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A Basic Introduction to Logistics

The Logistician

Logisticians are a sad and embittered race of men who are very much in demand in war, and who sink resentfully into obscurity in peace. They deal only in facts, but must work for men who merchant in theories. They emerge during war because war is very much a fact. They disappear in peace because peace is mostly theory. The people who merchant in theories, and who employ logisticians in war and ignore them in peace, are generals.

Generals are a happy blessed race who radiate confidence and power. They feed only on ambrosia and drink only nectar. In peace, they stride confidently and can invade a world simply by sweeping their hands grandly over a map, point their fingers decisively up train corridors, and blocking defiles and obstacles with the sides of their hands. In war, they must stride more slowly because each general has a logistician riding on his back and he knows that, at any moment, the logistician may lean forward and whisper: “No, you can’t do that.” Generals fear logisticians in war and, in peace, generals try to forget logisticians.

Romping along beside generals are strategists and tacticians. Logisticians despise strategists and tacticians. Strategists and tacticians do not know about logisticians until they grow up to be generals–which they usually do.

Sometimes a logistician becomes a general. If he does, he must associate with generals whom he hates; he has a retinue of strategists and tacticians whom he despises; and, on his back, is a logistician whom he fears. This is why logisticians who become generals always have ulcers and cannot eat their ambrosia.

Unknown Author

A few months ago I did couple of posts on the subject of warship types what I thought might be useful and interesting is a short and very basic primer on the subject of military logistics and how a science fiction/fantasy writer can and probably should account for it in their work. I’m going to be mentioning some good and bad examples as well as some history books which I’ve found useful.

What Is Logistics?

At a very basic level logistics is the science of getting the what a military force needs from the centers of production (farms, factories, whatever) to the military forces directly in contact with the enemy, while at the same time moving backwards casualties, prisoners etc, etc. This is often referred to as the lines of communication and exactly what is a military force needs depends on the setting. This will involve not only transportation but also stockpiling, storage and distribution.

Early Logistics

The most basic supplies any force will require are food and drink, in a pre-industrial setting like Lord of the Rings, that can to a certain extent be obtained via foraging or outright looting. It is worth noting that for most of recorded history, an army moving through your area was a disaster, regardless as to which side it or you were on. If half a dozen soldiers with swords decided they were going to take your last milk cow, polite refusal probably wasn’t going to achieve much. The advantage of this kind of system is that there really weren’t any lines of communication for an enemy to threaten, the big problem however was it placed a serious time limit on how long an army could stay concentrated in one area. After a while all of the resources would be consumed and an army would have to move on, disperse or starve. This is where we get the whole concept of Scorched Earth; if an attacking army is faced with a region where the resources have already be consumed or destroyed, then the time it can spend in that region is severely limited. This could be a major factor in siege warfare, where the attacker could be in just as much danger of starving as the defender. So while Tolkien might be one of the founding father of Fantasy, given how how it it described, Sauron would have a hard time his armies from starving in Mordor. A fiction work that at least touches on the complications of pre-industrial logistics is Juliet McKenna’s Chronicle of the Lescari Revolution. On a final note prior to the development of the railways, movement during the Winter months and armies either dispersed or retired to winter encampments. Even in more modern times there have been battles and campaigns that have petered out because weather conditions meant supplies could not be moved up to the front.

Logistics in the Industrial Age

My men can eat their belts, but my tanks have gotta have gas.

General Patton

Up to the Napoleonic Wars it was possible for an army to at least to a certain extent live off the land, gun powder from enemy sources was usable and individual soldiers could cast their own bullets provided they could obtain lead. However somethings like cannonballs, had already passed beyond what troops in the field could make or obtain for themselves.  During the close of the nineteenth century technology changed logistics became increasingly complicated. Improvements in transportation and storage, were matched by expansion in the volumes and types of supplies needed by an army in the field. As the above quote indicates by the middle of the twentieth century oil had become the one of the dominate resources, especially for an advancing army but in general terms an army needed an unbroken line of supply leading from the factory gate to the front line and here in lies both a complication and opportunity.

