The Zoneship Alcione – work in progress

The Zoneship Alcione - work in progress.
The Zoneship Alcione – work in progress.

Here’s the newest version of the Zoneship Alcione.  The term “zoneship” is used, rather than the equally appropriate “starship” or spaceship, because the Freehauler Alcioneverse assumes that reality consists of zones, which can be traversed in order to attain FTL (faster than light, hyperjump, whatever) travel.  Most “space opera” science fiction uses the basic plot device of some sort of magic FTL drive to span the vast distances between the stars, but the rest of the story is pretty mundane, basically like society and politics on Earth today, or like a technological space-based version of a High Fantasy Earth, but with spaceships instead of naval vessels or freighters, planets instead of cities or countries, and alien races instead of cultures or nationalities.  There’s nothing wrong with that, inasmuch as science fiction is often more about the present than the future (attempts to predict the future generally end disastrously anyway, e.g. we have smart phones but not moon bases).  But I other worldsthought it would be interesting to incorporate different zones of existence into the story and worldbuilding.

So rather than normal/realspace propulsion and FTL (as is standard e.g. impulse drive and warp drive in Star Trek), I’ve got  a magic/handwavium realspace reactionless drive propulsion (because there’s no way to realistically move a twenty million ton starship otherwise) using negative matter/mass/energy/unobtanium, plus hyperspace rotation, plus at least two distinct FTL propulsions, one for paraspace and one for aetherspace.

The spikey mace thingie was originally going to be used to generate the huge amounts of energies needed for the reactionless drive field, and based on Ken Burnside’s torchship design in his Attack Vector Tactical space-based wargame, but when I looked at the illustrations again I noticed they were an open grid.  Since I like the medieval feel of this mace thingie, I decided to go the full science fantasy Art Major School of Physics and make it into a propulsion unit for paraspace.

Originally I was going to have paraspace propulsion based UFO disks, a sort of large spinning thing, perhaps attached to the diametric drive ring, or else separate and either at the middle or the end of the ship, but no matter how I drew it, it just didn’t look right.

It seems like UFOs and space opera spaceships are such incompatible tropes that any attempt at synthesis looks ridiculous (well, there’s Star Trek spaceships (saucer on a rocket) and Stargate Atlantis mythology, so maybe it’s not).  This is because UFOs are a paranormal, interdimensional, ultraterrestrial phenomenon, possibly some sort of plasma or magnetic field effect when temporarily materialised in realspace, whereas spaceships are a mythological, symbolic representation of modern day things like giant machinery.  As I’ve elsewhere explained (on Omni), space opera is just the modern form of epic mythology, and vice-versa.  It’s meant to describe this world, only in epic poetic form.  Whereas UFOs simply don’t fit with our concept of reason or how the universe works, and in any attempt to explain them rationally is likely to drive you crazy.  See for example the works of French astronomer and ufologist Jaques Vallee, specifically Passport to Magonia and Messengers of Deception.

In a sense, but having crazy paraspace universes co-existing with realspace, not just metaphysically but physically, so a ship can transit between the two, I’m “cheating”, in that I’m describing the universe how I’d like it to be in a story, as opposed to how it really is (it may well be that interstellar space is simply too vast to be traversed by physical technology, and this is the reason for Fermi’s Question: where are they?

But that is what story telling is, not so much cheating as creating or rather re-interpreting myths.  Other zones of existence then become simply another type of otherworldplace, like other planets, parallel universes, alternate timelines, dreamscapes, and the rest.  What makes science fiction, and especially space opera, so cool is precisely its settings and hence the ease it can be used to tell myths, because all myths and archetypes by their very nature require some sort of numinous, imaginal setting; something that is not of this boring, mundane, quotidian world.  People who love scifi and fantasy, whether reading it or writing or drawing or otherwise creating it, are those who love and need and crave these  other worlds, as an alternative to their everyday stifling boring world.

Which brings us back to the above design.  Here I’m incorporating ideas and deckplans I drew up 18 months ago.  Since this version of the Alcione is much larger than the original, there’s heaps more space, so the deckplans will only include a small part of the ship.

Originally the Alcione was going to be unarmed, to get away from the repetitive cliches of a lot of military scifi , but I felt she needed some sort  of weapons, though I’m thinking of toning it down a bit  Make the battle module smaller, or simply a part of another module.  That’s why this is called a work in progress.



Thoughts on designing a scifi spaceship

Freehauler Alcione - 3d model in progress
Freehauler Alcione – 3d model in progress

Continuing  to work on Alcione using Blender.  As a proper render doesn’t come out properly (no doubt I’m not doing something correctly), this updated screenshot is posted here instead.  While it doesn’t show light and shading, it does show the various modules more clearly.

The front is the right, with the chionic (quasi organic)  module that helps pull the ship forward in paraspace.  As currently I’m assuming one blender unit = 50 meters, this puts the forwards module at about 125 meters, not including the orphiopluteuii (long arms facing forward, named after  a type of echinoderm larva with similar structures), although I may increase the size of this forward element.

The other structures at the front are sensors and twin gauss guns.  Originally Alcione was going to be unarmed apart from an anti-meteor laser or perhaps a token anti-piracy gun, but I wanted to give her some nerd love and the story some excitement and battles.  The idea is that she is a sort of armed merchantman and part time privateer that travels between civilised space and the lawless outer colonies of the human diaspora.

There follows the bridge crew quarters, forward hanger, thermal panels, etc, with a holographic logo on the side (I’m using Jacques Cousteau’s design until I can create my own).   This module extends for another 160 meters.  When I was doing deck plans using MS paint I was thinking in these terms (although with less space), so I’ll try to reuse some of that older material.

