Getting Started

DISCLAIMER: I am not a rocket scientist, merely an amateur that has read a lot of books. Any and all of the information on these pages may be incorrect or inaccurate.

But since I have yet to find a website like this written by a real live rocket scientist, I had to write it myself, as unqualified as I am. However, if I do put inaccurate information on this site, occasionally Internet readers will send me corrections. This is the "stone soup" method of website design, with me supplying the stones. Frankly this website is a glorified term paper. See me as sort of a scribe, not so much as an author.

And despite what some of you believe, this website is not written by a team of people, it is just me. I do it all alone with little or no help (except for those kind souls who point out inaccuracies, alternate data, later developements, and spelling mistakes). So cut me some slack.

Serious students who encounter interesting concepts in this website are encouraged to go to the primary sources for the real information, instead of relying upon my paraphrasing and possibly-out-of-context quotations. I do my best to include hot links to the primary sources for that very reason. I write the paraphrasing sections for the benefit of people who are not familiar with aerospace and nuclear physics terminology, jargon, and phrasing (i.e., I'm trying to translate the material from Science Speak into English, and pointing out subtle easy-to-miss ramifications). In the data blocks I sometime do calculations to fill in missing figures (mostly calculating exhaust velocity given specific impulse). Since I have been known to make stupid mistakes in arithmetic I label my calculated figures in yellow like this. Double check any yellow figures yourself before using them.

There is some controversy over a few technical details on this site. If you disagree with something you read on this site, first check this page. If you still disagree, your best bet is to go to the ToughSF server on Discord, the Usenet newsgroup or the IO group SFConSim-l and present your case there. Be warned, those people are hard SF pros so be respectful or face the consequences. If your disagreement survives, I will incorporate your contributions.

Be told: since this site is so huge, and people tend to just look at one or two pages, I found it useful to repeat identical stretches of text on several pages. That way people will not have to jump around so much. So don't complain if you find yourself reading the same thing twice.

I illustrate many concepts with quotes from science fiction novels. This not only makes the concept more clear, it also allows one to see it happening in context. Secondly it gives a bit of "slice of life" illustration of how the concept relates to the world of the novel. Thirdly I tend to use novels that I personally think are forgotten and under-rated classsics, hoping you will be intrigued enough to look up a copy of the novel. In that case, look up the story or novel in The Internet Speculative Fiction Database. If the book is out of print, second-hand copies can often be found via

Carol Maxwell: "What makes you think you can discover anything? Who are you?"

Allan Maxwell: "Nobody. Nobody at all. But the secrets of the universe don't mind. They reveal themselves to nobodies who care."


      Of course, propagandizing was exactly what Jays was doing.

     Jays had said on a multitude of talk shows how he was dismayed by the Shuttle program—a clumsy, compromised, primitive design, just a V–2 with air conditioning, it seemed to him—and by the lack of any serious consideration being given to any more advanced follow-up.
     For the fact was there were smarter ways to get into space, to reach the Moon and beyond. For instance, orbits of spacecraft passing between the Earth and the Moon were actually unstable, because of the tweakings of the lumpy gravity fields of Earth, Moon and sun. If you gave your spacecraft the right kind of push, in the right direction, at the right time, you could use that instability to make your spacecraft drift to the Moon. It would take longer to get there than the three days it had taken him, but that wasn’t necessarily a problem, for it would be a fraction of the cost in fuel and mass in low Earth orbit.
     “Then,” he said, “once you are on the Moon, there’s oxygen, and water, and materials for rocket fuel, and materials to make glass and concrete…Once you are on the Moon, with all those resources out of Earth’s deep, heavy gravity well, hell, you can go anywhere!
     It was a vision he shared with a handful of others, inside and outside NASA: how, with a little imagination, the Solar System could, after all, be opened up for colonization, with the Moon as the key.

     Unfortunately, nobody with any power, financial or political, wanted to listen. Even to somebody who had been there.
     So he began to work in more subtle ways. He joined the board of the National Space Society, for instance. He published his conceptual studies wherever he could, and plugged them on chat shows. He started to work his ideas into his fictions, building up a body of work that, piece by piece, it seemed to Geena, amounted to a kind of schematic of the future, a ladder to history.

     Robert Heinlein had done something similar, back in the ’40s and ’50s, and so nurtured the minds of the youngsters who would go on to run NASA, and touch the Moon. Now—in less optimistic times, with a deeper understanding of how God-awful difficult the whole enterprise would be—Jays Malone was trying the same trick.

From MOONSEED by Stephen Baxter (1998)

The point of this website is to allow a science fiction writer or game designer to get the scientific details more accurate. It is also to help science fiction readers and game players to notice when the media they are enjoying diverges from scientific reality. Because sometimes it is hard to tell.

This web site might not be an adequate crib-sheet for media science fiction, but I'm doing my best.

If you do not understand why space exploration is so important, just watch this video. Be sure to make it full screen.


Keep in mind that whether you are designing a rocket for your SF novel, or for a science fictional wargame, the ship can be the center of attention. Think about the proud series of vessels which formed the focus for high adventure. Vessels with names like Enterprise, Serenity, Rocinante, Discovery, Seaview (yes, that's a submarine but the principle applies), Luna, United Planets Star Cruiser C57D, Space Battleship Yamato, Battlestar Galactica, Millennium Falcon, Fireball XL5, Polaris, Space Beagle, Valley Forge, Dark Star, and the Nautilus (another submarine). And ships that never quite made it, like the Strategic Star Command Galactic Cruiser Leif Ericson. In many cases, the ship becomes a character in and of themselves.

The more real you make the ship, the more real the rest of the story will be.


If man survives for as long as the least successful of the dinosaurs—those creatures whom we often deride as nature's failures—then we may be certain of this: for all but a vanishingly brief instant near the dawn of history, the word 'ship' will mean— 'spaceship.'

Arthur C. Clarke, quoted by Hugh Downs, Ad Astra, Fall 2008

Like the Romantics before them, genre-sf writers have generally been on the side of Faust, convinced that the quest for knowledge was a sacred one, no matter how fondly a jealous God might prefer blind faith. Characters in bad Hollywood Monster Movies might be able to sign off with a resigned admission that "there are things Man was not meant to know", but nothing could be more alien to the ethos of genre sf.

Even in early pulp sf, technology was a means rather than an end, and, however much Campbell's writers were inclined to the celebration of the competence of the engineer, there remained a visionary element in their work which centralized the Conceptual Breakthrough as the peak experience of human existence. The hi-tech future of pulp sf was not the "Utopia of Comforts" so bitterly criticized by such sceptical writers as S Fowler Wright but rather a reaching-out for further horizons.

Space Flight became and remained the central myth of sf because it was the ultimate window of opportunity, through which the entire Universe could be viewed – and, ultimately, known. In genre sf, the ultimate aim of technological progress is, in the words of Mack Reynolds, "total understanding of the cosmos". This is clearly reflected in the increasing interest which post-World War Two sf has taken in the traditional questions of religion and in the evolution of science-fictional ideas of the Superman.

From The Encylopedia of Science Fiction entry TECHNOLOGY
      The names make you nostalgic. The sight of one stirs dreams of adventure and excitement. Hearing someone talk about them makes you wish you could be a part of the crew, or better yet, have it to yourself, with your friends as your sidekicks.
     Starships: the iconic image of space-based science fiction. A home. A refuge. A way to get from one adventure to another … usually via some calamity smack dab in between. The most beloved share the traits of your first car, a tree fort, and a badass fighter plane.
     But what is it about them that makes us love them. Or to put it more plainly, what does a starship need to do to be loved?

Let’s Start With the Unloved

     Oh, how it’s easy to loathe an evil starship. It’s even fair to say that, despite their obviously inanimate nature, a starship takes on the personality of its commander (and to a lesser extent, its crew). What do we find cold, hateful, and despicable? It should be large, probably larger than it really needs to be. It should be menacing, implacable, and merciless.
     One example would be the Executor, Darth Vader’s super star destroyer. I can hear the “but wait a minute” comments now … the Death Star is a space station, not a starship. It can travel, but the Empire called it a station, so I’m ruling it out. Vader’s flagship, however, is fair game. Dark, menacing, and bigger than it has any need to be, this is typical of imperial thinking. You don’t bring a sledgehammer to swat a fly. You bring a turbolaser cannon that will vaporize everything within a mile of the fly. Aiming is for rebels.
     Or how about a borg cube? It looks inhuman, without even the basest sense of stylistic sense. You just know that whoever is inside that considers you vermin. Beings with interpersonal skills just don’t construct city-sized assimilating cubes and disperse them across the galaxy.

Start With a Name

     You don’t need your ship’s name to be cool, or make you sound awesome. If you think about most ship names in a vacuum, most don’t really sound that great. But if you name your ship, then do awesome things with it, the name will become awesome. But the name is important. It’s not a matter of what that name is, but the very fact of having it makes the ship a character. It makes it unique. If the ship isn’t a one-of-a-kind already, this is what sets it apart from all its brethren in model year.

Be a Little Different

Well, we’ve stumbled onto a uniqueness factor in the need for a name. But it helps if the ship is a bit non-standard. After-market customization, one-of-a-kind designs (home-made gets more bonus points than experimental prototype … maybe not in awesomeness, but in lovability certainly), little quirks picked up over the course of its adventures.
     How much can you love something that’s just like a thousand other somethings just like it that came on the assembly line? I know, I know … “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine…” But how easy is it to get over that feeling that if anything were to happen to the ship, you could just go out and buy a new one? Part of being different and unique is the sense of the irreplaceable.

That Cozy Feeling

This is the Goldilocks Principle at work. A one-man fighter can be a bit lonely. Sure, you might becomes friends with the ship’s computer, but it will be a weird, possibly unhealthy relationship—the spacer’s equivalent of becoming a crazy cat lady. On the other hand, when a ship gets to be too large, you run the risk of it becoming a place, more an ecosystem than a home. How much can you feel like you’re at home when you’re surrounded by a thousand other crew members, many of whom you may not have ever met.
     Along with the cozy feeling is the sense of being lived in. Scrubbed and sterile is fine for looking professional. Sleek and polished can look menacing and/or cool. But being rough around the edges makes for a more homey feel. A duffle bag on the floor stuffed with clothes is more cozy than a closet lined with identical, neatly-pressed uniforms.

Be a Little Broken

No one likes the Mary Sue character (outside of the fiction, where they have to). The same goes for starships. Do everything, do it well, get all the praise. Sure, you might be the best ship in the fleet, but I’ll take my friendly little bucket any day; she gets the job done just fine. Quirks are nice, but quirks that make life a little more harrowing are always more interesting. You’ll defend your ship’s honor, flaws and all, before you’d trade her in for a shiny new model. The crew learn to adapt around the ship’s limitations, making them a part of normal operations.

Part of the Crew

     By the time you’re addressing a ship by name, you’ve made it a part of the crew. If you refer to it without “the” before its name, you’ve taken another step in personifying it, not just having it be a thing with a name. Bonus points on this one if the ship is sentient or organic in composition.


Math Is Our Friend

RocketCat sez

Alright you ground-grippers! My name is RocketCat! I'm here to make you into steely-eyed missile people, blasting off and leaving all those trekkies choking on your rocket exhaust.

But we are talkin' Rocket Science here, people! That means ... duntDahDUHHHHH!!! ... Mathematics! If this frightens you, well, go have a seat over there by the trekkies. I'm not talking calculus, I mean math you can do on a dollar store pocket calculator. You can handle that, can't you? Learn where the multiply, divide, square, square-root, natural logarithm (ln), and trig keys are; and you'll be fine.

If ya can't be bothered to do the math, then you can always just look at the pretty pictures. And there are one or two pages here that have hardly any equations at all.

Real rocket scientist know what metric units to use in rocket equations (metre—kilogram—second, centimetre—gram—second, SI). I know that none of them are reading this. So, for the benefit of all you ground-grippers, I'm going to explicitly specify what metric units to use in each equation. Because I know if I don't, it will be just too blasted easy for you to make a mistake in units and get an answer that is a thousand times too big or small.

Or if you prefer, it is because I'm trying to make the equations easier for a non-rocket-scientist to use. You decide.

It is all in the Metric System as well. Because the entire non-USA world in general, and the realm of science in particular uses metric. Get over it.

I'll try to explain things simple, so non-science types can still understand. But there are limits. I assume you at least know what the difference is between a planet and a galaxy. You will have a big head-start if you've had a course in high-school physics (and didn't flunk).

If you can master this website, you will be a steely-eye missile person; and any science fiction you create will have better scientific accuracy than 99% of the crap that is out there now. Plus along the way I'll leave you a few quotes from novels and observations that could spark some fruitful ideas to develop for your work.

Don't panic. All the equations in the following are about high school algebra level. They are all easy enough to manage on an average scientific calculator, a computer spread sheet, or a slide rule for that matter. If needed, the reader should review the rules on Significant Figures.

Having said that, you will find the following pages much easier to understand if you have taken an introductory course in Physics in high school or whatever.

As a boy almost everything I learned about science I learned from Isaac Asimov. Specifically reading his enjoyable science essays. I try very hard to use Asimov's clarity of making complex subjects understandable. I would also read Scientific American magazine. This taught me the jargon of science, allowing me to replace confusing technical terms with simple English. What I am suggesting is if you are serious about all this you would do well to also read those.

If you are using a pocket calculator, try to find the scientific kind. You will need one that handles natural logarithms (the ln key) and square roots (the key). To do square roots using the calculator program that comes with Microsoft Windows, use the "View" menu to set the view type to "Scientific", click the "Inv" checkbox, then use the "x^2" key. Be sure to un-check the "Inv" checkbox when you are done.

If the equation uses tan(), sin(), or other trigonometric functions, pay attention to what input unit the function wants. If you are using a pocket calculator or the Windows calculator program it defaults to wanting the input to be in decimal degrees. If you are using a spreadsheet or writing your own home brew computer program, the TAN() and SIN() functions want the input to be in radians.

If you are going to do the equations in the Relativity section, you will need a calculator that can handle the hyperbolic functions sinh, cosh, and tanh. On the Windows calculator, click the "Hyp" checkbox, then use the sin, cos, and tan keys. Again, remember to un-check the "Hyp" box when you are done.


When I was a boy, you had to do logarithms by looking them up in a book of tables, or with a slide rule. Now you young whipper-snappers can get a calculator at the drug store for $9.95 that will do it with the press of a key.

As per usage in computer programming languages, the symbol "*" means "multiplication". In the following equations, be sure that you use the same units throughout, to minimize that type of error. I generally use meters - kilograms - seconds. Obviously kilometers * 1000 = meters.

Beware that items like a rocket's exhaust velocity are often given in kilometers per second, instead of meters per second. It doesn't matter which you use, but be sure to use the same units everywhere. (For those readers who actually have some knowledge of rocketry: Yes, I know it is inconvenient to use meters per second with all those annoying ciphers. But I still used them throughout this site so as to give one less source of error for those readers who are new to all this.)

Also useful is AU * 1.49e11 = meters. AU's are "astronomical units", the distance between the Earth and Sol. Planetary distances are generally given in AUs, so you have to know how to convert them into the more useful "meters".

1.49e11 is "scientific notation", a fancy way of writing 149,000,000,000 without all those messy zeros. For those who are familiar with scientific notation but not with computer scientific notation, 1.49e11 = 1.49×1011, the "e" stands for "exponent". In the list below all of those are ways of writing the same number:

  • 149,000,000,000
  • 1.49×1011
  • 1.49*10^11
  • 1.49e11

"Kilo" means "thousand", e.g., one kilowatt = 1,000 watts = 1e3 watts. "Mega" means "million. Giga" means "billion". There is a handy table of these prefixes here.

Be told that this website uses the mathematical notations in common use in the United States. A comma is used between each group of three numbers and a period is used as a decimal point, e.g., 23,000.17 = twenty three thousand and seventeen-hundredths. 109 is "one billion" with the prefix "giga-", unlike UK nommenclature where 1012 is "one billion" with the prefix "tera-".

Information about the mass and radius of various planets can be found here:

In the sections on power sources and the section on spacecraft weapons many of the items have outputs measured in watts. This website has a nice table of various watt levels and comparison items so as to get a feel for things.

Scientific Hardness

RocketCat sez

We are going to emphasize scientific accuracy here, is that clear? I'll let you have the accuracy slide once and a while, but don't make a habit of it and wash your hands afterwards. If you can't keep it 100% accurate at least keep it self-consistent. I want to see no Technobabble, a bare minimum of Handwavium, and low amounts of Unobtainium.

And the first idiot who spouts off with "Why should be make it scientifically accurate, it's Science Fiction!" is going to get an RocketCat Atomic Wedgie.


The unheard-of creature and the unhuman character have been part of the storyteller’s ammunition since long before the invention of writing, it seems safe to claim. Angel and demon, ghost and vampire, dragon and rukh, Homer’s Cyclopes and Mandeville’s headless men are all part of the basic human heritage. Telling how to create such beings might almost be taken as an insult to normal human imagination.

In science fiction, however, we do try to maintain standards of realism (or at least believability) for a rather more knowledgeable and technically sophisticated audience than Homer faced. This is not to say that we have higher standards in these respects; Homer’s gods and Sinbad’s island-whale were as believable in their day as moon flight and atomic energy are now. Our standards are simply based on a better knowledge of the physical universe.

Also, there is no intended suggestion that the ghost and his nonmaterial kin either have vanished or should vanish from the inventory. It is perfectly possible for a competent, informed, educated materialist of the late twentieth century to enjoy the works of Sheridan le Fanu or Lyman Frank Baum, not only with the full knowledge that they are not true histories but also safely above the need to prove his open-mindedness by, saying that such things might be possible. However, I am confining my remarks to the rather narrow limits of “hard” science fiction, where I am qualified to hold a professional opinion. It has been charged that in restricting ourselves to “scientific accuracy” my colleagues and I are narrowing the scope of usable story ideas available to us. My answer, mathematically rather horrible but defensible under literary standards, is that the square root of infinity is not really that much smaller than infinity as far as resource material goes. Our main point is that for many modern readers, a violation of the laws of thermodynamics by the author can spoil a story just as effectively as having Abraham Lincoln changing a set of spark plugs in a historical novel.

Therefore, if we travel to Mars in a story, the vehicle must operate either along physical laws we currently think we know, or at least on more or less convincing extrapolations of those laws. Furthermore, when we get there the Martians, not to mention their lapdogs, saddle horses, dinner steaks, and rheumatism, must not strike too jarring a set of notes against the background which author and reader are, it is to be hoped, visualizing together. It is permissible and even desirable to take the reader by surprise with some of these details, of course. However, his reaction to the surprise should be the urge to kick himself for failing to foresee the item, rather than resentment at the author’s ringing in a new theme.

It follows that the “hard” science fiction writer must have at least an informed layman’s grasp of biochemistry and ecology.


I discovered the field for myself as a teenager (as did almost everyone else I knew—in school we were tormented with Wordsworth and Bunyan, while Clarke and Heinlein had to be private after-school pleasures). Knowing at the time a negligible amount of real science, I swallowed whole and then regurgitated to my friends everything presented as science in the SF magazines. That quickly built me a reputation as a person stuffed with facts and theories—many of them wrong and some of them decidedly weird. The writers didn't bother to distinguish the scientific theories that they borrowed, from the often peculiarly unscientific theories that they made up for the story. Neither did I.

I knew all about the canals on Mars[1], the dust pools on the Moon[2], and the swamps on Venus[3], about the Dean drive[4] and dianetics[5] and the Hieronymus machine[6]. I believed that men and pigs were more closely related than men and monkeys[7]; that atoms were miniature solar systems[8]; that you could shoot men to the moon with a cannon[9] (a belief that didn't survive my first course in dynamics); that the pineal gland was certainly a rudimentary third eye and probably the seat of parapsychological powers[10]; that Rhine's experiments at Duke University had made telepathy an unquestioned part of modern science[11]; that with a little ingenuity and a few electronic bits and pieces you could build in your backyard a spacecraft to take you to the moon[12]; and that, no matter what alien races might have developed on other worlds and be scattered around the Galaxy, humans would prove to be the smartest, most resourceful, and most wonderful species to be found anywhere[13].

That last point may even be true. As Pogo remarked long ago, true or false, either way it's a mighty sobering thought.

What I needed was a crib sheet. We had them in school for the works of Shakespeare. They were amazingly authoritative, little summaries that outlined the plot, told us just who did what and why, and even informed us exactly what was in Shakespeare's head when he was writing the play. If they didn't say what he had for lunch that day, it was only because that subject never appeared on examination papers. Today's CliffsNotes are less authoritative, but only I suspect because the changing climate of political correctness encourages commentators to be as bland as possible.

I didn't know it at the time, but the crib sheets were what I was missing in science fiction. Given the equivalent type of information about SF, I would not have assured my friends (as I did) that the brains of industrial robots made use of positrons[14], that the work of Dirac and Blackett would lead us to a faster-than-light drive[15], or that the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci gave all the details needed to construct a moon rocket[16].

As Mark Twain remarked, it's not what we don't know that causes the trouble, it's the things we know that ain't so. (This is an example of the problem. I was sure this was said by Mark Twain, but when I looked it up I found it was a Josh Billings line. Since then I have seen it as attributed to Artemus Ward.) What follows, then, is my crib sheet for this book. This Appendix sorts out the real science, based on and consistent with today's theories (but probably not tomorrow's), from the "science" that I made up for these stories. I have tried to provide a clear dividing line, at the threshold where fact stops and fiction takes over. But even the invented material is designed to be consistent with and derived from what is known today. It does not contradict current theories, although you will not find papers about it in the Physical Review or the Astrophysical Journal.

(ed note: here is my crib sheet on the references above)

  1. Astronomers Giovanni Schiaparelli described canali on Mars, which is Italian for "channels". This was mis-translated into the word "canals", which is English for "artificial waterways built by an ancient civilization living on a dying planet". This lead to over a hundred years of Martian based science fiction. All of which instantly became quaint and obsolete when the Mars probe Mariner 4 saw nothing but a bunch of freaking craters.

  2. Lunar dust that flows like thick oil was a deadly danger in Arthur C. Clarke's Earthlight (1955) and a tourist attraction in his A Fall of Moondust (1960). In reality no Lunar dust has deposit has been found thicker that what's on your monitor right now.

  3. In 1918 chemist Svante Arrhenius decided that Venus' cloud cover was water and said "A very great part of the surface of Venus is no doubt covered with swamps" and compared Venus' humidity to the tropical rain forests of the Congo. This led to about sixty years of science fiction set in the dinosaur infested swamps of Venus, until the Mariner 2 mission in 1962 revealed just what a hell-hole Venus actually was. SF authors assumed that Venus was at an earlier stage of planetary development than Terra (dinosaurs), and Mars was at a later stage (decadent dying planet).

  4. Norman Dean infamous "Dean Drive" was a bogus reactionless thruster. The fun started back in 1960 when the John W. Campbell (the father of the Golden Age of Science Fiction and editor of Astounding Science Fiction) decided to make some excitement by giving it free publicity. Campbell mentioned that a Dean Drive mounted in a submarine would make "instant spaceship", which lead to a few stories featuring this.

  5. Dianetics was a fake philosophy that unfortunately John W. Campbell also decided to popularize.

  6. A Hieronymus machine is a any one of several quack science devices that was also championed by John W. Campbell. A symbolic Hieronymus machine worked equally well if it contained actually electronics or just a paper diagram of the electronics. That actually was probably true: both versions did nothing at all but allow the operator to delude themselves.

  7. This is from a satirical science fiction short story called "Family Resemblance" by Alan E. Nourse (1953).

  8. The Rutherford-Bohr model of the atom was often popularized to the layman as atoms being like tiny solar systems, which is not quite but almost totally wrong. None the less it led to decades of science fiction stories starring bold explorers shrinking themselves to travel to atomic solar systems, e.g., "The Girl in the Golden Atom" (1922). "Worlds Within Worlds" said the Silver Surfer.

  9. This is featured in From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne (1865). The cannon won't work as described, but a nuclear bomb powered version might be able to deliver sturdy nonliving cargo into orbit.

  10. The concept of the pineal gland being a psychic third eye probably was copied by science fiction authors from the works of the notorious Helena Blavatsky. In science fiction this dates back a least to 1934 with H. P. Lovecraft's From Beyond.

  11. J. B. Rhine and his wife Louisa E. Rhine were the first to conduct science-like experiments in ESP at Duke University back in the 1930s. Thereafter science fiction authors featuring telepathy or other psionic power would invoke the name of Dr. Rhine for a thin veneer of respectability. Things got worse in 1930 when good old John W. Campbell became interested in Dr. Rhine's theories about ESP, and quote "encouraged" unquote authors who wanted to have their stories pubished in Astounding magazine to include a reference to Rhine.

  12. Probably a reference to Heinlein's classic Rocket Ship Galileo. Three teenage boy rocket experimenters and their uncle who worked on the Manhattan Project build the first Moon rocket.

  13. Human beings as superior to aliens was an iron-clad rule of, you guessed it, editor John W. Campbell. A story submitted to Astounding magazine featuring superior aliens would go straight into the garbage can.

  14. When Isaac Asimov started writing science fiction, the positron had just been discovered six years before, so it was new and trendy. Asimov thought it would be futuristic if robot brains used positrons instead of the old-fashioned electrons used by electronic computers. But he was careful to be deliberately vague on the technical details. Such is Asimov's influence that many science fiction authors assume that all robots have positronic brains (such as in the Perry Rhodan series, the TV show Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek TNG).

  15. In James Blish's classic Cities in Flight series the Dirac and Blackett equations led to the invention of the Spindizzy, a combination FTL drive, force field, and antigravity device.

  16. From the short story by Poul Anderson called The Light (1957)

From THE MCANDREW CHRONICLES by by Charles Sheffield (1983)

Burnside Scale of Science Fiction Hardness


Handwavium: It flat out violates laws of physics. We're waving our hands and saying pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. FTL is handwavium in its many forms. I tend to hold that all these designs that ignore thermodynamics are handwavium, as are force fields and gravitic whosimawatchises.

Ken Burnside

This is some machine, scientific principle, exotic mineral, strange energy, or other item dreamed up by a science fiction writer which does something useful and valuable but which regrettably is forbidden by the laws of physics. TV Tropes calls it "Applied Phlebotinum"

Not to be confused with Unobtainium. The difference is that unobtainium does nothing contrary to physics, it is just very difficult to do or hard to lay your hands on some.

Since the science fiction author is creating what the handwavium is and what it does out of nothing more than their imagination, they have to be very careful or their invention will turn around and bite them in the fundament. There are some notes on what to be careful about here.

If the handwavium has properties so undefined that writers can use it as a deus ex machina it is called Green Rocks (e.g., DC Comic's various colored Kryptonite). If the handwavium is in the form of unique and unduplicatable items it is called Mineral MacGuffin (e.g., Marvel Comic's Infinity Stones). If the handwavium is in the form of a glowing gem that manipulates or amplifies energy it is called a Power Crystal.


An important subcategory is mineral handwavium; the stuff in the form of a crystal, chemical, drug, element, or mineral (as opposed to a warp drive engine, new branch of physics, or something like that). Mineral handwavium in a science fiction setting often has descriptions like "the most valuable substance in the universe", "basis for the interstellar econonmy", and "sine qua non of [fill in the blank]". This can also be a good MacGuffinite: something valuable only found in space that gives an economic motive for space industrialization and colonization.

This can also be the basis for a morality play, this trope is called No Blood for Phlebotinum. See Conflict resource.

Examples include:

  • DILITHIUM CRYSTALS (Star Trek universe): crystaline material used to regulate the matter-antimatter reaction in starship power cores, since apparently it is immune to antimatter (i.e., it doesn't blow up when it comes in contact). It is the sine qua non of starship warp drives, and as a highly contested resource it is the basis for quite a few interstellar wars.

    It apparently also is used in phaser weapons as some kind of power amplifier (which sounds suspiciously like somebody misunderstood how ruby lasers work).

  • NAQUADAH (Stargate universe): element that amplifies energy. It is the basis for most of Goa'uld technology, and is described as "the most prized mineral in the galaxy". Weapons-grade naquadah is often used as a basis for currency.

  • KYBER CRYSTALS (Star Wars universe): they resonate with The Force and are the sine qua non of lightsabers, holocrons, and Death Star superlasers. There are only four known planets in the galaxy that are sources of kyber crystals.

  • DRAGONITE (Outlaw Star universe): sine qua non of FTL engines

  • VIZORIUM (Dirty Pair universe): sine qua non of FTL engines

  • VIBRANIUM (Marvel Comics): Wakandan vibranium absorbs sound, vibrations, and kinetic energy. It is only found in one mine near the capital city, created from an ancient meteor impact. Antarctic vibranium emits rays that cause nearby metals to liquify.

  • ADAMANTIUM (Marvel Comics): an almost indestructable metal alloy.

  • PROMETHIUM (DC Comics): an almost indestructable metal.

  • MITHRIL (Lord of the Rings universe): strong but light metal mined by dwarfs. I always figured it was titanium.

  • SCRITH (Ringworld universe): synthetic material used to build the Ringworld. Blocks almost all radiation (including 40% of neutrinos!), frictionless, and has a tensile strength on the same order of magnitude as the strong nuclear force.

  • PLANETARY CORE MATERIAL (When Worlds Collide): The rogue planet Bronson Alpha is going to obliterate Earth. Scientists have developed an atomic propulsion system but no known metal can be used for the reaction chamber because they erode away in minutes. The first close pass of Bronson Alpha causes intense earthquakes which bring to the surface some of Earth's core material. This previously unknown metal can withstand the atomic blast indefinitely.

  • HULLMETAL (Known Space universe): material used by Pierson's Puppeteers to make General Products brand spaceship hulls. The material is transparent and invulnerable to pretty much anything except antimatter. It is actually one huge molecule with embedded power sources that artificialy strengthen molecular bonds.

  • QUANTIUM-40 (Babylon-5 universe): sine qua non of FTL engines and jump-gates.

  • ORICHALCUM (legend): shiny, hard, reddish metal described in Plato's Atlantis myth. Thought to be a real-world gold and copper alloy from South America. Since Plato it has been reused by numerous fantasy role playing games. Also known as orichalc and orichalcos.

  • ADAMANT (historical): old name for diamond. It has been reused by numerous fantasy and science fiction stories under the names Adamantine and Adamantium.

  • IMPERVIUM (numerous sci-fi pulp stories): ultra-strong alloy used as armor

  • ELEMENT ZERO (Mass Effect): This element has a thousand and one uses. For starters it is the sine qua non of FTL engines. It can be used to generate artificial gravity, manufacturing high-strength construction materials, and advanced medicines. It is formed by matter bombarded by the energy of a star going supernova, so it is mainly found in the asteroid debris orbiting neutron stars and pulsars. Also known as "eezo".