An army on the advance is inherently moving away from its logistical support, while the Defender is retreating a long its own lines of communication. This means the attacker needs to be careful not to advance too far in case it out runs its supplies and leaves itself vulnerable. Even if it is advancing with no meaningful opposition in its path, an army can be brought to a grinding halt by lack of supply. The term for this that I have come across and used in my work is Logistical Brake. If you are looking for a real world example, any book covering the war in the Western Desert between the German/Italian forces and those of the British Empire is ideal, since this conflict was being fought in the open desert, which mean other complicating factors weren’t present. What you will notice as you read the history of the Desert War is how often the lines of communication were the objective. Each sides commanders sought to get through or round the opposing side to cut supply lines, since no matter how strong an armies position was, it would be worthless unless supplies could be brought to it.

Logistics, Ships and Ship Design

There is a myth that in the days of sail ships were powered by the wind, the reality is that it all depended on human muscle. Raise anchor? Human muscle. Do really anything with the sails, human muscle. Like any other engine humans required the right fuel. During the age of exploration diseases like scurvy would cut a swath through crews because it wasn’t understood just how necessary fresh fruit and vegetables were, plus storage was somewhere between difficult and impossible. In theory however, if a vessel could be kept supplied with fresh food and water, it could remain at sea for extended periods. This was best demonstrated by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars where ships of the line blockaded continental ports for years at a time. With the coming of the steam engine a ship could be freed from the whims of wind and tide, but only as long as the fuel held out. Take a look at the two pictures below.

CalypsoHMS_CamperdownThey are respectively HMS Calypso and HMS Camperdown, looking at them you could be excused for thinking they belong to totally different time periods with Calypso perhaps being a part of Admiral Nelson’s fleet. In fact they were built at the same time – the early eighteen eighties. The difference was Camperdown was a battleship, designed to operate within European waters, Calypso was a corvette (later re-designated a cruiser) intended for places like the Pacific, where refueling points would be few and far between. In the modern navies, it is the proud ranks of fighting ships that get the attention but if you care to glance across this Wikipedia page, listing the current strength of the US Navy, you will notice that the list of non-combat support ships is longer than those that in time of war would do the fighting. An expensive necessity if the US Navy is to operate more than a few days out from its home ports.

Once fuel became a factor, the time a ship could spend at sea became far more limited and many’s a captain undoubtedly developed ulcers watching their ships’ fuel levels drop lower and lower. A fully armed, undamaged vessel might be required to turn away from a fight or not be present at the critical moment, all because it had to leave for re-supply. One fascinating demonstration of this is the hunt for and destruction of the German battleship Bismarck, where on either side ships were either forced out of the chase completely or unable to crack on the extra bit of speed that might have made all the difference. I won’t attempt detail the saga – I couldn’t do it justice – but I do recommend Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Bismarck by Ludovic Kennedy, it is now a somewhat old book and some research has become available since its publication but is an easier read for the newcomer.

Logistics and Writing

So now that we’ve covered the very basics of Logistics there remains one big question – why the heck should a writer give a two hoots about logistics, the reader wants action! Well for a start there is realism. If the work in set in a historical period, if it is to be a living, breathing world, then it needs to follow reality of that time. Whatever it costs the writer in time a research, will rewarded with a deeper work in which the reader can more thoroughly immerse themselves.  If your characters are operating in any kind of military capacity, where the next meal for themselves or those under their command is coming from, will always be a consideration.

The other reason, and this is possibly more important, is the sheer possibilities for drama it offers the writer. The General aware that if the snows doesn’t clear soon there will be famine in the camp, The starship captain hunting the alien raiders with with only fuel to search one solar system, the trooper in the front line trying to conserve ammunition as the enemy closes, this is all the stuff of drama. It may seem like a tiresome detail in fact for anyone writing any sort of military fiction logistics will be one of your most useful plotting tools.

until next time

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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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Time for some sexual/racial/homophobic slurs or just good old fashioned prejudice?

