Nightwind Follow-Up, ch 21-22

So…chapters 21 and 22. Most of the reason that Nightwind Wednesday became Nightwind Thursday is because I simply did not believe I would have time to fully parse and discuss these chapters this week. There is just so much that needs to be unpacked.

Chapter 21 sets up your basic “crewmembers in captivity” plot. It adds in the “crewmembers in captivity to a technologically inferior alien race” angle in the process. Because that’s a thing that’s always necessary to add to the mix.

In terms of overall narrative arc the chapter doesn’t really bother me that much. The sudden switchover of the narrative view from Anderson to Gregory at the end is a rookie mistake, but the individual elements are interesting enough and I don’t think it’s badly written. It’s just a stock television sci-fi plot and it has no place in the book.

I did try to use it to show Anderson beginning to fully realize he’s in over his head. I attempted to turn that into a whole thing over the next few chapters of the book. So pay attention, people. There’s a whole sub-plot afoot!

What bothers me about it now is the technology, specifically the shuttlecraft. This whole thing is very Star Trek/Star Wars where the Nightwind is conveniently equipped with ships that can just kind of travel down into gravity wells and return at will. So I guess we need to unpack where these ideas work and where they don’t.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the alien planet has a gravitational pull reasonably close to Earth’s. We already know what it takes to break free of Earth’s gravity using a self-powered craft. It takes a whole shitload of thrust and a lot of fuel in the form of multi-stage rockets. This is the only reliable method we have for leaving Earth and our second-best option is the as-yet-unrealized space elevator, which is simply not an option in this scenario.[1]

This is a specific Earth and planets-similar-to-Earth problem that must be considered. It would make sense that Nightwind would carry shuttles that could travel to and from an asteroid or moon or even Mars. Let us consider, for a moment, the difference between the Apollo Lunar Lander and the Saturn V rocket. The Ascent Stage of the Lander carried some 6,000 pounds of propellant mass and managed 16,000 Newtons of force while thrusting if I’m reading this right.  The first stage of the Saturn V carried almost 4,500,000 pounds of fuel and developed 34,000 kiloNewtons of force. Since this wasn’t actually enough the second stage added another million pounds of propellant and nearly 5,000 kiloNewtons of thrust to get over the final stretch into space. All of those millions of pounds of fuel, by the way, were to get a bit over 300,000 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit. Buzz Aldrin could have practically jumped off of the moon and back to Ohio by comparison.

All of this is to say that it’s impractical, at best, for the Nightwind to use rocket-powered, well, anything as small craft. Although I am now imagining the starship Enterprise traveling the galaxy and exploring strange new worlds with a shitload of Saturn V rockets attached to the saucer section. That’s pretty funny.

The thing about rocketry is that it’s a functionally dead-end technology. We can’t really make rockets better. We can make them bigger. We can sand down the edges and refine the fuels and tweak the ratios and squeeze a little more performance out of them, but the rocket is a rocket. In the end the Saturn V was just a much larger V-2 rocket. This is why Wernher Von Braun got a ticket to the United States instead of the Nuremberg Trials after WWII. He was the best in the world at making rockets. The fact is that there may never be anyone better than Von Braun at making rockets and it won’t actually matter.

So this is where the “fiction” part of “science-fiction” must come into play. We know, for instance, that thanks to their stolen alien tech humans have the ability to create gravity. If they can create gravity it’s possible they can also negate gravity. This is a sticky point, though, since under traditional Newtonian physics it is actually possible to create an anti-gravity force equation. Under General Relativity not so much. Still, if we posit a magical technology that can create gravity on a spaceship we could, theoretically, posit a reverse switch on that machine that would make a ship gravitationally neutral or cut down its effective mass enough that gravity just kind of doesn’t apply.