The large sphere is biospherics, about 80 meters in diameter on this plan, followed by 16 spherical water tanks around the central axis.  With the exception of Silent Running, cinematic spaceships don’t seem to have biospheres, and for that matter most literary ones don’t.  Everything is austere and mechanical and functional, or if spacious and comfortable it is in the way a Star Trek federation vessel is; all sterile corridors and lounges and holodecks.    It’s as if nature doesn’t exist in these universes.  I remember being impressed reading something Lynn Margulis, the co-inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis, said about this upon watching Star Trek.  Thanks to the magic of Google, I was able to recover her comments:

Until recently, when I visited the Star Trek commemorative exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, I had never seen a single Star Trek episode.  For ten minutes, indolent curiosity, nostalgia for the 1970s, and the crowds at my back induced me to watch it: very United Statesian and very dated.  I was struck by its silliness. The lack of plants, the machinate landscape, and in the starship, the absence of all nonhuman life-forms seemed bizarre. Humans, if someday they trek in giant spaceships to other planets, will not be alone. In space as on Earth, the elements of life, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus and a few others, must recycle. This recycling is no suburban luxury; it is a principle of life from which no technology can deliver us. Human voyages into deep space require ecosystems composed of many nonhuman organisms to recycle waste into food. Only very short stints in constant contact with mother Earth are possible in the absence of ‘ecosystem services.

– Lynn Margulis, The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution

When I encountered those words (it probably wasn’t the entire quote) some decades ago, they really impressed on me how unrealistic much of science fiction is (more comments alongside the above quote here).  I just cannot envisage spaceships without ecosystems., carrying little portable versions of Biosphere 2 along with them wherever they go .  Of course, a lot depends on worldbuilding; if FTL starflight is as quick and easy  as it is in low realism TV and movie space opera, essentially equivalent to a modern intercontinental jetliner, or even a drive to the local shopping center, there isn’t a need for ships to carry their own biosphere.  My own preference however is for outer space to be very large, very hostile, and very difficult to traverse.  Even if this is as much about plot devices and cosmic anxiety as it is about actual hard science.  Some space operas, like the Alien(s) franchise, do have that sense of loneliness and danger, even if their monsters are biologically absurd.  There is little appeal in space opera that mimics today’s crowded Earth.

After the biospherics section (I wonder if this also is too small, or if it should be kept small for crapsack world reasons) there is another module with the machine shop, large shuttle hanger, and what have you, this is about 110 meters long and 40 meters wide.

Then four large colourful hexagonal cargo modules (each about 75 x 175 meters) , which give an overall carrying capacity of four of the largest modern container ships combined.   Of course such comparisons are unfair, realworld surface ocean container vessels are limited by canals, port facilities etc; assuming a medium-hardness (say 6 or so on the scale of scientific hardness/realism) handwavium reactionless drive, a staple of a lot of science fiction, space opera ships need have no size limitations at all, other than those arbitrarily imposed by worldbuilding and plot devices..

Following is the weapons, sensors, and manufacturing module, which is based partly on the standard Wet Navy capital ship space opera design, of the Blender Shipyards, which I incorporated because I want to get away from the rigid radial symmetry of the earlier designs.  This measures about 150 x  150 x 40 meters.

These measurements are to help with deckplans.  Nerds like myself love these little worldbuilding details.  My idea in writing and worldbuilding is of a ship big enough to easily get lost in, or for an enemy or scary monster to hide in, with some parts much older than others and associated with a history and urban legend, such as being haunted, but not so large as to be unmanageable.  Hence a bit over a mile (say between 1.6 and 2 km), a mile being the length of a Star Wars Star Destroyer, seems a good size.

It’s interesting here to think about the difference between military scifi/SF (Star Wars, the later Star Trek), which has mile long ships full of officers and ratings walking to and fro, pilots dashing their fighters, and stormtroopers marching aimlessly about, and the space  horror (Alien(s), space comedy (Red Dwarf) ships which, while equally huge, are mostly deserted, with only a handful of crew or misfits struggling to manage the whole thing.  My approach is midway between the two, and it is likely that automation will make it easier for smaller crews to manage larger vessels.

Further on is engineering, the reactor, and the drive system, but I’ll leave explaining that for another day.  My next project is to use Blender to render Freedai Reynofar, the protagonist of Up the Well, the first novel in this series

The Alcione modelled with Blender

Freehauler Alcione, initial Blender version

Freehauler Alcione, my initial Blender version

Above is my first posted image of the Freehauler Alcione, as modelled in Blender.

When I started, I found Blender extremely bewildering.  It was a huge learning curve .   My original rough attempt at modelling the Alcione was simply a series of shapes put together to represent the general outline.

After about a month of study, I started really getting the hang of it, focusing mainly on the 3d modelling side.  Without a high-end graphics card it’s not really worth my while doing a lot of rendering and attempting movies and so on, assuming I even had the time to put into the latter.

While now much more familiar with the interface, I still found 3d modelling tedious because of all the details.

There’s a number of youtube tutorials and guides that show you step by step how to model your own spaceship, beginning with a simple cube, although some familiarity with the Blenber interface and shortcut keys is required.

With a  few exceptions, all these blender spaceships, while beautifully built, follow the traditional design of a wet navy ship in space; bilateral symmetry (distinct up and down and front and rear) and small (equivalent to jet) engines.