  • RED MERCURY (hoax): a conspiracy theory substance that allegedly boost the yield of fission warheads. It is probably a hoax used to scam credulous people.

  • STARLITE (probably a hoax): incredibly powerful heat insulator, but nobody wanted to meet the inventor's terms and he apparently died and took the secret with him.

  • NTH METAL (DC Comics)

  • CAVORITE (First Men In The Moon)

  • INERTRON (Buck Rogers):

  • LIFTWOOD (Space 1889): Antigravity wood whose trees only grow on the planet Mars. Sine qua non for non-balloon floating boats.

  • THE SPICE MELANGE (DUNE universe): the spice prolongs lifespan and gives the psionic power to foresee the future. It is more or less required for starship pilots to safely bring their ships to the destination. A pity it can only be found on one planet in all the galaxy. Which means it is the center of all the galactic power struggles.

  • BI-PHASE CARBIDE ARMOR (OGRE game): Incredibly strong armor that can withstand a contact explosion from an nuclear warhead. This is required to allow the plausible existence of Ogre cybertanks and other continental siege units. Otherwise such supertanks represent such a concentration of military power that it would be routine to obliterate them with a city-killer nuke, and no rational army would waste resources building the monsters.

Joke names for handwavium include: Bombastium, Stupidnameium, Inobtainium, Yeahritium, Nosuchium, Explodium, Cantgetium, Wonderflonium, Plotonium (whatever the story plot currently needs), Raritanium, Scarcerarium, Rigidium, Hardtofindium, Hardtogetium, and Mewantium (something everybody wants)


A substance with extraordinary properties, capable for example of withstanding a direct hit by a thermonuclear warhead. By extension, the term [which I stole from Chris Weuve's SFCONSIM-L discussion group] is applied to high TECHLEVEL engineering of any sort, especially if it falls outside the constraints of HARD SF.

A lot of people, me included, try to avoid arbitrary use of Handwavium, but the truth is that you can't travel the KNOWN GALAXY without it, because any FTL is pure Handwavium. So get used to it.


Applied Phlebotinum

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a completely ad-hoc plot device"
David Langford, "A Gadget Too Far", as a corollary to Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law

Phlebotinum is the versatile substance that may be rubbed on almost anything to cause an effect needed by a plot. Examples include but are not limited to: nanotechnology, magic crystal emanations, pixie dust, and Green Rocks.

In essence, it is plot fuel. Without it, the story would grind to an abrupt halt. It's the science that powers the FTL drive on the starship so the characters can get somewhere, it's the magic that hatches the Egg MacGuffin so the protagonist can save an endangered species, it's the strange things unknown to science or magic that do basically anything. The reader does not know how Phlebotinum would work and the creators hope nobody cares.

According to Joss Whedon, during the DVD commentary for the pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the term "phlebotinum" originates from Buffy writer (and Angel co-creator) David Greenwalt's sudden outburst: "Don't touch the phlebotinum!" apropos of nothing. Whether or not he had the etymological connection in mind, "phlebotomy" is the drawing of blood, coincidentally appropriate in context.

If the phlebotinum in question is simply a physical substance with unusual/extreme properties you are almost certainly dealing with the element Unobtainium.

A.K.A. Handwavium. Compare Author Powers, Hand Wave, MacGuffin, Deus ex Machina, and A Wizard Did It. Contrast Misapplied Phlebotinum.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


Misapplied Phlebotinum

The case of a writer not quite getting their own head around his invention. An invention which is capable of great and astounding things (and often, of literally anything) is used exclusively for much lesser tasks. If you find that after a trip to the fridge you see that the Phlebotinum in question could be used to obsolete entire industries if not render the entire plot trivial then you're dealing with this trope.

Common victims of Misapplication include:
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel:
    • It's actually harder to conceive an FTL system that can't also double as a Weapon of Mass Destruction than it is to conceive one that can. And that's not even getting into the fact that, because of the way relativity works, FTL travel is logically equivalent to Time Travel...
  • Teleporters and Transporters:
    • The technology that allows your crew to travel from the Cool Starship to the planet and back without using a shuttle is the same technology that can park a live warhead in the enemy captain's lap without using a missile. It also makes a nifty Disintegrator Ray if you skip the "rematerialization" end of the process or, if it doesn't work by dematerializing, send the receiving end into the sun. Or only teleporting part of the target. And unless it's ludicrously expensive/has major side-effects, it can be used to greatly reduce shipping costs and delays, and could remove the need for any other planet-based vehicle (if it's cheap and practical enough, you wouldn't even need to walk). This could also be used to dispose of hazardous waste, removing the need for massive landfills or toxic waste dumps. If it converts matter into energy, and you have a way of storing that energy, you could use it as an alternative source of power: converting otherwise useless garbage into a viable power source for other things. This would change the face of society.
    • If the technology works by destroying and reconstructing, there are a number of possible uses that are rarely used, like bodily restoration after injury or death, copying/mass-production of reconstructible objects, copying/mass-production of people, etc.
  • Artificial Gravity:
    • If your Cool Starship has a device that can generate and manipulate Gravity irrespective of Mass then mounting Tractor Beams, Deflector Shields, Inertial Dampeners and even Engines may be redundant.
    • Note that it takes a really strong and accurately-placed gravity field to significantly change the trajectory of a laser beam or anything else moving at relativistic speeds - a field which, apart from theoretically consuming an extremely large amount of energy to maintain (depending on your flavour of Phlebotinum), might have unintended consequences.
    • However, manipulation of a gravity field probably won't get you to trans-light, unless you're in a "gravity is warp" model like GRT and use it to form an Alcubierre Drive.
  • Nanomachines: While they may have more limits in real life, it'd be easier to list the things you couldn't do with nanomachines capable of the kinds of tasks they do in fiction than the things you can, yet they're frequently introduced as a plot-device for one specific thing and never used for anything else.

It is, of course, possible to create Obvious Rule Patches and Required Secondary Powers for all these Phlebotina that prevent the above forms of misuse (and the really good writers even keep it from looking like a form of Fake Difficulty), but many writers merely take them as-is without thinking about the potential consequences.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


Unobtainium: We can't build a physical example of it, but insofar as we can postulate that it can be built at all, the laws of physics say it would behave like thus and so. Calculating the range and damage drop offs of a laser of a given wavelength, aperture size, input energy and conversion efficiency to make a weapon is pretty much unobtainium right now. While Handwavium and Technobabble tell you what you CAN do, Unobtainium usually tells you what is NOT possible.

Ken Burnside

Unobtainium: Of many kinds. Sophisticated materials science is one of the major areas of advancement in this particular universe. Of particular note: deuterium slush, metastable metallic hydrogen, helium-3 and antimatter (more specifically, antideuterium slush) for power, room-temperature superconductors, sapphiroids (the trade name for the high-grade kind is Adamant™ – not adamantium, because it’s not an element; after all, transparent aluminum has been used, even if accurate), carbon nanotubes, highly refractory cerametals and metallic glasses, muon metals, strangelets, raw tangle – oh, and fun nonbaryonic things like exotic matter (you make stargate frames out of it), gluonic string (held together by the strong force, thus with the best tensile strength available), and so on and so forth. Less elementally, various nanofluids with fascinatingly exotic behavior, nanotech composites, and smart and biomimetic materials (living metal, nanowell-bearing programmable matter, etc.), computronium (okay, that’s not an element either, but…), and again, and so forth.

And medically speaking, of course, immortagens.


Unobtainium is the exotic metal or other material that is needed to make the Applied Phlebotinum of a story work. Without it, all your nifty machines and plot-enabling gadgets quit functioning.

Some forms of unobtainium are based on real physics, but beyond the current scope of human engineering, such as room-temperature superconductors; they would revolutionize just about every form of technology, but they are not in and of themselves dangerous or based on some exotic physics-bending principle.

Others are more fantastic "high-grade" unobtainium, such as antimatter, which would be a revolutionary way of storing huge amounts of energy, if it didn't violently undergo mutual annihilation with any conventional matter it comes into contact with, including air molecules and the walls of whatever you're trying to store the damn stuff in. And if it could be made to exist for more than a few minutes.

The most common varieties of unobtainium in fiction sit somewhere in the middle, like materials so resistant to heat and/or damage as to be Nigh Invulnerable compared to other, similar substances. Materials such as mithril, adamantium, and orichalcum (and all variant spellings thereof) are the fantasy version. Thunderbolt Iron is especially popular in fiction (and has some basis in reality – until furnaces were invented, it was the best source of refined iron).

Much mad science uses unobtanium, such as chemicals with impossible properties, universal solvents that can dissolve anything in the blink of an eye, super-explosives that make nitroglycerin look like a weak cough, and plenty of other funny-colored solutions. Following this would be medical and/or chemical wish-fulfillers; Classical real-world alchemy casually referred to carmot, the base substance of the Philosopher's Stone, and Azoth, either the "universal medicine" or "universal solvent". The ancient Greek writer Plato referred to "orichalcum" (Greek for "mountain bronze") in his description of Atlantis.

In Science Fiction, it will usually take one of three flavors: whatever stuff makes Faster-Than-Light Travel possible, closely followed by the stuff that can mess with gravity (if they're not one and the same), and finally, the stuff they make Humongous Mecha and Alien spacecraft out of, which is why they tend to be effectively immune from earthly weapons or environmental damage.

For Willing Suspension of Disbelief, authors may pick out something actively being researched within the scientific community at the time of writing and run with it. Naturally, this risks dating the work when Science Marches On and today's "super technology" buzzword becomes the next generation's comic-book junk science. The current favorite in hard sci-fi is Helium-3 – believed by many to be the fuel of choice for those nifty fusion reactors that should be perfected any time now. Theoretically, it's a safe large-scale energy source with few environmental side effects. But more importantly, though, there's extremely little of it on Earth; on the Moon, it's Not Rare Over There — which would provide a good reason to go there.

See Also: Minovsky Physics when the Unobtainium has well-thought-out properties that are strictly adhered to, and its opposite, Green Rocks, when it can do anything and everything the plot demands.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


Technobabble: "We've reversed the polarity of the tetryon flow through the main deflector dish, and the Borg's shields have dropped, sir." Or, "His midichlorians are more powerful than Yoda's!" or "Our spaceship is pulled through the aether by the outrage of honest politicians." are all examples of technobabble. Technobabble need not be bad, though in general it's only noticed when it is done poorly.

Ken Burnside

In my opinion, the way to make technobabble that doesn't look like a ridiculous word-salad is to add just enough real science to stub your toe on and fool the reader into thinking it is actually plausible.

  • Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter by Isaac Asimov: Lucky and his side-kick are in a corridor of a spaceship. Dr. Panner traps them by "short-circuiting" a force field across the corridor. The "stub your toe" bit is the implication that force fields act like electricity, and can be redirected along an unintended path.

  • Dreadnought by Thorarinn Gunnarsson: The gargantuan robot Dreadnought berserker is surrounded by a gargantuan defensive force field that also stops all sensors. Of course while you are prevented from using sensors to see inside the force field, neither can the Dreadnought see out.

    So the Dreadnought "grounds" the force field to its hull. This means it can put its sensors on stalks (also grounded to the force field) and poke the sensors through the force field so the Dreadnought can see. Anything grounded to the field can penetrate the field.

    The clever Starwolves realize their fighter starships can penetrate the force field as well, if they sneak up and ground themselves to the sensor. This allows them to slip inside the force field, where they wreck havoc on the Dreadnought.

    The "stub your toe" bit is again the implication that force fields act like electricity. In the real world, electrical grounding is done to prevent user contact with dangerous voltage when electrical insulation fails. The author is hoping this sound plausibly close to "grounding yourself to a force field will prevent it from hurting you."

  • Startide Rising by David Brin: the humans working with the alien starship had to check all the psionic "impedance" of all the connections in order to avoid leaking telekinetic static. The "stub your toe" bit is the implication that psionic telekinetics acts like electricity, and various materials put up various levels of resistance to a telekinetic current.

  • The Door Into Shadow by Diane Duane: one of the protagonist cannot deal with a monster because he did not know the "protocol" for a brainburn.
    The "stub your toe" bit is the way the scientific sounding word "protocol" is being substituted for "sequence of steps in the magic spell that the protagonist wants to cast on the monster".


Oh technobabble, how we love thee. Have you ever found yourself playing some White Star and realising that you're going to have to pull some random sci-fi jargon out of your (expletive deleted)? Well, this table should help. Just roll 1d6 (ordinary six-sided dice) three times to build your technobabble phrase.

1d6 RollFirst WordSecond WordThird Word

(Example: if your die rolls were 6, 3, and 5; your technobabble phrase would be "Polarization Tunnel Cortex")

Hand Wave

A Hand Wave (also memetically called "Scotch Tape") is any explanation involving the backstory, a retcon, or a use of phlebotinum, which is noteworthy for its lack of detail or coherence. The name comes from academia and techy-land, where a person explaining a process on a whiteboard gets to a part that is not well defined or important so just waves their hand around to indicate that Stuff Happens, then moves on to the important goodies.

Typically, the use of this trope is an indicator of bad writing; a good author is able to explain plot points with the utmost detail without interrupting the story's momentum.

But sometimes, it's better to gloss over something trivial and get on with the story. Tropes Are Tools. When skillfully done, a handwave can make things plausible enough so that the audience achieves a Willing Suspension of Disbelief. It can also just turn the whole detail and its inexplicability into a joke. Scotch tape may not be strong, it may not be pretty, but it may be much better to have some sort of explanation than to have nothing at all.

The Watson is often a valuable source of Scotch Tape. In Science Fiction shows, a handwave is usually conducted with Techno Babble. In fact, an alternate name for Phlebotinum is Handwavium. In the industry, the vague and generic direction given by management to actors, designers, editors and so on is sometimes known as "hand waving", as it is frequently accompanied by a lot of gesturing.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

Techno Babble

Doctor: Looks like a spatio-temporal hyperlink.
Mickey: What's that?
Doctor: No idea, just made it up. Didn't want to say "Magic Door."
Doctor Who, "The Girl in the Fireplace"

Any impressive- and scientific-sounding, but ultimately nonsensical utterance, full of buzzwords.

Most common in Science Fiction (usually the softer kind), but military, medical and Police Procedural themed shows can also use it when they want the underlying technology to sound impressive.

Dishonest technician characters sometimes resort to vague, senseless "technical" babble to make up "serious problems" in the inner workings of a machine and offer to "fix" them for a high price.

When technobabble is used to justify a plot development, it is Scotch Tape. When it is used to solve a problem, it is a Polarity Reversal. When it is used to add to the genre feel, it is Narrative Filigree. Due to its historical use and abuse by sci-fi writers, Technobabble is nowadays played more and more often for laughs or parodied in some way.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


To this list I'd like to add the term "MacGuffinite". It comes from the term "MacGuffin", popularized by director Alfred Hitchcock. "MacGuffin" means a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story. Examples of a MacGuffin include meaning of "rosebud" in Citizen Kane, the priceless statue in The Maltese Falcon, the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic, and the mineral unobtainium in Avatar.

I define "MacGuffinite" as some valuable ore, substance, or commodity that hopefully introduces no unintended consequences to the SF universe you are creating. You have to be real careful, because unintended consequences everywhere. You have to carefully think things through.

The main MacGuffinite for a hard SF universe is something valueable enough to make an extensive manned presence in space a paying proposition. No MacGuffinite = no reason for people to be living in space = a really dull science fiction story.

Burnside Recommendations

The ratio of Unobtainium to Handwavium to Technobabble defines how "hard" your setting will seem to be to the reader. One of the reasons why I (Ken Burnside) love Mote in God's Eye is that they (authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) have only two blatant pieces of handwavium (the Drive and Field) and they quite carefully worked out the ripple effects of them before using them. Mote has a very high Unobtainium quotient, as does a lot of Heinlein's space fiction.

The Exordium series has a lot of well reasoned out Handwavium that's applied consistently, but has very little that's directly constrained by Unobtainium (A chief example of Unobtainium is the Tenno glyphs). It also uses very little technobabble, though it uses some (mostly when dealing with aliens).

Most of the Lensman series can be seen as Pure Technobabble with a bit of Handwavium thrown in to anchor it in plausibility.

Star Trek and most television SF is a mixture of pure technobabble and some handwavium. Things work because they make the plot work. Things fail because if they don't the plot fails.

Technobabble can easily lead to a farcical read.

Ken Burnside

Notes On Hardness

Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness

"The fun, and the material for this article, lies in treating the whole thing as a game. I've been playing the game since I was a child, so the rules must be quite simple. They are: for the reader of a science-fiction story, they consist of finding as many as possible of the author's statements or implications which conflict with the facts as science currently understands them. For the author, the rule is to make as few such slips as he possibly can."
Hal Clement, Whirligig World

Speculative Fiction fanatics are always raving about how "hard" the science is in various stories — but it's not like you can rub a story with a piece of quartz and see if it leaves a scratch on the plot. So what is "hardness" in SF? Why do some people want it? And how do we put a number to it?

Beginning with the first question: "Hard" Science Fiction is firmly grounded in reality, with only a few fantastic flights of fancy not justified by science, or with the technology being nonexistent in today's world but probably scientifically possible at some point. "Soft" Sci-Fi is more flexible on the rules. Even the fantastical aspects of the story will show a divide — in hard SF, they operate through strict, preferably physical, laws, where in soft SF they work in whatever way suits the story best. What this leads to for hard SF is a raised bar for the amount of scientific research the writer must put into the story, and usually this is shown quite clearly.

Example: a character is shown a machine for traveling into the past and asks, "How does it work?"

  • In soft SF: "You sit in this seat, set the date you want, and pull that lever."

  • In hard SF: "A good question with an interesting answer. Please have a seat while I bring you up to speed on the latest ideas in quantum theory, after which I will spend a chapter detailing an elaborate, yet plausible-sounding connection between quantum states, the unified field theory, and the means by which the brain stores memory, all tied into theories from both Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking."

  • In really hard SF: "It doesn't. Time travel to the past is impossible."

Unfortunately for analytical purposes, this pattern is not universal - hard SF stories can skip over the details as long as the basic explanation is correct given what's been established so far. Therefore, regardless of the typical stylistic flourishes of hard SF, the only way to define it is self-consistency and scientific accuracy.

Which leads us to the Scale.

  1. Science In Genre Only: The work is unambiguously set in the literary genre of Science Fiction, but scientific it is not. Applied Phlebotinum is the rule of the day, often of the Nonsensoleum kind, Green Rocks gain New Powers as the Plot Demands, and both Bellisario's Maxim and the MST3K Mantra apply. Works like Futurama, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, The DC and Marvel universes, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fall in this class.

  2. World Of Phlebotinum: The universe is full of Applied Phlebotinum with more to be found behind every star, but the Phlebotinum is dealt with in a fairly consistent fashion despite its lack of correspondence with reality and, in-world, is considered to lie within the realm of scientific inquiry. Works like E. E. “Doc” Smith's Lensman series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Star Trek: The Original Series, and StarCraft fall in this category.

    A subclass of this class (arguably 2.5 on the scale) contains stories that are generally sound, except the physics aren't our own. Plot aside, they are often a philosophical exploration of a concept no longer considered true (such as Aristotelian physics), or never true in the first place (e.g. two spatial dimensions instead of three). Some of Arthur C. Clarke's stories fall here. However, given the overlap with fantasy, it can prove tricky to even classify a story as SF.

  3. Physics Plus: Stories in this class once again have multiple forms of Applied Phlebotinum, but in contrast to the prior class, the author aims to justify these creations with real and invented natural laws — and these creations and others from the same laws will turn up again and again in new contexts. Works like Schlock Mercenary, David Weber's Honor Harrington series, David Brin's Uplift series, and the 2003-2009 Battlestar Galactica fall in this class. Most Real Robot shows fall somewhere between Classes 2 and 3.

  4. One Big Lie: Authors of works in this class invent one (or, at most, a very few) counterfactual physical laws and writes a story that explores the implications of these principles. Most works in Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth series, the Ad Astra board games and Robert A. Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold fall in this category, as do many of Vernor Vinge's books.

    This class also includes a subclass (4.5 on the scale) we call One Small Fib, containing stories that include only a single counterfactual device (often FTL Travel), but for which the device is not a major element of the plot. Many Hal Clement novels (e.g. Mission Of Gravity, Close to Critical) and Freefall fall within the subclass.

  5. Speculative Science: Stories in which there is no "big lie" — the science of the tale is (or was) genuine speculative science or engineering, and the goal of the author to make as few errors with respect to known fact as possible. The first two books in Robert L. Forward's Rocheworld series and Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress fall in this class.

    A subclass of this (5.5 on the scale) is Futurology: stories which function almost like a prediction of the future, extrapolating from current technology rather than inventing major new technologies or discoveries. (Naturally, Zeerust is common in older entries.) Gattaca, Planetes, The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster, and the more Speculative Fiction works of Jules Verne fall in this subclass.

  6. Real Life (aka Fiction in Genre Only): A Shared Universe which spawned its own genre, known as "Non-Fiction". Despite the various problems noted at Reality Is Unrealistic, it is almost universally agreed that there is no other universe known so thoroughly worked out from established scientific principles. The Apollo Program, World War II, and Woodstock fall in this class.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy: Hard SF


Written SF that adheres, or tries to adhere, to plausible science and technology. Therefore it generally implies a fairly modest TECHLEVEL; the most anal Hard SF may even preclude FTL. For obvious reasons, plausible is pretty much in the eye of the beholder.

It is also a moving target. In fact, you can usually date Hard SF particularly well by its technology, which will lean heavily on whatever technical or scientific speculation was fashionable about five years before a book's publication date. If this did not pan out (and mostly it hasn't), the resulting Hard SF will sound very dated within a decade or so.

Science-Fictional Shibboleths

Let's ignore, for the moment, the point that fiction is an exploration of human interior spaces, and that sometimes a spaceship or a princess is a metaphor; science fiction and fantasy are genres famous for their departure from the plane of mundanity, and usually a spaceship is just a form of transport between inhabited worlds ...

Let me tell you what makes me yell when I kick the tires on an SF/F novel these days.

There is a term of art that developed early on in the field of SF criticism: willing suspension of disbelief. When we read a work of fiction we are taking, as a given, statements that build upon one another to construct a cunningly plausible lie. We suspend our natural disbelief in things we know to be untrue, for dramatic effect cannot withstand the scorn reserved for falsehood. However, there is a limit (different for everyone) to the number of lies we can stack Jenga-style atop one another before our disbelief can no longer be held in abeyance: on reaching this point, the willing suspension of disbelief fails and the tower of implausibility totters and collapses in our minds.

Disbelief can be shattered easily by authorial mistakes—one of the commonest is to have a protagonist positioned as a sympathetic viewpoint character for the reader behave in a manner that is not only unsympathetic but inconsistent with the protagonist's parameters. But there are plenty of other ways to do it.

Certain patterns are guaranteed to make me throw a book at the wall these days (or they would, if I wasn't doing almost all my reading these days on an iPad), or at least stop reading on the spot. One such pattern is sometimes described as "the seven deadly words"; when you can say of a story "I am not interested in these people," the author has failed to hook you on the human content of their drama, and unless they're compellingly brilliant on another, inhuman, level—for example, the works of Olaf Stapledon or (some of) the works of Greg Egan—then that's it, game over. Another pattern is "this is pointless and tedious" (although it's even harder to define than "lack's human engagement"), and a third might be "this makes no sense" (on any level, including deliberate surrealism).

But then we get to more specific matters: specific shibboleths of the science fictional or fantastic literary toolbox that give my book-holding hand that impossible-to-ignore twitch reflex.

(Caveat: I am talking about books here. I basically don't do TV or film because my attention span is shot, my eyeballs can't scan fast enough to keep up with jerkycam or pull in enough light to resolve twilight scenes, and my hand/eye coordination is too crap for computer games.)

Asteroidal gravel banging against the hull of a spaceship. Alternatively: spaceships shelting from detection behind an asteroid, or dodging asteroids, or pretty much anything else involving asteroids that don't look like this:

That pock-marked potato, asteroid 243 Ida, is just under sixty kilometers long. (You could fit London onto about half of its surface area, with room left over.) Asteroids are not close together—bodies wider than 1km are, on average, about 900,000km apart—more than twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon. Smaller bodies tend to be gravitationally captured by larger ones over time (we're talking billions of years here); did you wonder where that rash of craters on 243 Ida came from? If you think of that scene from "The Empire Strikes Back" when you think of asteroid belts you are thinking of a whole bundle of nope.

Comets ... they're a bit more plausible as sources of dust and gravel. But they also originate a whole long way further out. While there's a lot of mass in the Kuiper belt (possibly enough to match a small to medium sized planet, unlike the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) the volume of space involved is vast—double-digit light-hours across. (One light-hour, the distance light travels in an hour, is 1.079x109km. Over a billion kilometers. If you set out to drive that distance in your SUV at highway speeds, it'd take you roughly 1150 years. Now multiply by a factor of 10-20.)

But basically unless your spaceship is parked on top of a frickin' comet approaching perihelion you are not going to get dust or gravel pinging off the hull ... unless you're insanely unlucky: because now the other shoe trops and we get to Annoying Trope #2.

Newton's Second Law, for dummies. E = ½ * (mv2) — it's not just a good idea, it's the law. Notice the huge distances I aluded to above? Well, to get between planet A and planet B in anything approximating reasonable human time spans, you need to go fast. And if you go fast, your velocity relative to the bodies around you is also high. In event of an inelastic collision the kinetic energy transfer is proprtional to the square of your velocity; and this has drastic consequences for space ships. Suppose you're in low Earth orbit and you hit a piece of space junk, for example a screw that's fallen off someone else's ship. It's traveling in pretty much the same orbit as you, but inclined at 30 degrees. What happens? What happens is you get a happy fun experience much like being hit by a bullet from a high-calibre sniper's rifle, because (I can't be bothered to do the trig here) it's packing a velocity component angled across your path at a goodly fraction of orbital velocity, and at orbital velocity a kilogram of water packs kinetic energy equal to about ten times its mass in exploding TNT.

You know what a high-speed car crash looks like, right? Space ships travel a lot faster than that: if they hit something, it's going to be very messy indeed. And that's at sluggish orbital velocities; if you starship is barreling along at about 85% of the speed of light general relativity has something to say on the subject and it's kinetic energy is equal to about half it's rest mass—the equivalent of a 10 megaton hydrogen bomb for every kilogram of hull weight. (The pilot's space-suited body alone packs the energetic punch of a Peak Strangelove 1980s USA/USSR strategic nuclear exchange.)

Human bodies are basically squishy sacks of goopy grease and water emulsions held together by hydrogen bonds and disulphide bridges between protein molecules and glommed onto some big lumps of high-grade chalk. We evolved in a forgiving, water-dominated low-velocity world where evolution didn't bequeath us nervous systems able to comprehend and deal with high energy interactions other than in an "ooh, that lightning bolt was close! Where's cousin Ugg?" kind of way. We can't even see objects that flash across our visual field in less than 50 milliseconds—a duration in which, at orbital velocity, an object will have travelled on the order of half a kilometer.

Intuition and high energy regimes: do the math, or your space combat will be a whole bundle of nope.

(Other related cognitive errors include but are not limited to: Napoleonic navies clashing in space and firing broadsides back and forth at one another's line of battle ... spaceships with continuous high acceleration fusion-powered motors or similar that don't glow white-hot then melt because vacuum is an insulator and shedding that much heat is a hard engineering problem (hint: a 100 ton spaceship accelerating at 1g requires 1 megaJoule of thrust: using a photon rocket for maximum efficiency that's going to require 3 x 1015 watts of juice going in, if it's 99.9% effective at heat dissipation that means it's racking up around three terawatt of leakage, and that's equivalent to about 45 kilotons of nuclear explosions per minute of waste heat) ... warships using active radar to hunt for one another (hint: active sensor reach is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the emission strength, passive sensors obey the inverse square law) ... warships using stealth in space (hint: infrared emissions, second hint: the background temperature you want to avoid standing out against is 2.73 degrees Kelvin, i.e. liquid Helium temperature) ...

Oh for f*ck's sake, don't get me started on war in space, we'll be here forever unless we just throw physics to the winds of fiction and delegate all our hand-waving to magic hyperspace or cyberspace technology or something.

Now for a biggie: Mining the lunar regolith for Helium-3. This is junk science on stilts and it just keeps coming back from the dead. It's also a barrel of past-their-sell-by-date red herrings that keeps being rolled out by space cadets whenever they're challenged to produce an economic justification for space colonization. Here's why it's crap ...

Fusion, the Jenga-pile begins, is the energy source of the future. (This may or may not be true: I for one hope it is.) However, the easiest form of reaction you can run in a fusion power reactor is deuterium/tritium. This tends to release most of its energy in the form of neutrons, which can ideally be captured and used to breed more tritium fuel and produce waste heat to drive a turbine generator. The problem with neutrons is that they're rather penetrating and when they slow down enough to be captured by an atomic nucleus they transmute it, often into an unstable isotope. D/T reactors therefore look likely to suffer from one of the same problems as fission reactors: neutron-induced structural embrittlement and secondary activation producing high level radioactive waste.

Aneutronic fusion—which hasn't actually been tested yet in even a prototype research fusion reactor—offers the possibility of running on other fuels and producing <1% of its energy output in the shape of neutrons. Helium-3, an isotope of helium consisting of two protons and one neutron, can in principle be fused with deuterium instead of the (radioactive) tritium and produce power with a far lower neutron output—the energy-bearing product of the reaction is a proton, which can be contained using magnetic fields. Hence the interest in He3 fusion reaction designs.

The first problem with He3 reactors (after—cough—we don't know how to build one yet) is that He3 is incredibly rare. It costs on the order of millions of dollars per kilogram and the global supply is very restricted; there's certainly not enough of it to power a global energy economy even at today's levels. But there is some evidence that He-3 produced in the sun and emitted in the solar wind may be captured in the Lunar regolith. The plan, per the proponents of lunar colonization, is therefore to build vast strip mines on the moon to extract this vanishingly rare moonshine/pixie dust and export it to Earth to power our 22nd century energy economy. And of course estimates that we could power our current level of energy use by processing 4 million tons of lunar regolith per week are music to the space cadets' ears because, well, it means big engineering and thus big steely-jawed engineers with slide rules and socket wrenches on hand to repair the mining machines when they break. Space colony justified!