A few years ago there was talk of a remake of the 1955 film The Dam Busters, which was based on the true story of Operation Chastise during World War Two, thus far the talk seems to have come to nothing. So what has this got to do with racial slurs? Quick history lesson – shortly before the start of Chastise the pet dog of the officer who lead the attack was killed. A black Labrador, this animals’ name was Ni**er and in remembrance of his dead pet, the officer decided that the ni**er would also be the code word used to indicate that a dam had been breached. The 1955 film was true to this historical detail. When it was suggested that the film be remake there was in short an immediate argument about whether this detail should be changed.  Cue the usual screams of indignation from the usual suspects in these kinds of arguments.

So how is this relevant?

Well as I may have previously mentioned my current work in progress is a time travel piece. Now I’m not going to spoiler my own work but assuming travel backwards is involved, then change in attitudes have to be addressed. Stand today in a park with a dog leash shouting ni**er and you’ll probably get arrested or beaten up, back in 1943 or 1955 using the word was fine. Go back only few decades and homosexuality was outright illegal in most places, while the word ‘gay’ had on a day to day basis a very different meaning from its modern use. Last but by no means least the old favorite of sexism one that continues to dog us. Depending on time and place attitudes and prejudices have varied and it is worth noting I don’t mean that the 21st century is the high point of human civilization; some more primitive cultures would see us as closed minded on some topics.

For the writer this presents a bit of challenge. Having a say a young black woman walk down a street dressed in trousers in Elizabethan England without comment let alone slur is immediately asking for a pretty serious suspension of disbelieve* but equally having a section of your book that reads like a Klu Klux Klan newsletter is probably going to turn readers off. Time travel doesn’t even have to be involved. One of the reasons I sometimes struggle with some sword and sorcery type fantasy is the sheer lack of prejudice found in some of it, again breaking the immersion. Prejudice in whatever flavor, is one of the less pleasant things that makes up humans, a world without it immediately runs into serious problems with believably. Equally very believable prejudices and hatreds can add great depth, providing motivations for both individuals and peoples as a whole.

Fiction is of course of its time and for its time, meaning that sometimes the most egregious prejudices are the unthinking ones. If you read old science fiction, what you will often come across is the sole female character who’s role within the story is to have thing explain to her and thereby the audience; it often dates the material even more than things like spaceships with cigarette dispensers.  However this kind of sexism/racism/homophobia offers a way to show different attitudes without having to choke your work and possibly turn off your readers with abusive language. As with so many things there isn’t really one right answer and it is something that a writer is going to have to make a judgement call on.

* Yes I know Doctor Who did it.

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Is Military Science Fiction looked down upon and why?

As mentioned in an earlier post I recently attended Octocon 2015 and during the course of the Military Science Fiction the question was asked ‘do you think military sf is a genre that is look down upon?’

My answer was weak and forgettable, which has been bugging me.

So what is Military SF? According to Wikipedia it is:

a subgenre of science fiction in literature, comics, film and video games that features the use of science fiction technology, mainly weapons, for military purposes and usually principal characters that are members of a military organization involved in military activity; occurring sometimes in outer space or on a different planet or planets.

Which is a pretty loose definition, within which some very well known works can be grouped. One of the best known of examples of the genre is The War of the Worlds, a book which can be described as a classic by simple virtue of the fact that more than a century after its original publication, it remains well known and read. With such a wide definition we can find such varying works as the Forever War (Haldeman) to Hammer’s Slammers (Drake) to the Honorverse series (Weber), beyond literature we have cinema’s Aliens, Star Wars and Star Trek – which despite Roddenberry’s vision does have some very military features – through to tabletop gaming like Warhammer 40K. All which can be grouped under the Big Tent of Military Science Fiction.

