Category Archives: Spaceships


Freehauler Alcione,, by M Alan Kazlev. Lateral view
Freehauler Alcione,, by M Alan Kazlev. Lateral view. Each square in the background grid represents 50 meters

It’s been a while since I’ve last posted, so I thought an update is in order.

Of my two projects, the STL hard science one (tentatively titled Starsiders, but will probably change that title) and the FTL space fantasy one (Paraspacers, or Freehauler Alcione), I’m going to focus on the latter one for now, as I’ve written more for that universe. Even though the literally the same material and characters could be used with both universes. So in committing my characters to the FTL universe, I’ll have to come up with different characters for the STL universe.

I’ve been working on the Alcioneverse for some five years now, each new revision adding a further layer of complexity (as well as false starts and wrewrites). It can be disheartening since I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever finish anything. However I’m certainly not alone in this; there are other scifi enthusiasts who have been working on their own epic projects for 9 years, 16 years, 26 years… An epic project cannot be rushed.

I’m hoping to finally get the first book, Madverts, epublished this year. Being an autistic pantser, I simply am unable to come up with a complete (or even incomplete) storyline in my head the way plotters can. I can create universes, and characters, but plots elude me. For the most part, I don’t have a pre-planned story to tell, even though I have characters and a universe to put them in. Well, two universes actually.

So my current plan is an episodic approach, like a soap opera, in installments. My inspiration here is Hugh Howey who bypassed traditional channels by publishing his post-apocalyptic story on Amazon com in 60 or 100 page episodic installments.

Madverts introduces the two fifteen old protagonists, Kam and Marcinay. It sets the scene for by Mechacross, which follows the same characters one or two years later, and which actually does have a complete story plot, amazing enough. Then comes another plotless pantser installment, and then a story with something of a plot (Up the Well), and finally all my characters find themselves on board the Alcione.

I’ve just revised the design of the Alcione, shown above. I’ve gotten rid of the spiny mace thing, which really didn’t do anything, and the weapons module behind the cargo section, which made her too nerdish-military, and extended the cargo section. The cargo modules are build around a central backbone; it may even be possible one day to model the interior of the ship, although that would be a huge amount of work, and beyond my still rudimentary blender abilities.

If each square in the above graphic represents 50 meters, that gives a total length, excluding the forward struts, of 1600 meters, or one mile. This is about the length of a soft-scfi Star Wars Imperial Star Destroyer. But the long modular shape means the average width or diameter is only 60 to 80 meters (say equal to a large modern aircraft carrier like the Nimitz), and the crew spend most of their time in a 70 by 100 meter module. Most of the ship is dedicated to propulsion, cargo, and things like hanger space, biospherics, the machine shop, etc. In terms of popular space opera, crew space isn’t that much bigger than in Joss Wheddon’s Firefly Class, but for ten times as many crew (although cargo space is another matter). I would suppose an overall weight of half a million tons, because of the tower like design.

Real spaceships of course wouldn’t be anywhere as big as this. Arthur C Clarke’s 140 meter long Discovery One, by which I mean here the non-cinematic design with fuel tanks and thermal radiators is quite probably the most realistic interplanetary vessel ever envisaged in science fiction. I’m certainly not a fan of the grotesque skeletal movie version, either aesthetically or for any practical reasons. See also the excellent Atomic Rockets website for more on realistic interplanetary spacecraft.

If I wanted to go full-on munchkin I could always double the size; making each square in the above diagnostic 100 meters rather than 50. That would give a length of over three kilometers and an average width of around 130 to 150 meters, which would make it closer to the Nostromo in size (except much longer), and weight would now be about 4 million tons. I don’t know if there is any reason for such giant ships, apart from nerd appeal, but settings like Star Wars, Halo, Banks Culture, Reynolds Revelation Space, and Warhammer 40k do feature enormous, multi-kilometer-long ships, powered purely by handwavium. A simple rule of thumb: the larger the ship, the less realistic the universe.

In any case, the real center of my story is the human (and other sophont species) one, how a bunch of characters relate to each other and to the vast and dangerous universe they explore. No matter how amazing the tech, it is always in the background. That’s why I try to minimise info-dumps, and show the protagonists concerns to be no different to those of people today. I greatly enjoyed reading Becky Chambers’s book The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet for this reason, even if the science is pretty cartoonish.

The Alcione therefore will only come alive through the adventures of her crew, even though the ship, like all ships, has her own personality. For good science fiction it’s necessary to balance epic adventure, amazing technology, and the sense of wonder at a vast and beautiful yet uncaring cosmos, with the microcosm and warmth of the adventurers at the heart of the story.

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