Except this is moonshine and junk. Firstly, we don't have an aneutronic fusion reactor, much less a planetary base load capacity driven by aneutronic fusion reactors in need of fuel. Hell, we don't even have a working D-T fusion reactor that can produce surplus energy; ITER isn't due to achieve first plasma until 2020 and won't begin D-T reaction operations before 2027, and the Wendelstein 7-X, while promising, is a generation behind (roughly equivalent to where the Joint European Torus was in the 80's).

But let's jump the gun. Let's assume we do have a working fusion reactor. Let's even assume we've put in the decades of legwork required to build a working aneutronic fusion reactor—it's worth noting that aneutronic reactions have to run about an order of magnitude hotter than D-T fusion reactors can achieve, and they're already in the 100 million Kelvin range. But let's play make-believe: are we then going to see large-scale lunar regolith mining to fuel the beasts?


Because it turns out that if you can build an aneutronic reactor, then, subject to some considerable amount of fine tuning, you can run it on fuels other than sparkly lunar regolith moonshine and pixie dust—notably the proton-boron-11 cycle and the proton-lithium-7 cycle. Both these fuel cycles are aneutronic and run on isotopes that are readily available here on Earth in sufficient quantities to power our civilization for some millions of years without trying to build massive engineering infrastructure on an airless rock. There's even an aneutronic fusion cycle that relies on proton-nitrogen fusion, although it produces less energy and is even harder to achieve. Nitrogen and hydrogen ... nitrogen makes up about 80% of our atmosphere, and hydrogen makes up about 15% of our hydrosphere, so we're not running out of either of those fuels any time soon, either.

Upshot: any work of SF that takes "Lunar 3He mining" as an economic premise is about as plausible as one that assumes combustion powered by the release of phlogiston.

I've got a whole bundle more shibboleths up my sleeve that flag a work of SF as being implausible (this may account for why I'm more comfortable reading fantasy these days). Faceless 80's style corporations ruling entire planets (hint: who handles the externalities?): small farming planets (hint: just one ecosystem for a planet?): the glib dismissal of life support systems in space as trivially easy to maintain: monocultures of every kind: political structures based on design patterns proven to be unworkable in the context of any society more modern than the late middle ages (empires in space, I'm looking at you): any interplanetary/interstellar setting where the mechanics of trade are lifted straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel, or 1920s era pulps about life aboard a tramp steamer, or maybe the Traveller role playing game: AIs that follow the disembodied-brain-in-a-box mode of Hal 9000: futures in which we wear mini-dresses and three-piece suits, drive gas-burning automobiles (or hovercars: it's just a rabbit/smeerp replacement), carry handguns (or blasters: see rabbit/smeerp), eat the kind of food we eat today, live the kind of way we live today, and most importantly think the way we think today.

And I haven't even gotten as far as genre fantasy shibboliths yet!

(ed note: see the Comments for other shibboliths)


State of Flux


I have been working on my next post in my Scientific Analysis series (which will feature Halo for the record, so watch for it coming sometime this week) but it is taking a while to write because of the sheer volume of stuff I have to look through, re-research (because I know a lot about the subject already usually), and then analyze based on my own knowledge of real world physics as well as other guidelines I use. So until then, I thought I’d bridge the gap with a more general post that lets you get an idea of how I analyze stuff in a science fiction franchise.

Now I explained in my Mass Effect analysis why I do these things, it isn’t because I am some grumpy person who wants to ruin the fun by pointing out what is possible or not, it is because I want to put these stories I and many people love to the test and see which are plausible. In my mind the ones that are more in tune with reality are the more fascinating since you know they could actually happen. There is another part to this too, Hollywood and TV plays fast and loose with science very often, and while it can sometimes make a story more entertaining even if I think it could be just a fun or more with accurate science, there is a downside. The more and more movies and TV just make up stuff for dramatic effect the more and more the general audience, that is everyday people who might not be as well versed in science, start believing the stuff they are seeing.

What is the harm in that you ask? Surely people don’t believe everything they see in films or on TV… It would be nice to think that is true, but sadly it is not, and at best it just means you might get shown up in a discussion about something by the guy who did research on real stuff, at worst it could affect your life. Now that is a general statement, not necessarily related to the use of science in science fiction, but it is something worth considering anytime you see something in a show or movie and think “Would that really happen?” One group of people who do magnificently well at showing what is or isn’t true in that sense are the Mythbusters, I love that show because they are the best skeptical thinkers in the modern media.

In the future I may post on other topics where misuse of science, or belief in various pseudosciences can lead to serious troubles, but that is for another day. Today it is worth asking, why should it matter if science fiction is scientifically accurate? It is just fiction after all right? Well you could say that, but then what is the point of branding it as a separate genre in the first place? Imagine you are reading a mystery novel, or watching one of the many police drama TV shows on right now (there are certainly more of them than sci-fi shows). Do you think it would be more fun if the cops on the show followed a realistic police procedure in trying to find the perpetrator to a murder or if they just ignored how real police and detectives do their jobs and had the main characters do whatever they wanted? Part of the fun is that detectives really do stuff like this, even if it isn’t always shooting bad guys in high stakes gun fights. Apply that to almost any fiction, except fantasy fiction, and you get the same result. Fantasy fiction exists for those out there tales we know can’t happen but allow us our imagination fun time.

The sad truth is that many people don’t find real science a necessity in science fiction often for two reasons. One is they do not understand enough of real science to appreciate it, and therefore cannot enjoy it when something is done right. The other is they feel real science is too limiting and takes the fun away. I will argue against the second reason to my death. Science has a really bad reputation and it doesn’t deserve it, not one bit. The first reason is understandable, science is not something everyone is an expert at, and it is hard stuff to understand sometimes. Keep in mind my entire life resolved around science and even I know it is an intimidating subject.. but oh it is so rewarding when you get to know it. You also don’t need to understand everything to enjoy proper use in fiction, just enough.

Now for the second reason, the one which I stated I will argue to the death, there is a reason for that. You see I was not always in the camp that thought realistic science in science fiction was better. I arrived there over time, but back in my younger days I loved the flashy stuff of Star Trek and Star Wars. I would be the guy who read up on how warp drive worked in the Trek universe and try to defend that it made sense and could work because of that. The reality was though, I just hated anyone telling me that warp drive didn’t make sense according to real science, or as it sounded to my ears, “it isn’t possible.” Now leaving alone any real world hypothetical FTL concepts which are similar to a warp drive (and yes there are some, note the hypothetical though), I couldn’t bear to think that the imaginary stuff I’d been enjoying was just fantasy because I didn’t know how to imagine a sci-fi future with proper science. It always just ended up looking like the present. The stale, boring present. By the way, we have done some pretty fantastic stuff with science to date that make it worth its weight in platinum. I just couldn’t see it yet because I hadn’t yet been shown the wonders of the real world, just the wonders of made up worlds. Anytime I imagined futuristic stories it had unlikely faster than light travel, crazy energy weapons, artificial gravity with no explanation, and unnecessary sound in space.

So how did I go from hating the idea of a science fiction story where FTL didn’t exist because the author didn’t want to assume anything to later enjoying how the author worked around that impediment? In short… I learned stuff. The biggest change came from me entering college and around half way through my degree program, which if you don’t recall for me was Aerospace Engineering (basically rocket science in my case, but it also applied to airplanes), I started to stop dreading learning all the stuff in the classes and started to find it interesting. This happened most when I got to my later classes where I was able to directly apply the math and physics I had learned to actual stuff related to planes, rockets, and planetary orbits. Suddenly it became real to me, this was a thing that actually is done in the real world and it was fantastic! Shortly after that I found myself seeing something on TV; may have been Star Wars or something but I had that light bulb moment where I saw something happen in the show and thought, “It wouldn’t actually work like that… but I know how it might be similar and still work.” Ever since then it was a total shift. I started enjoying hard science fiction stories more since they took the time to respect reality but still made it entertaining. I still like the flashy non-realistic stuff though, just not in the same way anymore. Now that stuff is more like fantasy, but with a technological or space twist (as opposed to swords and magic, but since we are on that, I did read all the Harry Potter books and I do in fact like them a lot so I do enjoy made up stuff too).

The above sounds like at first that the only way to enjoy realistic science fiction is to learn a lot about science. Well there is some truth to that, but I know not everyone is going to get degrees in the sciences (though I think more should). The laymen can learn to love this stuff too, all it takes is a crash course, knowing some basics. You can do that on the internet, you don’t need to know the math of it all, just some information. Even a Google search or an hour on Wikipedia (of course not everything may be 100% true, it is the internet after all). If you really can’t be bothered to try to expand your mind a little then you are not looking for the same thing I am, you are just looking for a fun tale regardless of whether it is possible. The suspended disbelief as they call it, or the escape from the real world. I used to do that a lot. I no longer wish to escape the real world, I wish to advance it to new horizons.

So I’ve gone this far now and I think I’ve outlined pretty well why I try so hard. So how do I go about analyzing some of the stuff in sci-fi stories anyway? What do I look for, and is it all based on stuff I learned whilst getting my engineering degree? The answer to the last one is no. I learned tons of stuff when I was in college and a lot of it helped me to learn to love the real universe we live in and the science that helps us understand it, but a lot of that isn’t limited to aerospace engineering. I actually have a bunch of sources for my knowledge base, a good majority of them from internet websites I know aren’t just making up stuff, and sometimes Wikipedia articles that I am relatively sure haven’t been messed with (always good to check the sources on the page for that). Basically, I do research, which for me can be fun depending on the topic. If you read my review of Lincoln it was clear I did a lot of reading about Abraham Lincoln and his life beyond just watching that movie, I needed an informed opinion of whether the movie did well or not and that requires some effort. Even Ken’s most recent post where he rants about Prometheus shows you can’t take everything at face value.

One of my favorite ways to put science fiction to the test is to use the Atomic Rockets criteria. Atomic Rockets is actually a website, part of Project Rho created by a guy going by the name Nyrath (or Winchell Chung in real life) who wanted to create a guide for science fiction authors (specifically space science fiction) for people who wanted “a little scientific accuracy” in their stories. He provides a lot of information, and even details on how to do basic mathematical calculations for stuff. A lot of this goes far beyond what may be needed for a plausibly realistic space story, but the fun thing is he is giving you all the options. The calculations he goes into, while daunting at first glance, are actually pretty simple. He even states: “It is assumed that the reader has enough knowledge to know the difference between a star and a planet, high school mathematics, and enough skill to use a pocket calculator.” So you don’t have to be a rocket scientist from the get go (though speaking from experience, it doesn’t hurt), and none of the math he touches gets any higher than high school algebra (I did a lot of this kind of stuff with advanced calculus and computer programming so trust me what he has is the easy stuff).

I implore you if you are interested to go look around his site. I have spent hours reading individual pages on singular topics ranging from one aspect of space warfare, to how to do a faster than light drive respectably (since it is not technically scientifically feasible right now), to even just what type of rocket engine works for what you are doing with a space ship. A lot of information I learned from there will be going into my eventual science fiction novel, which is a long way from being finished and I do intend to give him much credit for it whenever that gets done.

One of his more interesting pages which unlike most others is a simple and short page is a list of common misconceptions people pick up from the less accurate TV shows and movies. You can read about them on his page but I will go through a few and discuss why I think they are important in a science fiction story.

Things space isn’t: Space is not an ocean, is not two-dimensional, has no substance or friction, is nearly impossible to hide in, and is dead silent. Some shows or movies tend to try to make space seem like something more familiar, like the air planes fly in or the ocean boats and submarines travel through. This is done because the average person understands that easier without needed explanation. Thing is though, why bother setting a story in space if you aren’t going to even do space like it really is? I look at shows where space ships treat it like a large ocean and only movie forward, back, and left or right and am left thinking not only is that not how it is, but if that is what they wanted why not set the story on some ocean and use a fictional world if they didn’t want an Earth story? Also a lot of stories show space ships running their engines constantly, which is based on how aircraft need to do that to keep moving. In space it is really different due to the lack of friction, which comes from no atmosphere or any sort of medium. The same is why you can’t really hide in space, even if you can’t be visually seen, you give off heat, and in the cold black of space, any heat source sticks out if you look at it the right way (an if you were there, you would be looking that way). Also the biggest one is that there is no sound because of the lack of atmosphere or any other medium. Sound exists due to vibrations in matter like air or even water, but with nothing, you hear nothing.

Things space ships are not: They are not boats, nor fighter planes, and they can move in any orientation due to not needing to be aerodynamic or constantly running their engines. At its simplest and most realistic, what space ships are best described as are rockets. Today we think of rockets as long tall pointy things we shoot up into space but at some point we make a disconnection between that vehicle and what ends up there. As long as it has some sort of functioning engine that expels mass to accelerate though, it is always a rocket, it just doesn’t need to be straight and pointy in a vacuum anymore.

Things about space ships you might not know include: They can have wings, but they aren’t wings like airplanes which are useless in a vacuum. They are actually heat radiators which are needed since in a vacuum it is a lot harder to expel waste heat and any power source on a ship makes a lot of heat, even people. Radiators actually add fun drama to space battles since they are huge weak points too. Space ships shouldn’t have windows because windows are structurally unsafe and overall unnecessary. There isn’t really much to see, and a good camera and TV screen can give you all the visual data you need. Talk about transparent metals to use for this is just an excuse for having a nice visual (though not a horrible excuse really). Space battles between ships will also be nothing like ships battling on the ocean or submarines under the sea for the same reasons space itself is not an ocean as stated above. Realistic space combat is tricky and all hypothetical since it has never actually happened but with science we have a good idea of how it would likely go down. Atomic Rockets has a lot of pages covering that, once you get it, it is pretty entertaining to think about.

See to me the above stuff doesn’t restrict the story because you are seeing space for what it really is, and not what people expect it to be like based on experience of other things. You might be thinking, what about science fiction that isn’t about space stuff? Well that is a valid point I kind of glossed over, real science can make that interesting too but I am using space sci-fi as my example because it is the most common.

So now if you are like me you are thinking this is all really cool and you might read more on Atomic Rockets or do some research next time you are curious if something in a movie is realistic. If you are looking for a story that does things well though you have to learn how to sift through what is out there, my scientific analysis series will help with some of that for sure though. I can however give you a few book recommendations.

Two of my favorite space sci-fi books are called Hegemony by a fellow named Mark Kalina, and another is Through Struggle, the Stars by John Lumpkin. I provided links to their amazon pages if you are interested. Hegemony is only available as an e-book on things like Kindle, but if you have a way to read those (even if just on a PC) it is worth it. The second one is available as an e-book or a paperback. Both stories are very well written and are an excellent showcase of how realistic space science fiction can be entertaining even without all the fancy and flashy stuff often seen on TV (though a lot of stuff in both stories is pretty flashy in a certain respect).

I will end the post now before you all die of over exposure to my writing, which by now you’ve noticed is very long-winded but for good purpose. I hope you enjoyed my explanation of things beyond what I said initially in my Mass Effect article and I hope you look forward to my next Analysis article on the Halo series. As always please click like if you do, and hit share if you think it worthy of such. Also if you want to say anything or ask me any questions please do not hesitate to leave a comment, I will try to respond to everyone I can.

General Rules


Two more rules of the internet:

     #946 Start a discussion about movie space-opera spaceships & someone will derail it by invoking hard physics

     #947 Start a discussion about hard-physics spaceships & someone will derail it by invoking movie space-opera physics


Something hitting at 3 km/sec (kips) delivers kinetic energy broadly equal to its mass in TNT.

(ed note: details here)

Rick Robinson

For every kilogram of handwavium you remove from a setting, you add about 10 cubic meters of impossible to maintain plumbing.

Rick Robinson

Most people instinctively know Burnside's Zeroth Law of space combat:


Science fiction fans relate more to human beings than to silicon chips.

Ken Burnside

That is, while it might make more logical sense to have an interplanetary battle waged between groups of computer controlled spacecraft, it would be infinitely more boring than a battle between groups of human crewed spacecraft. For more details go here.

Yes, there are exceptions to Burnside's Zeroth Law in science fiction, but they are few, far in between, and the result of exceptionally skilled authors. These are the "exceptions that Test the rule" (the original aphorism is from the Latin, and the word "probat" in this context should be translated as "test", not "prove"). Examples include "Longshot" by Vernor Vinge, "Sun Up" by A. A. Jackson and Howard Waldrop and the Bolo stories by Keith Laumer et al.

Another annoying fact is that realistic spacecraft propulsion systems are incredibly weak. They will take forever to push the ship to anywhere farther than, say, Luna. So SF authors try to jazz things up by postulating more powerful propulsion systems. Alas, they then run full tilt into Jon's Law for SF authors.

Jon's Law for SF authors is closely related to Niven's Kzinti Lesson. It states:


Any interesting space drive is a weapon of mass destruction. It only matters how long you want to wait for maximum damage.

Jon Souza
It goes on to say:

Interesting is equal to "whatever keeps the readers from getting bored."

Jon Souza

As an example, a spacecraft with an ion drive capable of doing a meager 0.0001g of acceleration may be scientifically realistic and the exhaust is relatively harmless. However, to most of the audience it will not be interesting. "Nine months just to travel to Mars? How boring!"

The author, not wanting his book sales to go flat, hastily re-fits the hero's spacecraft with a fusion drive. The good news is that the ship can make it to Mars in twelve days flat. The bad news is that the ship's exhaust is putting out enough terawatts of energy to cut another ship in two, or make the spaceport look like it was hit by a tactical nuclear weapon.

The author can still use the drive, but must consider the logical ramifications of the wide-spread civilian availability of the equivalent of thermonuclear weapons. Consider: the more energy the drive contains , the worse the damage if an accident occurs. How would you like to have the captain of the Exxon Valdez skippering a tramp freighter with an antimatter drive? That brilliant mushroom cloud you see marks the former location of Clinton-Sherman spaceport. The more devastation a propulsion system can wreck, the shorter the leash the captains will be on.

So one of the logical ramification is that if drives are too powerful, there won't be any colorful tramp freighters or similar vessels. As a matter of fact, civilian spacecraft will probably by law be required to have a remote control self-destruct device that the Patrol can use to eliminate any ship that looks like it is behaving erratically or suspiciously.

Now, keep in mind that the author could use Jon's Law as an opportunity instead of a liability. If an evil interplanetary megacorporation is callously oppressing its blue-collar employees, the corporation could be in for a rude surprise when the blue-collar truckers piloting the fusion-drive transport spacecrafts realize they are in control of the functional equivalent of strategic nuclear weapons. This could make a labor strike for better working conditions most entertaining.

Most of the nasty effects of Jon's Law are due to the propulsion system's exhaust (can you say "Kzinti Lesson?" Suuure you can, girls and boys). The presence of an exhaust is because rockets use Newton's Third Law (the one about action with equal and opposite reaction). Canny SF authors postulate some kind of hand-waving reactionless drive in an attempt to avoid Jon's Law. Reactionless means no exhaust is required. You feed electricity in, and the ship is magically accelerated. The "gravitic impellers" from David Weber's HONOR HARRINGTON series is an example of a reactionless drive.

Unfortunately such canny SF authors then run smack dab into Burnside's Advice, which is;


Friends Don't Let Friends Use Reactionless Drives In Their Universes

Ken Burnside

You see, a reactionless drive does prevent the Kzinti Lesson. But the problem is a propulsion system that needs no propellant will turn the entire ship into a freaking relativistic kinetic energy weapon because you just shot the tyranny of the rocket equation in the gluteus maximus. The good news is the ship can no longer accidentally slice another ship in two, the bad news is the ship can now single-handedly cause the apocalypse.

The trick is making a reactionless drive that doesn't give you the ability to shatter planets with the Naval equivalent of a rowboat (which would throw a big monkey wrench into the author's carefully crafted arrangement of combat spacecraft). Reactionless drives, with no fuel/propellant constraints, will give you Dirt Cheap Planet Crackers. If you have a reactionless drive, and stellar economics where most of the common tropes exist (privately owned tramp freighters), you also have gravitic drive missiles. And avoiding Planet Crackers Done Real Cheap is almost impossible to justify on logical grounds, the SF author is faced with quite a daunting task.


Light is Law

299,792,458 meters per second through vacuum. Round up to 300,000 km/s. Nothing goes faster. (Except, perhaps, monarchy)

Information and radiation travel at light speed. Getting anything made of matter even close to that speed takes a whole lot of energy and is subject to all manner of weird effects like time dilation.

Space is Big

In short:

It's the Great Filter, Charlie Brown!

The apparent discrepancy between the size and age of the universe and the total lack of detectable alien life (for an interstellar civilization would get HUGE in a relatively short amount of time) is called the Fermi Paradox. The reasons offered to explain why this might be are many, ranging from the plain (the physical conditions for life are rare, intelligent life is rare) to the more elaborate (the aliens are all just really, really good at hiding from us) and among all of these proposals are and a category of them are called Great Filters: factors that prevent life from reaching an interplanetary or interstellar civilization.

There are a whole lot of them. The most plain are just that the physical conditions for life as we know it are rare or that intelligent life is rare. Sensible, but less gameable. Other options include but are not limited to:
  • They died off from nuclear war / catastrophic climate change / plague / etc.
  • They are trapped by high gravity, icy crusts, hyperdense atmospheres, etc.
  • They are intelligent, but lack the ability to make tools. 
  • They aren't intelligent, and their tools don't have proper analogs to normal technology.
  • They're not going to progress past simple tools for a few hundred thousand years.
    Skerples  also offers the following: "Planets do not all have 1 earth gravity, a breathable atmosphere, life we can eat or understand, etc." (Check out his full post on the matter), but a solid summary is that the most human aliens are still nothing like us, and the most Earthlike worlds are nothing like Earth. Anything that resembles humans or Earth was probably designed as such (metahumans and space habitats can come into play here.)

    Every Gram Counts

    Mass needs energy to move it. Fuel and propellant have mass. The more mass you have the more fuel and propellant you need.

    Space aboard a ship is at a premium. You've got to balance everything for your specific trip, because you are trying to hit one moving object with another moving object launched from a third moving object all while trying to keep some fragile bags of mostly water and meat from dying. 

    It's Not Easy Getting Into Space 

    Gravity is fighting you the entire way up and rockets are inefficient. So there are a lot of better ways to get up there. Including but not limited to!
    • Space elevators - A hugeass cable stung up to a space station in geosynchronous orbit. 
    • Skyhooks - A rotating cable that dangles down into the atmosphere and swings a ship up and around to launch them into orbit.
    • Mass drivers - A f*cking huge railgun. Great for launching raw materials off of whatever airless rock you're mining them out of, and if it's long enough you can just make a launch loop.

    O'Neill Cylinders are the Sh*t

    Imagine a cylinder 20 miles long and 5 miles across. You can make it bigger if you have better materials. Rotate it so that the interior walls have 1 G of gravity, while the caps and central axis will have none. String some together in a chain or cluster, embed them into an asteroid, surround it with all the support systems you might need.

    Congratulations, you have just made where most of the population in a space-faring society will live and the easiest way to do a classical space opera. Now you can hop between radically different environments and cultures in a couple hours, in a spaceship that's more like the family RV.

    The important thing to remember is that space habitats like these are better for human habitation than planets: you don't need to fight a gravity well to leave, you can tailor the interior environment much more easily, you can churn them out by the dozens or hundreds from single asteroids. 

    Stellar Laser Highways are the Sh*t

    Imagine a laser. Now imagine that it is so f*cking huge that it can push a spaceship. Build an entire network of them. Now you have a means of accelerating (and slowing) your ships that doesn't require them to spend fuel, thus allowing them to carry more stuff and more people.

    It's still slower than light, but it's damn effective. Can be used as communication hubs too.

    Spaceships are not Boats

    James Cameron's Avatar was not a good movie. But it has one thing going for it: The Venture Star.

    This is a proper spaceship. Just look at this beaut, this sheila, this absolute unit. Mwah! Look at those radiators! See that little bit by the debris shield, with the two rotating arms? That tiny thing there? That's the crew capsule.

    This thing has a maximum cargo capacity of 350 tons, a max speed of 0.7 C, and can get you to Alpha Centauri in six and three quarters years flat.

    What I'm getting at here is that this is what a hard sci-fi ship will end up looking like: a tiny little submarine attached to a whole hell of a lot of propulsion.

    You Will Not Explode and or Immediately Freeze in a Vacuum

    You can survive in open space for as long as you can hold your breath (get the air out of your lungs first, lack of pressure will make it expand and that's no good at all). Still likely to get a nasty dose of radiation but having no air is the big danger.

    In Knowing the Rules, You May Now Break Them

    Arguments over the relative hardness / softness of any given science fiction media are both stupid and dumb. You're making a story or running a game, and that's the most important thing. Do what works for you, do what makes sense - I like aliens, so I tend to be looser on them than I am with, say, FTL communication. Tweak what you want, gloss over what bores you. The opposite is also true - if there's something that really gets you interested, embrace it and see where it can take you.

    Unscientific Hollywood

    I often bitterly complain about the lack of scientific accuracy in TV and movie SF shows. Todd Boyce of Ninja Magic actually works in Hollywood, and explained to me the facts of life about media SF:

    To boil down all the possible reasons, it is because of one or more of the following:

    0) It's a business

    This is a business venture - you put money in with the expectation that more money will come out. The general audience is historically happier watching space ships woosh by shooting glowing bolts of energy than they are watching a slowly rotating spaceship lazily drift across the screen. If you're putting tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, you go for the shooty-wooshy space ships every time, pure and simple.

    1) TPTB (The powers that be) don't care.

    If what's on the screen looks good, and the storytelling is sufficient, then scientific accuracy rarely if ever matters. If they don't care that cars don't blow up when shot with bullets, why should they care about the theoretical effects of FTL travel.

    2) There isn't time to dissect and fix scientific inaccuracies

    Once production on a movie is started, it is an unstoppable steamroller with a tight deadline. If the script says a spaceship wooshes by, the people working on the film don't have time to work out what kind of propulsion it uses — they just make the engine glow, push it across the screen in an interesting way and move on to the next shot.

    3) The decisions are made in too many places and it isn't even thought about except by people who aren't in positions to make judgment calls.

    A jet fighter shoots missiles at a big space ship hovering above a city. The director tells the visual effects supervisor to make it happen. The visual effects supervisor tells the digital effects supervisor to make a space ship and to make a jet fighter woosh by and shoot some missiles at the space ship while he goes off and directs the on-set pyro effects.

    The digital effects supervisor tells the modeling supervisor to have his team make a space ship and jet fighter and tells the FX supervisor to have his team make some missiles shoot, engine effects, vapor trails, smoke trails and whatnot.

    The modelers build a jet fighter and give it harpoon missiles. The modeling supervisor says it looks good. The digital effects supervisor says it looks good. The modelers are done with their job and get put on another production.

    The FX supervisor hands the model to the FX team who look at the fighter and say "um...that's not really the right kind of missile to do an air-to-air attack..." "Sorry, the modeler is off the show and these have been approved. Can't change it now" is the response. So the FX team launches harpoon missiles at the space ship.

    The final shot is shown to the director/visual effects supervisor and it looks cool, but don't pick up on the fact that the wrong missile is being used. It's approved and put into the film.

    (You're probably sensing that this is a true story and know what movie I was working on at the time.)

    4) The script-reader's gauntlet

    Writers use descriptive language to express action in their script. They don't often get into technical details because each page of a script is supposed to represent roughly one minute of screen time. A writer who spends his time describing the intricacies of a space ships propulsion system is a writer who finds his scripts in the script-reader's trash can.

    People who write heavily technical novels are almost always terrible script-writers as they have difficulty working within the confines and limitations of that medium. The scripts that pass through the script-reader's gauntlet will likely be of the less technical variety.

    5) People in film making have education in film making, they don't usually have PhD's in physics/astrophysics. And people who have PhD's in physics/astrophysics don't usually know how to make a good film.

    It's not that they aren't smart enough, it's that their focus of expertise is in other areas. That's why they hire consultants if they're trying to do something with any degree of accuracy, but even then, accuracy is desirable only if it doesn't interfere with the storytelling. Often, things are set in motion that can't be changed after the fact anyway and you just have to shrug your shoulders and say "That's the way it has to be" if you learn too late of some scientific ramification.

    6) The power of ego

    You know how people fall all over themselves when a famous actor is nearby? Its worse when companies deal with well known directors. Just yesterday we were kicked out of the screening room during our dailies because Michael Bay was parking and MIGHT be needing it. With that sort of hysteria going on, are you going to be the one that walks up to him and say "this is totally unrealistic and you need to change it" knowing that saying so will mean the end of your employment?

    What the director says goes, and few people have the will or the power to contradict him. Film making isn't usually done by committee, it is done by imperial decree and if the decree is that cars blow up when shot with bullets, then that is the way it is.

    I'm sure there's a few others I've missed but, speaking of unrealism in Hollywood movies, I need to get back to work on a sequence involving bits of LA breaking off and sliding into the ocean because the Earth's magnetic field has collapsed.

    I'm not kidding.

    Todd Boyce

    Everything Old Is New Again

    Chris Israel Barker put it this way: "Every problem is new when one stays ignorant of history." Jeff Greason: "As I'm fond of saying … years in the laboratory can save you hours in the library." RocketCat's observation on science-fiction world-building: "Everything Old Is New Again." Plus Ça Change Plus C'Est La Même Chose (the more things change the more they stay the same)

    More technically: If you have the same historical constraints, your solutions are going to be the same as well.

    The point is, since the historical past can predict the future, science fiction authors can save lots of world-building effort by adapting history to their science fiction backgrounds. And since history actually happened, it will automatically make your scifi background much more scientifically hard. In other words: Don't Reinvent The Wheel. This can also work in your scifi background's technology levels.

    My standard example is the invention of the telegraph system, as explained in the book The Victorian Internet. It is truly scary how accurately the telegraph predicted many of the exact same problems that happened with the advent of the internet. Disruptive effect on business, rise in the use of secret codes, national governments frantically trying to regulate it and getting all touchy about messages crossing national borders, the appearance of a new high-tech geek culture, crooks using it for totally new methods of scamming people out of their money, it all happened with the telegraph first.

    Amusingly, this has happened in the real world. In 1962 Garrett AiResearch was under contract by NASA to help design space suits. After pounding their heads against the wall for a time, it occurred to them that some of the problems they were having might have been already solved. Medieval suits of armor had similar design problems. They contacted the New York Metropolitan Museum, who referred them to the Tower of London. There was the 1520 suit of armor designed for King Henry the VIII, which was designed for foot combat, not horseback. Meaning the armor had no gaps in the covering, necessary for space suit design. The Tower sent Garrett photos and data on the armour, which proved to be invaluable. One NASA engineer supposedly said he wished they’d known about Henry’s armour sooner as it would have saved time and money.

    But science fiction authors should be careful not to fall into the Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp" pitfall, or your readers will point their fingers at you and laugh.

