My spectacular output has been a little low recently, but there’s a good reason for it: I’ve been teaching myself math. The unfortunate thing is that it has been useless.
I wanted to write a Hard SF Epic of interplanetary war. But it turns out that that’s impossible, because interplanetary war is stupid.
Let me explain, but those of you who knew what delta-v was before they started reading already know what I’m about to say: Spaceships are expensive without magic. In Hard SF, magic is ‘anything that hasn’t been discovered yet’, or, put another way: ‘assuming the advances of science are conveniently flexible in the direction the story requires’. And I wanted to write a Hard SF epic with no magic.
I now know why all the Hard SF I've read that involves space also contains magic.
I won’t bore you with the math, but the massive costs makes the main problem political. Using reasonable projections of current technology, it costs more to create an effective space invasion force than any possible advantage from said invasion. Even caught in the most unlikely extremes of xenophobia, it would be cheaper to just blow up the enemy planet than to invade it. And when you’ve wandered into blowing-up-planets territory, you’re beyond magic. Besides, even xenophobes have accountants.
But David, you retort: people are stupid. They’ll do stupid things in the name of war. Awesome story! NOPE. Because interplanetary war is ‘Hard Stupid’.
“I’m going to blow myself up on a crowded bus!”
There’s always a few people who’ll do anything, because, as I mentioned: They’re stupid. But interplanetary war is so expensive that it requires more than a few morons egged on by a few assholes to get going.
“Let’s use a cheap resource to fuel our money-making consumption, but the resource makes parts of the Earth less habitable for humans at some later date when I am probably either (a) dead or (b) rich enough from money-making consumption to live somewhere habitable.”
I don’t want to make the point too hard, but most people believe this or it wouldn’t be happening. (With appropriate modification, it applies equally well to ‘causes of global climate change and species loss’ as it does to ‘economic super-bubbles’.)
Most Hard SF epics introduce enough magic to make interplanetary war Easy Stupid. Most egregious would be ‘Unobtainium’, where the infinite cost of the magic rock pays for the war (You know it’s magic because that has never worked in the real world either...). There’s also ‘easy FTL’ (The Mote in God’s Eye style with those intersteller teleporty lines) or ‘cryogenics’ (sleep your way to victory centuries later). Lastly, there’s the ‘You got your economics in my science!’, where economics and other soft sciences just aren’t worried about This is the literary equivalent of High Fantasy bringing in three kerbillion knights’a’horse in an otherwise sparsely populated low-feudal society (although there, I suppose, it would be called ‘you got your demographics in my Rule of Cool!’)
“Let’s spend one billion dollars to buy five hundred million dollars!”
It’s hard because not many people have a billion dollars while also being stupid. I was going to make a better example of Hard Stupid, but the only one I could think of was, oddly, interplanetary warfare. The rest are much harder, and more stupid. Also, I kept thinking of things that traded short-term profits for long-term stability, and realized that that is, in fact, ‘hard smart’, and beyond the scope of this article. Or Humanity? (Lagrangian Point Infinite Solar Power. Prove me wrong, make it happen.)
Start an interplanetary war, but wait for your opponent to bankrupt himself trying to invade you. Then surrender and purchase his planet.
Hence the SF Epic I’m going to actually write:
Who (i) Started a Solar War and Bet Heavily on Themselves
And (ii) Reaped the Whirlwind
Thus (iii) Becoming Landed Gentry Amongst the Stars:
And not just because it is my dream to become an astral gentleman. Wait for it, sometime in 2012. And if you like it, you’ll want to read the companion novella (to be included as an epilogue to the deluxe edition), told from the perspective of the ‘winning’ side:
A Love Story
(Worst title? Or the Worstest Title? Screw you, hypothetical critic! I like it.)
I would be remiss in my discussion of interplanetary war if I didn’t mention the Smart option: Interplanetary Trade, which can actually be made profitable under certain scenarios. And trade is just warfare by other, cheaper means. I can imagine writing about the Tai-Pan of the Sol System...
But then I remembered that there are no space pirates amongst these interplanetary shipping lanes, so who wants to read about THAT?
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