On space battles

It’s a glorious thing, combat in space, or so Hollywood would have us believe. Star Wars shows us an analog of carrier warfare, with large ships (like Star Destroyers) launching out wing after wing of small craft (TIE Fighters and X-Wings) that duke it out amid the starry expanse. That other bastion of popular science fiction, Star Trek, also depicts space warfare in naval terms, as a dark, three-dimensional version of the ship-to-ship combat of yore. Most “smaller” universes ape these big two, so the general idea in modern minds is this: space battles look like WWII, but in space.

Ask anyone who has studied the subject in any depth, however, and they’ll tell you that isn’t how it would be. There’s a great divide between what most people think space combat might be like, and the form the experts have concluded it would take. I’m not here to “debunk”, though. If you’re a creator, and you want aerial dogfighting, then go for it, if that’s what your work needs. Just don’t expect the nitpickers to care for it.

Space is big

The first problem with most depictions of space battles is one of scale. As the saying goes, space is big. No, scratch that. I’ll tell you right now that saying is wrong. Space isn’t big. It’s so huge, so enormous, that there aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to encompass its vastness.

That’s where Hollywood runs into trouble. Warfare today is often conducted via drone strikes, controlled by people sitting at consoles halfway around the world from their targets. We rightfully consider that an impersonal way of fighting, but what’s striking is the 10,000 miles standing between offense and defense. How many Americans could place Aleppo on a map? (The guy that finished third in the last presidential election couldn’t.) Worse, how would you make a drone strike dramatic?

In space, the problem is magnified greatly. Ten thousand miles gets you effectively nowhere. From the surface of Earth, that doesn’t even take you past geostationary satellites! It’s over twenty times that to the Moon, and Mars is (at best) about another 100 times that. In naval warfare, it became a big deal when guns got good enough to strike something over the horizon. Space has no horizon, but the principle is the same. With as much room as you’ve got to move, there’s almost no reason why two craft would ever come close enough to see as more than a speck. A range of 10,000 miles might very well be considered point-blank in space terms, which is bad news for action shots.

Space is empty (except when it isn’t)

Compounding the problem of space’s size is its relative emptiness. There’s simply nothing there. Movies show asteroid belts as these densely packed regions full of rocks bumping into each other and sleek smuggler ships weaving through them. And some stars might even have something like that. (Tabby’s Star, aka KIC 8462852, almost requires a ring of this magnitude, unless you’re ready to invoke Dyson spheres.) But our own Solar System doesn’t.

We’ve got two asteroid belts, but the Kuiper Belt is so diffuse that we’re still finding objects hundreds of miles across out there! And the Main Belt isn’t that much better. You can easily travel a million miles through it without running across anything bigger than a baseball. Collisions between large bodies are comparatively rare; if they were common, we’d know.

Space’s emptiness also means that stealth is quite difficult. There’s nothing to hide behind, and the background is almost totally flat in any spectrum. And, because you’re in a vacuum, any heat emissions are going to be blindingly obvious to anyone looking in the right direction. So are rocket flares, or targeting lasers, radio transmissions…

Space plays its own game

The worst part of all is that space has its own rules, and those don’t match anything we’re familiar with here on Earth. For one thing, it’s a vacuum. I’ve already said that, but that statement points out something else: without air, wings don’t work. Spacecraft don’t bank. They don’t need to. (They also don’t brake. Once they’re traveling at a certain speed, they’ll keep going until something stops them.)

Another one of those pesky Newtonian mechanics that comes into play is the Third Law. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That’s how rockets work: they spit stuff out the back to propel themselves ahead. Solar sails use the same principle, but turned around. Right now, we’ve got one example (the EmDrive) of something that may get around this fundamental law, assuming it’s not experimental error, but everything in space now and for the near future requires something to push on, or something to push against it. That puts a severe limit on craft sizes, speeds, and operating environments. Moving, for example, the Enterprise by means of conventional thrusters is a non-starter.