    “Call a Rabbit a Smeerp“
    A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)
         This section shows how easy it is to transpose ancient history into your scifi future history by simply taking it from old Earth and putting it in a Galactic Empire.
         Noted SF author Ken MacLeod said "History is the trade secret of science fiction." Technique was arguably invented by Isaac Asimov for his Foundation trilogy.
         This example starts with a news item about how the adoption of self-driving trucks will initially throw 3.5 million truck drivers out of work, then proceed to destroy the economies of small towns who provide said drivers with gasoline and food.
         The example then shows how to transpose the situation into an industrialized solar system future with orbital propellant depots and boomtowns, disrupted by the advent of laser-thermal rockets.
         This example stars with the fact that alcohol was illegal in the 1920s under Prohibition, which made it difficult to manufacture. The difficulty ensured that bathtub gin tasted pretty vile, leading to the invention of cocktails with sugary mixes to mask the horrible taste.
         In a scifi future alcohol will be forbidden in spacecraft because a drunk spaceship crewperson can endanger the entire ship. Alcohol will be similarly difficult to manufacture, similarly tasting vile, and similarly needing the crewperson to scrounge something like fruit juice to make it drinkable.
    This example shows how to adapt historical peddlers, tinkers, and cobblers into a solar system future.
    This example shows how casual FTL travel + interstellar colonies full of hicks = snake-oil salespeople. Just ask Harcourt Fenton Mudd.
    This section talks about the almost unlimited possiblities that world mythology offers the science fiction author. Hey, if it worked for George Lucas, it can work for you.
    This example points out that if the conditions of society are are similar to the Reign of Terror, so will be the solutions.
    In this novel, members of the British Navy from circa 1945 are put into suspended animation for a bit more than a thousand years. They are revived by inhabitants of that era, who have forgotten how to wage war and need help coping with an alien invasion. They are astonished at the clever and deadly ideas the Navy men have for dealing with the aliens. But every single idea is something commonplace in 1945 but utterly new in 2900.
    In the comic below, Buck demonstrates how an old hackneyed trick from the 1900s is a new and deadly trick 600 years later. This was a common theme in the Buck Rogers comics.
    This example shows a problem and solution from World War I has application to running gun battles inside a starship.
    This example shows that whether your merchant vessel is a 3 masted schooner or an FTL starship, you are going to need insurance.
    As mentioned above, this example shows how virtually every innovation and problem associated with the internet actually happened first with the telegraph.

    Chirashigaki is an archaic form of Japanese calligraphy where the opening and most important parts of a text are indicated not by their position on the page, but by the size of the characters and the boldness of the ink.

    In a poem, for example, written in the Chirashigaki style, the opening or most significant lines can be literally anywhere on the page, their relatively importance is identified solely by the size of the lettering and boldness of the ink, not their relative spatial positioning.

    Centuries later, we use the same ideas to create Word Clouds.

    by Incunabula (2019)

    'How unfortunate,' said (postmaster) Moist. 'Come, Miss Maccalariat, come, Mr Aggy — let’s move the mail!'

    There was a crowd in what remained of the hall. As Moist had remarked, the citizens had an enthusiasm for new things. The post was an old thing, of course, but it was so old that it had magically become new again.

    From GOING POSTAL by Terry Pratchett (2004)

    ...Including Science Fiction

    This is so meta that it ain't even funny. A science fiction story about the uses of science fiction stories.

    Harry Turtledove's Earthgrip series (later made into a fix-up novel) follows the adventures of Jennifer Logan, owner of a fresh Ph.D in thousand-year-old Middle-English literature with a speciality in ancient science fiction. Stuff written by classic old masters like Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson. She just wants to get tenure, and teach classes in Middle-English-Lit. But she needs money. To make ends meet, she signs on an interstellar trading vessel as an apprentice.

    Along the way she and the crew encounter major problems surrounding trade relations with alien trade partners. Problems like alien barbarians laying siege to the trade partner's capital city in an attempt to burn it to the ground.

    Much to her surprise, Jennifer discovered that she could discover innovative solutions to the problems by using examples from thousand-year-old science fiction. Authors like Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson were doing more that writing entertaining literature. They were also running critical "what-if?" thought experiments, the sort done by threat assessment think-tanks and mission planners.

    This is a very important point: The Purpose of Science Fiction is NOT to Accurately Predict The Future.

    Of course job-one of a science fiction author is to tell entertaining stories that hopefully keep them gainfully employed. But job-two is NOT to be a prophet. Instead it is to speculate and imagine. The idea is not so much to foretell future technology, but instead to postulate new technology and do a thought experiment on the consequences such technology would have in the populace.

    This is why some future science fiction seems to be about current anxieties. This allows authors to address such anxieties.

    This also allows authors to sound the warning about dangerous technologies that the public is not anxious about, but should be. And to a limited extent it allows authors to control the public debate about such matters.

    Back in the 1940s, much of western society was unconcerned with the dangers of the blurring of truth in the hands of authoritarian government. George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four sounded the alarm about that peril. I know that having read that novel as a lad in the 1970s gave me incredible preparation to survive the dangers of 2020.

    Science fiction readers back in the 1940s were well educated about the issues and menace of nuclear weapon proliferation and warfare, science fiction stories about atom bombs were common. It wasn't until 1945 that the general population knew that atom bombs existed, much less about the need to duck-and-cover. Heinlein's 1941 story Solution Unsatisfactory lays out the problems and dilemmas with nuclear proliferation. Heinlein's 1959 story Starship Troopers shaped the debate about the role of the military in society for many years. At one point Arthur C. Clarke's 1951 story Superiority was required reading for an industrial design course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Currently one can gain valuable insights into the pitfalls of replacing personal contact with the internet by reading 1909 story The Machine Stops. David Brin's 1990 story Earth asks the question how does society continue the War on Drugs when the drug addicts are not actually using drugs?

    In most of these stories, the author is not seriously suggesting that this is the way the future will be. What they are saying is here are some possible issues future technology can cause, and we better start debating them now while they are still just theoretical. Because it will be too late when they actually happen.

    Anyway, getting back to Jennifer. In the story 6 +, the interstellar trader lands on the planet of one of their trading partner, only to discover that their aforementioned city is about to be pillaged and burnt by the aforementioned barbarians. Nobody can figure out a solution, until Jennifer remembers the +6 incident in Robert Heinlein's classic The Man Who Sold The Moon which inspires an innovative solution that saves the day.

    This impresses the heck out of her boss, the master trader who owns the ship. On the theory that "nothing succeeds like success", he uses Jennifer's knowledge of science fiction literature as justification to jump her rating from "apprentice" to "trader".

    The master trader is proved correct in the story Nothing in the Night-Time, where Jennifer's sci-fi knowledge again provides the solution to the problem.

    Finally, this is turned on its head in the story The Great Unknown. In this story, an alien race has an important but intractable problem. They had heard about Jennifer's uncanny ability, and kidnapped her in order to dragoon her into solving their problem.


    (ed note: our hero professor Jennifer Logan has finally earned her tenure. She teaches regular classes in ancient 20th century scifi. What she doesn't know is that tales of her prowess of using scifi to solve problems has spread to other alien races.)

          She got to the podium just as the clock clicked to 0930. “Good morning. I’m Dr. Logan,” she said—she didn’t believe in wasting time. “This is Middle English 217: Twentieth-Century Science Fiction." Someone got up and left in a hurry. In the wrong room, Jennifer thought. Other students tittered.
         “All right. This course is part language, part literature. As you’ll have noticed when you were registering, beginning and intermediate Middle English are prerequisites. Don’t forget, the documents we’ll be reading are a thousand years old. If you think you’ll be able to get through them with just your everyday Spanglish, or even with an ordinary translation program, you can think again."

         She sighed to herself and went on, “That’s not to say you won’t find words—a lot of words—that look familiar. A lot of Spanglish vocabulary can be traced back to roots in Middle English. That’s especially true of Middle English science fiction. Many, in fact most, of our modern terms relating to spaceflight come from those first coined by science-fiction writers. Remarkably, most of those coinages were made before the technology for actual spaceflight existed. I want you to think for a moment of the implications of that, and to think about the leap of imagination those writers were taking.”
         Some of them made the mental effort, she saw. She knew they were doomed to failure. Imagining what humanity had been like before spaceflight was as hard for them as willing oneself into the mind of an ancient Sumerian would have been for an ordinary citizen of the twentieth century.

    (ed note: Jennifer is started when three aliens start taking her class. Tall, blue, wolf-like aliens called the Foitani. They turn out to be excellent students.)

         Jennifer spent the first couple of weeks in the course on stories that dealt with alien contact. Experience had taught her that students enjoyed the theme, enjoyed seeing how wildly wrong most ancient speculation was. That some writers came within shouting distance of what the future really looked like also piqued their interest.

         Remember, science fiction wasn’t supposed to be prophesy,” she said. “Trying to foretell—to guess—the future is a much older set of thought processes. Science fiction was different. Science fiction was a literature of extrapolation, of taking something—some social trend, some new technology, even some ideology—that existed in the writer’s time and pushing it farther and harder than it had yet gone, to see what the world would look like then.
         “Of course, a lot of it became trivial even within a few years after it was written. Social trends, especially, changed so fast that they rarely lasted long enough to be carried to the extremes writers imagined. As humans have always been, in the twentieth century they were sometimes radical, sometimes reactionary, sometimes sexually permissive, sometimes repressive. They’d go through two or three of these cycles in a person’s lifetime, as we do today.

         “Some writers, though, chose harder questions to ask: how humanity would fit into a community of intelligent beings, some quite different from us; how we should treat each other under changed circumstances; what the relationship between government and individual should be. That’s why writers like Anderson, Brin, and Heinlein can still make us think today, even though the worlds they imagined didn’t come true.”

    (ed note: Then one fine night, Jennifer answers a knock at the door. She discovers the three Foitani, who zap her unconscious with a stunner and kidnap her into deep space.It seems that a twenty-eight thousand years ago there was an original race of Foitani called the "Great Ones." They were thought to have all perished in the legendary Suicide Wars. The current race, the Oderna Foitani, is thought to be survivors of the war. The Foitani have discovered a huge white tower called the Great Unknown, a relic of the Great Ones. They need Jennifer's help to unravel the mystery of the Great Ones.)

         The Foitani explosives expert was taller but thinner than Aissur Aissur Rus. He had a scarred muzzle that made him easy to recognize. All the Foitani seemed predatory to Jennifer, Enfram Enfram Marf seemed predatory even for a Foitan. He all but salivated when Aissur Aissur Rus explained why they were there. “I do not believe it,” he said several times. “How did you persuade Pawasar Pawasar Ras to let us use the power we have? I thought he would just let us sit here forever, doing nothing.”
         “The opinions and suggestions of the human Jennifer aided materially in getting him to modify his previous opinion,” Aissur Aissur Rus said. That made Jennifer like him even better. Plenty of humans wouldn’t have shared credit with a friend from their own species, let alone with an alien they’d hijacked.
         Enfram Enfram Marf turned to stare at her. “This ugly little pink and white and yellow thing?” Jennifer heard through Aissur Aissur Rus’s translator. “Pawasar Pawasar Ras listened to this sub-Foitani blob where he would not hear you? Our sphere’s a strange place, and no mistake.”
         The contempt behind the colorless words made Jennifer realize she really had been dealing with what passed for interspecies diplomats among the Foitani. If Enfram Enfram Marf thought like the average Foitan in the street, no wonder the Great Ones hadn't worried about genocide.
         She smiled sweetly at the ordnance officer—she knew the smile was wasted on him, but used it for her own satisfaction— and said, “I’m female, too. How do you like that?”

         Had Enfram Enfram Marf been human, he would have turned purple. He drew back a leg, as if to kick Jennifer across the room. “Wait,” Aissur Aissur Rus said before the leg could shoot forward. “The human is still of use to us.”
         “Why?” Enfram Enfram Marf retorted. “Now that we have Pawasar Pawasar Ras’s permission to open up the Great Unknown, we don’t need this thing to gather data for us. We can go back to using machines; they’ll be able to bring artifacts out past the radius of doom so we can properly study them.”
         “If all goes well, yes,” Aissur Aissur Rus said. “But all may not go well. Machines are less flexible than intelligent beings, even now. Moreover, we acquired the human Jennifer not so much to gather data as to interpret it. She is expert in a peculiar form of extrapolation by storytelling that humans developed long ago, which may give her unusual insight into the reasons the Great Ones created the Great Unknown as they did.
         “How could this creature understand the Great Ones when we, their descendants, do not?” Enfram Enfram Marf demanded. But his leg returned to the floor. He bared his teeth, then went on, “Oh, very well, Aissur Aissur Rus, let it be as you say. I shall begin calculating the proper weight, shape, and composition of the charge, based on what we know of the thickness and material of the tower's outer wall.”

    (ed note: As Jennifer and Bernard Greenberg {master trader and her former boss, also kidnapped by the Foitani} approach the huge white tower of The Great Unknown, a complication arises. The Rof Golan show up in force. They are another group of Foitani who are basically pirates. They want the secrets of the Great Unknown for themselves.

    Then the humans manage to penetrate the Great Unknown. Turns out it has a lot of Great Ones who have been in suspended animation since the Suicide Wars. Who immediately wake up and capture the humans. A group of them go to meet delegations of the Foitani and the Rof Golan. Things are OK until they get close enough to smell each other. Then all the aliens become enraged, pull out their guns, and the Foitani/Rof-Golan starts trading gunfire with the Great Ones. This is odd because prior to this, the Foitani practically worshipped the Great Ones. The humans hit the dirt and manage to crawl away without being shot.

    As it turns out, the Great Ones are kwopillot, and the Foitani/Rof-Golan are vodranet. The practical point is each can detect the other by scent, and each thinks the other is a hideously evil sexual pervert that should be killed on sight (or scent).

    All Foitani are born female, they turn male at age thirty. Kwopillot result from hormone treatments. Pouring the appropriate hormones over the unhatched egg results in a person who is male at hatching. A person who is is properly hatched as female can use hormones to prevent the natural change into male. In both cases it changes how your body smells. "Kwopillot" means being the wrong gender for your age, which they consider a filthy perversion. As is commonly the case, sexual prejudice has the highest anger quotient of all.

    Somehow this can be used to sexually enslave the kwopillot, the novel does not go into details. But that doesn't matter. Slaves generally hate being slaves regardless of why they were enslaved, and some will revolt. The Suicide Wars was a revolt of the kwopillot, a civil war which destroyed the Foitani galactic empire and put it into a Long Night for several deca-kilo-years. The Foitani and Rof-Golan gradually pulled out of the dark ages and re-built a pale shadow of their original empire. There are no surviving Great Ones, except for the ones who awoke from suspended animation inside the big white tower The Great Unknown. Which turns out to be a huge combat starship named the Vengence.

    Jennifer manages to talk the three sides into diplomatic negotiations, using the hijacked human ship as neutral ground. The talks do not go well, which is putting it mildly.

    She also wants something. The Great Ones had visited Terra twenty-eight thousand years ago, and have bio-scans of a mated pair of Cro-Magnons. They can use these scans to create duplicate Cro-Magnons. Jennifer wants a pair of them created, so the species can be reestablished. She also wants the Great Ones to erase their bio-scans, because she doesn't want anything remotely human to be in their alien clutches. Great One Solut Mek Kem want to know what Jennifer can offer valuable enough in exchange for her wish.)

         “What exactly do you want from us?” Greenberg demanded. “I can provide trade goods from Odern, and others of human manufacture. I can also give you information about what this part of the galaxy is like these days. Just how much, of course, is what makes a dicker. ”
         “These things may perhaps buy you copies of your fellow creatures,” Solut Mek Kem said. “They will in no way persuade me to clear our patterns in the matrices. Your kind, evidently, is a part of the galaxy about which we shall require a good deal of information. If you expect us to forgo it, you will have to do better.”
         “I’ve told you what we have,” Greenberg said slowly.
         Jennifer felt her face twist into a scowl. She didn’t want to leave any vestiges of the Cro-Magnons in Foitani hands. “What would it take?” she said. “Do you want us to tell you how to live in peace with all the modem Foitani, who’d like nothing more than seeing every last one of you dead?”
         “If you can tell us how to live in peace with vodranet, creature, you will have earned what you seek.”

         Jennifer looked down at her shoes. If only she were a Middle English SF hero, the answer to that question would have been on the tip of her tongue. Would Miles Vorkosigan or Dominic Flandry just have stood there with nothing to say? “If only …” she said softly, and then, a moment later, more than a little surprised, “Well, maybe I can.”

         “Go ahead, then, creature,” Solut Mek Kem said. “Tell me how I shall leave in peace with beings for whom I have an instinctive antipathy. Instruct me. I shall be fascinated to imbibe of your wisdom." The kwopil used irony like a bludgeon.
         “Actually, I can’t specifically tell you how,” Jennifer said. "But maybe, just maybe, I can tell you a way to go about finding the answer for yourselves, if you really want to.” That was the rub, and she knew it. If kwopillot and vodranet wanted to fight, they would, and good intentions would only get in the way.
         “Say on,” Solut Mek Kem said, not revealing his thoughts.

         “All right. You know by now that the Foitani from Odern brought humans—my people—to Odern because by themselves they couldn’t safely enter what they called the Great Unknown— the area around your ship.”
         “We made sure prying vodranet would not be able to disturb us, yes.”
         “Fine,” Jennifer said. “The reason the Foitani from Odern got me in particular is that I’m an expert in an old form of literature among my people, a form called science fiction. This was a literature that, in its purest form, extrapolated either from possible events deliberately taken to extremes or from premises known to be impossible, and speculated on what might happen if those impossible premises were in fact true.
         Solut Mek Kem’s ears twitched. “Why should I care if creatures choose to spend their lives deliberately speculating on the impossible? It strikes me as a waste of time, but with sub-Foitani creatures, the waste is minimal.”

         “It’s not the way you're making it sound,” Jennifer said. “Look—you know about military contingency plans, don’t you? ”
         “Certainly,” Solut Mek Kem said.
         “I thought you would. If you’re like humans at all, you make those plans even for cases you don’t expect to happen (e.g., the US being invaded by Canada). Sometimes you can learn things from those improbable plans, too, even if you don’t directly use them. Am I right or wrong?”
         “You are correct. How could you not be, in this instance? Of course data may be relevant in configurations other than the ones in which they are first envisioned. Any race with the minimal intelligence necessary to devise data base software learns the truth of this.”

         “Whatever you say, Solut Mek Kem. Do me one more favor, if you would: give me the connotations of the word this translator program uses to translate the term fiction.”
         The Great One paused before answering, “It means something like, tales for nestlings’ ears. Another synonym might be, nonsense stories."
         Jennifer nodded. A lot of races thought that way. With some, the only translation for fiction was lying. She said, “We use fiction for more things than the Foitani do, Solut Mek Kem. We use tales that we know to be false to entertain, yes, but also to cast light on true aspects of our characters and to help us gain insight into ourselves.”
         “And so?” Solut Mek Kem said. “What possible relevance does a creature’s insight into itself have to the truly serious issue of vodranet?”

         “Bear with me,” Jennifer said. “More than a thousand years ago, back when humans were just starting to develop a technological society, they also developed the subform of fiction called science fiction.”
         “This strikes me as a contradiction in terms,” Solut Mek Kem observed. “How can one have a nonsense story based on science?”
         “Science fiction doesn’t produce nonsense stories,” Jennifer said, reflecting that Solut Mek Kem sounded like some of the contemporary critics of the genre. “It’s sort of a fictional analogue of what you do when you develop a contingency plan. Conceive of it as a method for making thought experiments and projections when you don’t have hard data, but need to substitute imagination instead. You kwopillot don’t have hard data about living with vodranet, for instance; all you know is how to go about killing each other. You need all the imagination you can find, and you need a way to focus it. If imagination is light, think of the techniques of science fiction as a lens."

         “I think of this entire line of talk as a waste of time,” Solut Mek Kem said.
         “Let me tell you this, then,” Jennifer said quickly, before he could irrevocably reject her: “The Foitani from Odern sought me out and brought me here specifically because I’m an expert in this kind of fiction.”
         “The foibles of vodranet are not a recommendation,” Solut Mek Kem said, and she was sure she had lost.

         But Bernard Greenberg said, “Consider results, Solut Mek Kem. Before Jennifer got here, you had been dormant for twenty-eight thousand years. The Foitani from Odern weren't close to getting into the Great Unknown, let alone into the Vengeance by themselves. Look at all that’s happened since Jennifer came to Gilver.”
         Solut Mek Kem opened his mouth, then closed it again. Greenberg had managed to make him thoughtful, at any rate. At last the Great One said, “An argument from results is always the most difficult to confute. Very well; let me examine some samples of this alleged science fiction. If I think expertise in it might prove of some value to the present situation, I shall meet the terms you have set: copies of the creatures of your kind in our data stores, with the originals to be deleted.”

         Jennifer clenched her teeth. Put up or shut up, she thought. While she tried to decide which stories Solut Mek Kem ought to judge, she said, “May I please call Aissur Aissur Rus at the research base of the Foitani from Odern? He has a program that translates between your language and the one in which the stories were composed, one which we humans no longer speak.”
         “First scientific nonsense or nonsense science, I know not which. Now you haul in the vodranet,” Solut Mek Kem grumbled. “Do what you think necessary, creature. Having stooped so low as to negotiate with sub-Foitani, how could vodranet befoul me further? Speak—your words are being transmitted as you require.”
         “Aissur Aissur Rus?” Jennifer mid. “Are you there?”
         The reply came from nowhere. “That is a translators voice, so you must be a human. Which are you, and what do you need?"
         “I’m Jennifer," Jennifer said. “Can you transmit to the Vengeance the program you used back on Saugus to read Middle English science fiction? You thought someone who knew it might be able to give you insights on the Great Unknown. Now the Great Ones hope its techniques may help them figure out how not to fight the next round of the Suicide Wars.” She knew she was exaggerating the Great Ones’ expectations, but no more than she would have in arranging a deal of much smaller magnitude.
         “I will send the program,” Aissur Aissur Rus said. “I would be intrigued to learn the Great Ones’ opinion of this curious human discipline. ”
         “You aren’t the only one,” Jennifer said.

         Solut Mek Kem turned to glance at something—evidently a telltale, for after a moment he said, “Very well. We have received this program. On what material shall we make use of it?”
         “I‘ve been thinking about that,” Jennifer said. “I’m going to give you three pieces. You know or can learn that humans are of two sexes, which we keep throughout life, just as you do. The Left Hand of Darkness speculates on the consequences of discovering a world of humans genetically engineered to be hermaphrodites.
         “That is not precisely similar to our case, but I can see how it might be relevant,” Solut Mek Kem said. “It is not the sort of topic about which we would produce fiction.”
         “Species differ, ” Jennifer said. Mentally, she added, You might know more about that if you hadn ’t gone around slaughtering all the aliens you came across.
         “You spoke of three works,” Solut Mek Kem said. “What are the other two?”
         “One is ‘The Marching Morons (adapted into the movie Idiocracy),’ which looks at the possible genetic consequences of some of the social policies in vogue in the author’s day. The events it describes did not happen. Kombluth—the author—didn’t expect them to, I’m certain. He was using them to comment on his own society’s customs, which is something science fiction did very effectively.
         She waited for Solut Mek Kem to say something, but he just looked at her with those dark green eyes. She went on, “The third story is called ‘Hawk Among the Sparrows.’ It warns of the problems someone used to a high technology may encounter in a place where that technology cannot be reproduced."

    (ed note: The Great One's starship has a much higher technology level than the Oderna Foitari and the Rof-Golan pirates. But the latter have several planetary colonies for supply and maintenance, while the Great One's starship is all alone in the universe. In the story 'Hawk Among the Sparrows', an ultra high-tech fighter jet goes through a time warp into World War I, with fabric biplanes and everything. It is a monumental task for the protagonist to obtain the huge amount of kerosene the jet needs for fuel, and the ammo simply cannot be recreated. There will be no maintenance, either)

         “Yes, that is relevant to us,” Solut Mek Kem said. “Again, it is not a topic we would choose for fiction. I will consider these works. I will consider also the mind-set which informs them, which I gather to be the essence of what you seek to offer me. ”
         "Exactly," Jennifer said, more than a little relieved the Great One understood what she was selling.
         “Enough then. You are dismissed. I shall communicate with you again when I have weighed these documents. You would be well advised to remain in your ship until that time, lest you be destroyed by one of my fellows who has less patience with vermin than I do. The guard here will escort you.”

         As it happened, Aissur Aissur Rus called her first. She explained to him the deal she had put to the Great Ones, knowing all the while that Solut Mek Kem or one of his aides was surely listening in. She finished, “You were the one among your people who thought someone used to the ideas of science fiction would be able to help you on Gilver, and you turned out to be right (meaning Rus was the one who figured out that kidnapping Jennifer was a good idea). Do you think that you modern Foitani can apply this same sort of creative extrapolation to the problem of living with kwopillot?"
         “That is—an intriguing question,” Aissur Aissur Rus said slowly. “If the answer proves to be affirmative, its originator would surely derive much credit therefrom.” You would derive that credit, you mean, Jennifer thought. Aissur Aissur Rus continued, “If on the other hand the answer is in the negative, the Suicide Wars begin again shortly afterward, at which point no blame is likely to accrue, for who would survive to lay blame?" (i.e., so there is no actual downside)

         “Then shall I send you the same materials I gave to Solut Mek Kem?“ Jennifer asked. “Maybe you can use them, if not to change Pawasar Pawasar Ras’s mind, then at least to open it a little bit."
         “What materials did you fumish to the Great One?” Aissur Aissur Ras asked. Jennifer told him. He said, “I presently have all of those, I believe, save ‘Hawk Among the Sparrows.’ We kidnapped you before you gained the opportunity to discuss the literary pitfalls of overreliance upon advanced technology. Though alien, I find them most intriguing documents. ‘The Marching Morons’ presents a quite Foitani-like view of what constitutes proper behavior under diflicult circumstances—not that we would ever have permitted culls to breed as they did to establish that story’s background.”

         "Aissur Aissur Rus, I’m convinced you would have gotten an A in my course,” Jermifer said. (except he had kidnapped her before the course was finished)
         “So you have said, human Jennifer. I shall take this for a compliment. My people have said repeatedly, in talks you have heard and in many more conversations where you were not present, that they could not imagine how they were to live with kwopillot. I still cannot imagine how we are to accomplish this. Nevertheless, perhaps you have furnished us a tool wherewith to focus our imagination more sharply on the problem. If this be so, all Foitani will be in your debt."
         “That’s not something you ought to tell a trader, you know,” Jennifer said.

         “You have won your wager,” Solut Mek Kem said. “The concept of extrapolation mixed with entertainment is not one we developed for ourselves, yet its uses quickly become obvious as we grow acquainted with it. I wonder how many other interesting concepts we have exterrninated along with the races that created them.” Jennifer had not imagined a Foitan could feel guilt. A moment later, Solut Mek Kem disabused her of her anthropocentrism, for he said, “Well, no matter. They are gone, and I shall not worry about them. The masters of these creatures—” He stuck out his tongue at the Cro-Magnon couple. "—are also now gone from our data store; I keep my bargains. The copies are yours to do with as you will.”

         The communicator ignored her. The words that came from it were more like snarls than speech. The translator turned them into flat Spanglish. “Answer me, you pestilential sub-Foitani creatures. When Voskop W Wurd (leader of the Rof-Golan pirates) deigns to speak with you, you are to take it as a privilege.”
         “Oh, shut up for a minute,” Jennifer said, enjoying the license given her by a good many thousand kilometers of empty space between herself and the Rof Golani warleader. “Now, what is it you want, Voskop W Wurd?"
         “Whatever documents you have passed on to the Oderna and the kwopillot,” Voskop W Wurd answered.
         “Oh,” Jennifer said. “Yes, I can do that. I would have done it sooner, but it never occurred to me that you might want them, Voskop W Wurd. You hadn’t shown much use for humans, you know.” You haven't shown much use for anything, you know, she added mentally.
         The warleader said, “If my potential allies and my enemies have these data, I should be privy to them as well. Explain to me why the Oderna and kwopillot are interested in these long effusions by sub-Foitani. ”
         “I love you, too, Voskop W Wurd," Jennifer said sweetly. But the more minds trying to find avoid a new round of Suicide Wars, the better, so she did explain to the warleader the concept of science fiction and its potential application here. Voskop W Wurd was vicious, but not stupid. Jennifer finished, “The books and stories are examples intended to turn your thinking in the appropriate direction.”
         Voskop W Wurd remained silent for some time after she was through. At last, he said, “This new concept will have to be analyzed. We on Rof Golan write and declaim sagas of great warriors of the past, but have nothing to do with the set of organized lies you term fiction, still less with using it as if it were fact. ”
         “Let me know what you think when you’ve looked at the documents,” Jennifer said. “You might also want to talk to Aissur Aissur Rus. He comes fairly close be being able to grasp another race’s point of view.”
         Voskop W Wurd switched off without replying—typical Foitani manners, Jennifer thought. But she remained more cheerful than otherwise. The Rof Golani hadn’t dismissed the concept of trying SF techniques to extrapolate ways in which kwopillot and vodranet could live together in the same galaxy. From him, that was an excellent sign.

         The communicator hauled Jennifer and Greenberg back to life after about five hours of sleep—just enough to leave them both painfully aware they needed more. A Foitani voice roared from the speaker. “Answer, humans,” the translator supplied.
         “What is it now, Voskop W Wurd?” Jennifer asked, rubbing her eyes and thinking wistfully of coffee.
         “This is not Voskop W Wurd. This is Yulvot L Reat. The warleader ordered me to evaluate your concept of scientific lying."
         Jennifer wondered whether the translator was hiccuping or whether Voskop W Wurd had given that name to the Middle English literature as he assigned it to his subordinate. That didn’t really matter. “What do you think of it, Yulvot W Reat?”
         “To my surprise, I find myself quite impressed,” the Rof Golani Foitan answered. “It serves to make extrapolation palatable, and by extension even speculates logically about the consequences of propositions known to be false, something I had not imagined possible.”
         “Then you think it might let you find a way to live with the kwopillot aboard the Vengeance?" Jennifer asked hopefully.
         “It might let us look for a way,” Yulvot L Reat said. “I take that for progress. So will the warleader Voskop W Wurd, since we never imagined—”

    From THE GREAT UNKNOWN by Harry Turtledove (1991)

    But Beware of Analogy

    Yes, I know I just got finished saying that Everything Old Is New Again (EOINA). But not always. Sometimes you need a bit more nuance.