Here the confluence of the design team George Lucas hired for Star Wars, and science fiction writers using the Space is an Ocean trope, have created the naval analogy that is now de rigour for space opera covers, self-published military SF, and nerd ship art nowadays.

The breakthrough idea with my modelling the Alcione was to download creative commons licensed models of spaceships in Blender format, and copy and paste parts of them to wrap around my rough outline, along with giving acknowledgements.  After downloading several scifi spaceships it became evident this wouldn’t work; either they were too hard to convert to the scale and symmetry I was after, or they were too detailed (which normally would be perfect, but it means they take too long to render).

In the end, the only one that turned out to be appropriate is an awesome free for use collection of hulls, parts, and greebles, called “Shipyard” posted on Blend Swap. Although I still had to modify many of them to get the extra axis of symmetry I’m after, though I couldn’t resist sticking a big gun on the central hull section!

As this is 3d software so I can show the Alcione in any position, but in comparison with earlier images I’m posting it in right side view. This is very much a work in progress; I still have to add things like airlocks, hanger doors etc.  As I develop this design more, I’ll post further updates.

On a scale of realism (if you’ve followed my realism in science fiction gradations; latest version here) this would be about a 6 out of 10; if Star Wars is 2, Kim Stanley Robinson is 9, and the postulated Alcubierre FTL drive is, I dunno, 7 1/2. I’m deliberately not writing hard SF though because I want to go crazy with my imagination. I also don’t use the Alcubierre Drive because (a) it’s still problematic at FTL speeds (tho works just fine as a STL (slower than light) reactionless drive), and more importantly (b) my story and worldbuilding combines FTL and Theosophical planes of existence.

There’s a lot in this new design that’s tied up with my worldbuilding. I’ve replaced my previous ideas of Torchship (not viable at more than 5,000 tons or so) and NegMass drive (really awesome cool idea but technological problems I expect would be insurmountable) in favour of good old handwavium, the fallback of every serious science fiction writer.

To briefly explain this vessel, I assume a new type of reactionless drive is discovered which uses negative energy like the Alcubierre drive, but doesn’t have such a gigantic power requirement (although still pretty intimidating). In my universe I assume economics of scale make it practical to create gigantic reactionless drive ships. The only reason is because I love giant spaceships, but even so they still have to be justified in-universe.

The spiky ball in the illustration is the fusion generator for the (slower than light, realspace) reactionless drive field, the spikes are heat radiators (this particular design is inspired by Ken Burnside of Ad Astra Games, whose spaceships designs (see this page for 3D modelled screenshots) are as realistic as you can get, and whose Attack Vector Tactical, is perhaps the only hard science space combat games ever written.  David Pulver’s GURPS Transhuman Space also features equally rigorous and realistic space combat, but the emphasis is still on roleplaying rather than specific wargaming..  Mr Burnside’s radiators are obviously a more realistic design because they are an open framework; an enclosed sphere would instantly vaporise.   (hence the need for copious amounts of unobtanium and handwavium in even the most realistic scifi universes).  In my less realistic universe, this chamber only functions for a very brief period, which is luckily enough to generate the reactionless field

Surrounding the super fusion reactor it is the quasi Alcubierre ring,  (see also the cute Kerbal Space Program version); which, thanks to the magic of handwavium and the eloquence of technobabble, is able to create a partial warp in spacetime by using negative energy to generate a repulsive gravity field.  I can’t call this the Alcubierre field, because it’s not that; I’ll have to invent a fancy name for it.  Diametric Field, whatever.  Essentially, as a plot device, I wanted something like Negative Mass but without the need to generate it and exactly balance it with the positive mass.

Behind this are the scifi gizmos which generate the actual reactionless field.  Actually these greebles are too ordinary, this part should be more crazy looking. I’ll probably have to completely model my own design here.

For those wondering what “greebles” are, they’re the irregular bits of tech that have been stuck on the outside of spaceships ever since George Lucas’s Star Wars.  Presumably, greebles must serve a purpose, but the purpose is never defined, it’s simply part of the huge complexity of a starship, which, paradoxically in most space operas can easily be managed by a crew of only about six or seven, including a  single engineer.  I read somewhere an idea that adventure space opera is inspired by WWII bomber crews as by the tramp steamship, as they have the same number and similar roles, but infuriatingly haven’t been able to find the reference.  Most likely this is just convergence, but the parallels are still intriguing,.

I was even considering a totally smooth version of Alcione, but when I sketched it, it didn’t look right.  So I’ve stuck with greebles.

Returning to the design here, in front of the reactionless drive complex, the icosohedron module contains the unobtanium gyroscopes that rotate the ship into the hyper-spacial dimensions where FTL is possible. I’ll need to stick a fusion reactor somewhere in front or behind this to power the rest of the ship’s systems; this is different to super fusion generator in the spiky sphere and will have normal thermal radiators.

Then the middle assembly with engineering, and more modules, including the machine shop. Actually there’s plenty of space for the fusion reactor which will be pretty small, say 500 megawatts I’d guess, which being enough to power a small city, should be more than enough for any lasers and gauss guns. Then in front of that cargo, biospherics, the crew quarters and bridge. Then there’s the thermal radiators (which being edge on aren’t clearly visible) and the crew and habitation modules.