And then there’s the ultimate speed limit: light. Every idea we’ve got to get around the light-speed barrier is theoretical at best, crackpot at worst. Because space is huge, light’s speed limit hampers all aspects of space warfare. It’s a maximum for the transmission of information, too. By the time you detect that laser beam, it’s already hitting you.

Reality check

If you want hyperrealism in your space battles, then, you’ll have to throw out most of the book of received wisdom on the subject. The odds are severely stacked against it being anything at all like WWII aerial and naval combat. Instead, the common comparison among those who have researched the topic is to submarine warfare. Thinking about it, you can probably see the parallels. You’ve got relatively small craft in a relatively big, very hostile medium. Fighting takes place over great distances, at a fairly slow speed. Instead of holding up Star Trek as our example, maybe we should be looking more at Hunt for Red October or Das Boot.

But that’s if reality is what you’re looking for. In books, that’s all well and good, because you don’t have to worry about creating something flashy for the crowd. TV and movies need something more, and they can get it…for a price. That price? Realism.

Depending on the assumptions of your universe, you can tinker a bit with the form of space combat. With reactionless engines, a lot of the problems with ship size and range go away. FTL travel based around “jump points” neatly explains why so many ships would be in such close proximity. Depending on how you justify your “hyperspace” or “subspace”, you could even find a way to handwave banked flight.

Each choice you make will help shape the “style” of combat. If useful reactionless engines require enormous power inputs, for instance, but your civilization has also invented some incredibly efficient rockets on smaller scales, then that might explain a carrier-fighter mode of warfare. Conversely, if everything can use “impulse” engines, then there’s no need for waves of smaller craft. Need super-high acceleration in your fighters, but don’t have a way to counteract its effects? Well, hope you like drones, because that’s what would naturally develop. But if FTL space can only be navigated by a human intelligence (as in Dune), then you’ve got room for people on the carriers.

In the end, it all comes down to the effect you’re trying to create. For something like space combat, this may mean working “backward”. Instead of beginning with the founding principles of your story universe, it might be better to derive those principles from the style of fighting you want to portray. It’s not my usual method of worldbuilding, but it does have one advantage: you’ll always get the desired result, because that’s where you started. For some, that may be all you need.

Writing World War II

Today, there is no more popular war than World War II. No other war in history has been the focus of so much attention, attention that spans the gap between nonfiction and fiction. And for good reason, too. World War II gave us some of the most inspiring stories, some of the most epic battles (in the dramatic and FX senses), and an overarching narrative that perfectly fits so many of the common conflicts and tropes known to writers.

The list of WWII-related stories is far too big for this post to even scratch the surface, so I won’t even try. Suffice to say, in the 70 years since the war ended, thousands of works have been penned, ranging from the sappy (Pearl Harbor) to the gritty (Saving Private Ryan), from lighthearted romp (Red Tails) to cold drama (Schindler’s List). Oh, and those are only the movies. That’s not counting the excellent TV series (Band of Brothers, The Pacific) or the myriad books concerning this chapter of our history.

World War II, then, is practically a genre of its own, and it’s a very cluttered one. No matter the media, a writer wishing to tackle this subject will have a harder time than usual. Most of the “good” stories have been done, and done well. In America, at least, many the heroes are household names: Easy Company, the Tuskegee Airmen, the USS Arizona and the Enola Gay. The places are etched into our collective memory, as well, from Omaha Beach and Bastogne to Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima, and Hiroshima. It’s a crowded field, to put it mildly.

Time is running out

But you’re a writer. You’re undaunted. You’ve got this great idea for a story set in WWII, and you want to tell it. Okay, that’s great. Just because something happened within the last century doesn’t get you out of doing your homework.

First and foremost, now is the last good chance to write a WWII story. By “now”, I mean within the next decade, and there’s a very good reason for that. This is 2016. The war ended right around 70 years ago. Since most of the soldiers were conscripted, many right out of high school, or young volunteers, they were typically about 18 to 25 years old when they went into service. The youngest WWII veterans are at least in their late 80s, with most in their 90s. They won’t live forever. We’ve seen that in this decade, as the final World War I veterans passed on, and an entire era left living memory.