    An important part of EOINA is the secret ingredient: people and human nature. Meaning if a historical situation reoccurs, and if human nature hasn't changed much, similar results will come to pass. Example: pretty much all the innovations, social turmoil, and criminal activity that was created by the advent of the internet happened exactly the same way with the advent of the telegraph. Because human nature hadn't changed much.

    But if the secret ingredient is missing, EOINA does not work nearly as well. Especially if a science fiction author is trying to create their science fictional background using the old reasoning by analogy technique. This leads to all sorts of incorrect conclusions. Space Is Not An Ocean, Rockets Are Not Boats or Airplanes, Rockets Are Not Fighter Planes, Rockets Are Not Arrows, and There Is No Friction In Space.

    Casey Handmer (PhD) explains it this way:


    Part of my series on common misconceptions in space journalism.

    Humans evolved a rare symbolic reasoning ability during our emergence over the last million or so years. As running apes, we lacked the usual evolutionary features such as sharp teeth, claws, spines, poison, and armor. Instead, we deployed social structures and intelligence to bootstrap science and technology from stone tools to synthetic elements.

    Symbolic reasoning, and indeed much of scientific progress, is the process of understanding things in terms of other things. By creating abstractions, humans are able to quickly solve new problems, predict the future, and ultimately pass on brainy genes to the next generation.

    We’re so good at it, in fact, that we often barely notice these abstractions even with concerted effort. There’s nothing natural about driving or browsing Twitter, but almost all humans can learn to do it very quickly. This is not automatic – other skills are much harder to learn, such as playing violin or performing surgery.

    When it comes to modelling the natural world, analogies are powerful mechanisms for reasoning, education, and communication, because they rely on little more than universally common experience and are quick to articulate. As an example, water flow is commonly used as an analogy for electricity, while the rubber sheet is used as an analogy for gravity.

    What analogies gain in convenience they lose in precision, so all analogies are, to some extent, wrong. The water electricity analogy is useless for designing radios or transformers, while the rubber sheet doesn’t actually help people understand why gravity mixes space and time.

    The alternative to employing analogies is to break down the problem into fundamental concepts and reason by first principles. This process, while relatively formulaic, is tougher to learn and generally much slower, and almost impossible to communicate between people unless they are both already experts in the same thing.

    As a halfway measure, it is useful to measure the wrongness of an analogy by trying to break it, either by relaxing an assumption or taking it to some limit. At the least, practicing this skill can help to avoid the more obvious errors and sharpen argumentative abilities! Deep insight is unlikely to result, however, except by thorough first principles derivation.

    To the topic at hand. Space travel is an unusual combination of exciting and esoteric, so an entire ecosystem of handy analogies has developed to help journalists explain incredibly technical information to interested lay people. This, like other aspects of science communication is a worthwhile goal.

    Where it falls down is when the pros resort to analogies instead of first principles reasoning, and get things wrong as a result.

    Space travel is esoteric and so different from every day experience that it’s simply not possible to use analogies in a technically useful way. Of course designers employ symbolic abstractions but these are (hopefully) built on a rigorous foundation.

    As an example, the process of designing and building a Mars rover employs over 400 engineering subspecialities. There will never be a human with more than an indicial understanding of even a subset of these. Spacecraft are complicated because the problems their designs solve are really tough. Because no-one can specialize in every area, it falls to systems people to define the interfaces and tie it together, and here it can be almost irresistible to use analogies.

    What are some examples of popular but uselessly inaccurate analogies in space?

    • Rockets as generic transport. The idea that because rockets transport cargo they’re like trucks or planes, but somehow cost 1000x as much. What rockets do is so ridiculously difficult it is hard for non-specialists to grasp. A really good rocket, broken into two stages, can launch about 4% of its launch mass into orbit. Something like 85% of that mass is fuel. That fuel is burned so violently that the engines would melt except that they’re literally made of coolant channels. Most terrestrial vehicles are built with a safety margin of at least 50%. A few bad welds on a car is okay because it’s designed to be stronger than it needs to be. On a rocket, there’s no room for safety margin. Every single part needs to be exactly as strong and heavy as it needs to be, which means every weld might need X-ray inspection. Every panel might need painstaking pockets milled away. Every piece of metal must be tested to ensure it meets material property specifications. Rockets are in a class of their own, and each type should be modeled as an independent vehicle.

    • The moon is a stepping stone, a way station, or gas station in space. This is partly covered in my blog on Lunar water. For conventional travel, stepping stones are useful ways to nimbly cross a stream without getting feet wet. Gas stations are essential for internal combustion vehicles traveling long distances. But neither of these analogies makes any sense in the context of space. The moon is made of rocks, but it’s not in the middle of a stream. Traveling long distances in space requires time but no constant consumption of fuel. The most fuel intensive step is getting from Earth to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The next most is escaping LEO, whether to the Moon or Mars or anywhere else. Landing on the Moon takes just as much effort as launching from the Moon, since it has no atmosphere to slow down in. As a result, the Moon is on the way to nowhere except itself. Indeed, just getting to the Lunar surface to refuel would consume more fuel than going directly to almost anywhere else in the inner solar system.

    • The Lunar gateway as a gas station or stepping stone. Similar to the Moon, there’s no value in stopping somewhere along the way to somewhere else in space. For more detail, see my blogs on Lunar exploration architectures, or the Lunar Gateway specifically. Typically, the injection burn is performed in LEO to exploit the Oberth effect, and the vehicle coasts the rest of the way. The Lunar gateway also doesn’t have its own fuel supply, so any refueling would require dedicated tankers. But since all rockets are hyperfocused specialty machines, the tankers would be well placed to perform the actual mission, without stopping anywhere to refuel. In other words, it makes no sense to build gas station analogs in deep space.

    • Do you know of any others? Let me know and I’ll add them to this list.

    Reasoning by first principles is a nice idea, but how do we do it? This blog would be incomplete without a recipe for people to follow.

    When I did the Physics Olympiad I was taught a powerful problem solving algorithm that is designed for rapid, accurate first principles reasoning, calculation, and importantly, communication. It can be readily adapted for any quantitative problem. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, its steps help the user to overcome our innate software flaws and cognitive biases.

    The method was called “the seven Ds and the little s”, comprising (in descending order of importance) Diagram, Directions, Definitions, Diagnosis, Derivation, Determination, Dimensions, and substitution.

    In more detail:

    A good diagram captures necessary information and consumes about half a page. The process of drawing a diagram activates the brain’s spatial reasoning capacities and prevents hasty or panicked assumptions.

    Directions establish the local coordinate system, so that all quantities are defined in a consistent frame of reference.

    Definitions unambiguously assign symbols to concepts or quantities such as length or mass, and help expedite algebraic manipulation later.

    At the end of the first three steps, the problem has been summarized and read into memory. This may seem pointless or obvious, but asking the right question is often the hardest part of solving open or poorly defined problems. What is the relevant figure of merit? How is optimal defined?

    Diagnosis is the fourth step, and consists of a single phrase summary of the physical principle used to solve the problem, such as application of a conserved quantity or a vector algebra bash. Usually, the more fundamental the principle, the better.

    Derivation takes fundamental physical equations, of which there are about ten, and transforms them into the necessary form for the problem at hand. For example, rather than memorize the moment of inertia for hundreds of different shapes, one would memorize the general formula and, in the Derivation step, solve an integral to give the desired version.

    Determination combines derived equations to produce a formula for the solution of the problem. By convention, this formula is boxed to make it easier to find on the page.

    Dimension check ensures the dimensions on each side of the equation match and is a good “check sum” to detect algebraic mistakes. A successful dimension check is notated with a smiley face.

    Finally, if necessary, numerical values can be substituted in to get a numerical answer.

    By combining this method with intuition and other problem solving tools it’s possible to reliably get the right answer first time, every time. It’s like a super power!

    The next time you encounter a questionable analogy anywhere, but particularly in space mission design literature, you’ll have the tools to not only recognize its limitations but to get the right answer yourself.

    From IN SPACE, NO-ONE CAN REASON BY ANALOGY by Casey Handmer (PhD) (2019)

    Example "Reasoning By Analogy" Errors

    There are several major "reasoning by analogy" errors common to media science fiction, and boy are they deeply entrenched. To the point where most fans get very snappish and defensive if you try to point them out.

         Both ocean liners and passenger aircraft move in a direction at 90° to the direction that gravity calls "down". Meaning that an airplane is moving from left to right while the passenger compartment floor is close to the aircraft's belly. So reasoning by analogy, this is the same arrangement found in the Starship Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon.
         Wrong. Dead wrong. Real-world spacecraft have the direction of "down" directly opposite the direction the ship is moving. The arrangement is much like a skyscraper with the engines in the basement.
         World War 2 submarines were deadly, because they could sneak up on you. You can't see them. More recently stealth aircraft are practically invisible to radar, so you can't see them either. So reasoning by analogy, certain combat spacecraft could use some kind of stealth technology to be spacegoing version of submarines running silent and deep.
         Wrong. Dead wrong. The situations are NOT analogous. There ain't no stealth in space, except in impractically limited and almost worthless instances. Go to the link to have all your objections dealt with.
         In World War 1 the battleship was the queen of the ocean navy. But the advent of fighter aircraft in World War 2 made them the new queen, since a fighter could sink a battleship without the ship being able to to much to prevent it. So reasoning by analogy, the queen of space battles will be the space fighter, supported by carrier spacecraft.
         Wrong. Dead wrong. Space fighters make zero sense militarily, economically, or morally. There is no particular reason why a space dreadnought should be slower or less maneuverable than a space fighter (airplanes are faster than battleships because they operate in the air instead of the water). In any event, AI or remotely controlled drones make more sense, since they have roughly four times the delta-V by virtue of performing suicide missions. And other advantages as well. Read the link.

    Baby Duck Syndrome

    Before I read Mr. Handmer's analysis, my pet theory was Baby Duck Syndrome.

    At a young age, fans imprinted on space fighters. In other words it is a case of baby duck syndrome. When a baby duck hatches from an egg, the first large object it sees is imprinted in its brain as "mother." The duck will cling to and follow around the large object, even if the object is a dog, a man, or a rock. In the same way, a young fan will see a movie with space fighters, and forever decide that this is the one true method of space combat.

    Why is there a constant stream of media science fiction featuring space fighters, readily available for new fans to imprint on? I suspect what Charles Stross calls "Second Artist Effect." The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist's work and paints that, instead of a real landscape. In this case the first artist is George Lucas in 1977 with his World-War-2-style "X-Wings" and "T.I.E. Fighters".

    But it might be a bit more complicated. Here's my reasoning:

    It seems to me that the space fighter is nothing more that people taking a dramatic and comfortable metaphor (sea-going aircraft carriers and combat fighter aircraft) and transporting it intact into the outer space environment. Since the fan already knows about how sea-going aircraft carriers and fighter aircraft operate, they are comfortable with science fiction where the outer space versions work the same way. Well, more comfortable than if the outer space version work in a totally unfamiliar manner, at any rate.

    But if you think about it, in reality interplanetary combat is highly unlikely to be like anything that has occurred before.

    Here's an analogy: Imagine a speculative fiction writer back in the Victorian era, such as Jules Verne. Say they wanted to write a novel about the far future, when heavier than air flight had been invented, and the age of Aerial Combat had arrived.

    Reasoning by analogy, they might take the dramatic and comfortable metaphor of sea-going frigates and battleships and transporting it intact into the aerial environment. Held aloft by dozens of helicopter blades, the battleships of the air would ponderously maneuver, trying to "cross the T" with the enemy aerial dreadnoughts.

    See how silly it sounds? Well, combat spacecraft behaving like fighter aircraft is just as silly. In both cases a metaphor is being forced into a situation where it does not work.

    In reality, when the Wright brothers invented heavier-than-air flight and Fokker Triplanes started dog-fighting Sopwith Camels, it was totally unlike anything that had occurred before. Biplanes never ever tried to cross the T, and a sea-going battleship had never ever performed an Immelmann turn.

    Therefore, by analogy, when interplanetary combat arrives, it too will be totally unlike anything that has occurred before.

    Inventing Handwavium

    Yes, I know you are trying hard to keep your science fiction stories and games to be as hard as possible (otherwise you would have angrily left this website quite some time ago). But sometimes you just gotta introduce a piece of handwavium or two. For example: it is pretty much impossible to write a fast-moving galactic scale novel without a handwavium faster-than-light starship. Other tempting pieces of handwavium include: antigravity, space fighters, time travel, reactionless drives, and stealth spaceships.

    I totally understand where you are coming from: You want it, they want it, everybody's doing it.

    Well, RocketCat will grudgingly let you add one or two pieces of handwavium without him giving you an Atomic Wedgie. But he insists that you use the Rules of Handwavium Invention to keep everything from breaking down:

    Focus on Effects NOT Causes

    When inventing safe handwavium (such as a faster-than-light starship) the best way to start is to focus on effects instead of causes. Many novice SF novelists and game designers make the mistake of inventing a cause first and may not even try designing the effects.

    An example of an effect is "The star drive can move the ship at ten light-years per hour".

    An example of a cause is "The Mason Field is generated by the amplification of the interaction of the Alpha and Omega sub-particles contained in the Xanthe crystal when bombarded by pseudo electron valients in a charged hydrogen field."

    Effects help you avoid unintended consequences, and define the implications of your drive. If your star drive moves at ten light-years per hour, you can easily calculate that it will take about 28 minutes to travel to Alpha Centauri, and about two and one-quarter years to travel the width of the Milky Way galaxy. Which implies the former trip is akin to a corner store dash for a carton of milk, while the latter is more akin to Magellan circumnavigating the globe. Good practical facts an author can use to plot their novel.

    Causes are fluffy technobabble explanations that a good SF story might avoid all together. As Gene Roddenberry noted, in a police TV show a policeman does not explain to the viewers how the primer of the bullet ignites the main charge propelling the lead slug down the barrel every time he shoots his handgun. Neither should Captain Kirk explain the operating principles of his phaser weapon, the fact that it is some species of sidearm is enough for the viewers. Can't you just see your reader's eyes glazing over if you are foolish enough to infodump on them a load of technobabble about Xanthe crystals and pseudo electron valients? Your novel is going to be thrown against the wall with some violence, along with a vow to boycott your works and a stream of bad book reviews.

    Causes can also get you into trouble if your explanation implies new effects that you did not intend. They also give more weak points that a scientifically minded reader can use to poke holes in your theory.

    The savvy answer to the question "How does your star-drive work?" is "Splendidly".

    Champions Role Playing Game

    I'm going to go off on a seeming tangent here, to give you an illustration. Please bear with me.

    Dungeons & Dragons is the classic fantasy role-playing game (RPG). The designers created rules for combat, so a player could game out whether they killed the goblin or vice versa.

    The players wanted the game to be "fair", in the sense that they expected a character who was experienced and armed with a huge sword would have a better chance killing a monster than a character who was a novice armed with a nail-file. The game designers carefully crafted the rules for fairness, and had lists of various weapons and monsters. These list were created by designer fiat, the players had no input.

    In 1981 a group of clever game designers wanted make a RPG where the background was comic book superheroes instead of medieval fantasy. The game was called Champions, which later became the Hero System including Star Hero. (I'm going to use the term "superhero" to mean "superheroine and superhero").

    But there was a major problem with creating a superhero game that was absent in a fantasy game. In the latter, the designer can create the weapons, magic spells, monsters, and everything by designer fiat. They design everything, put them in the rule books and supplements. This ensures that the game is "fair", or at least they tried. The drawback is the player's only choice is take it or leave it. They cannot create their own spells or monsters.

    Game designers can't make by fiat all the fun parts in a comic-book superhero game, not if they want their RPG to become popular. There are literally thousands of superheroes, all with bizarre super powers. With new ones being created in new comics every week. The game designers cannot possible include every single hero, villain, and bizarre superpower. Potential game buyers will be incensed that their personal favorite superhero was omitted.

    So the creators of Champions tried to create a super-power creation system, one that was sufficiently elastic to simulate 99% of the super-powers in all comic books. A system that the players could use to recreate their personal favorite superhero, or even one they invented out of their imagination.

    The hard part for the game creators was the "fairness" aspect. What they did was include a part of the super-power creation process that would calculate a "point total" which represents the "cost" of a super-power. When a player creates their superhero, they are given a set amount of points used to purchase their superhero. The idea is that two heroes who spent the same amount of points on super-powers in theory are evenly matched. Regardless of what the various super-powers actually are. And in a game scenario: if Superlative Girl has 100 points of super-powers, it should be a fair fight if she is in combat with The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight (62 points) and Snot-Man (38 points).

    In Champions there is a list of base "powers." They have their utility enhanced by adding "advantages" and diminished by adding "limitations." Finally for local color, they have a "special effect". The latter is more to be dramatic, it sometimes creates a tiny advantage or limitation but not always. By taking a base power and customizing it with advantages, limitations, and special effects, almost any comic-book super power can be simulated. Sometimes you have to combine several powers, but I digress. I have personally found that there is often two or more powers that be used as the basis for simulating a given comic-book power, but in most cases the end results wind up costing the exact same amount of points. The Champions super-power creation system is nicely balanced.

    Remember, there is no way the game designers could possibly include every single super-power from every single comic book in existence. The important part is what the power means in Champions game terms. Cyclops from the X-men shoots powerful energy beams from his eyes. The Mighty Thor can wave his enchanted hammer Mjolnir to cause lightning from the sky to strike his enemies. Captain America can throw his adamantium shield as a weapon. Hawkeye can shoot you right between the eyes with one of his trick arrows.

    Champions could not include base "powers" of eye energy beams, lightning hammers, adamantium shields, and trick arrows. There are too many. So you focus on the common element of these in game terms: Inflicting Damage On Your Target At Range. The "eye energy beam" et al aspects are "special effects."

    FINALLY GETTING TO THE POINT: The "powers" are Effects, the "special effects" are Causes. In order to create a workable super-power creation system for the Champions game, the game designers had to Focus On Effects, Not Causes.

    ( As a side note, the Hero System (along with the world-book Star Hero) can also be used to create alien species, technological equipment, and weapons, using the same super-power creation system. Which can come in handy when creating one's science fiction novel background universe or game.)

    Wargame Design

    Designing a wargame is not much like writing a science fiction novels, but it also has its version of the "effects not causes" ideology.

    Design for Cause: When a game's design has players follow all of the logical steps and procedures to obtain an outcome; when players experience a methodology and must consider its many facets. This can often lead to systems that are over-engineered. That is, when the players are doing all the work and the designer is having all the fun.

    Design for Effect: When a game abstracts complex procedures for simplicity’s sake so that the players can get straight to the "boom." That is, when the designer does all the work so the players can have all the fun.

    From GAME DESIGN GLOSSARY by Alan Emrich (2004)

    The Fifth Frontier War is a tabletop wargame simulating interstellar combat.

    A critical point is in the scifi universe there is no faster-than-light radio. Information has to be carried by faster-than-light starship couriers. Information propagates at a rate of approximately four parsecs per week. Since the war is across a battlefront 26 parsecs wide, the starship grand admirals are dealing with an information delay of about a month and a half.

    A game designer who Designs for Cause, they would have to recreate the starship couriers within the game rules. Which would be a nightmare, if not actually impossible. Remember this is a paper-and-cardboard tabletop game, NOT a computer game.

    To Design for Cause, one would need the two players isolated in two separate rooms, each with a separate copy of the map and counters. A referee would keep track of all the info couriers and update each player's map with only the information whose courier had arrived at the grand admiral's location. The admirals would issue commands to their warships by couriers.

    If hostile warships actually managed to blunder into the same location, the referee would have to secretly fight the battle, and send the results by couriers to the two players.

    Personally I think you'd be lucky to get two whole game turns played before the players rage-quit.

    Luckily the designers of the Fifth Frontier War did a Design for Effect. They found an elegant abstraction that produced much the same effect as courier-based info delay, but was much simpler to produce with game rules.

    All the warships on a side are grouped into task forces. All the ships in a given task force move together in a group. Each task force contains a playing token for the admiral commanding that force. On the token is a number, which is that admiral's leadership rating.

    Now comes the fun part.

    Each player represents a grand admiral. In ordinary wargames, the player would move their warships as they see fit. But in this game, for each task force they command, they have to write down the movement commands several turns in advance. The task forces are bound to their pre-plotted moves, even as the moves become increasingly irrelevant as the situation evolves.

    How many turns in advance are each task force's orders to be plotted? Well, the leadership rating of that particular task force's admiral, of course. The better the admiral, the fewer turns in advance that have to be plotted.

    So the finely honed ability of an excellent admiral to predict the future movement of enemy fleets is here approximated by the flexibility of not being bound by a lengthy set of pre-plotted moves. An admiral who can foresee far in advance is modeled in the game by a short set of pre-plots, giving a faster reaction time. By the same token, an incompetent admiral who only got command of their task force because they the offspring of a powerful politician would simulated by a large leadership rating. The player would be forced to pre-plot the maladroit admiral's task force many many turns in advance. This gives the effect of a moronic admiral who cannot deal with the courier delay.

    By using Design for Effect the game designers got 80% of the desired effect with only 20% of the causing game rules.

    Thoughts on how to do Exordium: The Board Game

    As a hardcore wargamer, my natural inclination is to try to turn books I like — and which present interesting tactical and strategic situations — into wargames. With Exordium, though, the information propagation problem that makes naval combat interesting to read makes a tactical board or miniatures game based difficult at best. I used to think such a game was impossible; I've recently come to the conclusion that the spirit of the books can be preserved in the board game, even if the exact mechanism of combat can't be repeated in detail. In other words, an approach leaning towards a "Design for Cause" philosophy (which focuses on processes) would be too unwieldy, but a "Design for Effect" approach (which focuses on outcomes) might be feasible. A strategic-level boardgame, possibly using a system similar to Prism's Throneworld or Mark Herman's We the People, would be very feasible.

    Why does the "information propogation problem" make the "Design for Cause" approach unworkable? The short answer is that players simply have too much information about where everything is and what is going on, when the essence of Exordium combat is the combatants acting and reacting as they receive info. This might still be manageable if it wasn't for the tactical use of the fiveskip drive. Given a referee, individual ship commanders, a blind setup (so each player has his own map), a willingness to not be too anal retentive about it (perhaps justified by the idea that the combatants all have battle computers to sort these things out) and a lot of sweat, I think that the information propagation problem could be solved if ships were moving at slower-than-light speeds once the battle started. Take, for example, the situations presented in C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station and other books. The information propogation effect is very important in her works as well (especially when the attackers first jump in), but as the ships get closer and closer together, it becomes an easier problem to solve. (For more information on this, once again see C.J. Cherryh's essay from The Company War boardgame). Plotting orders several turns in advance can go a long way towards making it playable without a referee, although I have yet to find a good referee-less Design for Cause solution to the problem of ships being different distances from each other, and hence having different length information delays.

    Tactical FTL capability, however, makes solving this problem pretty darn close to impossible, at least under a Design for Cause methodology. Every information propogation wave from every turn must be tracked, like a series of expanding waves from an almost infinite numbers of stones thrown sequentially into a pond. In essence, any time a ship moved the board would need to be photographed, and selective portions of the board (based on both location and time) would need to be made available to the different players as they skipped around. Even if we make the not-unreasonable assumption that the combatant's battlecomputers will resolve the odd out-of-temporal-sequence of information reception, an umpired one-on-one ship battle would still be very difficult to make both feasible and enjoyable for all involved.

    On the other hand, a Design for Effect approach, focusing on the outcomes and "feel" of the books rather than the exact mechanisms, is more feasible. Exordium combat can be described in terms of targetting solutions, which in turn are affected by range and other factors. If one accounts for these factors, I think it would be possible to create a game which has the flavor of the series, without requiring double-blind play or other hindrances. Not that I am against double-blind play, mind you; it's the time factor, where you have to keep track not only of present but past positions, that make it difficult in this instance.

    From THE EXORDIUM SERIES by Christopher Weuve (2012)

    Limiting The Damage

    In some cases you have no choice but to violate a theory of physics. For instance, if you are going to have FTL travel, you are going to have to violate either relativity or causality; one of them has got to go.

    The rule here is Do The Smallest Amount Of Damage To The Laws Of Physics As Possible.

    The important point is to keep the fracture under control. Hack writers will assume that "if we have to break a few theories of physics for FTL, why not just throw all the theories out the window?"

    Don't give in. Omitting physics will degrade your setting to a pathetic lack of believability worse than an average Space Ghost cartoon.

    Ultimately, the goal in writing good fiction isn't "accuracy", it's believability. The goal is to take the more fantastical elements and give them a sense of verisimilitude. For science fiction, scientific accuracy in anything not hand waved for the good of the story is a good start. If you want to preserve the sense of being real, you have to diverge as little as possible in your hand waving.

    For the other, while (this) website is mainly a resource for novelists, I know many people online who employ it as a useful guide for roleplaying games, board games, and just plain intellectual debate.

    Throwing out the laws of physics is going to screw up the setting the story occurs in, whether novel, fanfic, game, or thought experiment. and the setting being screwed up is going to be the thing that drags the story down into a farce.

    Mark Temple

    And try just to break one theory, not two or three.

    Breaking the theory in question might make things a little too unlimited. It is often wise to create your own fake "theories" to rein things in. For instance, violating relativity in order to allow FTL travel can result in FTL travel with an infinite velocity. No transit time, click and you are instantly at Altair 6. How boring.

    It would be better if you create a fake theory that restricts FTL speeds to some convenient multiple of the speed of light.

    Finally, be aware that the more fundamental the theory is that you just broke, the more serious and the more numerous will be the unintended consequences.

    Internally Self-Consistent

    If you (the science fiction author) cannot keep your fictional universe scientifically-hard enough to be totally free of handwavium, the second best thing is to keep your handwavium Internally Self-Consistent. The handwavium has to have an internal logic that must be adhered to, and an external logic that connects to the world of real science.

    As Cracked said: "We don't ask that you stay within the bounds of physics, but at least follow the rules you freaking made up."

    In E. E. "Doc" Smith's immortal Lensman series, the race of Arisians look like titanic brains walking on tentacles. They are beyond hyper-intelligent. Indeed, they are so beyond hyper-intelligent that given an object or situation, they can calculate and deduce its entire future history for eons to come. They call this their "Visualization of the Cosmic All."


    (ed note: Mentor of Arisia is intructing Virgil Samms, who will become the First Lensman)

    “And third, you yourself spend highly valuable time and much effort in playing chess. Why do you do it? What do you get out of it?”

    “Why, I … uh … mental exercise, I suppose …I like it!”

    “Just so. And I am sure that one of your very early philosophers came to the conclusion that a fully competent mind, from a study of one fact or artifact belonging to any given universe, could construct or visualize that universe, from the instant of its creation to its ultimate end?

    “Yes. At least, I have heard the proposition stated, but I have never believed it possible.”

    “It is not possible simply because no fully competent mind ever has existed or ever will exist. A mind can become fully competent only by the acquisition of infinite knowledge, which would require infinite time as well as infinite capacity. Our equivalent of your chess, however, is what we call the ‘Visualization of the Cosmic All’. In my visualization a descendant of yours named Clarrissa MacDougall will, in a store called Brenleer’s upon the planet … but no, let us consider a thing nearer at hand and concerning you personally, so that its accuracy will be subject to check. Where you will be and exactly what you will be doing, at some definite time in the future. Five years, let us say?”

    “Go ahead. If you can do that you’re good.”

    “Five Tellurian calendar years then, from the instant of your passing through the screen of ‘The Hill’ on this present journey, you will be … allow me, please, a moment of thought … you will be in a barber shop not yet built; the address of which is to be fifteen hundred fifteen Twelfth Avenue, Spokane, Washington, North America, Tellus. The barber’s name will be Antonio Carbonero and he will be left-handed. He will be engaged in cutting your hair. Or rather, the actual cutting will have been done and he will be shaving, with a razor trade-marked ‘Jensen-King-Byrd’, the short hairs in front of your left ear. A comparatively small, quadrupedal, grayish-striped entity, of the race called ‘cat’—a young cat, this one will be, and called Thomas, although actually of the female sex—will jump into your lap, addressing you pleasantly in a language with which you yourself are only partially familiar. You call it mewing and purring, I believe?”

    “Yes,” the flabbergasted Samms managed to say. “Cats do purr—especially kittens.”

    “Ah—very good. Never having met a cat personally, I am gratified at your corroboration of my visualization. This female youth erroneously called Thomas, somewhat careless in computing the elements of her trajectory, will jostle slightly the barber’s elbow with her tail; thus causing him to make a slight incision, approximately three millimeters long, parallel to and just above your left cheekbone. At the precise moment in question, the barber will be applying a styptic pencil to this insignificant wound. This forecast is, I trust, sufficiently detailed so that you will have no difficulty in checking its accuracy or its lack thereof?”

    “Detailed! Accuracy!” Samms could scarcely think. “But listen—not that I want to cross you up deliberately, but I’ll tell you now that a man doesn’t like to get sliced by a barber, even such a little nick as that. I’ll remember that address—and the cat—and I’ll never go into the place!”

    “Every event does affect the succession of events,” Mentor acknowledged, equably enough. “Except for this interview, you would have been in New Orleans at that time, instead of in Spokane. I have considered every pertinent factor. You will be a busy man. Hence, while you will think of this matter frequently and seriously during the near future, you will have forgotten it in less than five years. You will remember it only at the touch of the astringent, whereupon you will give voice to certain self-derogatory and profane remarks.”

    “I ought to,” Samms grinned; a not-too-pleasant grin. He had been appalled by the quality of mind able to do what Mentor had just done; he was now more than appalled by the Arisian’s calm certainty that what he had foretold in such detail would in every detail come to pass. “If, after all this Spokane—let a tiger-striped kitten jump into my lap—let a left-handed Tony Carbonero nick me—uh-uh, Mentor, UH-UH! It I do, I’ll deserve to be called everything I can think of!”

    “These that I have mentioned, the gross occurrences, are problems only for inexperienced thinkers.” Mentor paid no attention to Samms’ determination never to enter that shop. “The real difficulties lie in the fine detail, such as the length, mass, and exact place and position of landing, upon apron or floor, of each of your hairs as it is severed. Many factors are involved. Other clients passing by—opening and shutting doors—air currents—sunshine—wind—pressure, temperature, humidity. The exact fashion in which the barber will flick his shears, which in turn depends upon many other factors—what he will have been doing previously, what he will have eaten and drunk, whether or not his home life will have been happy … you little realize, youth, what a priceless opportunity this will be for me to check the accuracy of my visualization. I shall spend many periods upon the problem. I cannot attain perfect accuracy, of course. Ninety nine point nine nines percent, let us say … or perhaps ten nines … is all that I can reasonably expect …”

    From FIRST LENSMAN by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1950)

    About this time RocketCat is pointedly checking his wrist-chronometer and you are wondering what this has to do with Atomic Rockets.