Alternatively we could posit a propulsion device that works like a super rocket, creating massive thrust in exchange for very little fuel consumption. This creates a physics catch-22. Anything that’s significantly more efficient than a rocket would probably achieve that efficiency at the expense of thrust. Something with significantly more thrust than a rocket would either tear the craft it’s powering apart of do horrific damage to whatever happens to be caught in the backdraft. And this doesn’t even get to all of the math we currently have to go through to get a rocket into space in terms of things like launch windows. Also alien planets probably won’t have convenient rocket gantries just set up and waiting for us.

Given what we know now, then, the trip to an alien planet is probably one-way. Unless you drop your own Saturn V[2] and launch equipment down the gravity well on your way or bring your own space elevator. Both of these options seem sub-optimal in a hostile encounter. Luckily this is one of those places where people who want to read science fiction are probably going to just let it pass if you hand wave the whole thing away. We simply don’t think too hard about an Enterprise shuttle taking a joyride down a gravity well or the fact that the Millennium Falcon can take off from Mos Eisley and then scoot halfway across the galaxy to run into the Death Star.

So we mosey on along to the not-at-all scientifically impossible chapter 22.

I made reference to chapter 22 in last week’s follow-up when I said this:

“Do you remember General Hans Schroeder? I’ve taken to referring to him as General No Longer Appearing in this Picture. He actually got an entire story arc. This arc included a chapter that I genuinely don’t remember if I’ve gotten to yet that caused me to just stop writing the book for a while. I just had no fucking clue why I was writing that particular chapter.”

This, ultimately, might end up being one of the most important chapters I’ve ever written. But, obviously, it’s not going to be important because I like it or because it’s a pivotal chapter in this story. It taught me this: “One of the things I’ve learned about writing is that if something just isn’t working and you’re avoiding actually doing the work that means the thing you’re trying to write about probably doesn’t belong. If I, as the writer, am finding it impossible to force a chapter into a book that means that you, as the reader, will probably wonder why that chapter exists in the first place.”

The thing about chapter 22 isn’t that it’s a bad chapter. It’s actually a perfectly serviceable chapter in another book. It’s far from the best example of its type in the world, but it’s defensible as a description of ground combat. The combat itself is believable and the events are competently blocked out. Even though last week I couldn’t remember if I’d even gotten to the chapter yet when I was re-reading it I could still remember where everything was supposed to be in my head when I originally wrote it. So, hey, that’s a thing. The description of the setting could be punched up a bit, though.

The big problem with his chapter, as I’ve alluded to about a thousand times now, is that it exists in the first place. Why does the United Commonwealth have a standing Army? It seems unnecessary. And yet there it is, fighting itself. Because some of the commanders decided to throw in with Robert Laird. Why did they do that? Because I apparently thought that what this book really needed was a good, old-fashioned Tom Clancy-esque tank battle chapter. It doesn’t. I don’t know what else there really is to say about that, now that I think about it.

Also, there is a really weird mistake that stands out like a beacon. While infodumping about the Striker tank I make reference to it originally being based on the M1A4/Challenger III chassis. This is just a bizarre thing to read based on the fact that the M1 Abrams and the British Challenger don’t currently share a chassis. I believe I was attempting to imply that there would be a future version of the American and British Main Battle Tank where the two countries worked together. Which is fine in concept. In execution, though, the resulting weapons system wouldn’t be called the M1A4/Challenger III because it would be a whole new design and not an upgrade over an existing design. So it would be the Anglo-American Tanky McTankerface or something.

One of the more subtle problems with this chapter, though, is how it brings to light just how bass-akwards my worldbuilding was. The part where I detail the genesis of the Striker MBT seems to imply that a big part of the reason that the world came together was because everyone started using the same tank.

That’s just odd. If sharing weapons systems is all it takes to get countries to join together then the United States, Britain, and Russia would have become a single political entity during Lend-Lease. Unless I’m really mis-remembering my post-WWII history that didn’t happen.

There are only really two points I detailed for the creation of the United Commonwealth that I can think of right now. The first is that there was a war that threatened to blow up the whole world. The second was that everyone started using the same tank. This, then, caused everyone to say, “Hey, let’s all join together, give up our national sovereignty, and sing Kumbaya. Because that’s a thing that would happen.