Yes, there are uncountably many interviews, written or recorded, with WWII vets. The History Channel used to show nothing else. But nothing compares to a face-to-face conversation with someone who literally lived through history. One of the few good things to come out of my public education was the chance to meet one of the real Tuskegee Airmen, about twenty years ago. The next generation of schoolchildren likely won’t have that same opportunity.

Give it a shot

Whether through personal contact or the archives and annals of a generation, you’ll need research. Partly, that’s for the same reason: WWII is within living memory, so you have eyewitnesses who can serve as fact-checkers. (Holocaust deniers, for instance, will only get bolder once there’s no one left who can directly prove them wrong.) Also, WWII was probably the most documented war of all time. Whatever battle you can think of, there’s some record of it. Unlike previous conflicts, there’s not a lot of room to slip through the cracks.

On the face of it, that seems to limit the space available for historical fiction. But it’s not that bad. Yes, the battles were documented, as were many of the units, the aircraft, and even the strategies. However, they didn’t write down everything. It’s easy enough to pick a unit—bonus points if it’s one that was historically wiped out to the man, so there’s no one left to argue—and use it as the basis for your tale.

And that highlights another thing about WWII. War stories of older times often fixate on a single soldier, a solitary hero. With World War II, though, we begin to see the unit itself becoming a character. That’s how it worked with Band of Brothers, for instance. And this unit-based approach is a good one for a story focused on military actions. Soldiers don’t fight alone, and so many of the great field accomplishments of WWII were because of the bravery of a squad, a company, or a squadron.

If your story happens away from the front lines, on the other hand, then it’s back to individuals. And what a cast of characters you have. Officers, generals, politicians, spies…you name it, you can find it. But these tend to be more well-known, and that does limit your choices for deviating from history.

Diverging parallels

While the war itself is popular enough, as are some of the events that occurred at the same time, what happened after is just as ripe for storytelling. Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle (based on the Philip K. Dick story of the same name) is one such example of an alternate WWII, and I’ve previously written a post that briefly touched on another possible outcome.

I think the reason why WWII gets so much attention from the alternate-history crowd is the potential for disaster. The “other” side—the Axis—was so evil that giving them a victory forces a dystopian future, and dystopia is a storyteller’s favorite condition, because it’s a breeding ground for dramatic conflict and tension. And there’s also a general sense that we got the best possible outcome from the war; thus, following that logic, any other outcome is an exercise in contrast. It’s not the escapism that I like from my fiction, but it’s a powerful statement in its own right, and it may be what draws you into the realm of what-ifs.

The post I linked above is all about making an alternate timeline, but I’ll give a bit of a summary here. The assumption is that everything before a certain point happened exactly as it did, but one key event didn’t. From there, everything changes, causing a ripple effect up to the present. For World War II, that’s only 70 years, but that’s more than enough time for great upheaval.

Most people will jump to one conclusion there: the Nazis win. True, that’s one possible (but unlikely, in my opinion) outcome, but it’s not the only one. Some among the allies argued for a continuation of the war, moving to attack the Soviets next. That would have preempted the entire Cold War, with all the knock-on effects that would have caused. What if Japan hadn’t surrendered? Imagine a nuclear bomb dropped on Tokyo, and what that would do to history. The list goes on, ad infinitum.

Fun, fun, fun

Any genre fits World War II. Any kind of story can be told within that span of years. Millions of people were involved, and billions are still experiencing its reverberations. Although it’s hard to talk of a war lasting more than half a decade as a single event, WWII is, collectively speaking, the most defining event of the last century. It’s a magnet for storytelling, as the past 70 years have shown. In a way, despite the horrors visited upon the world during that time, we can even see it as fun.

Too many people see World War II as Hitler, D-Day, Call of Duty, and nukes. But it was far more than that. It was the last great war, in many ways. And great wars make for great stories, real or fictional.