    Well, knowledge of science in general and rocketeering in specific allows you, the reader, to do a "Visualization of the Cosmic All" while reading a science fiction novel. But only if the author plays by the rules. What rules? The ones set forth in this website, of course.

    I first noticed this in the novels of Larry Niven. I'm not saying that all the science in his novels was utterly scientifically perfect. There are a few things that are not quite correct, but that isn't the point.

    The point is that effort was made to use accurate science, and to think through the consequences. Both expected and unexpected consequences. A reader can do a Visualization of the Cosmic All with a Larry Niven novel, in exactly the same way that the reader of a mystery novel can take the presented clues and deduce the answer to the mystery.

    Try to use accurate science wherever possible. But when you cannot (say, if you want a faster-than-light starship) the least you can do is strive for internal self-consistency. This means you set the ground rules for your FTL starships (or whatever) and stick to the rules.

    So while somebody is reading your novel, X will happen in the plot. The reader will think "wait a minute, that implies Y is going to happen in a minute." If you have properly constructed a Visualization of the Cosmic All type novel, Y will indeed happen shortly. The reader will have a smug sense of self-satisfaction about how clever they are. And will probably purchase more of your novels. They will probably also urge their friends to read your novels as well. After all this gives them an opportunity to show off in front of their friends, especially if they are not quite as skilled in deduction.

    In real science, part of its power is that it is self-correcting. This applies in science fiction as well.

    For example, one of Larry Niven's most famous novels was Ringworld, featuring an eponymous megastructure. This caught the imagination of science fictions fans in general and the students of MIT in specific. The students actually did the math for a Ringworld structure. To Niven's chagrin, the students discovered that the Ringworld was unstable. If it was perturbed, it would gradually drift off-center until it collided with the center sun.

    But science is self-correcting, and good hard science fiction should be. Larry Niven took the MIT analysis as if it was a peer-review of a scientific paper. Meaning he crafted a solution to the problem and used it as the basis for Ringworld Engineers, the block-busting Hugo-and-Nebual award nominated sequel.

    If Niven had sourly stonewalled the MIT critics, he would have been stuck with one Ringworld novel under a shadow. By embracing the scientific method, Niven wound up with two famous novels, with the idea for the second given to him for free.

    Niven also sometimes used the murder-mystery technique, often without specifying that there is a mystery in the first place. The reader kicks themself for not noticing how the clues go together. An example can be found in Chapter 13 of Ringworld, the bit about the Starseed Lures.

    To my disappointment, science fiction with the Visualization of the Cosmic All is quite rare. Off the top of my head I have only found it in the novels of Larry Niven, the Galactic Marines series of William H. Keith Jr., A Sword Into Darkness by Thomas Mays, Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson, Babylon 5, The Expanse, and a couple of other novels that have escaped my memory.

    One of my motivations behind writing this website was to assist in the creation of more Visualization of the Cosmic All science fiction. Because currently such novels are conspicuous by their absence.

    "But whether or not [the snipers are] using cheat sheets, a shot is not just pulling the trigger — it's factoring in an astronomical number of variables and arriving at a mathematically sound solution, and then using that math to explode somebody else's head."
    Cracked, "5 Weapon Myths You Probably Believe (Thanks to Movies)"

    Some people learn by flipping pages. Some people must gain knowledge through pain. Some people study by television. And then there are those who just have to observe...

    Most skills take a certain measure of practice to master...unless you are Good with Numbers. Those lucky few can substitute careful examination in place of careful practice, with the same results: success.

    Need to make a million-to-one shot to stop the Doomsday Device from exploding the world, but have never even fired a gun? Just run off some mental calculations about your gun's firing speed, friction, gravity, and the slightly-off-kilter scope (how exactly the analyzer knows all those variables is handwaved), and it's a done deal. Need to defeat a jujitsu master? Logically anticipate where his next strike will come from and remain one step ahead. Mental capacity is limitless when the plot is at stake!

    If he has time to explain himself, it always sounds something like "If My Calculations Are Correct". Explaining it gives it a chance to fail. Relatedly, two awesomeness analysts don't really need to explain anything to each other, they can do it by Talking Through Technique.

    The most common cause of Badass Bookworm, and often results from The Professor having a doctorate in general knowledge rather than any one field. The Clock King can do this thanks to precise attention to detail and patterns. Characters who get to skip the analysis altogether due to some form of copycat power are Power Copying. Exactly What I Aimed At usually comes from this trope. They are most likely screwed if the opponent knows Confusion Fu. The Profiler does this with people. An author may use Super-Detailed Fight Narration to demonstrate that a character possesses this ability.

    (ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

    Unintended Consequences

    Things have implications. This means every time one adds a new scientific law or gizmo to their SF universe, you have to examine it to ensure that it does not introduce unintended consequences. In the real world we have such examples as stiffer penalties for drunk driving leading to an explosion of hit-and-run accidents (as fear of the stiffer penalties cause drunk drivers to flee the accident), and how the introduction of the internet has lead to virtual extinction of magazines, newspapers, telephone books, and encyclopedias.

    As a general rule, the more fundamental the theory is that you just broke, the more serious and the more numerous will be the unintended consequences.

    A basic example of unintended consequences is Jon's Law for SF authors. If you the author make your standard spacecraft propulsion system powerful enough to reduce interplanetary travel times to a few weeks, you suddenly have to deal with the fact that any old tramp freighter spaceship can vaporize Texas.

    The classic science fiction example is the "Transporter" from Star Trek. When Gene Roddenberry was producing the original Star Trek, he did not have the special effects budget to land the Starship Enterprise on the planet du jour every episode. So he added the Transporter: a teleportation device that can send a landing party to or from a planet's surface in the twinkling of an eye. All the producers need is a cheap optical effect, and the actors are on the planet ready to get the episode rolling. However…


    A format is a guide for whatever is to come later. It‘s a flight plan for a series. But just like any other kind of flight plan, the slightest error will magnify itself over a period of time if it isn't corrected or compensated for. The errors in a show's original format will repeat themselves until they become so noticeable as to be annoying. Twenty-six repetitions a season make a mistake very hard to live with.

    Actually, mistake isn't quite the right word. Let’s say miscalculation instead. That is. something that seems quite workable in the first two or three stories may turn out to be a very rigorous trap by the thirteenth or fourteenth episode.

    The transporter room is a good example. It was one of STAR TREK'S best ideas—a teleportation device so that the Captain and crew of the starship could “beam down" to a planet whenever they chose. Thus, the special-effects crew was relieved of the responsibility of having to show either the starship or its shuttlecraft landing on a new planet each week. A golden flicker mixed with a dissolve and an over-dubbed reverberated whine is not only cheaper—it's more versatile and impressive.

    Unfortunately the use of the transporter set up conditions of its own that were not foreseen in the initial postulation.

    For the transporter to work, the individual had to have a “communicator"—a gold-and-black clamshell device that served as an all-purpose walkie-talkie. The transporter would “lock on” the human being holding the device and “beam” him up.

    And that was the miscalculation. If the transporter had been designed for the express purpose (pun intended) of getting our heroes into the story faster, then it also allowed them to get out of it just as quickly.

    Any time Captain Kirk got himself into real trouble, all he needed to do was call the Enterprise and holler, “Scotty! Save my ass! and Scotty would beam him up so fast the air would crackle. Knowing that, then there certainly would be no suspense whenever Kirk was captured by the giant Yang-yangs or the Creeping Blorch. Both he and we knew that it wasn't permanent.

    Therefore, one of three things had to happen to keep Kirk in a story where he was personally menaced:

    He would run into aliens of such superior ability that they could nullify his transporter beam. Thus he got captured.

    He would run into aliens of such inferior ability that they would knock him over the head and take his communicator away from him without knowing what it was. Again, he got captured.

    Or—contact between the Captain and the Enterprise would be cut off by some arbitrary force created by the writer for this specific purpose, thus trapping Kirk in the story until contact could be restored—usually not until just before the last commercial.

    Individually, any one of these alternatives might have been part of a good story—indeed, they all were, as witness “The Squire of Gothos,” “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” and “Errand of Mercy,” respectively.

    However, by the time we get to the fifth or sixth repetition—“The Apple," “Bread and Circuses,” “A Private Little War," “The Gamesters of Triskelion," “A Piece of the Action," “The Omega Glory," “Spectre of the Gun." “The Paradise Syndrome," and “Plato's Stepchildren"—the cumulative effect is the focusing of attention on the mechanism used to prevent Kirk from being rescued. We become aware of the format’s degeneration into formula. We begin to realize that “Plato's Stepchildren" is the same story as “The Gamesters of Triskelion"; the only difference is in the details. We've become too familiar with the device for it to be effective as a dramatic tool any more—now it's a cliché.

    The extreme use of any device will wear it out (literary or otherwise). The rapid degeneration of this particular element of the STAR TREK format only points up which writers were (at that point in their scripts) creatively bankrupt. Rather than looking for another way to solve the problem, they fell back on old tricks. Pretty soon, that same old trick got boring.

    The real answer, of course, was simply to avoid situations or stories that required Kirk to be overpowered. Gene Roddenberry says about writing in general: “Every story starts with a need. A need for something to happen or something not to happen. That need must be closely and deeply associated with the main character. Perhaps he needs a thousand dollars to pay off a gambling debt to keep the mob from killing him. Or perhaps he needs not to have himself placed in the electric chair tonight at 12:01 A.M. and the switch pulled which will execute him for a murder he never committed. Whatever need you propound for the character in your story, it is absolutely necessary that that need get more and more pressing, also more and more difficult to fulfill, as the story progresses. In a good story, you finally get the reader or viewer clawing at the pages or the screen in his anxiety to get fulfillment since he has become the hero and feels all the jeopardy, frustration, and agony which is building and building toward the story climax. When the need is resolved in the story climax, the reader or viewer feels fulfillment."

    Now, returning to the contention that the real answer was not to let Captain Kirk be placed in positions where he would be overpowered. To do so once is a valid story. To do so twice might even be valid. To do it more than that, you begin to undermine the character of Captain Kirk—what kind of a Captain is this anyway? He keeps letting himself get clonked on the head and captured. You'd think he'd learn.

    The writers that let Captain Kirk continue to be trapped this way were creating an artificial need. Remember the artificial excitement of having the actors fall out of their chairs while the camera was shaken?—this is the same kind of thing, but a little more sophisticated. Oh, it's adventure all right, but it isn't real drama.

    Gene said that the need must be “closely and deeply associated with the main character." Trapping a character into a situation and asking him to solve it does not fulfill this requirement—being in a situation does not mean that the character will automatically care about it “closely and deeply.” In such a situation, the hero's primary need is to escape. not to solve the problems of anyone else. But a hasty writer will “solve” this problem by arbitrarily constructing a white rat's puzzle box test: Captain Kirk must solve the problem posed in order to win his reward, i.e., escape.

    These white-rat puzzle-box stories are the illegitimate offspring of the forced marriage of two extremely different forms: the hero- in-danger story and the “Mary Worth" story.

    You see, as it's set up, the Enterprise IS a cosmic “Mary Worth," meddling her way across the galaxy, solving problems as she goes. But drama—real drama—requires that the hero be forced to make a decision, an important decision. Unfortunately, to many writers that means that the hero must be placed in danger. Period. Thus, in the typical story, the hero is trapped into somebody else's problem (on STAR TREK, a cultural one) and must solve it to escape.

    The result is a series of puzzle-box episodes. Unfortunately, these kind of stories are generally unimportant ones. We don't really care about them. We know the hero will escape—that's why he's the hero. Thus our only reason for watching the show is to see how he does it. Ho-hum. Unless the situation is particularly good, or the escape is particularly imaginative (a la “Mission: Impossible") it's just so much chocolate pudding for the mind. Instead of “The End," the film might just as well say, “So what?"

    From THE WORLD OF STAR TREK by by David Gerrold (1973)

    Sometimes authors will create on purpose something with an unexpected consequence. Unexpected, that is, to the characters in the story, the author is using this to teach a moral lesson. TV Tropes calls this Aesoptinum, Aesoptinium, or Aesoptonium.

    An example can be found in Frank Herbert's "Committee of the Whole" (1965). A nasty Congressional committee orders an uppity ranch owner to testify. He does so, and on national TV describes how to easily construct in your home workshop a laser sidearm powerful enough to slice and dice an army tank using only materials commonly found in one's garage. The "unintended" consequence is that such a weapon would allow libertarian minded people to hold off entire army battalions, and there are quite a few garage workshops in the US. As it turns out, this was precisely the reason that the ranch owner testified on national TV, since he was libertarian enough to want to render the US government impotent. He made sure by mailing a few hundred copies of the blueprints to various places.

    Authors who fail to consider unintended consequences will quickly find the consequences are plural. There will be a cascading series of ripple effects. If you broke the Second Law of Thermodynamics in order to obtain stealth in space, a major unintended consequence is that you simultaneously have allowed perpetual motion machines of the first kind, infinite free energy from nowhere, and all the secondary unintended ripple effects. (Actually, as Andreas Marx points out, as long as you don't break the first law of thermodynamics, you only have a perpetual motion machine of the second kind. Not quite as bad, but still more than bad enough. But I digress.)

    In his essay Thought experiment SF author Charles Stross talks about the pitfalls of unintended consequences. He coined the term "Second Artist Effect": The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of a real landscape. For example, the first novels in the new genre called "Steampunk" had backgrounds that were groundbreaking and innovative, but subsequent novels sort of copied the backgrounds of the first novels. SF authors who wanted to be innovative had to explore new backgrounds, which often meant adding new scientific laws or gizmos to their SF universe, which regretably lead them to falling headfirst into the pit of unintended consequences.

    Mr. Stross gives an example of the sudden discovery of a method to communicate faster than light, in fact, instantaneously. What are the not so obvious consequences? Well, for starters, the probability of a manned landing on Mars just became far more remote. Teleoperative space probes like the Mars Spirit rover are a good argument for manned missions: operating with a half-hour time lag almost makes it not worth the effort. But an instantaneous communicator has no time-lag, so suddenly there is no need to go to the incredible expense of sending real live men.

    Meanwhile, there will be a global stock market crash, since high-frequency trading strategies depend upon speed-of-light delays.

    And then all forms of encryption will suddenly be broken. All encryption methods rely upon algorithms that are NP-hard to crack with a computer. But since instantaneous communication violates causality, this opens up interesting strategies that will allow cracking problems that are NP-hard. In one fell swoop, all the bank account data, secret government information, and military information will be readable.

    In other words, this simple instant communicator destroyed the business cases for manned space fight while simultaneously causing bubbles and wars and depressions.

    Replicator Consequences

    In the sphere of economics, there is the havoc created by the unintended consequences of the Star Trek Replicator.

    The producers saw one problem right off the bat, and quickly handwaved a reason which prevented using a replicator to make multiple clones of a person. But they passed over the small matter of replicator technology irrevocably causing the collapse of the global economy. You would have spotted that right away, if you had read Ralph Williams's "Business as Usual, During Alterations" Murray Leinster's The Duplicators, or George O. Smith's "Pandora's Millions".

    In "Pandora's Millions", the ivory tower engineers of Venus Equilateral invent a matter transmitter, and quickly figure out that the signal can be recorded. This makes it into a replicator. A businessman friend of theirs screams at them that they've just destroyed the economy of three worlds in one fell swoop.

    The businessman says it is too late to suppress the invention, but if the engineers want to prevent it from being a complete and utter disaster, they had better go and invent some substance that cannot be replicated ASAP. Lacking that, there is no way to prevent either currency or cheques from being counterfeited. Counterfeits so good they cannot be distinguished from genuine money.

    They do manage to make a substance that is unreplicatable, by virtue of being unscannable by the replicator. Actually the substance can be scanned, its just that if you hit it with the scanning beam the blasted stuff explodes.

    With a replicator, everybody can pave their driveway with gold bricks, eat caviar and filet mignon every day, and wallpaper every room in the house with Mona Lisas. Which basically means all these formerly expensive items are now worthless, that is, value-less in the sense of being free.

    Of course, if your monetary units are based on gold or something physical, they are now valueless as well. As are any investments, savings, or retirement nest eggs made with such money.

    Things will go downhill quite quickly, since a replicator can also produce more replicators.

    Factories will close, sending millions out of work. Who needs the goods manufactured by the factory when all you need is a replicator and a recording of the desired item? The stocks and bonds of the companies who own the factories will plummet in value.

    About the only thing that will still have value will be services. A replicator will not help you if you need a cavity filled or an appendix removed, you will need the services of a dentist or surgeon. Some kind of barter system will replace a monetary economy.

    (Actually, the replicators still need electricity. In the story, to make the point, this is handwaved away by allowing the replicators to violate the law of conservation of energy and duplicate charged batteries.)

    In Star Trek, I suppose the role of an un-replicatable material is filled by "gold-pressed Latinum". Left unexplained is what value was backing the poker chips used in all those poker games. I suppose they are for services. That appeared in the Firefly episode "Shindig", where the chips represented on-ship chores: garbage detail, washing dishes, septic vat, etc.

    And don't forget the sociological effects.

         The Reverend Thomas Doylen speared Keg Johnson with a fishy glance and thundered: "A plague on both your houses!"
         Johnson grinned unmercifully. "You didn't get that one out of the Bible," he said.
         "But it is none the less true," came the booming reply.
         "So what? Mind telling me what I'm doomed to eternal damnation for?"
         "Sacrilege and blasphemy," exploded Doylen. "I came to plead with you. I wanted to bring you into the fold — to show you the error of your sinful way. And what do I find? I find, guarding the city, a massive facade of mother-of-pearl and platinum. Solid gold bars on gates which swing wide at the approach. A bearded man in a white cloak recording those who enter. Once inside—"
         "You find a broad street paved with gold. Diamonds in profusion stud the street for traction, since gold is somewhat slippery as a pavement. The sidewalks are pure silver and the street-stop lights are composed of green emeralds, red rubies, and amber amethysts. They got sort of practical at that point, Reverend. Oh, I also see that you have taken your sample."
         Doylen looked down at the brick. It was the size of a housebrick — but of pure gold. Stamped in the top surface were the words: "99.99% pure gold. A souvenir of Fabriville."
         "What means all this?" stormed the Reverend, waving the brick.
         "My very good friend, it is intended to prove only one thing. Nothing — absolutely nothing — is worth anything. The psychological impact of the pearly gate and the street of gold tends to strike home the fact that here in Fabriville nothing of material substance is of value. Service, which cannot be duplicated, is the medium of exchange in Fabriville — have you anything to offer, Reverend?"
         "The Lord saith: 'Six days shalt thou labor—' You have destroyed that law, Johnson."
         "That"s no law. That"s an admonition not to overdo your labor. He didn't want us laboring seven days per. If He were running things under the present set-up, He"d be tickled pink to see people taking it easy five days per week, believe me."
         "Is it? Am I being sacrilegious to believe that He has a sense of humor and a load more common sense than you and I?"
         "To speak familiarly—"
         "If I"ve offended Him, let Him strike me where I stand," smiled Keg.
         "He is far too busy to hear the voice of an agnostic."
         "Then He is far too busy to have heard that I mentioned Him in familiar terms. What is your point, Reverend? What do you want?"
         "A return to religion."
         "Good. Start it."
         "People will not come to church. They are too busy satiating themselves with the worldly goods and luxuries."
         "Your particular private sect, like a lot of others," said Keg Johnson harshly, "has been catering to the wishful-thinking of the have-nots. That used to be all right, I suppose. You gave them hope that in the next life they could live in peace, quiet, and also in luxury, believe it or not. You call down the troubles of hell upon the shoulders of the ambitious, and squall that it is impossible for a rich man to get ahead in Heaven. Nuts, Reverend. You've been getting your flock from people who have no chance to have the pleasure of fine homes and good friends. You've been promising them streets of gold, pearly gates, and the sound of angelic music. Fine. Now we have a condition where people can have those worldly goods luxuries right here on earth and without waiting for death to take them there. If you want to start a return to church movement, Reverend, you might start it by making your particular outfit one of the first to eschew all this palaver about streets of gold. Start being a spiritual organization, try to uplift the poor in spirit instead of telling them that they will be blessed because of it. Don't ever hope to keep your position by telling people that material made with a duplicator is a product of Hell, Devil & Co., because they won't believe it in the first place and there won't be anything manufactured by any other means in the second place."
         "And yet you have all of Mars under your thumb," scolded the Reverend Thomas Doylen. "Of what value is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?"
         "My soul isn't in bad shape," responded Keg cheerfully. "I think I may have done as much toward lifting civilization out of the mire as you have."
         "Careful, Reverend. It is you that I am criticizing now, not God. Just remember this, people are not going to fall for a bit of salving talk when they want nothing. You promise them anything you like in the way of fancy embroidery, but they'll have it at home now instead of getting it in Heaven. Give 'em something to hope for in the way of greater intelligence, or finer personality, or better friends, and they"ll eat it up.
         "As far as having all of Mars under my thumb, someone had to straighten out this mess. I gave them the only thing I had worth giving. I gave them the product of my ability to organize; to operate under any conditions; and to serve them as I can. I'm no better off than I would have been to sit at home and watch the rest run wild. They"d have done it, too, if there hadn't been a strong hand on their shoulder. Where were you when the bottom fell out? Were you trying to help them or were you telling them that this was the result of their sinful way of life?"
         The reverend flushed. "They wouldn't listen to my pleas that they forsake this devil's invention."
         "Naturally not. Work with this thing and you'll come out all right. But you've got to revise your thinking as well as the rest of the world has had to revise theirs, or you'll fall by the wayside. Now good day, Reverend, and I wish you luck."

    From PANDORA'S MILLIONS by George O. Smith (1945).

    Torch Missile Consequences

    Writers who want to make their interplanetary novels have reasonable science will equip their spacecraft with reasonable propulsion systems. Which unfortunately are very weak and undramatic. If the writer wants to push the envelope, they can equip their spacecraft with unreasonably strong propulsion systems. The jargon is "torchship".

    And if an author wants far too much of a good thing, they can look at the missile weapons the warships are carrying, and replace the missile's reasonable propulsion systems with an unreasonably powerful one and have a "torch missile". This is the sort of missile you can fire at your opponent, and have the missile chase your opponent all over the entire solar system for the next year or so. Of course this means you are mounting on a little missile a multi-hundred-megawatt fusion reactor intended for an entire spacecraft, but that isn't against the law.

    But as Ken Burnside points out, once again the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head.

    Ken Burnside: I personally wonder what the ability to throw away multi-hundred-megawatt fusion reactors as missile drives does for your economics. We have, however, danced that one around a few times as well. :)

    Rick Robinson: And the band strikes up again! The short answer is that war is wasteful. The slightly longer answer is that if the missile kills an even more expensive enemy ship, it has paid for itself.

    Ken Burnside: No, Rick — you miss the point.

    If 200 megawatt fusion torches (your last figure of merit that I recall) can be considered expendable munitions, on ships that do cruises of several months (implying they have around 40 or more of them), that means that they're mildly mass produced. If these are ever sent on marginal intercepts, that implies you have more of them, and they're cheaper as well.

    Which says things about the power usage of your economies that may do ugly things to trade.

    For example, if they can make these things in job lots and throw them away...what ELSE do they make 200 MW (or 0.2 MW) disposable fusion power sources for? What does that do to your society?

    From thread in sfconsim-l forum (5/15/2006)

    Interesting Holes

    When Dimitri Mendeleev invented the periodic table of the elements, there were interesting holes in it. Mendeleev made the bold statement that these holes represented elements that had not been discovered yet, and predicted their approximate properties by analogy with the surrounding elements. He was vindicated when a couple new elements were discovered, and they matched the predictions.

    Basically Mendeleev had managed to turn the elements into a chemical crossword-puzzle. Which means you can solve for an unknown horizontal word by using known vertical words that pass through it.

    Mendeleev had predicted an atomic mass of 68 and a density of 6.0 for "eka-aluminium" in 1871. Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran discovered it in 1875 (naming it gallium). It had an atomic mass of 69.72 and a density of 5.904. This was astonishingly close. As a matter of fact, de Boisbaudran initially got the properties wrong. He compounded his error by angrily calling Mendeleev a crack-pot trying to steal his place in the history books. Mendeleev calmly told de Boisbaudran that his figures for the properties were mistaken. And soon de Boisbaudran had to publish an embarrassing retraction about gallium's weight and density. Historian Eric Scerri said "The scientific world was astounded to note that Mendeleev, the theorist, had seen the properties of a new element more clearly than the chemist who had discovered it." After that the scientific community adopted Medeleev's periodic table with open arms.

    And whether he was trying to or not, Mendeleev did indeed steal de Boisbaudran's place in the history books. At least most elementary science students have heard about Mendeleev's periodic table, but none of them could tell you about the intrepid de Boisbaudran: groundbreaker of gallium.

    But how do interesting holes help you?

    The idea is if you do not have a a framework, you have no clue how much is left to be discovered. The framework gives you a map of your ignorance.

    This powerful tool can be applied to your science fiction. If you can construct a framework for some feature of your universe, you can notice concepts that you might have failed to address. Not that you as an author gives a rat's heinie if your framework has holes. But these holes can be valuable sources of plot ideas and innovative concepts to dazzle your readers. Ideas that are a logical consequence of your science fiction universe, and thus will have a plausibility which will impress the heck out of your audience.

    Hey, it beats dealing with writer's block; staring at the keyboard until drops of blood appear on your forehead.

    As an example, I tried to make a periodic table of space warships in an effort to find interesting holes. Examining the type of ship that would fill the hole will have you think either: [a] "What a worthless class of ship." or [b] "Wait a minute! That sort of ship could be useful." And some of the worthless holes might spark an idea later, say a specialized ship for a specialized mission, like the Brittania from Doc Smith's GALACTIC PATROL.

    The hole I noticed was in warships that were optimized to be mostly defense (armor and point defense). If the remainder was propulsion (but no weapons) the ship was an unarmed armored transport. If the remainder was weapons (but no propulsion) the ship was an orbital fortress. The hole came when you had a defense-heavy ship with both weapons and propulsion. What the heck were they?

    A defense heavy ship with propulsion, but also a few weapons? After prolonged cogitation I decided it is some kind of military logistics ship, or a transport designed to operate independently of an armed escort. A defense heavy ship with weapons, and a bit of propulsion? CDR Beausabre suddenly realized it is something like H. Beam Piper's Space Viking ships: something that can survive a barrage, hold a perimeter, and escape while carrying all the loot loaded by the space viking raiders.

    The "space viking" solution to the hole was only after a bit of thought. But the framework was the tip-off that there was a hole in the first place.

    Other examples of interesting holes

    Parametric Linguistics

    I have not personally read Parametric Linguistics by Louis Heller and James Macris, but I've been told they did something similar to the Periodic Table. They took the various word sounds of all the languages of the world and arranged them in a graph. They grouped the sounds by various parameters (i.e., labial, apical, or dorsal articulation; voicing or its lack; aspiration or its lack; concomitant labialization or its lack).

    And when they did, there was an interesting hole. They had discovered a word sound which no language on Terra actually used.

    Titius–Bode rule

    The (now discredited) Titius–Bode rule predicts the spacing of planetary orbits in the solar system (but fails with Neptune's orbit). The rule was proposed in the late 1700s.

    When the orbits were calculated, there was an interesting hole between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Bode pushed for a search to find the missing planet in the interesting hole, and in 1800 the asteroid Ceres was discovered. This was the first discovered asteroid of the belt located between Mars and Jupiter. Slightly before the discovery of Ceres another astronomer discovered the planet Uranus, which occupies the first empty orbital slot beyond the then furthest known planet (Saturn).

    But then the new planet Neptune did not fit the Titius–Bode rule at all, which consigned the rule to the dust bin of history. Science fiction authors of the 1950s were not so quick to abandon the rule. They took it as proof [a] the asteroid belt was the remains of an exploded planet which formerly occupied Titus–Bode's fifth slot, and [b] Neptune used to be perfectly located in Titus–Bode's ninth slot, until something catastrophic happened.


    In electrical circuits everything is defined by the state variables: current i; voltage v, charge q; and magnetic flux Φ.

    If you make an electrical circuit periodic table, you will have something like the illustrations above.

    • The relationship between voltage and current is controlled by Electrical Resistance, the component called the Resisitor.
    • The relationship between voltage and charge is controlled by Capacitance, the component called the Capacitor.
    • The relationship between current and magnetic flux is controlled by Inductance, the component called the Inductor.
    • The relationship between charge and magnetic flux is controlled by Memristance, the component called, er, ah, hmmmm, there isn't any! Tallyho! The game is afoot. We've discovered another interesting hole!

    Researcher Leon Ong Chua (蔡少棠) noticed the hole and wrote a paper about it in 1971. The missing component was named a Memristor. The component would act most strangely. It was like a resistor, but the current amount of resistance it had depended upon the history of size and direction of electrical current that has passed through. It has a "memory" of the current which determined the "resistance". Memristor.

    Dr. Chua said "My situation was similar to that of the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev who invented the periodic table in 1869. Mendeleev postulated that there were elements missing from the table, and now all those elements have been found."

    So far nobody has managed to make a memristor. In 2008 a team of HP scientists under Stanley Williams announced they had detected memristor-like behavior in bi-level titanium dioxide thin-film. But there is a lot of controversy about this finding.


    (ed note: the movie is a pseudo-documentary based on the eponymous book, about how the Oakland Athletics baseball management used the new science of Sabermetrics to spot valuable players that the other ball teams couldn't see. Much like spotting interesting holes using a new framework. The conventional system of subjective talent scouts and obsolete metrics made the valuable players invisible. Using sabermetrics the Oakland team could spot and hire these players at bargain basement prices. Low prices because none of the other ball teams were bidding on them.

    Naturally the Oakland team faced tremendous push-back from the established talent scouts, who were suddenly feeling like buggy-whip manufacturers. As it turned out, the talent scouts were right be afraid for their jobs.

    Billy Beane is the manager of the Oakland Athletics. His problem is trying to hire winning players with a shoe-string budget. He discovers Sabermetrics expert Peter Brand, and hires him as the secret weapon to solve the problem.)