The structure at the front marks a divergence from the earlier Alcione designs. This has aetherspace thingies and chionic generator at the front. The idea is it’s part mechanical, part organic. The long branch like things which carry the ship forward in aetherspace. The original inspiration was plankton, such as echinoderm and crustacea larva. I was actually at one point thinking of revising the Alcione as a bioship, so it looked like a giant organic plankton creature (and the comparison between microscopic plankton and floating in space, while not scientifically accurate,  is still quite evocative and mythopoetic) , but the idea of a giant hunk of metal and fullerene is just too appealing, even if it does have organic components

The overall length of the Alcione in-universe is a bit over a mile, say 1.8 kilometers from tip to tip. To give a sense of scale, the large ring is about 600 meters in diameter.

After this, my next Blender project will be a portrait of Freedai, the protagonist of my first novel (in the currently rearranged series), who later (after some dramas and adventures) finds herself as a junior crewmember on the Alcione.

Writing, blender, and more

A lighthugger from Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space Universe. Artist unknown. Downloaded from Alastair Reynolds com

Since I’ve last posted, a lot has happened.  I’m now living in the countryside for one, and tranquility has been great for my creativity.

My setting now includes five major characters: Triumvar Jonas Lothfield, the captain (of sorts) of the eponymous starship and one of the protagonists  of  Freehauler Alcione, teenage Kamren Sortnoi-Valentinon and her friend Marcel Landin, the two protagonists of Mechacross, who are gifted a mech by a rogue military entertainment complex AI, Marcel’s older brother Perryn Landin, the main protagonist of The Universe is full of starving xenopaleontologists, and mechaneer and spacer girl Freedai Reynofar, who joins the crew of the Alcione.

The Alcione herself has had a makeover.  I wasn’t really satisfied with the old modular design.  It was too much a compromise between high realism hard SF (an actual hardSF spaceship would certainly be modular, but it would be much smaller, say 100 meters, and use some sort of torch or nuclear pulse propulsion (such as feature on the excellent Atomic Rockets site), and the more fantastical space fantasy type universes of Star Wars and Warhammer 40k.

I decided to scrap the modular design and make the ship a single integral vessel.   I wanted to keep the vertical skyscraper/tower design, but add various organic elements, and also mechanistic greebles (bits and pieces on the outside of a ship hull that have been an essential part of the “giant starship aesthetic” for 40 years, since Star Wars revolutionised the way space opera should look).

Because I wanted a huge ship, I also kept the reactionless drive, but reluctantly decided to get rid of the negative matter propulsion idea.  Despite its hard science credentials and originality it felt too fidgety from a practical tech reason (the amount of negmass would constantly have to be modulated to exactly counterbalance the ship’s positive mass) and, more important, a great big ball of negative matter chasing the ship would be counter-intuitive and not accommodating to space opera aesthetic

One thing I definitely wanted to retain was the tower design.  The whole artificial gravity perpendicular to the direction of motion thing is so contrived and derived on the need to rationalise human actors in a 1 gee environment (only Gravity breaks the mould) combined with the naval ships in space trope of Star Trek and Star Wars that it makes absolutely no sense in a worldbuilding and storytelling context.

The result is a vertical spaceship a mile high, in which gravity is generated by acceleration provided by a handwavium drive, and when the drive is switched off, e.g. when the ship is docked, the situation is one of weightlessness.

The nearest I can think of to this configuration is Alastair Reynolds Lighthugger, and of the artwork available, the one at the top of this page, with its massive construction and menacing sense of power is the closest to how I currently envisage the Freehauler Alcione (part freighter, part privateer), although it would likely present a somewhat less intimidating appearance, if only to encourage trade.

Indeed, my own worldbuilding could probably be described as Revelation Space meets Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader, with some  Heinlein Citizen of the Galaxy thrown in for good measure

As I want to create my own scifi representations, I’ve started learning Blender (a popular open source and free 3d modelling package), with an eye to making a 3d model of the Alcione, although I may have purchase a powerful graphics card, because of the computational demands on rendering an image.

It’s turned out to be a steep learning curve indeed, as Blender isn’t the most user friendly of programs (though for all I know the professional packages that cost thousands of dollars are just as hardlearn).

Originally I was going to attempt the interior as well, but with the complexity and time requirements it looks like an exterior view will be enough for now.



General update

I haven’t posted anything in a while, because I’ve been working on the deck plan of the Alcione.  Then I started writing a start featuring the crew of the Alcione.  Now I’m going back to the previous story.  I’ve scrapped the idea of novellas and will have a full length story

My current writing plan is this:

Book 1, Mech Cross, featuring the two teenage protagonists Kam and Shymarc.   Madverts will be part 1  (as well as writing the book i need to draw a plan of the mech)

Book 2, Spacefreighter Alcione.  Introduces the Alcione and its  crew (also will have deck plans).  Freedai joins the Alcione.

Book 3. Kam and Shymarc join the Alcione, along with a corporate AI that’s been helping them but has its own agenda

Various further developments and  sequels.

The whole story will be one series, although each novel will be self-contained



Alcione re-envisaged as a reactionless drive freighter

The freehauler Alcione as a reactionless drive ship
The freehauler Alcione as a reactionless drive ship. Lateral and dorsal/ventral views. Graphic by M Alan Kazlev, copyright 2016.

The latest iteration of the Freehauler Alcione, incorporating the theme of negative mass propulsion, which better fits the story setting and the trope of the tramp space freighter than the harder science Daedalus drive.

At 300 meters, and a dry mass of around 80,000 tons, this is a respectable sized vessel, the size of modern day nuclear powered aircraft carrier or unladen oil tanker.

But when you take away all the space dedicated to reactionless drive,  reactor, thermal radiators, FTL zone-transit, manoeuvering rockets, fuel, container haulage, hanger, storage, water and volatiles, biospherics, defensive lasers, radiation and armour shielding, etc etc, there isn’t much space left.  

