Nightwind Follow-Up, Chapters 12-13

Oh, chapters 12 and 13. Where do we begin?

When I was nineteen and trying to come up with a compelling villain I got most of my inspiration from action films and episodic TV of the ‘80s and ‘90s. This was probably the worst way to figure out how to write a villain. The villains of my youth were less “nuanced” and more “guys who pranced about on-screen with a big sign that said, ‘VILLAIN.’” The stroked their goatees, rubbed their shaved heads, and indiscriminately killed both enemies and disappointing subordinates.

So when I decided the book needed a villain I decided the book needed a VILLAIN. So I wrote Laird as a crazy person who stole a goddamn battleship as part of his greater plan to destroy the world. To save it. Or something. I don’t know, he’s crazy.

This general failing of villainy was a limitation of how we consumed television and movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I think. TV was episodic. There might have been some overarching story, but it was almost entirely villain-of-the-week type stuff. There’s really no time in 42 (or 21) minutes to explore the reasons why there’s a guy trying to destroy the world by causing every single volcano to erupt at once. There’s much hero-ing to be done. Movies were more about how awesome the hero was. So the villain was always off doing something completely over the top just to show off the fact that the hero was totally able to face punch a guy who’d kidnapped the President by turning the White House into a giant, angry robot badger into submission.

The villains’ plots and motivations rarely made any sense back in the day. That’s because the villains knew they were villains and they knew that it was their job to lose to the heroes. We saw the world in black and white and knew who was good and who was bad and so did the characters we put on screen.[1]

This is the ultimate failing of Laird as a character. He exists as a VILLAIN. He wants to destroy humanity. Why? Because that’s what VILLAINs do.

There are some interesting ideas around him. He accumulated power by rallying the disenfranchised. He then used his organization to misdirect and obfuscate his true purpose. That sort of thing is always nice.

He also seems to have a nearly supernatural ability to influence events outside of Earth’s gravity well. I had to find a way to explain that. The end result of this particular part of the plot is not pretty. But let’s just leave it at that.

Meanwhile, Laird’s plan also relies on the United Commonwealth completely and totally falling apart at the drop of a hat. The idea is that humanity is at peace and finally trying to stay there. We’re exploring space and colonizing the stars themselves. We’ve functionally abolished war. Then the moment we discover there are actual aliens out there and that they might not be nice to us all of humanity responds with, “Fuck it, where’s my shotgun?” and goes off to kill everyone they see.

…yeah…

So here’s the thing. There’s zero doubt in my mind that some amount of residual anger between groups would remain after a one world government is adopted. I mean, this is humanity. But if the European Union dissolves tomorrow I doubt that Germany will be rolling on Paris by Monday. Moreover, in times of chaos humans have a tendency to rally together. They will sometimes rally together to go after other groups of humans, true, but I basically imagined everyone getting the news that there were potentially hostile aliens out there and just taking to each other with meat cleavers because why go on living?

There’s also another huge hole in the plot as I originally imagined it. Well, three, actually. Why doesn’t the United Commonwealth or Earth Command respond to news that hostile aliens had blown up the colony ship with, “Oh, hey, check this out. It’s our first-ever faster-than-light battlecruiser, the Nightwind. We’ve got two more that are almost done, too. Don’t worry, people, we got this.”

I have no good answers to this, by the way. It’s, um, it’s why I’m rewriting the whole book rather than making some minor changes like I thought I’d be doing when I first set out on this project.

So let’s go to chapter 13.

Poor Horatio Semmes. Poor, poor Horatio Semmes. Everything he does turns to ashes in his hands.

There’s not all that much I can say about this chapter that I haven’t already said elsewhere about major plot failings. This is another example of me not being able to conceive of a large enough universe for all of these characters to occupy. Further, it suffers from my desire to have humanity nearly wipe itself off of the face of the universe.

So, basically, Horatio Semmes has to blow up the Moon. Because if he doesn’t do it who will?

Either way, I’m pretty sure that there would be safeguards to protect against the events of chapter 13. I mean, there’s my general conceit that humanity doesn’t know how to war anymore, but they have to be smart enough to think, “Hey, can we make it so we don’t accidentally blow up the Moon?”[2] Like, y’know, auto-destruct mechanisms or manual overrides or IFF readers or something. Just arming spaceships with Vietnam-era AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles seems pretty stupid.[3]

My big problem with this chapter when I look back on it, though, is geography. I don’t think I bothered to look up a map of the moon before writing it and it shows. Actually, I think I chose to “research” by playing Battle Zone. That was the game where you were in a hovertank on the Moon killing Soviets in hovertanks during the Cold War, right? I’m pretty sure there were moon canyons there. Also, that game was a lot of fun.

Moreover, I have a hard time believing there would be a single colony on the Moon at this point in humanity’s existence. I mean, we’re talking about a couple of centuries after humanity started colonizing the solar system. The Moon’s just next door. It stands to reason that there would be at least two colonies. And each of those colonies probably has two Denny’s so when bored teenagers can say, “Let’s not go to that Denny’s, let’s go to the good one.”

So, yes. That’s chapters 12 and 13. Let us never speak of them again.