I’ve mulled over the inherent problems of an origin story like that and you’ll be happy to know, dear reader, that I’ve changed things around quite a bit. What I have now is what I think is a pretty workable bit of worldbuilding. I’ve even managed to keep it almost believable and within the same timeline of the original. Although I’m not at all against tweaking the timeframe at this point.

What I have now is this: it’s the mid-21st Century and the world’s resources have noticeably dwindled. We’re on the verge of oil wars and water wars and resource wars and basic self-annihilation. The solution to this problem is probably in farming asteroids but it really sucks to get up to space to send ships off to the asteroids. The solution to the problem comes in the form of a scientific breakthrough: the discovery of a material that is actually strong enough to build a space elevator.

The task of building and administering the space elevator is handed off to the United Nations because they’re the only body that can guarantee fair access. The UN possesses the moral strength but lacks the strength of arms to enforce control. The US, Russia, and China are soon vying for control of the new space elevator, which is located in Brazil. War looks inevitable until an Anglo-French led coalition of nations steps in and gives Brazil enough support to threaten to expel America, Russia, and China from any access to the elevator. Everyone backs down and gets to work on the important task of mining asteroids.

The space elevator allows technological and scientific research to leap forward. New forms of propulsion ascend the ladder for testing.[3] Scientists also send up a whole bunch of awesome new space telescopes.

Breakthroughs in propulsion technology are announced at the same time the new space telescopes confirm a bunch of hypothesized and discover a bunch of new potentially habitable planets orbiting nearby stars. A new project to create colony ships is launched under the auspices of a brand-new replacement for the United Nations: the United Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has significantly more power than the UN and at this point the world is, for the most part, actually pretty determined to set differences aside and work for the common good.

So there we go. That’s a thing that I’ve actually put some thought into.

[1]This actually presents a huge problem in any narrative in space travel. In order to be realistic about visiting other planets using technology we know is possible a ship would be required to carry shuttles capable of deploying with their own multi-stage rockets to return or carry its own space elevator with it. Arthur C. Clarke posited the latter method in Songs of Distant Earth. It’s an interesting, if impractical, solution for Nightwind.

[2]Well, I suppose you could get away with a Titan II, which was what was used for the Gemini missions. I’ve used Saturn Vs in this bit specifically for the comparison between what it took to get a ship headed for the moon and what it took to get one back. For a sci-fi scenario you might be able to get away with simply achieving low orbit and letting the mothership pick the shuttle up. But, then again, taking a kilometer long battlecruiser into Low Earth Orbit might result in the obliteration of Cleveland by raining debris from a very expensive former warship. You might need a rocket that can carry a payload up into high orbit. Although that seems somewhat unlikely, given that the International Space Station doesn’t look like it could take too many hits from a railgun before it would turn into orbital confetti.

[3]I’ve gone with a super powerful ion engine as my main stab at it for the moment. I also threw antimatter-powered rockets in because that sounds cool.

One thought on “Nightwind Follow-Up, ch 21-22

  1. Nightwind has lasers. I feel that having a ship overhead with great big lasers could be an effective deterrent to attack; they shoot the shuttle, you shoot their fighter. But then, sending down some sort of expendable probe with a radio and loudspeakers might be a better starting point for first contact anyway.

    There are some interesting options for high-thrust as well as reasonably high-impulse drives, nuclear or antimatter thermal designs; we can’t build them now for engineering reasons, but they probably don’t involve any science we haven’t discovered yet. But they’re quite possibly the same designs as your non-Conduit-Drive space warships are already using, unless said warships are pootling around at 0.1g or less. Ion drives probably don’t have any high-thrust developments, though they’re still good for high impulse.

    Yeah, I was thinking of Harold Coyle when I got to the tank battle section. I can see you wanted a civil war on Earth, but unless they had an army ready for invading Mars or something the troops just aren’t there.

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