Which of course makes for  fun writing.  I want to keep the sense of claustrophobia.  Space may be vast, infinite even, but the ships that traverse it aren’t necessarily large.  Sure, some can be, like the classic starliners and kilometers long corporate bulk and container haulers and giant mining vessels, the huge worldships and hab ships and the dreadnoughts and carriers.  But I expect most ships would be small and cramped, the equivalent of a  WW II sub.  Add jerry-rigged construction and a mishmash of parts and modules from other ships, or matter printed on the fly, and the FHSS Alcione may not be the shiniest ship in the spacedock.  But she’s still home for those who sail her across the infinite ocean of space.

The only two really spectacular piece of tech on this vessel is the reactionless drive, with negmass stored in hyperspace and constantly transferred back and forth to balance the changing positive mass of the ship (as the two have to be equal at all times, though I suppose there would be some margin of error or the system would probably be unworkable), and the ortho-rotational FTL unit which enables the ship to shift from real space to superluminal zones and back.  

From whence comes such miraculous pieces of clarketech (technology so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic)?  Luckily, being a scifi writer I can cheat (if I was rigorously hard science I probably couldn’t!) and say they were gifted to humanity and other lesser races by technologically more advanced aliens (and more than one race.  The race that has the reactionless drive isn’t the same as the FTL race).  

This is actually an old trope. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic has hyper-advanced aliens visiting Earth, and leaving extraordinary tech with their refuse, after they depart. Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space universe uses the classic &gifting& trope, but replaces aliens with a posthuman clade called &conjoiners&.  It really doesn’t matter what literary or worldbuilding device you use.  Aliens, posthumans, and the gods of mythology are all equally symbols and metaphors of the transcendent.

But why would these aliens do this, if being so advanced they could take whatever they want by force?  

Well, any number of reasons.  They may need humans as cannon fodder to fight their futile and monstrous wars.  They may be scavengers who stole it from some other race, and in turn trade it for whatever (but whatever they trade it for, the price is horrendous).  They may be engaged in some vast strategic game of which we cannot even glimpse (and if we do, any glimpse we have is totally wrong).  Or they may just be nice and generous people.

The freehaulers who just break even keeping their horrendously expensive ships running on whatever profits they make from cargo haulage to grey market profiteering to honest freight transport to on the side smuggling, don’t really care.  They love their austere lifestyle and libertarian-anarchist freedoms and wanderlust, travelling from world to world and space station to space station, beholden to no-one but themselves and their fellow merchanteers and freehaulers.  

And like everyone else, they never stop to think of the terrible cost humankind paid (or didn’t pay, does anyone really know or care?) for the stardrive.  They just want to keep doing what they’re doing.

Negative Mass and the reactionless drive

Negative mass propulsion. Image from Atomic Rockets
Negative mass propulsion. The negative mass propels the positive mass spaceship forward. Image from Atomic Rockets

My original intention for the Freehauler Alcione ‘Verse (created universe) was to combine realistic science (say 8 on the Mohs Scale of scifi hardness) with esotericism, new weird, and similar crazy things that would rank at say 3 on that same scale (like Warhammer 40,000). I didn’t want to write a pure hard science story, but an imaginative and imaginal crossover.

Anyway, since space opera always will be central, I figured it’s important to get the spaceships right. Sure I have hyperspace FTL, a classic trope which ranks at say 5 or 6 on the scientific realism scale, but for the rest I wanted everything to be kosher. I consulted the excellent atomic rockets site, to get all the stats on a realistic high performance spaceships. Only the ship kept getting bigger as I added more modules, until by no stretch of the imagination could it be a privately owned (freehauler) tramp spacer! It was megacorp fleet hauler size.

Another problem is such ships have to be insanely powerful (just check out the figures required on the Atomic Rockets torchships page, this for a tiny ship of a mere one thousand tons!). Assuming classic newtonian rocket science only, if you have a million ton ship you need about half a hiroshoma bomb / second of output for even milligees or tens of milligees of acceleration. I mean, talk about a Weapon of Mass Destruction drive! Also, how to stop the engine, and for that matter the rest of the ship, vaporising, even with magnetic plasma handwavium containment and exhaust focussing.

Then the other day I came across a brief essay on negative mass at Science News Org. Apparently, physics says you can have mass with a negative value [1]. Not antimatter, but a sort of counter matter, that is identical except opposite in effects. So if you push it, instead of moving away, it moves towards you. Like charges attract. Gravity is repulsive.

Which tweaked my curiosity and imagination, so I looked up more on this subject (of which there isn’t much). David Darling negative mass propulsion gives a short and useful summary; Esther Inglis-Arkell Negative Mass: The Nuttiest Thing Never Seen describes in more detail, and Ask a mathematician Q: What’s the difference between anti-matter and negative-matter? has more discussion on all this.

What really got my attention, negative mass falls towards positive mass. But positive mass is repelled by negative mass. Put a bit of negative mass near an equal amount of positive mass in a zero gee environment, and they two will fly off, the former chasing the latter, forever. Moreover, this doesn’t contradict the laws of physics, because the net kinetic energy and momentum is always zero (the negative mass has negative kinetic energy, the positive mass positive.

Wow. A space drive.

Actually this was originally shown by the physicist and science fiction writer Robert Forward in a paper some years ago [2]. There’s a neat drawing, which appeared on Atomic Rockets, that I have reposted here.

This made me think, if you have a ship that weighs N tons, and you have a dense plate of negative mass of weight N tons at the back, you have reactionless, inertialess drive.

