups.

The term destroyer is probably where science fiction most drastically diverges from the historical use of the term.

You're hearing the Imperial March aren't you?

You’re hearing the Imperial March aren’t you?

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

In practical terms the Star Destroyer and the Omega class destroyer seem to operate very much more like battleships or battlecruisers. In my experience literature tends to stick closer to the idea of the destroyer as a smaller vessel that serves in groups. This can be viewed as either TV and film getting it ‘wrong’ or possibly an indication that while authors are more versed in the historical use of the term, those making film and television are more familiar with the modern reality. Which can also be taken as an example that ship classifications are not set in stone.

Cruiser

As previously mentioned the term cruiser originally referred to role rather than an actual ship type, this was to change during the nineteenth century with the coming of steam. The problem with the early steam engines was that their fuel efficiency was pretty dire and the infrastructure for fueling stations hadn’t been developed. So if you wanted to have a warship that could go anywhere you needed it, then you had to keep the masts and sails. Unfortunately those same masts and sails were heavy, required large crews and took up a lot of space. Long story short, a ship could have first class fighting ability or first class cruising ability, but not both. By World War One the cruiser had stabilized into a swift, mid-sized armoured vessel, that’s primary firepower came from guns larger than those carried on destroyers but smaller than battleship’s and yet still small enough to be built in numbers. There were exceptions to this mostly in the form of specialist designs like minelayers and anti-aircraft designs, as well as a few large and ultimately unaffordable monsters. They were used for various roles like raiding against enemy merchant ships, defending against raiders, scouting, long distance patrolling and leading smaller vessels like destroyers. By World War Two with battleships thinner on the ground, cruisers were often the major surface combatants, with the Mediterranean and the Fast East seeing a number of cruiser vs cruiser encounters. One final note is the distinction between Heavy and Light cruisers. Between the two world wars a number of arms limitation treaties defined a heavy cruiser as a vessel of up to ten thousand tons displacement with eight inch guns, while a light cruiser was a vessel of up to ten thousand tons displacement with six inch guns. Which resulted in situations even within the same navy of there being light cruisers that were heavier than some heavy cruisers!

Obviously when it come cruisers in science fiction the big name is Star Trek, with the original Enterprise usually described as a cruiser or heavy cruiser. In the rest of science fiction then depending on the setting the cruiser as either presented as the peak combatant or as something a good deal more cannon fodder-sh

I'm sure that will polish out

I’m sure that will polish out

As reader of my Nameless War series will know I use cruisers a lot, personally I find it a useful size category, big enough to be presented as a major combatant, while still small enough to be risked. It depends on the setting  but in one where resources are finite, getting from A to B takes time and your fleet needs to have ships in several places at once, then in my opinion a cruiser fits the bill. It is also possible for cruiser within your setting to be optimised for a number of specialist roles.

That’s enough for now, next time I’ll be moving onto the big stuff.

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Octocon – where you can find me

It’s Octocon time again folks and once again I’m going to among the speakers, this is my breakdown for the con.

Naval & Piratical Traditions in SF&F

Saturday 10:00 – 11:00, E. Wexford (Camden Court Hotel)

In space, no one can hear you shanty. Do you know your capstan from your yard arm? Why are the traditions of the beautiful briny sea so attractive that we are keeping them alive long after they have left common parlance?

 

Late Night Panel: Getting You Off (World)

Saturday 18:00 – 19:00, C. Gaiety (Camden Court Hotel)

Sex in zero gravity and other ways we can dissapoint each other in the future. We live in a world where virtual reality sex suits not only exist but are moving to mass production. Sex bots are currently only a hobby build but for how long? How soon till we’re cloning our preferred partners? Is tech going to end good old fashioned romps? Is it going to cause more problems than it solves?

 

Cover Story

Sunday 12:00 – 13:00, E. Wexford (Camden Court Hotel)

Books aren’t judged by their covers but they are often the first interaction a reader will have with a book. We talk about what makes good cover, how often writers get to have a say in their own covers and how important is the first and least accurate judgement of a reader.

