Friday, December 18, 2009

The Sci Fi Military Paradigm

A few days ago Linnea Sinclair, author of a series of hard SF romances, (no that's not a paradox) posed this question on the FFandP loop:

Why is the Navy the model for Science Fiction military, not the Air Force ?

I thought about this for a while and came up with the following (non exhaustive) reasons:

1. Long distances = long transit times, logically requiring self-sufficient craft with long linger times, i.e. ships. You can't explore while doing a flyover.

2. Early SF writers, notably E. E. Smith, Heinlein, Asimov, etc., grew up in an era when Naval power was supreme and airplanes had severely limited range. The paradigm stuck.

3. SF writers tend to think of space as the equivalent of the unexplored earth in the age of sail, hence ships. Which is sort of like #1

4. Space, like the ocean, is vast and mostly empty. Important events occur at choke points where adversaries have a compelling interest. (Planetary orbit, Jump points -- Trafalgar, the Tsushima straits.) Forces must go there and stay to project power. Navy business, not Air Force.

5. Ships with crews and long voyages afford more dramatic possibilities.

6. The Navy is neater. (Apologies to all my AFROTC buddies and the USMC)

The earliest writer to envision a believable galaxy spanning civilization was E. E. "Doc" Smith. His 'Lensmen' series inspired the likes of George Lucas and Babylon 5's creator (whose name I can't remember.) It also inspired the very first video game, 'Spacewar,' in which 2 ships try to shoot each other while maneuvering around a star. With gravity. They inspired me too, and I'm sure a whole lot of others.

Well, the point is Smith envisioned huge fleets of ships fighting in 3 dimensional space, (anyone remember the "Cone of Battle?") and such was his influence that the paradigm stuck.

Much SF (notably David Drake's Honor Harrington series) borrows unasamedly from C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower, and the fighting concepts of the age of sail. Others come all the way up to WWII, or as game designer Frank Chadwick commented, "Jutland or Trafalgar with a touch of Midway for spice."

And that brings up the question, with all we know now about string theory, the physics of hyperspace, the alternate world hypothesis and multi dimensional math, what should the model for Science Fiction military be?

Well the answer is obvious. The Navy, of course. It's neater!

I welcome all comments that are fit to print.


  1. You certainly have thought this out. How about a naval ship holds more crew than the any known aircraft and thus opens the door for more conflicts and drama?

  2. Funny - but it never occured to me that a naval paradigm did indeed "fit" much of our classic SciFi. Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, the SG's - all of the best series are "boat-based"! The ship indeed represents a microcosm of our larger 'verse. Nice analogy.

    Diane Nelson

  3. That's very cool Bart, I've always been a huge SciFi fan. I even read some quantum physics to get ideas for my alternative universe story. Not that understand string theory, etc. but some of it is fascinating and parts can be worked into our stories.

  4. great post Bart, I never really thought about this, but you are right. I do tend to think more along the lines of Navy (mostly for the reasons you listed) when I think about space exploration.

    The only standout, for me, in this is SG1 (Stargate franchise). They were all airforce members, so I tend to keep that in mind while watching all the SG franchise spin offs.

  5. Right, Kathy. We don't have to be physicists to use physics in our stories. But we can at least get the physics right, notwithstanding that there are usually 3-4 competing theories about how stuff REALLY works, and sometimes all of them are right.

  6. Sorry guys, I'm going with the Air Force on this one.

    Call me biased as an AF aerospace engineer's wife, but guess which branch of the military is developing most of our space vehicles. I'll give you a hint, it's not the Navy.

    To have nautical terms stick in the future of space travel, we'd have to assume that ship builders and designers are the ones developing the technology to get us into space, not aircraft builders and designers.

    Since most of our early jaunts into space will come from small craft built by aeronautical engineers, it is reasonable to assume that the larger "ships" and stations will develop out of the earlier smaller vessels based on air travel not sea travel, and carry their terminology with it.

    While I'll gladly salute the early history of SF, and the naval paradigms that they used to keep readers familiar with their strange new concepts, the Air Force rocks! And they like to keep things practical.