Most importantly, you can go up to relativistic speeds, but net kinetic energy always remains zero. So no planet busters. (Unlike the conventional scifi reactionless drive, in which anyone can make a bathtub into a planet cracker, but for some strange reason no one does. This is how you do it. Stick your handy Acme Agrav Acceleration Unit on the back of any small object, say, a fridge, or a bathroom sink. Accelerate it to high relativistic velocity, and aim it a planet. Boom, no planet).

Like the Alcubierre drive it doesn’t contradict the laws of physics. It’s just, unobtanium. But unlike the Alcubierre drive, you don’t have to worry about being fried by hawking radiation, or frying whatever your destination is with the same (note, this only happens with afaster than light Alcubierre drive [3]). But if you have this amazing unobtanium stuff, you can just stick it on the back of your ship, and off you go.

Or, according to John Cramer Anti-Gravity and Anti-Mass Alternate View Column AV-14, you don’t. Because by tethering the positive ship to the negative mass, the two forces cancel each out. It seems this only works if the two are not physically tethered.

So the only way around this (other than having the negative mass as a sort of big floating ball following the ship) is to add still more handwavium, and say hey no worries we have a special hyperspace thingie in which the joint momentum isn’t cancelled out! (science fiction is good because whenever you are in a whole, you can always cheat). Alternatively, use the Alcubierre metric but only go slower than light [3] (will save this for the next blog post).

There are still a few questions that need answering.

Given equivalence of normal matter and negative mass (say 10,000 tons and -10,000 tons), how fast would the ship accelerate? Or is acceleration determined by how close the two are?

Is it necessary to have equivalence. If you have a 10,000 ton ship, and you add (subtract, whatever) 5000 tons of negative mass, will it still be a reactionless drive, but only accelerate half as fast? Because the negative mass would contribute less momentum? Or would it accelerate twice as fast, because negative mass attracted to positive moves faster the smaller it is?

Also minor technical questions. How do you steer? How do you switch it off? I guess if you can couple and decouple the negative and positive mass with some special gizmo, you can switch it off, or tilt it like sails on a sailboat. Or whatever.

Incidentally, one thing negative mass won’t do. As the Science News Org essay points out, it won’t float just above the ground. You can’t have ships hovering on a planet, or a cool hover bike like Rey’s on The Force Awakens. When it comes to a planetary gravity well, negative mass behaves exactly the same way positive mass does. No negmass newtonian apples falling upwards. [4]

So, just like an atomic rocket, a negmass ship can only be used in deep space. No standard space opera trope of rusty tramp freighters or sleek warships effortlessly climbing up and down the gravity well, a la StarWars or Firefly. Just as well, because it means I can keep space habitats, not as peripherals, but as central to the entire setting as the ships are.
There’s something to be said for being not too imitative of standard tropes.

Technical references

[1] Bondi, H. “Negative Mass in General Relativity,” Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 29, No.3, July 1957, pp. 423-428.

[2] Forward, R. L. “Negative Matter Propulsion”, Journal of Propulsion and Power (AIAA), Vol. 6, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1990, pp. 28-37. See also Winterberg, F. “On Negative Mass Propulsion,” International Astronautical Federation, Paper 89-668, 40th Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, Malaga, Spain, Oct., 1989.

[3] Finazzi, S., Liberati, S., & ́, C. B. Semiclassical Instability of Dynamical Warp Drives, Physical Review D 79, 124017 (2009).

[4] Hammond, RT 2015, ‘Negative mass’, European Journal of Physics, Volume 36, Issue 2, accessed 24 Jan 2015.

Freehauler Alcione, rough diagnostic sketch

Freehauler Alcione, rough diagnostic sketch.
Freehauler Alcione, rough diagnostic sketch. Concept and illustration by M Alan Kazlev (c) 2015

Here’s a revised sketch of the eponymous space freighter Alcione. Overall length about 1300 meters, dry mass about 400,000 tonnes. From left to right, meteor shield, lasers, forward reactor and radiators, forward manoeuvering rockets, forward hyperjump node and paraspace units, small freight containers, habitation rings with radiators, shuttle hanger and shuttle fuel depot, large freight containers (15 & 20 meters each), hyperspace, paraspace, negmatter drives (multiple FTL modes), short range fusion thrusters, reactors, and reaction mass, rear manoeuvering rockets, main reactors, large tanks for fusionable material, main radiators, blast shield, handwavium-enhanced variable thrust orion/daedalus type drive

Scale of Science Fiction Hardness

2001 A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick. MGM 1968
Image from 2001 A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick. MGM 1968

(Update (April 2017): I’ve published a new version of this scale on Omni)

Just as there’s a Mohs Scale of Hardness in mineralogy, so there’s a metaphorical Scale of hardness in Science Fiction, where “hardness” refers to Hard Science Fiction (Hard SF for short), the genre that has the greatest technological plausibility and scientific realism. (Hard SF on its own also tends to dryness and socio-cultural and character shallowness, but that’s another story)

For more on Hard SF, here’s the wikipedia page, here’s a website devoted solely to the topic, here’s a list of books considered Hard SF (as always, there’s a lot of subjective assessment, unlike minerology or chemistry where there’s easy empirical tests). Little in the way of Hard SF movies, one could list 2001, Gravity, and The Martian.

The following scale of realism combines and updates my earlier scale (written years ago and now out of date) with the excellent TV Tropes Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness (which I have quoted from at length). Update: See also other comments and versions by Mike Brotherton, and Howard Miller, Juliette Harrisson’s Discworld Mohs Scale of Fantasy Hardness Parts One and Two, and J.P. Flarity’s Mohs Scale of Fiction Weirdness.