Magic and tech: defenses

Last time, we looked at how magic can augment a civilization’s offenses. Now, let’s turn to the other side of the coin and see what we can do about protecting ourselves against such force. It’s time to look at defense.

In the typical fantasy setting, sans magic, the common personal defense is, of course, armor. Sword-and-sorcery fiction often throws in some sort of spell-based defense, anything from walls of force to circles of protection to arrow-deflecting fields. And it’s a fairly common thing to give most potential offensive magic some sort of counterbalance. (The spell that can’t be blocked or resisted usually has a very good reason, and it’ll probably be a superweapon.) First, though, let’s look at what the mundane world has to offer.

Real-world protection

For personal protection, armor of various sorts has been around for millennia. Just about anything can be used as an armor material, as long as it does the job of preventing puncture or dissipating kinetic energy. Cloth, leather, many kinds of metal, wood, paper…you name it, somebody’s probably made armor from it. Exactly which material is used will depend on a civilization’s technological status, their geography (mo metal deposits means no metallic armor), their cultural outlook on warfare, the local climate, and many other factors. In general, though, pretty much everybody will use some armor, stories of naked Viking berserkers notwithstanding.

In the time period we’re focusing on in this series, the later Middle Ages, the best armor tended to be made of metal. But metal was relatively expensive, so not every single levied soldier is going to be running around in full plate. The best armor would be had by those with the means to procure it: nobles, knights, and the like. A well-equipped army will have better protection, naturally, while hurried musters of villagers will net you a company of men in whatever they could find, just like with weapons.

Remember that armor is designed as protection first, and most of its qualities will follow. The main type of injury it was protecting against was puncture—cutting and stabbing. Blunt trauma a very distant runner-up. We’ll take a look at medicine in a future post, but it’s helpful to think about how deadly even the smallest open wounds were back then. Without antibiotics or a working knowledge of sanitation and antiseptics, infection and sepsis were far more commonplace and far more dangerous. The best medicine was not to be wounded in the first place, and most armors show this.

Armor evolves alongside weapons. That’s why, once gunpowder spread to every battlefield in Europe, the heavier types of armor began to fall out of fashion. When fifty or more pounds of plate could no longer render you impervious to everything, why bother wearing it in the first place? (In modern times, materials science has advanced enough to create new plate that can take a shot, and now we see heavier armor coming back into vogue.)

Shields, in a sense, are nothing more than handheld armor. Some of them, depending on the culture, might have specialized defenses for a particularly common kind of attack. Others will instead use more of a weaker material, like your typical round shield made of hardwood. Again, guns tended to make most shields obsolete, at least until science could catch up. Today’s riot shields would make a 14th-century soldier salivate, but they’re based on the same old principles.

Larger-scale defenses work a different way. The usual suspects for city protection are walls, ramparts, moats, killing fields, and the like. Each one has its own purpose, its own specific target. Some of them fell by the wayside, victims of progress—how many modern cities have walls?—and some were remade to keep up. Most of them represent a significant allocation of materials and labor; bigger cities can afford that, but smaller towns might not be able to.

Magically reinforced

When the world becomes more dangerous as a result of weaponized magic, it stands to reason that new defenses will be developed to protect against such threats. One of the best ways of preventing injury, as we know, is never being hit at all. A spell to sharpen one’s senses lets a soldier react more quickly to an attack, meaning that there’s a better chance of dodging it. But that’s a waste of magical talent. Armies can comprise hundreds or even thousands of soldiers, and there’s not enough time (or enough mages) to enchant them all on the eve of battle.

Our “easy out” of stores of magical energy won’t help much here, so what can we do? Since personal defenses are, well, personal, and we’ve already said that very few people are mages, it doesn’t seem like we have a lot of options. Enchanted materials are the best bet. Armor can be fortified against breaking, making it harder to penetrate. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start, and it will take a lot of heat off our soldiers.