 

Star Trek at 50

Sunday 14:00 – 15:00, A. Tivoli/Yeats (Camden Court Hotel)

It’s the best of humanity. It’s a moral compass. It’s a safe space. It’s a show with ray guns, It’s a show with talking. It’s that thing that’s always on. It’s that one with the hot person in the revealing outfit that makes you feel funny. It’s a common cultural currency for so many people, giving inspiration for artists and engineers alike to bring forth our modern world of touch screens and instant communication. Star Trek is one of our favorite corners of the landscape of fiction. Come celebrate it.

 

Space Opera!

Sunday 16:00 – 17:00, E. Wexford (Camden Court Hotel)

From an insult aimed at “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarns” to a widely-beloved science fiction subgenre, space operas have been on a heck of a ride. We discuss what makes this genre the staple of SF that it is.

 

octocon-2016

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New cover art!

Well it has finally happened – although months later than I hoped, I’ve had a busy year. I have finally updated the cover art for the Nameless War.

new-covers-compositNext up will be the omnibus edition which will be including a sample of my next publication.

 

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Let’s talk about alien sex…

in world building. First off minds out of the gutter please, I’m not about to start writing alien erotica ( although I understand a living can be made that way… ) I’m instead going to talk about it as a part of a book’s background development.

With the time travel project currently in a holding pattern while I await feedback from my test readers, I’ve been making a tentative return to the Battle Fleet setting. Now as is my way I charged into the writing without a lot of formal planning… before coming to a fairly screeching halt.

As readers of the the Nameless War will be aware, while aliens did appear in the text as speaking characters, they were very much bit parts; it was first and foremost a story about humanity. A number of reviewers did comment about the fact that the Nameless War is not set very far into the future – while I do have an explanation for that, in part it was because I wanted the human race to be still recognizable. It also saved mightily on the world building. Once you start on alien life through, well it’s best to start from the bottom.

Before we go on I suggest you take a quick look at THIS, don’t worry I can wait.

Welcome back. Now those are all terrestrial species, go back far enough and they (and us) all have common ancestors. An alien species won’t have that commonality so that leaves the writer free to come up with all kinds of wacky ideas.

Or does it?

Life in any sense that we might recognise it will seek to perpetuate itself, basically living things will look to produce more living things. If we take the terrestrial experience as a guide there is (very) broadly two basic methods – quantity Vs quality. The quantity approach is where the species produces a lot of young, with limited resources expended on each one. Most will not reach sexual maturity but by sheer weight of numbers enough will to perpetuate the species. The quality method – which we use – is the place a lot of resources into producing a small number of young. The more complex an alien ecosystem is, the more likely you’re going to see a mix of both. The other thing that terrestrial experience indicates is once you get to complex life a two gender system is the norm, (with exceptions) males – sperm, females – eggs, hermaphrodites – both.  So does that mean that an alien species to be plausible should follow the Earth model with just a few tweaks ?

Yes, there are other images of this alien/actress, but let's keep this classy

Yes, there are other images of this alien/actress, but let’s keep this classy

Well no.

Life on Earth – as it currently exists – is a product of the environmental conditions as they have existed and changed over the past few hundred million years. Different conditions, different life forms but there has to be a logic to it. So if for example you want an alien race with six different genders, you need to come up with a set of environmental factors that make this a route with enough advantages to offset the disadvantages. Bare in mind that as the saying goes, no man is an island and neither is any species, if  one has a six genders, then odds are so do all of its evolutionary cousins and so did its ancestors.

So how do we go about coming up with a different but plausible alien race?

First off what is the end point we want to reach, both in terms of physiology and culture. Possibly don’t get too wedded to any of it because some points may not mesh together. Now the temptation is the start with the culture, which I have come to the concussion is like trying to build a house by first doing the tiling. You need to foundations to be there to build everything else on top of. It is easy to come up system that works for a technologically advance species but how well does it work for their stone age or pre-sentience forebears?

