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

Just as there’s a Moh Scale of Hardness in minerology, 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 assesment, 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.

8.6.to 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.

7.6.to 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)

5.6.to 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.

4.6.to 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.

3.6.to 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

Enlistment Mech

In the future Federated Corporate Polities, virtual reality simstim and the CNN style military-entertainment complex provides a welcome distraction from the clamor of daily consumerism. The following scene from my novella in progress, Madverts, takes place in a shopping arcology mallplex on the planet Falwel. Kam is the 15 year old protagonist and hero of this story, illustrated here. Ceri is her best friend, and Warran Ceri’s boyfriend. Madverts are sentient or quasi sentient advertisements. Jonia Connan is President for Life and Hero of the Revolution, being challenged by the sinister upstart Yar Hedleh.

Mech in the mallplex. Military Entertainment Complex recruitment. Artwork copyright M. Wayne Miller
Mech in the shopping arcology mallplex. Military Entertainment Complex recruitment. Artwork copyright M. Wayne Miller

(Kam) follows Warran and Ceri as they cross the huge open space, full of shops and mini-aerostats and drones and 3ds of first families and smiling shockpopes and megacorp infomercials and madverts. The Jonia Connan madvert’s still following them, which is pretty dumb, coz none of them are old enough to vote, not even Warran. Kam’s thinking of asking her a question, like how does being Beloved Leader and President For Life reconcile with free once-decade elections? But the Pro Shopper’s Bible says: Under no circumstances, ever engage a madvert in conversation, except to insult it or lodge a complaint. So she doesn’t.

And on this floor there’s even more shoppers and shops and drones and kids and plebbers everywhere. Stim Independence Year, you’re all that strands between humanity and the Vorgr menace! Catch the Westworld Giants and the South Rand Warriors, in the Clash of the Season! Have more Children! Vote One, Yar Fedleh!

And there it is. This humungus army mech parked outside one of the army enlistment offices. There’s even army peep dressed up like in Real Platoon, and one army guy standing at attention like he really means it. But none of them are as hot looking as Zach Jardine.

Kam Sortnoi – Madvert fighter

Kam Sortnoi, professional shopper and madvert fighter
Kam Sortnoi, part time professional shopper, madvert fighter, and the central protagonist of Madverts. Artwork copyright David Leahey

Thanks to David Leahey for this superb portrait of Kam Sortnoi, teenage part time professional shopper, madvert fighter, and the central protagonist of my upcoming first Novella Madverts.

Kam will also feature in later installments, where she and her newfound friends on the Space Freighter Alcione travel a universe full of strange and unexpected mdangers and wonders, trying not only to survive but come out on top.

Hard science or handwavium

In writing space opera there’s two ways you can go.

The most difficult is hard science, or rather diamond hard science, where you try to get all the rocket science exactly right, according to the current laws of physics. An excellent site in this regard is Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets, which I cannot recommend too highly. Especially with ships there are nuclear powered torchships, which output literally terawatts of power.

I mean, you are basically sitting on a series of mini nuclear bombs, or riding a continuous nuclear torch. Forget the pissy ships of tv and movie sci-fi, they barely glow.

The problem, I found, is if I wanted a freighter of, say, 30,000 tonnes and even moderate 0.03 g acceleration (as fast as a freight train accelerating, almost nothing) it would require about a third of a Hiroshima bomb’s worth of energy a second. Every second for as long as the ship gets to speed, say 2 weeks. No engine could handle that without vaporising. In fact even if it didn’t, the whole outside of the ship would glow and be almost incandescent.

So goodbye hard science…

The alternative is handwavium, which is a fancy nerd word for “making things up”. This means you assume some amazing magical breakthrough in science that’ll let you get around all these sticky problems of real universe energy requirements.

So you can have the pissy little puny rocket exhaust of pop sci-fi after all! Because at some point in the future some Plott-DeVice Drive is invented which lets you have something for nothing. And then you can whizz around the universe and still call it science

By the way, I was later pointed at a space opera setting that does use torchships, John Lumpkin’s Human Reach, though they are smaller than my freighter and accelerate more slowly at cruising speed, they can also put on bursts of high G acceleration (though that’d wreck their delta v (range) something chronic)