Democracy deficit in SF&F

So the US election – wow, what a long drawn out painful affair that’s been, one that we sincerely need a break from. Okay so let’s talk about democracy in science fiction and fantasy.

Democracy isn’t actually all that well represented in SF&F, instead it’s fair to say that empires and other non-democratic governments are staple of both, sure there are exceptions but that’s what they are – exceptions. Where they do appear it’s particularly noticeable in SF they appear on the heroes side, although often poorly defined, while the opposition will be often described as as an empire or some other less than benign term. In fantasy the difference between the heroes and villains tends to be even more wafer thin, with the goods guys getting the wise and fair king, the bad the blood thirsty despot. Either way they’re usually the absolute ruler.

Fantasy’s default setting is a version of Medieval Western Europe. Now I’m not a scholar of medieval history but I do know a reasonable bit about English history of the period. In the case of the English kings of the medieval period, even the strongest of them were not absolute rulers. In theory they were but in practice below the monarch were the various nobles, these were people that had to be kept on side. Kings who failed to do so found themselves coping with either a lack of cooperation or outright rebellion – King John of England 1199 – 1216 being a case in point. Certainly it isn’t a democracy as we would recognise it but is still well removed from the idea of one-guy-calls-all-the-shots. The medieval or ancient period did see more formalised democracies, notably in ancient Greece. These would be more recognisable for us although the franchise would still be limited to people who were: male, free, wealthy, middle aged and landing owning – a franchise that was only exceeded in Britain in the late nineteenth century.

So if fantasy often takes its cues from a perceived version of history what about the future? Well if science fiction is a guide, empires and other non democratic forms of government have a fine future ahead of them. Obviously there are a few science fiction democracies, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets is probably the best known although is pretty weakly defined in the films and television episodes. It also has the very underused Romulan  Star Empire, which despite the name was also described as having a ruling senate (which was wiped out in a virtual after thought in the underwhelming Star Trek Nemesis). There is also the Expanse Book/TV series that does portray both Earth and Mars as being democratic governments – at least on the face of it. Earth in particular elected officials appear to be borderline figureheads with the real power wielded by a tiny number of un-elected officials.

So why does SF&F have a problem with democracy? Three reasons I think 1) due process, 2) personalities 3) removal of ambiguity.

Even allowing for the excitement of 2016, politics is often a dry affair of committees, budgets and the various checks and balances, the more robust that democracy is, the more road blocks there will be between intention and action. Possibly this explains why in the Star Wars universe the first Death Star seems to have taken twenty odd years to build but the second, once the imperial senate was ‘swept away’, was banged out in a couple of years – no funding committees for the project to bog down in. Score one for for the totalitarian regime, yeah sh*t gets done!

Only problem is if we take a look at one of the most famous regimes – Nazi Germany – what you find is one that was horribly inefficient. Hitler had the final say so everything revolved around getting his ear, if you could manage it, then all kinds of pet projects could be authorised. Projects that ranged from mere duplication of effort to full on droolingly crazy. The same has proven true of various other despots, the top guy has a notion and there’s no one there to stop them. The really is that a lot of that due process, committees, going to tender and all the rest of it are in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. True out in the real world democratic governments have managed some massive screw ups but non-democratic governments have done the same and more. Where they manage to match democratic nations it has usually only been because standards of living being massively lower.

The other thing about democracies is elections, constant bloody elections, one that can see the sudden removal of leaders for reasons that have little or nothing to do with their actual performance. Take for example President Barack Obama, he has apparently a high approval rating but he will gone within weeks because that is the process within the USA. From a story telling view though it would be a pretty horrible way to deal with things if half way through, the established character disappeared to be replaced with one the writer and reader would have to get to know. Which brings us to our next area.

Now I write military science fiction, many years ago I remember reading someones comment that if you wanted to do a scientifically accurate space war, then your story would be about the life and times of Z-571 the nuclear tipped interplanetary missile. While you could certainly write it, finding someone to read it would be tricky.  So by extension a realistic democratic political system will see political figures removed with resulting changes in policy. Imagine Return of the Jedi, with the Alliance about to launch their attack on the second Death Star, only to hear that the Emperor has lost a vote of confidence and the new administration is proposing peace talks. That would be the point where you’d either walk out of the cinema or wing the DVD out the window.