——————–

[1]One of the reasons I absolutely love Venture Brothers is because it takes that entire idea and runs with it to the very limits of absurdity. There’s the Guild of Calamitous Intent, which is the governing body for all supervillains and determines which of the heroes the guild members can arch. There are rules, dammit!

[2]And, no, you didn’t read the chapter wrong. Semmes didn’t blow up the Moon. That’s just fun to say.

[3]The entire combat sequence in this chapter is actually based on my love of fighter combat. The end is based on reading more than my fair share of accounts of air combat using the old AIM-9B over Vietnam. The heat seekers on the AIM-9B were, well, pretty terrible. If the missiles lost track of the initial target or were launched when the firing aircraft was not properly positioned they could, and would, lock on to any target that presented a properly notable heat signature, including friendly aircraft and the Sun.

3 thoughts on “Nightwind Follow-Up, Chapters 12-13

  1. My basic approach to villains is: nobody who is functionally sane thinks of himself as the bad guy. They always have justifications in their own minds. Getting inside the villain’s head can be hard work, but to my mind it’s essential in order to make villains into people. I think Isaiah Berlin wrote something along the lines of: true tragedy is not good against evil, but good against good. And even when the goal of one side is “blow up the world”, he thinks he’s doing the right thing.

    The way to start an internecine war may well be to make it the cause of the breakup. French TV goes on about how the Germans are hoarding all the money; German TV goes on about those spendthrift French. Or whatever. Appeals to racism and xenophobia will usually take root somewhere.

    Yeah, my second thought on 13 was a range gate. If you’re firing a Harpoon, which is not a sophisticated missile by modern standards, you basically tell it “go here, turn on your radar and attack the biggest thing you see, but if you don’t pick up anything in the next ten miles self-destruct”. Also, a missile that’s going to kill one spacecraft probably shouldn’t have enough explosive payload to kill a whole colony

    My first thought was that it’s a whole lot harder to have a twisty fight through canyons when you’re in vacuum. Aircraft can pull up, trading some speed for a direction change, but if a spacecraft wants to do the same thing it has to thrust both to cancel its speed in direction A and to build up speed in direction B. And most engines only push hard in one direction, so it’s going to be tumbling into lots of different orientations to achieve that.

    (My third thought was that you didn’t specify the missiles’ payload. There are meteoroid showers on the Moon, so a plain old explosive missile shouldn’t be doing much damage against a dome that can withstand them. Nuclear warheads would work.)

    • You know, you put way more thought into the Phoenix’s armament in that comment than I did when I was writing the book. I can say the missile’s weren’t nukes, as Anderson’s horror at Nightwind being so equipped was something I tried to put across.

      The twisty fights in no atmosphere point is definitely interesting. I was very much doing the George Lucas “base space combat on WWII dogfights” thing, although I was on F-4s over Vietnam. I have since read quite a bit more mil sf and also science stuff in general.

      The thing I’ve come to conclude is this: speed is life. You want your opponent to target you where you ain’t. Since momentum is really hard to change when your main drive is pointing in one direction that means you need to do something else. I’ve also learned that thrusters in the “rocket pointed off to the side” sense really aren’t a thing to any great extent and that current technology actually uses reaction wheels, which are basically just wheels that spin and let physics to the work.

      So what I’ve put together for the rewrite is that step 1 is speed. Step 2 is a combination of reaction wheels and rocket thrusters creating random vector changes. Step 3 is electronic countermeasures.

      Interestingly enough, this doesn’t really hurt my notion of the Nightwind’s design. My initial idea was to have these 4 huge engines that could fire either fore or aft in any combination. That makes less sense knowing what I know now, since I’m pretty sure that the forces in question would rip a ship that size in half. But it also seems to me that a ship that size wouldn’t be well served by reaction wheels and thrusters. But if you programmed the main drives to change thrust at random intervals to aid the tried-and-true methods…

      • There’s a quote I’m very fond of:

        Joe [Johnston] would show me a shot of a Japanese Zero flying left to right in front of a conning tower of an aircraft carrier and say, “The aircraft carrier is the Death Star, the Zero is an X-wing. Do a board like that.”
        – Paul Huston, in Star Wars Storyboards: The Original Trilogy

        Speed isn’t life. Varying speed is life. Actually, varying acceleration is life; your ship can be boosting at a steady 200 gravities and it’ll still be dead easy to hit.

        For non-smart weapons (lasers, guns, non-homing missiles), it’s easy to calculate how much acceleration potential you need in order to be able to guarantee a miss – basically you need ½at² to be bigger than half the longest dimension of your ship, where a is your acceleration and t is targetting sensor lag (usually lightspeed) plus the travel time of the weapon. You can break this down into different dimensions too. But even in a simple scenario where you can’t rotate the target ship, if it can vary its boost by enough it may still be able to dodge away from the incoming fire.

        One argument points to spherical ships, because that gives you the lowest rotational inertia; you can then spin them quickly with manoeuvre jets or reaction wheels to point the main drive in a new direction. I have a space-fighter visual design from years ago that’s basically a small pod with crew, gun and drive, surrounded by a framework with control jets mounted at the ends.

        Ken Burnside has done a fair bit on this; he’s very opinionated, and has recently thrown in his lot with the Sad Puppies, but he sometimes still has useful things to say.

        And of course you know about Atomic Rockets, right? Under projectrho.com.

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