Let’s go back to the human model for a minute. In the western world the average woman is capable of baring young from her teens to late forties/early fifties*. So a period of fertility of over twenty years. But a woman can complete one pregnancy each year so the average woman has a far greater fertility period than she needs to produce her and her partner’s replacements. At least by twenty first century western civilization standards. Dial things back a few million years and firstly she won’t live as long and childhood mortality from illness, injury, predator deprivation etc, means many children have to be had just to get a few to adulthood. As I said this is the human experience, which for sentient lifeforms is the only model we have to work with. It isn’t to say something really wacky can’t be done, but you have to take a cold hard look and see if its internal logic works.

An example in media of a failure to consider the practicalities is the Ocampa from Star Trek Voyager, a humanoid race with a mayfly like lifespan, who’s females the series blithely told us, only breed once during their lives, having one child. This would have the obvious problem that your species would at least halve at every generation even assuming every child reached maturity*2. A much better example can b found in Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which features an alien race, the majority of who’s members must breed at regular intervals or die. In an environment where there was a high mortality rate this system made sense. What makes this book well worth a look though is that the writers having come up with a system, then worked through the consequences. In the case of this species the result is run away population grown and eventual social collapse due to over population.

Once we have the mechanics of how a species can function we can move onto how this will shape its culture – or more probably cultures. A hermaphrodites race for example may not have any such thing as gender roles. A race with different subgroups with clear physiological or mental differences may have clear ruling or subject classes. History will also do massive things to shape how a species reacts. A history of internal warfare might produce an aggressive species or a peaceful one because it knows how destructive war can be. It’s all a question of how you spin it. In short this is the fun bit of alien race world building you just have to make sure it makes some kind of sense.

There’s one aspect of alien world building that I wasn’t sure if I would touch on – the matter of sexuality. What has already been covered is really a matter of imagination and following a line of logic but if we can for a moment pay attention to the man behind the curtain, should a writer be willing to tackle the matter of sexuality? My answer is I don’t know. When it comes to writing I’m best known for Military SF, a genre that tends to lean to the political right and conservatism. On the other hand, homosexuals and other groups have long complained that they are effectively written out of the picture. Finally there is the question of whether an attempt to include matters of different sexuality will backfire. As I was writing this piece the point was made to me that some groups of human society wouldn’t like the terms ‘hermaphrodites’. Terms change and when you aren’t personally a part of a particular group, it’s hard to know how something will be accepted because let us be honest here and admit to ourselves that the political left, can be as rabidly unreasonable as the right. Writing for payment by its nature mean producing something people will be willing to pay for. Most people aren’t going to pay to be metaphorically bludgeoned over the head with something they don’t agree with for whatever reason. In my own opinion the answer is found in the old writing adage ‘kill your darlings’ – if it isn’t relevant remove it. That said a couple of brief mentions of different sexuality types can go a long way in terms of expanding the inclusiveness of a work.

Now finally it has to be said that even if you have worked out the complete evolutionary history, culture and politics doesn’t mean it all has to go into your book. I’ve certainly come across books where the writer got lost in the world building and forgot about the characters and plot. The reader is there for the story but just to have this worked out and in your head will build a richer world and if nothing else, help with the internal constancy.

As ever I’ll be interested to hear any additional thoughts.

* Granted at diminishing levels of fertility as time passes with higher risk to both herself and the child.

*2 I’m aware they tried to fix it in later related works but it still leaves a gaping hole in the internal logic and is something of a warning to writing about the problems an ill thought out fact can create.

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Blood, guts, gore and women?

I’ve recently been reading Tank Men by Robert Kershaw which covers tank warfare during the two world wars; not the mechanical details or grand strategy that saw these machines sweep across the battlefield, but instead it is about the people inside them and I’ll say now that for anyone with an interest in the topic, it is well worth a read. Primarily for it’s visceral portrayal  of the results of combat.

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World War Two tanks were not easy to get in and out of at the best of times (I doubt they are much better now).  If you were a crewman in a tank when the armour was penetrated, if you were lucky you were unhurt and could get out. If you were slightly less lucky you were dead and never felt it. If you were unlucky you were hurt or trapped and couldn’t get out when it began to burn. It was a fear common to all tankers, regardless to which country they belonged to. I did a battlefield tour of Normandy a few years ago, which obviously included visiting a number of military graveyards. In the British, the gravestones are laid out in neatly spaced rows, except some gravestones are place pressed up with no spaces between them. Usually two to five graves, generally the bodies within are airforce or armoured regiments. It is to signify that while they knew who was in a particular tank or plane, when the bodies were recovered from a burnt out wreck, there was no way to know which body was which person. All pretty horrible stuff. In fact – speaking as someone who has never served in the armed forces – I would say probably impossible to imagine or even properly describe by those who have seen such things, but as a writer of Military SF I have to try.