Stories are about people. Writers create and develop characters then tell stories via them; generally there is limit to how many major characters a story can successfully support. In reality democracies tend to have a lot of people involved in the decision making process – even one like America where there’s a strong single executive officer. Trying to realistically portray this is likely to burn a lot of word count on an area that the reader might regard as secondary to the alien invasion, robot uprising, zombie apocalypse or whatever is the main point of the story.

If having a portraying functional democracy is tricky then doing two steepens the difficulty curve significantly. It is probably no wonder that the opposition side so often is described as an empire, if they’re a empire and the side the protagonists are on isn’t, then the implications are clear who are the good guys.* Sometimes this is the right decision – for the like of Star Wars (the originals) this worked because it went for the tropes. It needed the lack of ambiguity. For others it can be a missed opportunity for some real grey morality and added depth. Personally I’ve always felt that an author has to decide where the core story is going to be and to this the majority of the word count is dedicated, still that doesn’t mean the subordinate sections need default to cliché. I’ve only really touched on the various forms of government but history provides plenty of possibilities for those who go looking for them.

* I wonder a bit whether the preponderance of fictional empires can be traced back to the dominant role in entertainment that the USA has – a country formed when it successfully fought and broke away from an empire?

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Where did the Western World go wrong – and how do we fix it?

It’s fair to say that 2016 has been eventful, yesterdays election of Donald Trump being merely the cherry on top of a year that has seen the unimaginable become fact. The western world appears to attempting to turn its back on liberal progress and for many those changes make the future a good deal darker and good deal scarier. So how has it come to this?

Right now within the western world, the average person has it better than their counter part in almost any point in human history. Yes I know you can point to the various inequalities within the western world but they in no way compare to the inequalities found in the past, now I put emphasis on Almost for the reason. A generation ago it was possible to come out of school with few if any qualifications and get a job that paid at least a living wage, go back two generations and a university degree flat out guaranteed employment. This is no longer the case. I know personally an individual who has a first class masters and in her chosen field it does not qualify her for employment, it qualifies her to do a PHD which will then (hopefully) allow her into the field. People who entered the field twenty years ago did so on the strength of simple BA degree. It is now not unusual to leave education tens of thousands in debt – sums that would represent a good deposit for house today or buy it outright thirty years ago – and only be able to find employment that’s pay will not justify that expenditure.

There is also the matter of the inequality of failure. Within the last decade we’ve seen a the banking crisis which involved much of the sector being bailed out. If we look at the top level of these businesses, we find individuals who were being paid sums of money equivalent to decades worth of the average industrial wage per year. Yet when financial institutions started falling like dominoes, many of these individuals kept their jobs or where they did go, did so with another big pay out. By comparison when the recession came, many ordinary individuals found themselves unemployed overnight, harassed for payment of mortgages on properties that were no longer worth anything approaching the outstanding loan amounts. It wasn’t even just the financial industry, here in Ireland the building industry was allowed allowed to run wild and one particularly tragic case a newly built apartment block was judged unsafe because the builder had chosen to skip fire safety features. Owners found themselves still being required to pay mortgages for apartments they couldn’t live in. It was only after one own committed suicide leaving behind a young family, that the government here grudgingly stepped in. While the builder was bankrupted, it is hard to regard this as being equal. In Britain a major department chain recently collapsed leaving the staff unemployed, a pension scheme with a hole so large it practically echoed and a former owner who went off and bought himself a luxury yacht – all perfectly legally.

What all of these thing have in common is that it is placing the middle under pressure. Pay is lower, costs are higher with incomes far from certain; people are facing into a future where they will probably not able to afford a standard of living equal to that of their parents generation. People want what they have had and want to pass on to their own children , something that is becoming increasingly difficult. America rightfully prided itself as being the place where anyone could make it big; it’s now becoming the case that a person born into a middle class family will be doing well just to hold position. Pressure is building and the likes of Brexit and Trump are symptoms of that pressure.

