Category Archives: Space Opera

Thoughts on space opera both historical and contemporary

Paraspacers and Starsiders

Spaceship Stern Tiger by Ptitvinc
Spaceship Stern Tiger by Ptitvinc. Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Through its development, the Alcioneverse has varied in realism as I tried to decide whether to go with Science Fantasy or Hard SF, and FTL or STL.  On the sliding scale of hardness, I started around 7 (hard science with FTL and some weird elements), went down to 6 (Science Fantasy), and  with the latest reboot it’s around 8 to 8.5 (exotic matter but no FTL).

After two and fro-ing for a while, from Hard Science Fantasy cross-over to pure Space Fantasy to pure Hard SF, I finally realised I couldn’t just have one postmodern space opera universes and one set of characters.  The ambience of each is so different, due to the implications of the contrast between a STL (slower than light, hard SF) universe with its rigorous hard science and more limited handwavium, and FTL (faster than light, more conventional space opera) universe that combines hard science with pure fantasy, surrealism, satire, and magical realism, that I decided on two, even though both will share certain features, such as space punk, and adventure.

The two universes are described as follows:

Paraspacers (aka Freehauler Alcione – The Alcioneverse)

Space Fantasy Adventure 

Starsiders

Hard SF Spacepunk

  • Central protagonists: misfit prospectors
  • genre: hard science fiction
  • secondary genres: space punk, postmodern space opera, space horror
  • universe: physical universe, the galaxy
  • sliding scale of hardness: 7 to 8
  • interstellar travel: STL only, plus a few wormholes
  • main ship: The Bathsheba, a conversion torchship, length about 300 meters. magnetoplasma shielding
  • Ambience ( the sliding scale of bleakness): Punk/Gritty – Crapsack –  Medium Grimdark (however this universe is not completely grimdark, because, first, and contrary to the ethos of the grimdark genre, moral actions do count, and second, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.)
  • Some influences: Of Men and Monsters, Roadside Picnic/Stalker, Neuromancer, Firefly, The Matrix, Alien/Aliens, Orion’s Arm (tech),  Revenger,
To do List

Now I’ve got my worldbuilding straightened out and the ambience decided on, I can back to writing.  There will still be a lot more worldbuilding, but I’ll mostly wait until I’ve published something.

To do list includes:

  • Finish Madverts (Book 1 of the Alcioneverse)
  • Work out the crew of the Bathsheba (the classic ragtag band of motley misfit adventurers) for the Starsiders universe
  • Once that’s done, work out opening story of Starsiders

 

 

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.

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

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)