At 5 am, the first wounded came back, cheerful, optimistic.  We splintered fractures, covered wounds with sterile dressings and relieved each other for breakfast at 6.30 am.  As the day wore on, sunny and scorching hot, the tide of casualties rose.  Dozens and dozens were carried in.  Our treatment centre always had 3 upon the trestles being attended to and soon the approaches were lined with a queue.  Hour after hour we worked and evacuated and still the flow continued.  Ghastly wounds there were, of every type and state of severity.  Heads with skulls so badly smashed that bone and brain and pillow were almost indivisible; faces with horrible lacerations; jaws blown completely away leaving only two sad eyes to plead for relief from pain.  Chests pierced through with shrapnel and lungs that spouted blood from gushing holes.  Arms were mangled into shapeless masses left hanging by muscle alone and waiting the amputation knife.  There were abdomens pierced by shell splinters and displaying coils of intestine, deadly wounds.  Buttocks were torn and in some cases spinal injury had followed bringing paralysis.  But the leg wounds!  Thigh bones splinted; knees without knee caps, legs without feet red, mangled flesh and blood flooding the stretcher.  And others trembling uncontrollably, sobbing like children, strapped to the stretcher and struggling to be free; screaming and, when a shell landed near the ADS (Advance Dressing Station), shouting, ‘They’re coming again, O God they’re coming again.’  Not heroes, but sufferers nonetheless.  We ate our lunch of biscuits and corned beef with bloody fingers and when relieved by 9th Field Ambulance at 6 pm we had treated 466 British soldiers and 40 Germans.  

Private Jim Wisewell, 223 Field Ambulance, RAMC, describing the carnage wrought upon 185 Brigade of 3rd (British) Division during 8th July, 1944 in operation Charnwood.

Film and television, even at its grittiest, is never going to match that kind of brutality, in fact sometimes when it tries, the effect can come off as more comical than anything else. The fact they we know what we see is the product of the makeup artist’s craft renders even the most realistic effects unbelievable. In fact one of the most realistic and disturbing depictions I’ve seen is the 1965 pseudo documentary The War Game, where the effects were by today’s standards primitive but the use chilling*. So it is probably now wonder that most film and television prefers to depict battlefield casualties as people who fall down nice and neatly. While I was writing the Nameless War I did try to cover this, which has lead occasionally to the question ‘is there any characters you didn’t kill?’ To which I joke ‘yes, the ones I maimed instead’. But in all seriousness it was an attempt by me to convey, without over doing it, the awfulness of war and making it back doesn’t mean coming back undamaged.

I now while I was considering this post – and procrastinating – I came across a article We Have Always Fought – Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative

As somebody with more than a passing knowledge of history (All the Thing That Came Before Me), I’m passionately interested in truth: truth is something that happens whether or not we see it, or believe it, or write about. Truth just is. We can call it something else, or pretend it didn’t happen, but its repercussions live with us, whether we choose to remember and acknowledge it or not.

When I sat down with one of my senior professors in Durban, South Africa to talk about my Master’s thesis, he asked me why I wanted to write about women resistance fighters.

“Because women made up twenty percent of the ANC’s militant wing!” I gushed. “Twenty percent! When I found that out I couldn’t believe it. And you know – women have never been part of fighting forces –”

He interrupted me. “Women have always fought,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“Women have always fought,” he said. “Shaka Zulu had an all-female force of fighters. Women have been part of every resistance movement. Women dressed as men and went to war, went to sea, and participated actively in combat for as long as there have been people.”

I had no idea what to say to this. I had been nurtured in the U.S. school system on a steady diet of the Great Men theory of history. History was full of Great Men. I had to take separate Women’s History courses just to learn about what women were doing while all the men were killing each other. It turned out many of them were governing countries and figuring out rather effective methods of birth control that had sweeping ramifications on the makeup of particular states, especially Greece and Rome.

Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife.

The rest of this article can be found HERE and again is well worth a read through; I came to is via a forum I occasionally glance at and before it became an argument, the point was made that we don’t see women killed very often in military type film and television and see them maimed even less often. Literature does better but film and television haven’t made much forward motion in decades. As far as I can remember the recent Force Awakens had a token female X-Wing pilot – assuming all alien pilots were male – and she made it back. The various imperial stormtroopers and pilots are assumed to be male (with one exception). While women were visible on the Star Killer base/planetoid if they were killed, it was off screen unlike the waves of Stormtroopers that got gunned down. Now you might be thinking ‘does this guy want to see women dead or maimed? What kind of sicko is he?’

Well let me put it like this. As We Have Always Fought points out women have always been a feature of warfare. In SF a man’s main advantage, his on average greater physical strength, is far less important. Flying a fighter doesn’t make the same physical demands as say fighting with a sword. To refuse to put women onto the fictional battlefield, the fictional casualty dressing station and fictional battlefield grave as uniformed personnel, is to write them out of the narrative completely. I have heard that in the first of the original three Star Wars films an actress was filmed as a rebel pilot, complete with fireworks behind her and the usual comment on the X-Wings combat performance – I’M HITTTT!!!!……. but it was cut from finished film.

Sure you can point to the occasional named hero or villain but where is the female faceless goon or red shirts? As a society we are still reluctant to see women getting killed or hurt in defence of their society** or subjugating the galaxy which does inevitably diminish women by default. For literature in particular it is a relatively easy one to start to address, a handful of hers instead of hims will give a sense of a more inclusive world and something on which we can build.

As ever thoughts and comments welcome.

* The film being a depiction of Great Britain is the aftermath of a nuclear strike.

** although crime drama is quiet happy to kill them by the bucket load.

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Fiction adapting to reality

So this weeks hot news is that Britain has voted to leave the European Union, a decision I view as being the wrong one but that’s a rant for another day. Over the weekend – while still in a state of disbelief – the thought crossed my mind how does this effect my writing?

Now for once I’m not talking about the economics – although God knows given the way sterling has nosedived against… everything, I’m glad I didn’t have anything new come out this month – I’m talking about the settings of my work. For those who haven’t read the Nameless War, it is only set a few decades into the future and it is one where nation states still exist, including the United Kingdom. My current WIP is set even closer to the present and spends much of its time in the UK.

Out in the real world, the Brexit vote has made it very uncertain what way things are going to go. Given that within the last two years Scotland only narrowly voted to remain in the United Kingdom, but last week voted to stay in the EU, there is a fair chance that the Scots will now attempt to bailout. As for Northern Ireland – a province sandwiched between two countries, neither of which really want it – that’s anyone’s guess. I’m not going to speculate here how likely any of this is, what I am going to speculate on is how or whether I reflect it in my work.

There are a couple of options. The first would be to keep things so ambiguous that no matter what ways things go, it won’t be wrong as such.  The problem with this is that you might find the work ends up lacking a sense of realism. Also attempting to twist words to avoid saying a particular detail might leave the reader feeling the book isn’t particularly well written.

The second possibility is go with yesterday’s status-quo. Basically ignore the uncertainty and proceed with things as they were until a new point of certainty has been established.  The virtue of this approach is safety, it will be for at least a time correct. Comic books do this periodically with US Presidents, I suspect opinions vary on whether it is a good idea or bad but it does very definitely date the work within a maximum of eight years. In the case of Brexit you could find the work dated before it’s even published and that could be a problem. In my experience most science fiction readers will accept that the older a book is the more allowances have to be made for the fact that it was written in a different time. If that different time was only six months ago that’s possibly a harder one to ask.

The third and final option is to decide what way you think things are going to go and run with it. Frankly unless your story is flat out about the possible consequences of the change I think this is the riskiest option. Unless you are a dab hand with the old crystal ball you will probably be wrong without – unlike option two without the virtue of every having been right.

So folks any thoughts or additions on the matter?

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