War is probably humanities most destructive urge, one that out in the real world we have refined to the point that we could probably sterilise this planet. One of the strongest arguments I’ve heard is that Military SF glorifies war – a criticism that is also leveled at military stories set in the real world. There is no doubt that some works that fall into the genre do glorify violence but equally there are works, the Forever War being a good example, that highlight both the personal and social cost of conflict. Much of Military SF that I’ve come across even when extremely gun-ho, has at least brushed across the fact that the passage of war tends to leave devastation in its wake. Not to mention with few exceptions, stories regardless of genre are about human drama, for example Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was a memoir of the writer’s impoverished upbringing. Would you argue that it shouldn’t read because to do so means the reader is using grinding poverty as a form of entertainment? If we’re going to say that certain parts of the human experience are off limits for fiction because they aren’t nice, well pretty soon we aren’t going to have much to write about.

It was mentioned at Octocon that the recent Hugos/Sad Puppies fuss did see a number of Military SF writers comes down on the Puppies side. I didn’t pay much attention to the Hugos fuss as what little I did hear convinced me early on that the whole thing wasn’t worthy of my time/interest/respect but did seem at the most basic level to be a bit of a political left/right thing. Military SF has a bit of a rep for the writers coming down on the right of the politician spectrum and certainly I know my own politics lean in that direction but Hugos/Sad Puppies is a recent affair while the dismissive attitude to Military SF is much older.

I’ve certainly had it said to my face that Science Fiction in general must my easy because I can make stuff up, I could go into a rant at this point but I think it would probably easier to ask you to imagine a scenario. Imagine saying to someone who’s writing setting is in the contemporary world ‘It must be easy, no imagination or creativity is needed because you can just look stuff up.’ Added to that is the popular conception that action equals dumb. Sure some action can be deeply dumb but is say Saving Private Ryan a big dumb action movie?

So given that every for every weak example of the genre there is a stronger counterpart why does Military SF have such a poor rep? Well lets look at another long disparaged genre – romance. It is huge area with all kinds of sub sections none of which are regarded with much respect. While I don’t write or read in the field, I did hear another writer say at a convention that while Mills and Boon novels are extremely formulaic, if you could write to that formula there was quite a good living to be made*. Like romance, Military SF is very mainstream, so mainstream that it could be described as one of the entry ways into science fiction in general and perhaps it is here we find the answer.

Military SF with its rayguns, space battleships and alien invasions represents the public face of science fiction, the popular perception of what science fiction is. Those of us in the genre are aware that it is much broader with ideas a good deal more subtle than does applying laser cannon A to alien forehead B solve the problem. Those who produce SF without military elements attempts to distance themselves but that I think is counter productive. As public face of science fiction Military SF is a potential entry way, a way to discover the wider world of Science Fiction. For other other branches of SF to try to distance themselves is futile, while rubbishing it becomes a case of stone throwing in glasses houses.

So I think to sum up we shouldn’t be trying to sweep Military SF under carpet, we should be saying yes there is Military SF and so much more as well…

 

 

 

 

 

* I remember being in Chapters a new and second hand bookshop here in Dublin and watching a lady trade in an entire suitcase of romance novel and what was even more amazing was the shop worker, she didn’t even blink, it was not a noteworthy event!

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Beating your own drum

I am a natural to self promotion in much the same way that an African bull elephant is a natural to riding a unicycle. Which is why this blog is only active in spasms, I mostly ignore my twitter account and Facebook I primarily use to keep in touch with friends and relatives. Self promotion is not my thing, I’m not good at putting myself forward, my sense of humour leans towards self deprecation and I am on the whole a very private person*.

Why do I mention this?