Regarding the following, four things should be pointed out.

First, the opposite of Hard SF is not Soft SF. Soft Science Fiction refers to science fiction that explores themes and possibilities based on the social or “soft” sciences such as psychology, anthropology and sociology. This is a perfectly respectable field of science fiction, and indeed Hard SF stores may be decidedly lacking in the social realism stakes, just as social science fiction may be lacking in the astronomy and rocket science stakes.

Second, even when science marches on, a work still remains hard science. To quote Wikipedia: “Later discoveries do not necessarily invalidate the label of hard SF… Arthur C. Clarke’s 1961 novel A Fall of Moondust (is still) hard SF,…even though a crucial plot element, the existence of deep pockets of ‘moondust’ in lunar craters, is now known to be incorrect.” HG Wells War of the Worlds for example was hard science by the standards of its day. Nevertheless, the future never turns out as we imagine or predict it, so “Future Rust” is common in older books, and even more recent technothrillers.

And third, no story or worldbuilding is uniform in its realism or lack thereof. A scenario may include ultra hard SF (9 out of 10) ships for interplanetary travel but give them hyperjump capability for FTL (6 out of 10).

And finally, all science fiction is still fiction.  The science in science fiction enhances the fiction, but generally less so the reverse, although there are exceptions, e.g. many scientists and astronauts who work at NASA grew up watching Star Trek.  But for a writer it is less what is absolutely, objectively, real, and more what serves the story.

Here then is my current provisional list, from most to least realistic, where 10 is the real world, and 0 is total cartoon nonsense, with especially emphasis on spaceships and space opera:
(Update: have included decimal-tenths just for the heck of it. So n.6 is more speculative and n.5. more realistic)

10. The real world. Science is explained, no handwavium. Also, Non-Fiction. As TV Tropes puts it: “The Apollo Program, World War II, and Woodstock fall in this class.”

9.6. to 9.9 Technothrillers and Futurology. Technothrillers take place only a few years in the future, with only a few plausible near future tech projections. This category overlaps with Futurology which includes, as explained in TV Tropes “stories which function almost like a prediction of the future, extrapolating from current technology but do not assume or invent any important new technologies or discoveries.”  Quite likely some of the more rigorously and scientifically realistic of the ultra hard space exploration categories of the following category actually go here. 9.5 Ultra Hard Science – only extrapolation from known laws of physics. In TV Tropes this is called Speculative Science. In contrast to the previous categories, the science is “genuine speculative science or engineering, and the goal of the author to make as few errors with respect to known fact as possible.” Interplanetary vessels have milligee thrust. Rockets have to choose between high thrust low isp, or high isp low thrust, you can’t have both. Adherence to thermodynamics, real science. No torchships. Preferably no aliens, if there are, they are limited to the same physics we are, and also must justify in terms of Great Silence (Fermi Paradox). Greg Egan, Kim Stanly Robinson Mars Trilogy, Arthur C Clarke 2001, Asimov The Gods Themselves, GURPS Transhuman Space, Andy Weir’s The Martian, the first two books in Robert L. Forward’s Rocheworld series and Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress fall in this class. 9.5 is the most realistic, with only plausible near future tech projections.  For some excellent examples on Ultra Hard SF ships in fact and fiction, with authentic rocket science, see Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets website, a resource that I simply cannot recommend highly enough.  For tabletop spaceship combat game, see Ken Burnside’s Attack Vector: Tactical (although this also has less realistic FTL as a background explanation for why the battles are not in our solar system). John Lumpkin’s Human Reach series features similarily authentic spaceships, although the setting includes wormholes which pertain to one or two realism grades down. 8.5. Very Hard Science – extrapolation from laws of physics, with minimum handwavium for story purposes. Basic torchships (high thrust high isp), interplanetary vessels average around 0.3 gee thrust or less. Adherence as much as possible to thermodynamics and real science. Interstellar, non-relativistic travel. In TV Tropes this is called “One Small Fib”, “stories that include only a single counterfactual device (often FTL Travel), but for which the device is not a major element of the plot.” Some alien or posthuman handwavium / unobtanium allowed. Big Dumb Object without handwavium. Preferably have an explanation for Great Silence (Fermi Paradox). Arthur C Clarke Rama novels, Gregory Benford, Bruce Stirling Schizmatrix, Stephen Baxter. Many Hal Clement novels (e.g. Mission Of Gravity, Close to Critical) and Freefall belong here.