    (ed note: Billy Beane meets Peter Brand. In private Billy asks Peter about baseball analysis. This leads to Billy hiring Peter)

    Peter Brand: There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening. And this leads people who run Major League Baseball teams to misjudge their players and mismanage their teams. I apologize.
    Billy Beane: Go on.
    Peter Brand: Okay. People who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn't be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs. You're trying to replace Johnny Damon. The Boston Red Sox see Johnny Damon and they see a star who's worth seven and half million dollars a year. When I see Johnny Damon, what I see is... is... an imperfect understanding of where runs come from. The guy's got a great glove. He's a decent leadoff hitter. He can steal bases. But is he worth the seven and half million dollars a year that the Boston Red Sox are paying him? No. No. Baseball thinking is medieval. They are asking all the wrong questions. And if I say it to anybody, I'm—I'm ostracized. I'm—I'm—I'm a leper. So that's why I'm—I'm cagey about this with you. That's why I... I respect you, Mr. Beane, and if you want full disclosure, I think it's a good thing that you got Damon off your payroll. I think it opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities.

    Peter Brand: Billy, this is Chad Bradford. He's a relief pitcher. He is one of the most undervalued players in baseball. His defect is that he throws funny. Nobody in the big leagues cares about him, because he looks funny. (meaning that the subjective analysis of the talent scouts makes them ignore Bradford because he "looks funny." But objective sabermetrics reveals Bradford is incredibly effective) This guy could be not just the best pitcher in our bullpen, but one of the most effective relief pitchers in all of baseball. This guy should cost $3 million a year. We can get him for $237,000. (because none of the other ball teams are bidding on Bradford, because without sabermetrics he is invisible to them. Oakland's shoe-string budget can afford Bradford)

    Peter Brand: It's about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we'll find value in players that no one else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality. Bill James (inventor of sabermetrics) and mathematics cut straight through that. Billy, of the 20,000 notable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty-five people that we can afford, because everyone else in baseball undervalues them. Like an island of misfit toys.

    (ed note: John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, tries to hire Billy Beane. He explains to Billy why the use of sabermetrics is the wave of the future, and why Billy faced so much push-back from the talent scouts and the baseball establishment. )

    John Henry: For forty-one million, you built a playoff team. You lost Damon, Giambi, Isringhausen, Pena and you won more games without them than you did with them. You won the exact same number of games that the Yankees won, but the Yankees spent one point four million per win and you paid two hundred and sixty thousand. I know you've taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody, always. It's the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it's threatening the game. But really what it's threatening is their livelihoods, it's threatening their jobs, it's threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it's the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They go bat sh*t crazy. I mean, anybody who's not building a team right and rebuilding it using your model, they're dinosaurs. They'll be sitting on their ass on the sofa in October, watching the Boston Red Sox win the World Series.

    From MONEYBALL (2011)

    (ed note: master spacecraft designer Ray McVay comments on the Space Navy Develpment System, which is a structured framework assisting you to design your science fictional space navy without embarrassing holes.)

    How can a little chart do so much? I've said it before: Soft Science Fiction tries to make technology fit the imagination, and Hard Science Fiction tries to imagine what fits the technology. This chart provides a great framework of technology, logistics, and practical organization to fit one's imagination into.


    "Some time later, when sub-electrons of the first and second levels were identified, the energies given off by their combinations or disruptions were called rays of the third and fourth orders. These rays are most interesting and most useful; in fact, they do all our mechanical work. They as a class are called protelectricity, and bear the same relation to ordinary electricity that electricity does to torque—both are pure energy, and they are interconvertible.

    Unlike electricity, however, it may be converted into many different forms by fields of force, in a way comparable to that in which white light is resolved into colors by a prism—or rather, more like the way alternating current is changed to direct current by a motor-generator set, with attendant changes in properties.

    There are two complete spectra, of about five hundred and fifteen hundred bands, respectively, each as different from the others as red is different from green. Thus, the power that propels your space-vessel, your attractors, your repellors, your object-compass, your zone of force—all these things are simply a few of the fifteen hundred wave-bands of the fourth order, all of which you doubtless would have worked out for yourselves in time.

    Since I know practically nothing of the fifth—the first sub-ethereal level—and since that order is to be your prime interest, I will leave it entirely to Rovol."

    (ed note: the point being that Seaton had discovered spaceship power, attractors, repellors, object-compasses, and zones of force by flailing around. He had no idea how many more inventions were yet to be discovered.

    But knowing that these were just five bands out of the twenty-hundred bands of the Fourth Order, one is now aware there are exactly 1,995 inventions yet to find.)

    From SKYLARK THREE by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1948)

    In this fashion did Turjan enter his apprenticeship to Pandelume. Day and far into the opalescent Embelyon night he worked under Pandelume's unseen tutelage. He learned the secret of renewed youth, many spells of the ancients, and a strange abstract lore that Pandelume termed "Mathematics."

    "Within this instrument," said Pandelume, "resides the Universe. Passive in itself and not of sorcery, it elucidates every problem, each phase of existence, all the secrets of time and space. Your spells and runes are built upon its power and codified according to a great underlying mosaic of magic. The design of this mosaic we cannot surmise; our knowledge is didactic, empirical, arbitrary. Phandaal glimpsed the pattern and so was able to formulate many of the spells which bear his name. I have endeavored through the ages to break the clouded glass, but so far my research has failed. He who discovers the pattern will know all of sorcery and be a man powerful beyond comprehension."

    From THE DYING EARTH by Jack Vance (1950)

    (ed note: In the Babylon 5 universe, the Technomages use science to create the appearance of magic. Technmages are implanted with alien technology called "The Tech" which they use for their most powerful "spells." Apprentices use a training wheel version of the Tech called a "chrysalis"

    Techomages have to create their own customized "spell language" that is used to communicate with The Tech. Some use words as incantations, some use gestures, some use music, one even uses knitting and weaving of cloth

    Galen is a novice apprenticed to Elric the Technomage. As part of the graduation ceremony, an apprentice is to demonstrate a new spell of their own devising. Galen is having trouble thinking of something original.)

         He’d studied those great spells extensively. One difficulty every mage faced, though, was translating the work of other mages into his own spell language. Each mage had to discover and develop his own spell language, because a spell that worked for one mage would not work for another. Elric had explained that the tech was so intimately connected with one’s body and mind that conjuring became shaped by the individual. Since each person’s mind worked differently, mages achieved the best results in different ways. An apprentice trained to achieve clarity of thought, and his preferred method of thought formed his spell language. His chrysalis learned to respond to the spell language, and when he received his implants, this knowledge was passed to them through the old implant at the base of his skull.
         Galen’s spell language was that of equations. Elric had been concerned at first as Galen’s language had developed. Most spell languages were more instinctive, less rigid, less rational. But Galen wasn’t a holistic, lateral thinker who jumped from one track to another, drawing instinctive connections. His thoughts plodded straight ahead, each leading logically and inexorably to the next. Elric had expressed fear that Galen’s language would be cumbersome and inflexible. Yet as Elric had worked with Galen on the language and seen how many spells Galen had been able to translate, his reservations had seemed to fade.
         Translation was one of the most difficult tasks facing any mage. It was only after looking at many spells that Galen was able to understand how another mage’s spell language related to his, then translate those conjuries. He had managed to translate most of Wierden’s and Gali-Gali’s spells, as well as many spells of other mages. With different levels of success, he had translated spells to create illusions, to make flying platforms, to conjure defensive shields, to generate fireballs, to send messages to other mages, to control the sensors that would soon be implanted into him, to access and manipulate data internally, to access external databases, and much more.
         He had memorized them all.
         But since each spell language possessed its own inherent strengths and weaknesses, he found it impossible to translate some spells, such as those for healing. Others, such as the spells used to generate defensive shields, he believed he had translated correctly, yet when he cast them, the results he achieved were weak, inferior.
         Galen wondered, and not for the first time, if his spell language hampered his attempt to conjure something original. As his thoughts plodded straight ahead, so did his spells, equation after orderly equation. In his language, it made no sense to simply make up a spell. An equation must be sensible in order to work; all the terms must possess established identities and properties. So how could he discover an equation that somehow reflected him, revealed him? He had been uncomfortable with the idea of revealing himself, but now that hesitance faded to insignificance beside the undeniable necessity: he could not disappoint Elric.
         Galen brought up a different section of text on the screen, his translations of some of the spells of Wierden. They varied in complexity and involved many different terms, some of which were used in multiple spells, others used only once. Again it seemed to him that there could be no truly original spells, only more complicated ones. Frustrated, Galen started to reorder the spells on the screen, from simplest to most complex. As he did, he noticed that some of the spells formed a progression. A spell with two terms conjured a translucent globe. A spell with those same two terms, and one more, conjured a globe with energy inside. A spell with those same three terms, and yet another, conjured a globe with the energy given the form of light. Add another term, and it conjured a globe filled with light and heat. And on it went.
         Several of Gali-Gali’s spells furthered the complexity. If he could work his way to the last spell in the progression, could he think of one that would go beyond it?
         But wasn’t this just what others were doing, building ever more elaborate spells without really creating something new? He didn’t know if the other mages thought of it this way; since they didn’t formulate their spells as equations, their spells didn’t have multiple terms in them. Elric, he knew, simply visualized what he wanted to happen, and if it was within his power, it happened. One simple visualization for any spell.
         Galen’s eyes went back to the top of the list, to the spell containing only two terms. Why was there no spell with only one term? No such spell existed in Wierden’s work, or, as he thought about it, in any of the mages’ conjuries he’d yet translated. Most of them had many, many terms. In fact, he couldn’t even remember another equation with only two.
         Perhaps spells had to have more than one term. But why? He stared at the two terms that began the progression. If there was an initial spell in the series, a spell with only one term, which term was it?
         The first of the two terms was common, used in this progression and elsewhere. Galen had come to think of it as a sort of cleanup term, necessary for everything to balance, but having negligible impact.
         The second term, on the other hand, existed only within the spells of this progression. As far as he knew, at least. That seemed very odd. Surely it could have other uses.
         That second term, then, seemed the defining characteristic of the progression, and the obvious choice for the first equation in it. But what would the term do when used alone?
         Perhaps it would have the same effect as the second equation, conjuring a translucent sphere. If the cleanup term truly was negligible, that’s what would happen. The sphere itself, as he’d discussed it with Elric, was an odd construct, not a force field as it first had seemed. It didn’t really hold things in, or keep things out. It simply demarcated a space within which something would be done.
         If removing the cleanup term did have an effect, what might it be? Perhaps the sphere wouldn’t form at all. Perhaps it would be opaque or have some other property. Or perhaps it would be deformed in some way. In any case, it wouldn’t be very impressive.

         Carvin’s spell language was that of the body; specific, precise movements and their accompanying mental impulses comprised her spells.

    (ed note: As part of his apprentice demonstration, Galen tries doing a one-term spell. To everybody's surprise, it starts to make a planet-devouring sphere of force. The one-term spell is far more powerful than any other known spell. Galen's teacher Elric manages to shut down the spell. Later in private they talk.)

         Elric set a mug of water on the table in front of Galen, which at last brought him to life. He looked up at Elric with large, hungry eyes. “What was it?” he asked.
         “I do not know.”
         “It was dangerous.”
         “So it seemed. With a power greater than any I’ve sensed from a conjury.”
         “I didn’t lose control.”
         “That,” Elric said, “is the most troubling aspect of it.” At the beginning of their training, chrysalis-stage apprentices often lost control and generated violent bursts of energy. But that wasn’t what Elric had observed today. Galen’s spell had been focused, controlled. This hadn’t been some outburst of undisciplined violence. It had been a carefully crafted, directed, outpouring of huge power. Elric had barely been able to stop it in time.
         Galen shook his head. “I didn’t know… what it would do.”
         “I realize that. Tell me how you arrived at this spell.”
         Galen brought his screen from his bedroom and led Elric through a progression of equations that he had derived from translating the works of Wierden and Gali-Gali. As Galen spoke, Elric was glad to see him become more animated.
         “I realized there was no first equation in the progression, with only one term. That is what I conjured.”
         Elric sat beside him. “The idea of a first equation in the progression. It makes perfect sense in your spell language. Yet there is no equivalent in mine.” Galen was a genius for coming up with it. Although Elric had helped Galen formulate and develop his spell language, it was vastly different from Elric’s: much more complex, much more regimented. Elric had thought this would limit Galen’s abilities; he had never imagined it would lead to new discoveries.
         “I thought it might be a fluke of my language, that it might do nothing. But it did… do something.”
         A spell like this might explain some of the mysteries in techno-mage history. But the implications disturbed Elric. “It gathered great energy and instability.”
         Galen’s hands tightened around the screen. He was still troubled about what he had done, and how he had come to do it. “The second term must stabilize the first. Perhaps it creates an opposing force of some kind.”
         “The result of the spell could not have been anticipated,” Elric said.
         Galen turned to him, brilliant blue eyes needy, unblinking. “How is it that my spell language led to this?
         “The same way that the study of the atom led to the atomic bomb, or the study of light to the laser. The potential was there. You discovered it.”

    (ed note: As it turns out, Galan has discovered one of the five primal root spells encoded into the Tech by the creators of the Tech. The point is that no other technomage in history had discovered these, due to the nature of their spell languages. Galan's spell language had revealed an interesting hole.)

    From CASTING SHADOWS by Jeanne Cavelos (2001)

    Atomic Rocket Philosophy

    Introducing RocketCat

    This is RocketCat, the official mascot of the Atomic Rockets website. Do not make him angry, you will regret it.

    He has a habit of commenting on my explanations, using less diplomacy and more colorful language.

    He maintains that he got his name from Elton John, not from any raccoon. He wants to make clear that any rumors about him actually being General Scarr of the Carnivorian Republic are totally unfounded. But he does get a little tense if you mention Ulthar. Among his hobbies are trying to get 1,000 cats to share a dream (which always makes me nervous for some odd reason). I asked him if his parents were Space Cat and Moofa and he just rolled his eyes at me. Which was not a denial.

    His fur color is jet black, as black as the Boötes void.

    His favorite games are Homeworlds, Ogre, High Frontier, and The Game of Rat and Dragon. He is very fond of High Frontier, but I won't play him any more because he always wins.

    Romantically he occasionally dates a lady named Erma Felna.

    But if RocketCat ever gets his claws into Alf, that pathetic alien life form is going to suffer as he finds inserted into one of his orifices a live thermonuclear warhead with one kiloton's worth of yield for each cat he's eaten.

    In the RocketCat sample rocketpunk science fiction universe, he has a rather complicated origin story.

    You will occasionally see Sneaky the insouciant Cat lurking about the website as well. Don't tell RocketCat, the two do not like each other very much.

    Rocketpunk Future

    One of the species of "man-in-space" SF is what Rick Robinson calls "Rocketpunk".

    Steampunk is now a familiar SF subgenre, set in a retro-futuristic vision broadly inspired by Verne and Wells. Among other things it requires a special kind of magitech, really magi-science, with things like aether ships.

    Surely there is now a place for a retro-future based on the vision of 50 years ago (1957), on the verge of the actual historical space age. I will call this Rocketpunk.*

    *I haven't googled it, but surely I'm not the first to have this idea, including the term.

    Rocketpunk differs from steampunk in one fundamentally important way — Rocketpunk can use (largely) real science and tech — much of it the basic tech we still assume. The two main differences are:

    1) Optimistic performance and operating assumptions, especially cost. The rocketpunk chemful SSTO shuttle, catapult-launched, looks like the never-flown Mach 3 Navaho cruise missile, and flies daily except in hurricane season.

    It costs around $10 million to build, and a round-trip ticket to the orbital station costs perhaps $1000 (but pre-inflation dollars; a steak dinner in autoheat package probably costs $1.95).

    2) Pessimistic (indeed, negative-handwaved) electronic assumptions, especially cyber-anything. The ship's computer takes up the deck below the astrogation compartment, and combines the power of my old TI-35 programmable calculator with vastly slower processing speed and incredibly cumbersome I/O.

    Astrogators use slide rules for their real work; once you've roughed out a course you feed it into the computer and refine your flight plan to the second.

    Everyone does not see everything in space, because your tracking telescopes require human watch standers who get tired and miss things. At most you may be able to review photo plates with blink comparators to back-track contacts.

    Higher performance ships use fission drive, usually just called atomic drive — the reactor sometimes called a pile. Many smaller military ships are configured for atmosphere — also looking rather like the Navaho — and can fly directly from planet surface to planet surface. These ships typically have crews from about three men (very occasionally women!) to a dozen or so, and are about the size of large aircraft — hence the B-36 in Spaaaaace!

    The Solar Guard Cruiser Polaris, on the Worked Example page of Winch's site, is pretty much a classic rocketpunk ship. In fact, his whole Atomic Rockets site — as the name suggests — sort of does double duty as a summary of current best information and a rocketpunk site.

    That's the charm of rocketpunk — it's Realistictm technology, apart from the negative-handwaved electronics, but wonderfully naive about the devils in the details.

    I think rocketpunk done today has to accept the real Solar System — alas, no thalassic or steamy-tropical Venus, or canals on Mars, but the Mars we know today goes perfectly comfortably with domed colonies, surface crawlers, and the first stages of a terraforming project.

    And surely rocketpunk can have cool space battles, though tending to be missile-dominant — it's too late for heat rays (1898), and too early for lasers (1960).

    Rick Robinson from a post on SFConSim-l (2007)

    Those who are interested in Rocketpunk should explore Rick's blog, the Rocketpunk Manifesto.

    Yes, this website does have a Rocketpunk feel to it, as you might have noticed from all the old pulp SF illustrations used as decorations. This is partially because I like rocketpunk, partially to make young readers aware that science fiction did NOT start with "Star Wars", and partially because it makes the site more entertaining to people who would be bored by dry pages with nothing but mathematical equations.


    (ed note: More than any other story I have read, this captures the essence of what Atomic Rockets means to me. )

          It was a tough day for Garver when Tomaszewski lifted the Timurlane off Canalopolis (Mars) for Ganymede. What made it tougher was the realization that he was not going along this time (because after the accident, the captain did not want a jetman with a prosthetic hand). He loved every sleek line of that ship, and let his eyes take them in as her gantry moved away and left her standing alone and aloof on the pad.
         Garver knew what was going on aboard. Minus-15 minutes, red-green light, crew at flight stations, locks closed.
         At X-2 minutes, the siren on the tower shrieked, and red lights winked around the perimeter of the pad. Aboard the Timurlane, they were strapping down, the control panels were switched to “FLY,” the gyros were locked in.
         He leaned on the rail and went through the entire pre-flight procedure. When he saw the ground tackle drop at X-30 seconds, he began his own count-down. He was slow; when he reached X-6 seconds, he saw flame burst from the stern of the ship.
         She rose, the colorful Martian desert hills falling away from her. The thundering rumble of her departure echoed back from the red sands, and the trail began to twist as winds caught it.

         The regular routine of the Canalopolis Spaceport went on. Each day, ships would thunder in from the far planets, bringing heavy metals from the asteroids, chemical products from Venus, machinery and cloth from Terra, minerals from Ganymede and Callisto, and radioactives from Luna. They stood tall in their gantries while cargo lifts and cranes loaded them with Martian steel from her iron-oxide deserts. There was a ceaseless procession of ships, the tall freighters, the rotund liners, the stubby ore ships, and the sleek military vessels of Terra.

         “All personnel stand by!” the loud-speaker on the wall cut in. “Approaching ship in emergency!”
         They moved in a hurry. The bar cleared in thirty seconds. Although the League building was a good five miles from the nearest landing area, that meant nothing to a ship dropping out of the sky.
         Picking a spot near a deep irrigation ditch on the edge of the building’s lawn, they turned to watch the sky. People were scurrying everywhere. The non-spacemen were making for the underground shelters. The ground crews and flight crews who had lived around spaceships longer, merely took refuge under trucks, behind walls, or next to holes in the red soil.
         “Who’s due in?” Garver asked.
         “Don’t know,” Angus replied, making cups of his hands and scanning the sky near the zenith.
         Sunlight glinted off something high in the Martian sky. “There!” Garver picked it up with his eyes and followed it.
         A ship took form against the purple background. It grew as it fell. Then her jets fired with a flash of blinding white. When she began to hover about three miles up, McBee exclaimed, “That’s the Fafnir’s paint design! Vanderhoff must be having trouble. No wonder; she’s an old ship.”
         They heard the rumble of her jets a few seconds later, then the bulk of the League building hid the remaining thousand feet of her descent. The fluttery rumble died, and there was no explosion.
         “He got her down,” Garver breathed.
         “Aye, let’s go back to our drinks.”

         The League steward merely slipped him a sheet of paper, the standard job-offer form, with its brief message:

         Ship: S. S. Fafnir
         Commander: Captain P. R. Vanderhoff, F. T.
         Location: Landing stage 14, Canalopolis Spaceport
         Job Description: Chief jetman and power officer.

         Thirty minutes later, he was standing at the bottom of a gantry crane and looking up at a two-hundred-forty-foot pencil of power-packed metal. The dorsal fin displayed the words: S. S. Fafnir, Raketenflugplatz für Raumschiffahrt (rocket landing place for space shipping), Deutschland, Terra. One of the Ring Class, Garver thought. Somebody had undoubtedly misspelled her name on the commissioning papers years ago, but that was not uncommon; there was a ship on the Luna shuttle named Jabberwack.

    (ed note: actually, no. "Fafner" was the way Wagner misspelled it in Der Ring des Nibelungen, in Norse mythology it is spelled Fáfnir)

         The Ring Class was a group of good ships, sound and well-built with precision parts made only as the Germans can make them, but old. The retracting landing jack on her ventral side dated her as well as the sharp-angled shape of her fins and landing wings. (retractable landing jack because the ship uses aerobraking. Extended jack would ruin aerodynamics and be burnt off by friction) Her hull was pocked and dented slightly, but the black, white, and red paint design had only been scorched once.
         They were unloading cargo from the upper locks. Garver waited for the freight lift to come down, then rode back up.

         The power room “down under” was familiar. In this class of ships, the fission pile and jets were below with the pile controls and fuel pumps in the power room. The tanks, holding more than sixty tons of fuel, were above him and “forward.” The layout of the Ring Class power rooms was orderly and functional.
         But the Fafnir’s power room was a mess. Her floor plates were buckled with heat. The pile controls were damaged, out of adjustment, or just out of commission — period. The Number-Four fuel pump was frozen and leaking lubricant. But the tanks were tight as well as the lines, and the electrical system seemed to be in fair shape.
         All the tools needed to put things in working order were racked or around the rack. There was a hoist in the overhead. The ship could not lift in her present condition, but Garver could make her fly again.
         The place was full of smells that Garver didn’t recognize at first. Then, through the reek of oil and lubricants and scorched paint, he smelled something new. It wasn’t pleasant; the smell of cooked flesh was most prevalent around the jetman’s couch.
         Garver knew why Vanderhoff needed a new jetman.
         The blowers still worked, so Garver started clearing the air. He opened the hatches to let in light and air, then proceeded to pick up around the place. He’d just hung the remains of the acceleration pad out the hatch when Vanderhoff called him to come forward.
         The control room was roomy and comfortable. In her earlier days, the Fafnir had been a luxury ship, carrying a full crew of eight as well as passengers. Vanderhoff had converted her to a cargo ship, for Garver had noticed that three of the passenger decks below had been stripped for use as cargo spaces. As a free trader, Vanderhoff had little use for passengers. Cargo was more profitable — providing the planetary markets did not fluctuate too much while the ship was between them.
         There were only two couches. Into the remaining space, the skipper had put a good deal of surplus Space Force gear: a ballistic computer, a prismatic astrostat, a small differential and integral calculator, and a precision novant (??).

    (ed note: Michael Hutson says "At least by etymology, a novant in this context would mean a sextant, only designed to read up to ninety degree angles instead of sixty." Makes sense to me. Frame of sextant was 60° angle or 1/6th of a circle. Latin for "one sixth" is "sextāns". Latin for "ninety" is "nonaginta")

    There was a large desk around one quarter of the compartment. Vanderhoff was seated at this, filling paper with figures and noting results in little black notebooks. He finally turned around, slamming a notebook as he did so.
         “How much profit on the load?” Garver inquired.
         “Damn little! Two ships with identical loads were in here three days before me. The demand was yanked down on me,” Vanderhoff complained. He pointed down. “Can you fix this tub up?”

         “What happened?”
         There was silence for a moment as Vanderhoff blew smoke. “O’Conner knew, but he’ll never tell us. I heard him yell that there was trouble aft before he went.”
         “Know the cause?”
         “Cause? ” Vanderhoff exploded. “This tub’s fourteen years old! That’s the cause!” He quieted down quickly and took several short puffs on his cigarette. “The only thing that holds this bucket together is the mortgage. In fact, the mortgage is so large it affects the mass-ratio!” He broke off and picked up a sheet of paper. “Still want to sign?”

    (ed note: The captain is desperate, no other jetman wants to fly on a space-going junkheap, so even a jetman with a prosthetic hand will be hired)

         “Garver, this is Winch Astrabadi — ” Vanderhoff began. )
         “W. Winchell Astrabadi!” Winch corrected him, rolling down his sleeves.

    (ed note: That character immediately caught my attention, since he has my name. Which is very rare, "Winchell" is usually a last name, never a first name. Not bad for an atomic rocket story written before I was born. Though I do find it a bit creepy when I read this story and keep seeing my name. I've been told that the same character appears in the semi-sequel story Starship Through Space)

         Vanderhoff merely glowered. “Winch Astrabadi,” he went on. “Sneak-current boy (electronics man) aboard. Winch, this is Rod Garver, our new jetman.”
         Winch stretched out his hand and grinned. “Glad to meetcha!”

         Winch climbed the ladder again until his head was in the compartment above. “Come on, Cosmo, boy. Time for chow! Easy now; you’re not in free fall!” He returned with a rangy yellow tomcat in his arms. Petting the mascot, he went on, “Cosmo, meet Jetman Garver.”
         Cosmo merely looked disdainfully at the new member of the crew until Garver reached out and rubbed him under the chin. The cat stuck his jaw out and enjoyed it. Garver was now on temporary probation.
         As Vanderhoff started down the ladder. Garver looked around. “Where’s the rest of the crew?” he asked.
         Winch looked at him impatiently. “You’re thinking we maybe need a bigger crew? The Fafnir ain’t no liner!”
         Which was true. Garver then realized. Vanderhoff, in the interest of cutting costs, had cut the crew to the bone. The skipper probably did his own piloting, all the astrogation, and handled the control room jetman’s job as well. Being “sneak-current” man, Winch undoubtedly took care of communications, dovar (doppler radar) and radar, and electronic control; which left Garver with the job of chief jetman, power officer, air officer, maintenance officer, and ship electrician.

    (ed note: larger crews would include a cargomaster and a medic)

         Quite a job. Jetman on the Fafnir called for a jack-of-all-trades. With his experience, he could handle it.

         “Did it ever occur to ye, mon, why Vanderhoff signed you on?”
         Garver hadn’t thought about it.
         “I hate to be brutal about it,” Angus sighed, “but I take it you know what happened to O’Conner, his former jetman?”
         Garver told him he’d seen the power room.
         “Mon, you’re the only one he could get for the job. Everyone else turned it down flat in the dispatch room.” Angus lit his pipe, making quite a ceremony of it, then went on, “The Fafnir’s a coffin with jets. O’Conner’s the second jetman Vanderhoff’s lost. Ridin’ the Fafnir’s like sittin’ on an armed fission bomb, mon!”

         He went to work on the Fafnir’s power room with a vengeance. It had been years since he’d had his hands dirty in a power room, and he enjoyed it immensely. It was his work, and he liked his work; he always had. Within a week, he had the floor plates back in and the shielding tight. He put a coat of paint over the whole works and installed a new pad on the acceleration cot. When he got to the fuel pumps, he had trouble. His (prosthetic) left hand simply did not have the necessary strength, but he jury-rigged a number of hasty gadgets and got the bad pump unfrozen. The bearings and the impeller were shot, and he couldn’t find new bearings. He got away with makeshift ones by filing and cutting and filling until they worked. Over in the spaceport’s graveyard he scrounged other parts until he had enough to rebuild the entire pump.
         Vanderhoff was surprised one night when he came aboard after some papers to find Garver still in the power room. He dropped through the hatch and looked around. Garver was tightening lug nuts on the pump casing.
         “Say, this looks good, Garv,” the skipper commented.
         Garver grunted a few times as he tightened the last lug, then racked the wrench and sat down at the couch. “Skipper, a neat power room is just as important as a clean control room.”
         “I wish you’d been aboard for the last few years,” Vanderhoff sighed. “A man like you is hard to find on what I can offer.” He looked around. “How’s it coming?”
         “Can’t complain. I couldn’t find a lot of parts, but I made out O.K. anyway”
         “How’d you manage?”
         Garver grinned and wiped his hands on a piece of waste. “You’ve heard of the old jetman’s rules of thumb? If you can’t buy it, borrow it. If you can’t borrow it, steal it. If it doesn’t fit, force it. If you’ve got to hide it, paint it.” He turned to a group of controls over the couch. “You’re just in time to watch me check out the fuel pumps.”
         He kicked a switch. A low whine came from one of the pumps and rose up the scale. The power room throbbed and shook as the other three pumps joined it. As the pump pressure backed up against the injector valves, Garver checked meter readings then turned four knobs. The scream of the pumps changed key as the valves opened and allowed the test fuel, water, to pour down through the cold pile and out through the jet into the splash pit.

         In the middle of the third week, Garver had the power room in shape to fly again and turned his efforts to the rest of the ship. In spite of what he said, his heart was in his work and he did not notice the passage of time at all. He ran over every inch of the Fafnir’s two hundred forty feet (author's wooden model was more like 303 feet), checking this and fixing that. He did not frankly see why Angus had called her a flying coffin. For her fourteen years, she was in good shape. She had been well-built by the successors of the hands who had developed the V-2.

         On lift day, Garver was up at dawn. He was not sure about the response time of the rod control in the “firebox,” the atomic pile. He checked it carefully, hoping the ship wouldn’t blow when he pulled the rods and opened the valves.

