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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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Older heroes, possibilities and problems

Every so often I get into the mood for a re-read of David Gemmell books and sooner or later I tend to get to his first and in my opinion finest book, Legend – A book saw the induction of what was probably Gemmell’s most iconic character – Druss the Legend. One of things that for me makes Druss interesting is that he’s an old man of sixty, marching to a battle he believes he will not survive. In so many stories revolve around the young hero, in which the older mentor plays a significant but nevertheless supporting role. Why though send the apprentice if the master is available? The older hero comes with a few complications but offers some possibilities his/her younger counter struggles to match.

Occasionally you will come across criticism of the hyper competent protagonist, who does seem old enough for the skills they possess (see the Force Awakens or heck the first Star War films for an examples of this)  It becomes a lot easier to explain how the hero has the skills they have, when with the extra years on the clock, they’ve effectively had time to go everywhere and do everything. In the case of Druss,  even though he is by the start of Legend already old and creaky, he has a lifetime of experience, mostly of not getting killed, contacts everywhere and a towering reputation. Another example of this kind of character can be found in Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, whose main character, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, is an aging demon hunter.

As well as the skills the character can be granted from the outset, there is also the opportunity for a maturity that a younger character might not be able to show. An older person comfortable with their abilities may not feel they have to prove anything. Equally however, the character could be clinging to a fading youth as well has degrading mental and physical capabilities. That latter point leads us on to the made draw back of older main characters.

Those extra years on the clock at the start, mean that less years are available in the future. Should a writer’s older character prove commercially successful, using that character might be difficult or impossible depending on what happened in their first story. In later books Gemmell spent a lot of time on Druss’s earlier years, which put you firmly into prequel territory with all of it’s attendant problems. The other main problem with an older character depends a little on the medium of the story, if it is anything visual (TV, film or even comic book) well the rather brutal fact is that young people are usually more attractive than older people. The visual medium will therefore tend to place emphasis on best looking members of the cast, which generally means at the younger end of the scale. Obviously there are exceptions but really female characters hit harder.

So there we have it, some light musing on the topic and for any writers out there perhaps look at your work and wonder whether your characters should be given a few extra birthdays.

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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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