6.6 to 7.5. Hard Science – extrapolition from laws of physics, plus some handwavium for storytelling purposes. In TV Tropes this is called “One Big Lie”. “Authors invent one, or, at most, a very few, counterfactual physical laws and writes a story that explores the implications of these principles.” Tech otherwise consistent and explained. Interplanetary vessels average around 1 gee. Relativistic travel. May have reactionless drive but must be realistic, say exotic matter or singularity or other unusual tech. FTL only if plausibly explained, otherwise relativistic travel. Includes thermodynamics, rocket science, etc. Aliens with realistic-seeming biology, non-humanoid only. Token explanation of Great Silence (Fermi Paradox). Most works in Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth series, the Ad Astra board games and Robert A. Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold fall in this category, as do many of Vernor Vinge’s books. Also Haldeman Forever War, Niven Mote in God’s Eye, Greg Bear various stories, Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space/Galactic North Universe, Posthuman Studios Eclipse Phase (everything else very hard, say 9 out of 10, but “sleeving” consciousness with its associated cartesian ghost in the machine implications, also alien wormholes that are pure unexplainedium). John C. Wright’s The Golden Age probably would go here as well (say 6.7) 6.5. Firm Science – with handwavium and unobtanium, but these reasonably explained in the context of the setting. Torchships rather than reactionless drive, but absurd acceleration given energy allowance (fudging the figures). Token thermodynamics only. FTL with reasonably plausible explanation. Ignores Fermi Paradox. Niven’s Known Universe, Peter Hamilton, James Corey’s The Expanse, a lot of space opera in general. 5.5 Physics Plus (to use the TV Tropes moniker). “Stories in this class once again have multiple forms of Applied Phlebotinum, but in contrast to the prior class, the author aims to justify these creations with real and invented natural laws — and these creations and others from the same laws will turn up again and again in new contexts.” Some Science. Reactionless drive ships easily pull dozens or hundreds of gees. Doesn’t explain why relativistic reactionless drive ships aren’t used as doomsday devices to annihilate whole planets, or as perpetual motion free energy devices. Differs from Token Science in that there is still some rocket science. Heinlein Citizen of the Galaxy, Starship Troopers, Brin Uplift universe, Iain M Banks Cultureverse, Schlock Mercenary, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, David Brin’s Uplift series, and Battlestar Galactica (2003) fall in this class. 4.5 Token Science. Some real science, but only because this is “science fiction”; the science is there only for storytelling purposes rather than realism. For the most part handwavium and unobtanium with little or no explanation. Ignores thermodynamics (no radiator fins). Reactionless drive, agrav, forcefields, tractor beams, stealth, some aliens look like humans, others very different. FTL with arbitrary explanation.  Consistency in worldbuilding, in contrast to the Pure Technobabble category.  Frank Herbert’s Dune, Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos, Firefly/Serenity, maybe Eve on line.  Babylon 5 may belong here, although humanoid aliens belong to the next category down, and conversely fighters use vector thrust and larger ships generate artificial gravity by centrifugal spin, which put them in at least the 6 or 7 out of 10 category.

2.6 to 3.5. Technobabble and Handwavium. Differs from Science Fiction In Name Only in that at least there is some attempt, no matter how poor, at a rational explanation. Or in otherwords, to quote TV Tropes: “Phlebotinum is dealt with in a fairly consistent fashion despite its lack of correspondence with reality and, in-world, is considered to lie within the realm of scientific inquiry.” So for example the Enterprise cannot land on a planet, showing that large ships are outer space only. Even so, this is still full of sillytech and inconsistent worldbuilding. Because of handwavium and phlebotinum, anything can be explained. You can have ST style matter transportation because it is assumed all the technical problems were solved, most aliens are humanoid, many identical in appearance to H. sapiens, human and aliens can interbreed, and humans live in similar environments can eat same food etc, because it is assumed there were humanoid progenitors. At the same time, there is serious worldbuilding incompatabilities e.g. if you have ST matter teleportation otherwise you could easily drop a nuke in an enemies lap, have immortality, limitless clones, etc. But it is never explained why this never happens. Star Trek is the classic example, but also included here is E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Warhammer 40k, the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels (now called “legends” and considered non-canon) which at least make some attempt at explanation over the totally unrealistic canonical movies, Cowboy Bebop, and StarCraft.

1.6 to 2.5 Artistic License. Although unambiguously considered to be “Science Fiction”, there is no actual science to be found. Rather, the story follows what looks good artistically from our contemporary early 21st century perspective. Ships wheel and bank in a vacuum, blaster bolts move slower than tracer rounds. Battles directly mapped from WW II naval engagements. Lantern-jawed heroes and busty maidens, or scary monsters, or both. More realistic than comic book superheros only in that it’s assumed you need a spaceship to travel through space, and there is an attempt at a consistent plot. Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr Who, Red Dwarf, Farscape, Space Battleship Yamoto. Some Star Trek movies, e.g. Star Trek out of Darkness has worldbuilding inconsistencies  that are if anything even worse, e.g. Transwarp allows teleporting across interstellar distances, but it is never explained why people still use spaceships

0.1. to 1.5 Comic books. Only token attempts at explanations – Marvel and DC superheros, e.g. superpowers because from a planet with a red sun, Genetic mutation, or Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider. Sometimes not only that, so that, to quote TV Tropes: “Green Rocks gain New Powers as the Plot Demands”. The DC and Marvel superhero universes belong here, along with Futurama, manga and anime like Dragonball Z and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, and humorous aspects of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

0. Cartoons that are not meant to make sense, e.g. Marvin the Martian

Space freighter Alcione

Rough sketch of the space freighter Alcione.
Rough sketch of the space freighter Alcione. Scale bar in meters. Image copyright M Alan Kazlev 2015

All good space opera has a spaceship at its heart, and this is mine, the freighter Alcione. 500 meters and 180,000 tonnes dry mass of starship, designed as a series of modules along the main axis. It might look spaceous but it’s not; the crew and passengers are crammed in the little radiation shielded, one gee module at the far left. Other modules are for biospherics and zonal translation (aetherspace, etc), hanger, machine shop, etc. The cargo is in huge containers placed between the front and rear Alcubierre rings. The Daedalus drive is the huge fusion torch at the right, located a safe distance from the living quarters and life support. The triangular wings are actually high performance heat radiators.

The Alcione is mentioned in Madverts, but makes a full appearance in the fourth or fifth novella of the Freehauler Alcione series.

Postcript: Updated sketch here