It’ll also have a secondary effect, one that will come to the fore in later years. Harder, stronger materials push back the date of gunpowder-induced obsolescence by quite a while. A fortified plate across your chest won’t make you not feel a bullet, but it’ll stop that bullet from piercing your skin and hitting something vital. Like Kevlar jackets today, these would cause the impact energy to spread out, which lowers the pressure on any one spot. That’s enough to save lives, especially if the enchantment isn’t too costly. And it wouldn’t be, because it’s valuable enough to research better ways of doing it.

Fortified shields benefit in the same way, but there we get a side bonus. Shields can become stronger or they can become lighter. The second option might be a better one, if mobility is the goal.

Protecting against magical attacks is far tougher. Wards are the best way in our setting, but they have a severe downside: one ward only counters one specific type of attack. We’ve seen that magic gives us a bunch of new weapons. Warding against all of them is inconvenient at best, impossible at worst. This is a case for good espionage (another post idea!) and scouting—if you know what to expect, you’ll be able to defend against it. Still, armor can hold a few different wards, and those who can afford it will likely invest in a bit of extra protection.

On the large scale, we see the same ideas, just bigger. Wards can be made on walls, for example, and a gate can receive a fortifying enchantment. The increased size makes these ludicrously expensive, but can you put a price on the lives of your citizens? Moats, however, become practically useless, and drawbridges are little more than a degenerate case of a gate.

Picking up the pieces

Besieged settlements in our magical setting are far more perilous than anything medieval Europe knew. In pitched battles, too, the advantage will tend to go to the attacker. That isn’t too far off from what happened in our own world, from the Renaissance to the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Once gunpowder reigned supreme, defense took a back seat.

It’s the strategy and tactics that will change the most. Protracted sieges are less of a risk for the offensive side, as you can always bomb the city into oblivion. Staying in one place will only get you killed, so guerilla warfare becomes much more attractive for an outnumbered foe. It might be better for a defender to give up the city and work from the shadows as an organized resistance movement.

Magic, then, creates an asymmetry in warfare. This little bit of it gives the offense the edge. Defense needs a lot more help. Of course, it’s said that the best defense is a good offense. In our magical world, that won’t be so much a witty aphorism as a standard doctrine.

Magic and tech: weapons

It’s a given that, no matter what the setting, many people will want to know the available methods for hurting someone. In RPGs (whether video games or old-school pen and paper), that’s especially true, since combat is such a major part of the most popular role-playing games. Even written works require conflict, and military conflict is the easiest and most familiar form.

Weapons go back almost as far as humanity itself. Any culture can make spears and knives, even before the advent of metalworking. (And don’t neglect those older materials. Mayan obsidian blades could be sharper than any contemporary European sword.) Bows, bolas, blowpipes, and a hundred other “ancient” weapons can be used in a perfectly mundane world, and there’s no reason why they wouldn’t also exist in our magical realm. But they won’t be the only options…

The true path

Not everybody used swords. I know that’s a common trope in fantasy, but it’s just not accurate. Swords were expensive, requiring skilled craftsmanship, quality materials, and more than a bit of time. It might be feasible for a company of 100 men to all be armed with swords, but not an entire army.

Spears are a good alternative. They’re cheap—nothing more than a point on a pole. Unlike swords, which you needed at least some training to use (“Stick ’em with the pointy end” only gets you so far), spears are user-friendly. And, in a pinch, a pitchfork or spade can fill in. Something like a spear would form the backbone of a mundane army. There would be swordsmen, of course, but they’re more likely to be officers or other leaders.

Most other melee weapons are situational. Pikes are great against cavalry, for example, but cumbersome when fighting foot soldiers. Axes, polearms, and all the other nifty items in your favorite RPG’s weapons section have their own ups and downs. They’ll have their uses, but they won’t be widespread. However, armies of this era were anything but regular. Even trained forces could end up using weapons they weren’t overly familiar with, and the peasant rabble might turn up with whatever they could find.