The Political Elite Isn’t Listening

For the last few decades the west’s political elites have pushed an agenda of globalization. Old heavy industries have been allowed to die without being replaced and those who might have been employed by them have found themselves left out in the cold. In the case of EU a federalist, expansionist agenda was pursued. Economic data was fudged, with decisions made because they fitted with ideology rather than facts on the ground. All of which has fed into an anti-establishment groundswell.

Unfortunately so far those who have managed to tap into tap into that groundswell have been far from being White Knights. The very best of them are mere political opportunists seeking a comfortable government job and a good pension. The worst are seeking to push values  more appropriate to the nineteen forties. Either way they hark back to a nostalgic view of past, choosing to ignore those details that don’t fit their version – like the fact that the pay gap between the ordinary worker and business owner was a fraction of what now is. These individuals do not have solutions, what they have are scapegoats, be it gays, migrants, promiscuous women or whatever punchbag of the week is. These people are not going to solve problems because they either have no idea how or flat out no real interest in doing so because it does not align to their own interests. That electorates are listening to these extremist positions is a symptom of an old order that isn’t listening. Hillary Clinton I would imagine would have made a serviceable if unremarkable president – a placeholder notable for her sex and little more but now we’ll never know.

So What Can Be Done

To begin with don’t dismiss those who voted for Brexit or Trump as racists. Yes there are indeed racists in their ranks, people who would march us back towards the worst aspects of the past. But to dismiss them lock, stock and barrel is quite simply an act of surrender. It is the path of least resistance if we dismiss them as racists then we don’t even try to win them back. If we don’t win them back, then the likes of Trump and the Brexiters continue to win.

Next we need to accept that the old order is failing. Offering the same old, same old to people who have already seen its like and been failed by it will not work politically. If the political will is to be re-taken then it must offer an equally bold view, one possibility is a reapportionment of wealth via heavy taxation of the one percent and the closing of tax loopholes that have allowed large multinationals avoid contributing.

Finally as members of the electorate we need to accept there are no simple answers to complicated questions. It is the mark dishonesty to claim that there are. If we take the example above, there would certainly be a capital flight but we must be willing to accept pain for gain. Certainly the next few years are going to be interesting and we must be ready to contest the ground with the extreme right.

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Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?

History is packed with predictions of the future that proved hilariously inaccurate  but just how close are we getting to becoming a society where cosmetic and utility based implants are as common place as tattoos?

First off what is a Cyborg? Well according to the the writer Manfred Clynes and scientist Nathan S. Kline, it is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts, the term being first coined in an issue of Astronautics Magazine about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space. Now that’s a pretty loose definition which could lead you to calling anyone with a heart pacemaker or a cochlear ear implant a Cyborg – which we really don’t do. Instead when we use the term we’re generally referring to someone along these lines, if we we’re feeling cheerful

bionic-arm

and these lines if we’re not

cyborg1Both of which are well beyond what we can currently do. If we look at the real world I think we can divide prosthetic into two groups, those that are designed to replicate natural functions of the body and those that are not. In the first category I would include the likes of cochlear ear implants and artificial limbs. These, from what I follow, are working towards being both functional and discrete; currently however even the very best of these are inferior to their natural counter parts, as are those that are currently under development. Not only do these artificial parts have to interface with our nerve-endings  – something that even the best do imperfectly – but also need an external power source.  So thus far their use is limited to individuals who’s organic parts have failed or are failing due to illness, injury or birth defect. It’s tempting to say we’ll figure these things out sooner or later but I think you can reasonably say that there is one significant threat to this version of the future, which comes in the form of another sci-fi staple – cloning.

Again, from what I follow, the science of cloning is making steady progress. The real holy grail is how to take cells from a subject and make them turn into stem cells; if that can be done, then they can be changed into any other kind of cell. This would certainly open the door to growing replacement parts, ones that unlike current transplants would avoid the need for anti-rejection drugs or separate power supplies. This seems to be a technology that more a case of when will it be developed rather than if. So if prosthetics that replicate natural functions are a technological way-station or possibly dead-end, what about ones that are designed to do things that are not within the natural capabilities of humans?