Well as I put up on my previous blog entry last weekend I was at Octocon 2015, I was a speaker on five of the discussion panels which covered topics like the dangers of time travel, how much military science fiction borrows from the past and renewing genres. All good stuff and I had a great time, in fact the panels all went a lot better than I expected. There is no doubt that in recent years I have become a lot better at public speaking and actually if you’re looking for public speaking experience, a panel is potentially a good place to get it since if you do stall out, one of your fellow panelists is probably waiting to jump in.

When I released the Nameless War back in 2011 it was sent off without any form of advertising or promotion. The book was launched off into the world and…

Bell curveas I’ve said in an earlier blog post from what I can tell – because hard numbers are few and far between and my links to the writing community in Dublin are tentative at most – I’ve done a lot better than average. Without advertising*2. Which was fine by me. There was the potential to be interviewed on local radio during this year but unfortunately that fell through and most of the other things that so many writing advice websites will grandly declare you have to do, I haven’t. Because I don’t enjoy self promotion and because by books did so well, it was an aspect of the whole process that I continue to know very little about*3.

I guess one of the things that fears/concerns/worries I have when it come to promotion is that I’ll get boring, that if I continue to endlessly beat the same drum there likely won’t be any unpleasantness but will become part of the white noise of life.  There’s also that irritating tendency to do myself down and diminish my own work. As I said someone not that long ago ‘don’t do yourself down, there are plenty of people who will happily do it for you‘ very much in finest traditions of suggest to other advice you should take yourself.

So on that note without self deprecation or false modesty, let me say that I am an author, a modestly successful one in an industry where such an achievement is a mighty one and what I have achieved so far is just the beginning.

 

 

* Yes, I am aware of the contradiction of saying that on a blog that potentially be read by anyone in the world with an internet connection.

*2 Up to now but that’s something for another day.

*3 Actually Octocon had a panel on Friday night entitled Promotion in the Age of Social Media which I would have like to have attended but basically, I was hungry.

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So… The Martian

Okay first off the Martian was my personal book of the year. Secondly I went in to this film with low expectations, really low expectations. After Gladiator Ridley Scott films started to go downhill and by Prometheus it was starting to feel like a power-dive with afterburners. Also in the main role I had doubts about Matt Damon. He isn’t a bad actor but what I mostly associate him with is the Bourne films it a role where the character wasn’t the most expressive. But let us start with the obvious question, is it faithful to the book? Yes, incredibly so, in fact it’s probably one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen. Not the most faithful, that title goes to Ender’s Game, but with one difference. The Martian is a good film.

What the two books have in common is that the meat of the story is first person, so much of the books is about what is going on in the head of the main character as events happen. It’s something that book can handle fairly easily but film or television – because they are almost inherently third person – struggle with. The Martian works around this via Mark Watney (Matt Damon) addressing the camera directly via video logs and in doing to give us a sense of the man.

Yes there are differences but overwhelmingly they take the form of omissions rather changes. These are understandable and justifiable as this film clocks in at over two hours and frankly it’s a busy film. Coming away from the film I was left with the impression that this book ended up in the hands of people who got what it was about – where science and human drive can take us. I would say one slight problem is that for anyone who has read the book, the sheer faithfulness does mean that it’s harder to get a sense of tension but that might just be me. If you’re wondering which is better, the book or the film, for my money the book, as I said the book has been trimmed to make the run time reasonable, so the book simply has more room to breath.

One thing that I think is also worth noting is the question of women and minorities, this film is pretty good in that regards (although no black women is speaking roles that I can remember) in that we have both women and men who are not white in plot relevant roles. The book, with its female characters and characters with sufficiently un-Anglo Saxon names  undoubtedly helped but even ten years ago I suspect the likes of Chastain would have found herself playing a love interest as opposed to a spaceship commander, but perhaps I am being cynical.

So in summary, one worth watching and then if you haven’t read the book, move on to that.

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Octocon 2015

Slightly late notice but…

Octocon-2015-A5I’ll be at Octocon next weekend and I have been invited onto panels discussing, Self Publishing Military Science Fiction and Time Travel. See you there!

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