On the ranged side, things aren’t much better. Bows are ubiquitous, particularly in medieval Europe. (English longbows, as we know, were a game-changer.) Crossbows are another option—and they go back a lot further than people think—but they have the problem of being slower and more complex. Other choices, like slings, have situations where they’re useful; a bit of thought should help you come up with something.

And don’t forget artillery. The catapult, trebuchet, scorpion, onager, and so on all have a long history. Every single one of them has been wholly obsolete since the first cannon, but most fantasy is set slightly before the invention of gunpowder, so they’re all you’ve got. Some are siege weapons, intended to wreak havoc on a walled city, while others are what we would now call anti-personnel weaponry.

And the other side

With magic, more efficient and deadly means of attack are possible. We’ve already decided that there aren’t mages running around throwing fireballs, so that’s off the table, but all that means is that the magical weaponry will be more subtle, yet no less devastating.

Magical energy in this setting, as we know from earlier entries in this series, can be converted to force. We’ve used that to great effect to provide motive power, but we know how force scales: F = ma. The same energy that pushes a magical “car” up to a few miles per hour could send a tiny ball of, say, lead, to a seriously high velocity. Who needs gunpowder when magic can do the same thing? That one was almost trivial, and mages worked it out a while back. Now, every regiment has an assortment of what we might consider magic-powered guns. They’re too expensive to be given to every common soldier, but they’ve all but replaced crossbows, and longbows have been relegated to sieges. (Unlike the real world, where cannons mostly came first, the rules of magic mean that handguns are much easier to make.)

But it doesn’t stop there. Magic helps with humble bladed weapons, by means of sharpening and endurance enchantments. Artillery gets an extra oomph from magical power, but its true value there lies in shot varieties. Burning and smoke are a cinch for the greenest of mages; in a catapult, the effect is better than any boiling oil or barrel of pitch. And, of course, any soldier can benefit from a stamina boost.

What does all this do to the battlefields of our magical setting? For the full answer, we’ll have to wait and see the other aspects of fighting, such as defenses. We can say quite a bit now, though. In general, our magical kingdom’s battles will tend to resemble those of a couple hundred years later. Think more Late Renaissance than High Middle Ages, except without the cannons.

Not everyone has guns, so the largest part of the fighting will still be hand-to-hand, with swords and spears and all the rest. In place of a contingent of archers will be magical gunners, armed with ever more powerful dealers of death. They won’t match today’s high-powered rifles, but they wouldn’t be out of place in the American Revolution, in terms of their effect on the enemy.

Artillery will look more medieval, but there are a few differences. With magic replacing the…ancillary supplies for shot, artillery forces will be a bit less exposed. That means they’ll be free to take more risks, to advance more quickly. Oddly enough, they won’t be as much use in a siege, at least until they get right up to the gates. Circumstances converge to make artillery very good at distance (because it’ll still out-range anything else) and up close (because it can do the most damage), but not so great in the middle.

Other uses

As we know, weaponry isn’t limited to the battlefield. Personal weapons are a feature of any culture, as are the rules governing them. For everything except the magic-powered guns, little will change in this regard. Openly carrying a weapon is still a symbol of ill intent, drawing it more so. Hidden weapons will be harder to find, because they can be smaller or disguised as something innocuous, but mages can point out magical items.

Assassination is easier in the magical kingdom. That’s unfortunate, but not unexpected. With the greater power available, not everyone will see the need for greater responsibility. It’s almost self-balancing, since everyone knows how easy it is, sort of like Mutually Assured Destruction. Blood feuds can erupt into a war in the streets, but that’s not too different from the real world of that time.

The original use for many weapons was killing animals, and this is only helped by magic. Ask any hunter: guns are far better than bows. That’ll be true even when the bullets are powered by the invisible force of magical energy. (This could have environmental issues—hunting to extinction is much easier—but that can wait for a later post.)

All told, adding magic to weaponry has nearly the same effects as adding gunpowder. The world becomes more dangerous, but many new possibilities appear. New avenues of research open up. To fight the growing offense, the mages will be asked to create new defenses. And that will be the subject of the next post in the series: how to protect oneself.