Now I’m probably not the right person to try to answer this kind of question since a relative described me once as an inverse techno snob, that said I wear glasses, a watch and usually have a smart phone upon my person (although the Wifi and data options are switched off most of the time). There are those however who live and breath technology, for some it is a necessity of their jobs, for others it is a question of image – look at the publicity the surrounds the launch of each new I-Phone. Also the concept of body modifications in the form of tattoos, piercings etc go back to the very dawn of our species. So will there be a market for built in mobile phones, glow in the dark tattoos or whatever?

For that kind of thing on a mass market level I personally I doubt it. Now for anyone coming across this blog in ten or twenty years time who is considering laughing at my Luddite lack of imagination, then I refer you back to the very first line of this blog.

The reason I doubt it is skill level required for implantation, recovery time and infection. Odds are you’ve read about or heard of someone having difficulties caused by a piercing or tattoo. The more invasive the nature of the surgery needed the higher the skill needed to perform the surgery and greater the risk. There will be a rehab and learning period for the next implant which is hard to see as being compatible with our current product life cycle where phones and their like are expected to have a lifespan of a couple of years. Unless medical technology in terms of surgery becomes a lot easier and cheaper, cost and potential legal liability are going to make mass implant of technology difficult.

However as I wrote this blog I was reminded something in one of the Red Dwarf novels, there was a one line reference to individuals having a sort of built in encyclopedia. An interesting idea, a kind of internal data hub into which all human knowledge could be placed, ready to be accessed at any time or place. Arguably in the age of the internet it’s already an obsolete concept but the internet includes so much that is either wrong or difficult find. A sort of Encyclopedia Britannica might mean every person has reliable information on every topic reality to hand at any moment.

Where utility implants might really become common or even simply necessary is in environments that the standard human can not operate in, which going back to the first paragraph: ‘advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space’. We can definitely say that space is an environment in which humans do not operate very easily. Keeping a human alive moment to moment is tricky enough but over longer term periods we sort of degrade. If we found ourselves with permanent space societies it might be the one environment where replacement of healthy tissue with mechanical parts could be justified. Again this depends on how other technologies develop and whether utility implants can offer enough utility to offset the complications. Quite how society would view cyborgs could be another limiting factor, could it become something to aspire to, adopted by those who are seen as being at the social peak or undesirable if it becomes a mark of the lower social/economic groups.

It is worth noting among those complications is system security. In recent years it has been discovered that a number of existing medical implants (pacemakers, insulin pumps etc) are potentially vulnerable to unauthorised access. Having your bank account accessed can be a major problem but that would be nothing compared to having parts of your body turned off or a months worth of insulin dumped into your system at once. Some science fiction has brushed across this and it is reasonable to assume the more common implanted technology is, the more of a problem this is like to be.

So to conclude things, this had been fairly brief run through of the issues of Cyborgs, the original question was ‘Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?’ and my answer is a solid No. There are inherently a lot of practical problems that go with it, now the higher the technology level of society as a whole, the less those problems might matter but that same technological advancement could render it it obsolete as a concept. Basically what I’m saying is that is becomes a question of personal taste for the reader. While for the writer it becomes a question of good world building and making sure it fits logically within the setting. At this point in time a world without cyborgs is just as possible as one where we all are.

Thoughts, comments or observations?

 

 

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Star Trek – Sad Opportunity

Finally, finally got around to watching Star Trek Beyond, on the whole Meh. Still I was left thinking that with the sad death of Anton Yelchin, the Chekov character has to be either written out or re-cast. No matter what they choose there will be people shouting that they were wrong so with that in mind what about going forwards with confidence and putting in a new (ish) character? Say Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah from Beyond – if she’s willing – who would also increase the female main character count by 100%.

Either that or take New Trek out back and like Old Yeller, put it out of its misery.

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Working Disabled Characters Into Fiction

First off I am not disabled. The closest I get to disabled is mild short sightedness, without glasses I wouldn’t be safe behind the wheel of a car but that’s about it, so this entry comes from that stand point.
Over the weekend I was attending the Irish Science Fiction Convention – Octocon and one of the topics was ‘A Future Without The Disabled – Our panellists discuss future and fantasy worlds in which science or magic is believed by some to make the existence of disabled people “illogical”. From the eugenicists to the Star Trek movies, what does it say about us that we can’t imagine a future with disabled people? ‘

Now oddly enough I would say that SF actually has at least some track record for attempting to include disabled, for a start we have this guy:

geordi_la_forge

Now for any non-science fiction types this is the character Geordi LaForge from Star Trek, who was born blind, the gadget across  his eyes allows him to see, although not necessarily in the same way as the Mk I eyeball.

disAnother couple of examples are on the left Gary from the short lived TV series Alphas, who was autistic and Nick Fury from the Marvel cinematic universe, who is quite obviously minus an eye. However inclusion of a disabled character isn’t necessarily always successful. Of the three above Gary was arguably the most successful despite autism being one of the most difficult to do properly, while Fury is markedly the weakest because despite being down to  50% eyeballs, he doesn’t appear to suffer any problems with depth perception or peripheral vision, mostly it just makes him look cool.

Handling Disability with Fictional Characters

So broadly speaking I think we can think fictional disabled characters can be broken down into a number of categories with different treatment for each.

  1. Disablement from injury
  2. Disablement from illness
  3. Disablement from birth

With two sub categories within each for of mental disability and physical disability.

Frankly I think physical problems are generally a good deal less intimidating to approach, particularly for a main character but there are things we have to careful of. A disability that doesn’t in any way inconvenience the individual – see Nick Fury – is not really a disability. Autism is another one that is often badly handled, with it portrayed as some kind of super power*. At the same time a disabled person is still first and foremost a person. People with disabilities will attempt to live lives, they will attempt to find work rounds for their problems, they will likely aspire to things that are beyond their abilities. The novella Flowers for Algernon is a superb example of a story being told from the stand point of an intellectually disabled person.

No matter what you choose the next step is going to be research; if a character is being described as having a particular problem, you need to get the details right. Without that the writer runs the risk of coming off as condescending, pitying or just ignorant, none of which are helpful.

One other issue is cures. Out in the real world, over the last hundred years medical science has developed by leaps and bounds. Some conditions that were death sentences are now inconveniences. In science fiction, even when set in the near future, there can be a temptation to assume a easy cures, ones that don’t require rehabilitationsimply a blast of something from a syringe or something equally fast. The closer to reality the setting is, the more unrealistic this is. Illness and injury come with recovery times – I managed to get myself knocked down by a car in my twenties, even though my injuries were fairly minor I was still in plaster for three months.  Unless the work is set in some magic level technology setting, not all injuries can be entirely recovered from. Even when they can PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – can be an issue that remain with someone for the rest of their lives. Certainly if you intend to write in my own area – military science fiction – then PTSD is a possible consequence that you should consider for your characters or someone they know. Even beyond the military SF sphere it is worth considering the mental effects of injury or birth defect, scarring or birth marks may not physically impair in the slightest but could have grave effects on the character, especially when somewhere obvious like the face.

Why Not Opt Out?

So it is complicated. If you get it wrong you may alienate readers. So easy solution don’t have disabled characters.

Okay.

Well since we’re doing that let’s skip women? Homosexuals? People of colour?

Do I stick to writing character that are what I am and only what I am?

No.

Realistically unless your setting has no conceivable disabled, then they probably have to be there in some shape or form. In my own work I’ve thus far I’ve had two characters with physical impairments and one who arguably has PTSD (this is from the outset, I’m not including the ones I maimed during the course of books) although I must admit when writing them, disabled wasn’t a label I would have attached any of them – it was simply a part of their backgrounds.

Inclusive Language

Now as I was writing this entry the thought cross my mind am I using the right terms? Terminology changes and what was acceptable yesterday isn’t necessarily today. The following I found  HERE which come from the UK.Gov advice website.

termsSo there we have it, my brief thoughts on the matter, as ever any thoughts comments or observations are welcome.

* If that was in fact the case the whole Vaxer movement would have a very different complexion.

* Batman seems to be particularly good at getting these because apparently recovering from a broken spine is no big deal.

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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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