    (ed note: in nuclear power reactors, the reactor is powered up by pulling control rods out of the reactor (the atomic pile). The author had no way of knowing that nuclear rockets would be powered up by rotating control drums in place inside the reactor)

         He grew more nervous as the day wore on. Twice he checked the cargo hold to make sure their load of steel was fastened securely. Going outside, he went over the ground tackle, making sure the magnetic clamps would not foul when they were dropped at X-30 seconds.
         It was X-45 minutes when he started up the gantry lift again and met Vanderhoff at the lock. “Secured below?” the stocky little Dutchman asked.
         Garver glanced down at the tarmac two hundred feet below. The splash pit was filling with water, and the ground crews were picking up around the base of the gantry crane. “All secure, skipper.”
         Contemplating the white sides of the ship, Vanderhoff remarked, “Well, will she lift, Garv? ”
         “I hope so.”
         “Aren’t you sure?”
         “I’ve done my best, that’s all I know. It can lift if it feels like it.”
         At minus-30 minutes, Garver saluted the jets in accordance with old tradition, then stepped into the lock ahead of Vanderhoff. Inside, the skipper turned to him. “Seal her up, Garv. Let’s take our flight stations.”
         Down in his power room, Garver made a series of hasty, last-minute inspections. He was nervous with that gritting tension of anxiety. His stomach was somewhere between his neck and lower ribs, and it was hard and mighty uncomfortable. Minutes ticked away slowly, each dragging into the next.
         At minus-15, he saw the red-green light wink on his board — prepare for lifting. Outside, he heard the siren shriek, clearing the ground crew from the area. There was a rumble as the gantry began to move out of the way.
         In control, Vanderhoff started the gyros at minus-12 on the button, and Garver began to change the ship’s atmosphere to the oxy-helium space mix.
         “All stations report!” Vanderhoff’s voice bellowed over the bull horn. Garver climbed onto his cot and picked up his throat mike. “Engineering secure! ”
         “ Electronics secure!” came Winch’s voice from the electronics compartment where he would remain until taking his couch in the control room at minus-2.
         “Preliminary circuit checks!” the skipper ordered.
         Putting his board on TEST, Garver ran a quick check of his power-room circuits. “Power room! Circuits clear and secure!”
         “ Electronics ready!”
         “Power room, energize your firebox!” Vanderhoff snapped.
         Carefully, very carefully, Garver manipulated the pile controls, withdrawing the rods a bit at a time until the pile had come up to pre-lift heat. “Firebox hot!”
         He heard nothing more as he watched his indicators. The power room was filled with small noises which were amplified by Garver in his tension. The temperature reached a plateau and leveled; the neutron count held steady.
         “Minus-5 minutes! All hands to lift stations!
         Graver adjusted his straps and laid his head back on its rest, his eyes on the panel overhead.
         “All boards clear to FLY!”
         Garver felt out the switch on his panel and threw it without looking, knowing by feel that it was the one to put his board onto the active circuits. His left hand felt out the pump switches. The adrenalin in his blood stream made his heart pound against his ribs.
         The green light on his board winked out, leaving only the red. Minus-2 minutes. “Stand by for lift!”
         The room was cool, but the sweat stood out on his forehead. He steadied his hands over the board. He kept thinking of what had happened in this power room before he took over.
         “Minus-1 minute! Start the pumps!”
         He nudged four switches, and the power room was filled with the incredible noise of the pumps. He checked back-pressures as the needles climbed out of the red segments of the dials.
         “Forty-five seconds!” The pumps were up to speed and the fuel pressure normal.
         “Minus-30 seconds!” The flick of a switch dropped the magnetic clamps of the ground tackle. The Fafnir was now free to lift.
         “Steady, now ... steady,” Garver soothed over the scream of the pumps.
         “Minus-20 ... 19 ... 18 ... 17 . . . 16—”
         “Come on, baby! We’re going home!” he whispered to the heart of the Fafnir.
         “10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7—”
         He didn’t pray; it seemed useless against the radioactive fire below him. The ship was suddenly a straining entity of its own instead of a complacent fabrication of metal.
         “Five!” He threw a switch. A relay whacked closed.
         “Four!” Automatic controls, now out of Garver’s jurisdiction, raised the firebox temperature.
         “Three!” Another relay threw. The tank valves snapped open.
         “Two!” The pumps took up the load and shifted into main stage.
         “One!” Lights winked solid green across his board.
         “UP SHIP!”
         Final valves flipped open. The pumps forced the fuel. The Fafnir strained and broke ground, balancing incredulously on a slim pillar of fire.
         It was lifting; Garver could feel it, and he knew by feel. He was flattened into his cushions, and the skin of his face was drawn and tight across his nose. It was a labor to breathe. Vanderhoff was using an economical high-g lift.
         It felt good. He was going back into space again, back to Terra. He was going to miss this.
         The thundering subsonics of the jet faded out after a painfully long time, and Garver felt better although he was still pinned down by acceleration. The subsonics always made him feel queasy and light-headed.
         Everything suddenly stopped. Garver’s stomach hit his ribs. A green light announced, “Cut-off.” The power room returned to quiet as Garver felt his weight drop to nothing. It made him whoozy for a moment; he was going to have to take a bit to get his space legs back.
         “Hello, power room!”
         “O.K., control!”
         “Ship is in free flight. Secure your power room.
         Garver grinned. “Roger!” A swipe of his hand across the panel knocked the switches to “OFF.” From the port, he could see that the landing jack had retracted all right. He checked at all four bulging ports, floating to each in turn to see if the external assemblies on the ship were all right.
         Abaft, the ruddy bulge of Mars was receding slowly. Her canals stood out like inked lines. He could pick out Strymon, Cocytus, Triton, and Lethes as they rounded the girth of the planet. Hellas was brilliant orange while the north polar cap gleamed pure white. In the midst of the red sands, Syrtis Major’s splotch of green stood out in stark contrast. Mars was pretty, all right, but Terra is the prettiest sight to any spaceman.
         He checked the power room once more, set the air temperature, checked the line voltage on the ship’s generator, and put the smoke filter on the control room blowers. Then he went forward.
         Vanderhoff was running trajectory fixes from dovar data. Garver lit up a cigarette and waited, knowing better than to interrupt a skipper in the middle of a trajectory problem.

         Distances are big in space, and it takes a long time to get anywhere. Once a spaceship is in orbit, it is like a shell in flight; it will arrive at the other end of its trajectory with no further application of force necessary. So there is nothing for a crew to do but eat, sleep, make occasional checks of the equipment and course, and do routine maintenance. None of this takes much time, which is one reason why interplanetary travel is not for the man who gets bored easily.
         The crew of the Fafnir was used to it. They were spacemen, not tourists. They cat-napped off and on during the ship’s “day,” ate when they felt like it, talked, played cards, worked over their equipment, and spent a short time each day exercising with sets of springs to keep their muscles in shape. Two hundred forty-nine days in free fall will cause muscles to deteriorate, and they didn’t want to learn how to walk in a g-field all over again. (249 days is 8.3 months, which is approximately the duration of a Mars-Terra Hohmann transfer)
         Two months out from Mars, they were all getting well into the rut. Garver had read a lot of the books in the ship’s microfilm library, but went back and read them again just for something to do. Vanderhoff was writing up the log one “day” in the wardroom aft of control as Garver was finishing up “Men and Space,” by Groswald, for the third time. His arm around a safety line anchored to a bulkhead cleat, Winch was trying to get some sleep hanging in midair.
         Garver had just projected the last page when Cosmo, who was prowling around, found his rubber ball. A cat playing with a rubber ball is amusing to begin with, but put both the cat and bail in a zero-g field, and it becomes hysterical. Cat and ball went sailing about in all directions, rebounding off overhead, deck, and bulkheads. Cosmo turned flips in midair to get his feet “down” for landing. At times, the ball would hover in the center of the wardroom, spinning lazily on an axis, only to be disturbed by the flying handful of fur and claws. Cosmo was good; he had the knack of impaling the soft ball on his claws, thus preventing it from sailing off in some direction dictated by the vectors of a slashing cat’s paw.
         Garver and the skipper momen- tarily forgot what they were doing and watched Cosmo in his act. It was a welcome break in the monotony. The cat kept it up until he tired, then curled up in a ball about a stanchion to give itself a bath.
         “Cats are fine people,” Vanderhoff remarked, closing the log and lighting a cigarette.
         Garver gave up too and snapped off the viewer. He took the cigarette the skipper offered him. “You know, skipper, that display of Cosmo’s helps prove my theory about cats being an extraterrestrial race.”
         “You don’t think they’re native to Terra?” Vanderhoff asked in bewilderment.
         “Right. Look, they’re too well-adapted to spaceships, free-fall, and changing accelerations. They never get their directions mixed up; they always know which way is ‘down,’ ” Garver explained with a smile. “I think Cosmo’s ancestors either conquered space, or were symbiotes of a race who did.”
         “Tigers and leopards as well?” Vanderhoff asked. “ Same family.”
         “Yeah, but they’re merely mutations of the original strain, Felis domestica," the jetman went on, tongue in cheek.
         “I don’t agree with you,” the skipper said, watching Cosmo give himself a cleaning job. “I will admit they’re perfectly adapted for space travel. Cosmo keeps himself clean and does a good job keeping the ship the same way. Why, I remember once when we lifted from Terra with a load of wheat for Luna. Had rats. Space knows how they got aboard, but Cosmo —

         “You could fix the landing dovar,” the skipper suggested. “It hunts.”
         “That’s my fault when the line voltage wanders with a load on it?” Winch asked in a complaining tone. “That’s out of my jurisdiction. Chew out Garver. The generator’s his plaything!”
         “What’s the matter?” Garver cut in. “Don’t you have any voltage regulators? ”
         “Certainly! You think I am not on the stick? My job begins where I take the juice off the line, chum. The fact that it’s four-hundred-cycle stuff is bad enough, but ninety jolts where I should be getting one hundred seventeen is too much!”
         “You’re smart,” Garver told him. “You’re an electronics man. Figure out a way to get what you want. I do the best I can, and the generator’s just not up to it.”

         Garver had flipped on the microfilm projector again, but Vanderhoff interrupted his reading. “What’s wrong with the generator, Garv?”
         Flipping off the projector to save juice, Garver sighed.
         “It’s a Red Queen’s race — just like the rest of the ship.”
         “What’s Lewis Carroll got to do with it? Don’t tell me he’s aboard, too?”
         The captain’s sense of humor was going early on this trip, Garver noted. “You’ve got to run like hell to keep this ship in spacing shape at all, and you’ve got to run twice that fast to make any improvements,” the jetman explained. “Lousy parody, but the generator’s too small. It was adequate once, like some other things aboard, but you’ve put a lot of electronic gear in this bucket. The generator can’t handle the demand.
         “Can you do anything about it?” Vanderhoff wondered.
         “Nope.” Cosmo’s ball drifted in front of Garver, so he pocketed it, adding, “I’d suggest a new and bigger one when we get Earthside.”
         The skipper heaved a sigh. “ Can’t do it.”
         “How come?” Garver asked. “I can find one cheap. You’ll be able to afford it if you make a fair profit on this load, won’t you? ”
         Nodding, the skipper replied sadly, “Yes, I’ll make a profit, but it won’t pull me out of debt. I’ve been caught too many times by falling markets, and I’m just too far in to ever think about getting out. Always an hour late and a solar short.” Vanderhoff thought back to the many times he’d been forced to sell his cargo at a loss because of a falling market. Whereas being a free trader, picking your own cargo, going where you want, commanding your own ship, all had their points, the chance that you might lose your shirt at the end of the trip was extremely sobering.

         It was a welcome sight when Terra grew close enough to appear as a disk in the ports. Garver grew impatient as the days seemed to stretch out. Winch had no trouble locating Terra five times daily now, and within a week, he was picking up the dovar beacons. The Fafnir finally streaked across the orbit of Luna, gaining speed as Terra’s field began to take effect. Luna was in opposition to the ship at the time, so Winch did not try to raise Diana Spaceport for astrogational information. But the dovar beacon on Asgard, Terra’s space station, came back strong when the electronics man triggered it, and the astrographical section there furnished him with the latest meteor counts and ionosphere data.
         The dovar beat began to climb up the scale as Terra’s field deepened and they picked up speed. Dovar, sometimes known as doppler radar, used radar’s principle of bouncing high-frequency radio waves off an object. But dovar, as it was adapted for spaceships, had one very important difference. Radar waves from a spaceship moving at very high velocities return to the radar set with a different frequency. Since it is nothing more than a standard doppler effect, the relative velocities of the spaceship and the body can be computed, just as it is possible to figure the speed of a passing train by the difference in the sound of the whistle. Thus, Doppler Velocity and Ranging, or dovar for short, could give velocity data as well as range by the mere expedient of comparing or “beating” the frequency of the returning wave against that of the transmitted original.
         During the initial phases of the approach, Garver spent his time in the power room. He was worried about those pumps, but he could do nothing until he had parts. He checked and re-checked. With Terra’s tremendously powerful gravitational field, going in and out of the planet was real work for any drive system. He just wanted to make sure the ship could fight its way down through that field and land in one piece.
         When the time came for the landing briefing, Garver went forward to control. Winch was calmly perched on the ladder to his compartment with Cosmo curled up in his lap. Garver didn’t say anything as the skipper was working with the astrogational computers again. When Vanderhoff straightened up and went to write in the log, Garver knew it was all right to speak. “How close are we now?”
         “Thirty- thousand miles, more or less,” Winch shrugged. “Close enough to see, at any rate. That I like.”

         “Sure does,” Winch observed, nodding, “Lemme bum a weed.” Garver fished one out and pitched it at him. The electronics man struck a match, waved it to keep it going, managed to light the cigarette, then held the match still. It went out; there can be no convection currents where there is no gravity.

         “All right,” Vanderhoff sighed and turned around. “How about it, Garv? Power plant ready?”
         Garver decided not to worry the skipper by mentioning the pumps. There was a good chance they’d hold, anyway, but Garver didn’t know for how long. “Secure below, skipper.”
         “How about the gyros? The gears looked pretty dry three days ago.”
         “I helped Garv put some oil on them yesterday,” Winch remarked.
         “Is all your gear in shape?” Vanderhoff asked. When Winch and Garver nodded, he went on, “O.K., we’ll go in with four normal braking ellipses. First pass at one hundred fifty miles. Take us about ten hours to kill enough velocity to get into the atmosphere proper. I’ll make a stall-and-fire landing. Garv, I want you to have those pumps up to speed when she pays-off.
         That was old stuff to Garver. “Right, skipper.”
         From the power room port, Garver watched Terra approach on the first pass. The bulge of the planet seemed to flatten out. The sunset line was right below, cutting through Siberia, across Japan, then south through the Pacific Ocean. Just the eastern tip of Australia was in sunlight. As he watched, the terminator disappeared around the bulge of the planet. They were having a typhoon around the Marshall Islands below. The clouds were piled up like cotton in the big low-pressure area. The Fafnir was in a trajectory canted about fifty degrees to the equator, swinging southeast across the Pacific. The perigee of her first pass would occur at the high-noon meridian over the South Pacific.
         There was a creak in the hull. The wings were beginning to gain a little lift in the rarefied upper atmosphere. Garver checked the skin temperature. It was high, but not bad.
         The ship was suddenly parallel to the surface below and tearing along at a terrific clip. The wings were really lifting now; Garver could feel himself being pulled toward the section of the power room which was “down” with respect to Terra.
         Then the surface began to drop away slowly, and he knew the ship had passed perigee. She was on her way out now along an elliptical trajectory, but her velocity was far below that of escape. She’d swing back for another pass in a few hours.
         He watched the coast of South America come into view, then went back and checked the fuel-line connections. He was far too worried about getting the ship down to be aesthetic and watch Terra go by. It was beautiful, sure, but he wished he were down on the ground now instead of tearing around in the upper atmosphere.
         Anybody can get a spaceship off the ground, but it takes an incredible combination of guts, co-ordination, fast reflexes, and high math to get one back — at a specific place. Berthing a spaceship on a planet is somewhat like riding around a merry-go-round on a coaster bike. The problem is to get on the merry-go-round with a load of eggs at one particular, predesignated place. This is merely a two-dimensional problem involving the essential vectors; bringing the Fafnir in was a three-dimensional problem of the same general type — with a few more variables.
         The ground dovar stations at Congreve Field, Ryhnin Spaceport, White Sands Spaceport, and Santa Barbara Spaceport in Brazil were tracking her. Their electronic eyes watched her as she went around and around the globe. The Asgard space station was also following the Fafnir’s beacon. All the information was being collected at White Sands and fed into the computers there. In the ship, Astrabadi was making pin-point fixes by bouncing dovar off Asgard’s beacon as well as the various spaceport beacons. It was a double-check system working from both ends.
         Hitting a thousand square-feet of concrete gently and precisely from several hundred miles in outer space is no mean trick. Human reactions are too slow and too inaccurate. The great-great-grandson of the GCA aircraft landing system was getting set to take over the final phase. As the Fafnir came in on her approach, five stations around White Sands picked her up on their long-range screens and began bouncing their microwaves off her hull. Their individual azimuth, elevation, range, and doppler beat data were going into the master computer and landing control system at White Sands.
         In case of failure of the ship’s automatic equipment, White Sands was relaying the information from the computer up to the ship by telemetering. Vanderhoff had presentations on his control panel showing the ship’s altitude, approach speed, and drift.
         “Winch! Let’s go!” Vanderhoff yelled up the hatch. As Winch sailed through it, the skipper stretched out on his cot and strapped in. He swung the switch panel over him and depressed the intercom button. “Power room! Stand by to bring her down! ”
         “Roger,” Garver’s voice came back. “Firebox hot! Standing by to start pumps on command!”
         Winch finished strapping down, put on his earphones, and threw a switch. “White Sands Control, White Sands Control, this is Spaceship Fafnir on landing approach. By for you. Over.” The loud-speaker in the bulkhead rasped, “Fafnir, this is White Sands Control. Two-degrees drift north of the groove. Your beacon is S-9 and your path is cleared. White Sands by.”
         Vanderhoff lay back and watched the scopes and meters in the panel above his head. There was nothing he could do about the drift until he fired. The Fafnir was now about fifty-five miles up, ripping horizontally through the upper atmosphere and losing altitude. It was Vanderhoff’s job to judge all factors correctly, navigate by White Sands’ instructions, pull the nose up, and stall out over White Sands, killing the ship’s kinetic energy.
         He gave the crew the red light. “Fafnir, this is White Sands Control. Give us a count down so we can check our switching circuits. Over.”
         “ Roger,” Winch replied and turned his head so he could see the chronometer. “Five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... woof! Over.”
         “Thank you, Fafnir. Stand by to synch dovar.”
         Winch closed his dovar gating circuits and waited for the pulse from the ground to put his system in synchronization. The little pip finally danced momentarily on the face of a scope. “White Sands, Fafnir’s dovar system in synch. By for you.”
         It was all a matter of waiting now. The red second hand crept around the clock dial as Vanderhoff watched. He was flying the ship by the seat of his pants. He began to sweat, although the control room was cool.
         He watched the pip of light which marked the White Sands’ beacon creep across the face of his scope. As it moved closer to the cross hairs, he thumbed a small wheel slightly and felt the nose come up a little as the hydraulic system worked the flaps in the tail assembly. Their velocity was down to about a mile per second now, but he had to kill it all without entering a high-speed stall.
         “Power room, stand by to fire!”
         “Ready here!” Garver came back. “Starting pumps!”
         He brought the nose up a little bit more. The air at thirty miles provided plenty of lift at the Fafnir’s speed, and she began to flatten out and climb.
         “Pumps to speed!” Garver reported. “Ready to fire!”
         The power room light winked green on the skipper’s panel.
         Sweat stood out in beads on Vanderhoff’s forehead as he brought the nose up a bit at a time. The beacon pip crept closer to the cross hairs on the screen.
         The spot touched the lateral cross hair — then matched them both. Vanderhoff swung the nose all the way up, strained as his straps cut into him, and waited for the ship to “pay-off.”
         The gyros cut in automatically as the velocity dropped. The Fafnir climbed on momentum, stalled, then hung there balanced by her gyros, her kinetic energy zero.
         But her potential energy was still enormous; she was seventy-four miles up.
         She dropped, tail first, sixteen feet the first second, forty-eight feet the next second, eighty feet the third. He didn’t dare let her fall too far; the fins would try to flip her over if they managed to take hold in the atmosphere.
         On the dovar screen, he watched the velocity of her fall mount. Checking the drift and setting in the proper corrections, he got ready to fire.
         Garner, he thought, I wish you’d told me about those pumps instead of letting me find out for myself. He’d inspected the power room a few days ago while Garver was forward and asleep. By removing an inspection plate, he’d seen that the pump bearings were badly scored.
         Then, the time came. The Fafnir’s nose began to wobble slightly as the air pressure against her fins fought the gyros.
         “Winch, notify.”
         “White Sands Control, Fafnir ready to fire. Over.”
         “Roger, Fafnir. You are clear and in the groove. Fire at will. Over and by.”
         Vanderhoff poised his hand over the red button and kicked on the auto pilot.
         “Four ... three ... two ... one ... FIRE!"
         He couldn’t hear the thunder of the jets, but he felt the push. Those pumps had to hold for another minute at least. He might get the ship into a glide if the jets did fail, but it was tricky and very risky.
         The auto pilot took its data direct from the dovar and telemetered computer data, figured how long it would have to blast at how many g’s to bring the ship down gently, and started correcting so the Fafnir would land gently and precisely where she should; in the middle of the concrete pad miles below.
         Vanderhoff watched the horizon through the control bubble, fighting the acceleration which changed slightly as the auto pilot recomputed its data. He saw the horizon lose its curve. It did so with alarming speed. What he could see of the surface changed from convex to planar, then became a bowl. The Organ Mountains and Las Cruces came into view. He felt and saw the gentle oscillations of the ship as the auto pilot went on making successive corrections of drift.
         The Organs reared up against the sky, then were obscured in a cloud of dust.
         The Fafnir settled slowly, her white jet splash spraying over the concrete and down into the splash pit. There was a slight jar as her jack-legs touched and compressed under her weight.
         The jets gave a mighty belch, then died.
         The control room settled down with a chattering of relays. Lights winked. Micro-switches clicked. The auto pilot flashed a green light, then turned itself off. There was a whine as the gyros shut off.
         “White Sands control, this is Fafnir” Winch addressed the mike. “On the ground and clear. Thank you. Out.”
         “Roger, Fafnir. White Sands control off and clear ! ”
         Vanderhoff was snapping switches. He was wringing wet with sweat. “All hands report and secure!”
         Winch sighed. “Electronics secured.” He flipped a few switches and lifted Cosmo from his lap; the cat had ridden out the landing with the electronics man as an added cushion. “ How does it feel, chum, to have a floor under you again? Don’t like it, huh? ”
         “Power room! Report!” Vanderhoff snapped into the intercom.
         There was silence.
         “Garv! Report! Are you all right?” the skipper snapped again.
         Winch unstrapped quickly and sat up, silently watching the skipper.
         Vanderhoff strode across the compartment and threw the lower hatch open. “ Grab the First Aid kit and let’s get down there! I thought there was something funny about that landing!” Piling out of his bunk, Winch groaned as he struck the deck, his leg muscles not used to it. Vanderhoff dropped through the hatch. Grabbing the medical kit from its wall brackets. Winch hit the ladder right behind the skipper, leaving Cosmo sitting baffled on the cot.
         Vanderhoff saw oil all over the floor of the power room as he swung the hatch open. Garver was lying on his cot, his eyes closed, breathing heavily. The skipper went quickly to him. “Garv! Are you all right?”
         Sighing deeply, the jetman opened his eyes. Vanderhoff noticed he was shaking. Garver shut his eyes again, saying, “Yeah.”
         “Starfire! What happened?
         “Give me a cigarette,” Garver said. Lighting up, he went on, “The impeller blades on Number Four pump came loose just after you fired the jets, I had to shut it off to keep it from shaking loose from the deck. The auto pilot couldn’t handle the loss of the jet, so I took over manually to keep the unbalanced thrust from flipping the ship.”
         “You brought this ship down manually? ” Winch asked incredulously.
         “Why didn’t you call me?” Vanderhbff asked. “I could have done the job with the dovar data to help me.”
         “I didn’t bring it down manually,” Garver explained. “I just overrode the auto pilot. We were on auto all the time, all right. I was just putting in corrections to make up for the loss of thrust and the resulting cockeyed thrust vectors. You couldn’t have done that in control.” He put his hand over his eyes and shook his head. The skipper could see he was exhausted from his effort. “Let’s get out of this coffin! I’m worn out.”

         Vanderhoff paused and looked up at the fading stars. Jupiter was riding high at the zenith, bright and steady. Venus was the morning star at the time and hung a few degrees over the eastern horizon. Mars, their starting point, was far below the craggy spires of the Organ Mountains. The skipper yawned. “Well, we might as well go in and get a cup of coffee. No use trying to take care of business until this part of the planet wakes up.”
         On the way down the gantry lift, Garver noted the oil streaking the sides of the Fafnir, marring the white paint. He’d opened the hatch to drain the pump lubricant off the power room floor. Reaching the ground. Vanderhoff and Winch waited while he checked the ground tackle connections supplying power to the berthed ship. He rejoined them as they walked across the pitted apron past the splash pit with its pools of grimy, rust-covered water.
         “How does it feel to be back?” the skipper asked.
         “Cosmo don’t like it,” Winch remarked. “Too much g-field.” He fondled the cat in his arms.

         “Sell the load O.K.?”
         “Yes,” Vanderhoff sighed as he dialed his order into the autowaiter, “but not for what it was worth. These gonophs here are worse than the ore traders in the asteroids!”
         Garver snubbed his cigarette out and asked, “How much did we clear?”
         “I can meet the immediate payments on the ship. You’ve got about nine thousand solars coming as soon as I get paid for the load. They’re coming to pick it up tomorrow.”
         “ Want me to be on hand? ”
         “Yes. Sort of supervise. After that, notify the government boys to come over and take their ‘bricks’ out of the pile. I want to get my heart back out of their vault.”
         The decommissioning of a spaceship really takes place when the technicians of the Bureau of Space Commerce come aboard her and remove the “bricks” of fissionable material from her atomic pile. The bricks are the only part of a spaceship not possessed by the owner. There is no ceremony of decommissioning; with her pile “cold,” a spaceship is on the ground to stay.
         Mixed emotions played through Garver’s mind as he watched the BSC boys go through their ritual with the Geigers and gingerly remove the shiny bricks to heavy lead boxes. Those small units were the prime source of the motive power which had enabled this hulk of fabricated steel and titanium to venture out to other worlds.
         He was a little sad and sorry for the Fafnir, In spite of all the grief he’d had with her in the last ten months, he knew she was basically a good ship. With minor changes, she could fly the spaceways for scores of years yet.
         But those minor changes would cost money. One hundred thousand solars would put her in top shape, would give her the new pre-heating pressure-differential fuel pumps with their lack of moving parts, a factor which made present-day rockets the most efficient of all machines, pumps which would increase her exhaust velocity and enable her to carry more; would give her new brains and nerves of wiring and calculating machinery which reduced human error to an absolute minimum; would give her the new, lighter, molar-transfer air system; would give her, in toto, a fresh start.
         That was her next skipper’s worry. Garver was happy. She’d served him well; she’d gotten him home.
         The only thing that really fretted him was the fact that this trip was probably the Fafnir’s last also. Nobody wants to put one hundred thousand solars into a newly-purchased ship before he can get it to lift. Vanderhoff’s only customer would probably be the junk dealer.
         He hated to see any ship scrapped, even one which had nearly killed him. Spaceships were individuals to him; no one likes to see an old friend destroyed because he is no longer of any use. He was attached to the Fafnir, and he hated to see her go.

         Garver sat and took it all in. Somehow, he was a little sorry he’d left, but he was settled now. He wouldn’t have to worry about cash the way business was growing. But he grew nostalgic. His mind’s eye saw New Dallas (on Ganymede) again with its wide open bars and wild frontier life. He remembered the sparkling of the dovar screens as the ship rode with the drift through the asteroids. He could almost see the cold, dark sky of Luna and feel the powerful, bone-crushing, body-flattening push of high-g.
         He wouldn’t admit to himself that he missed it all.
         It got too much for him, though. He couldn’t sit around and attend to the routine of running the restaurant any longer. On the pretense of dropping up to see Vanderhoff in Las Cruces, he stopped by White Sands.
         The desert was flat and the sun was hot. Traffic on the roads was heavy with the bustling activity of the big port. Hundreds upon hundreds of tall ships and orange gantrys reared up out of the flatness of the Basin. In the main port building, he noted by the board that the Scopas was lifting shortly. He went out to watch her.
         She was a big ship, four hundred feet of beautiful, sleek metal symmetry. Too high for a gantry, she was serviced by four tall towers with large cable cars running like bosun’s chairs to her locks and hatches. Her crew had already cast all but one of these loose by the time he got there. Taking up a position on the ramp of the control building a mile away, he watched her get ready to go.
         There was power in every inch of her lines, from the pointed nose down along her slim sides to the gaping orifices of her jets. She was one of the most efficient machines ever devised by man, a machine which allowed him to defy the gravity holding him to his world and allowed him to exercise dominion over the tiny dust-motes in space around a small star. To mankind, it was a tremendous achievement.
         Garver had once been part of that.
         The bull horn on the tower boomed, “Minus-15 minutes! All hands clear the areal” The siren began to howl. Men and machines scurried away from the ship, looking like insects in comparison with her huge bulk. Red-green lights winked on around the area.
         The minutes dragged by. Garver felt the old excitement welling within him. Then, the green lights winked out, leaving only a circle of red ones about the ship and on the tower.
         The Scopas suddenly came alive. Fire burst from her stern, lifting the desert sands in swirling eddies. It took her a moment to move. Then she balanced on a solid pillar of fire so white it hurt his eyes. She was as high as her own length.
         He cupped his hands over his eyes to see her better in the bright sun. The noise struck him. It was a solid wall of sound. He doubled over instinctively, as though he’d been punched hard in the stomach by a monster fist. As he watched, that tremendous thing as high as a forty-story building climbed up into the blue with gaming speed, leaving a hundred-foot trail of flame behind it.
         He had spent years in space. He’d watched hundreds of them go up. But he never got over the awesome feeling of the horrible power of those ships. No one ever does. It is an emotional experience that cannot be equalled by anything else.
         She was gone. The rippling thunder of her departure finally died, leaving nothing but the vapor trail to show where she had been.

         On the way back in, the road led him by the original blockhouse and launching area of White Sands. It stood now as a monument and museum of those days when men longed for the planets and sought them with the pitifully small chemical-fuelled rockets. He stopped for a look. He hadn’t seen the place for years. The old blockhouse was just the way it had been the day the first rocket had left from Luna, leaving her boosters and steps in the desert and the Gulf of Mexico. The racks of electronic gear in the firing room were ancient, bulky, and long outmoded. Through the small slit windows with their ten-inches of glass he could see only a portion of the launching area, although the periscopes offered a somewhat better view. He wondered what the men had been like who’d sat in here and fired those old blowtorches. He wondered what they’d thought as they fired that first one at Luna with a barely adequate load of fuel. Had any of them known what they were ushering in and what a tremendous boon to mankind the frontier in the sky would be? In the communications room he looked at the plotting board where they had watched the boosters and steps fall Earthward in streaks of red grease pencil.
         Outside, the little gantry still stood over the firing pit. Sitting on the firing table beneath it was Betsy, the old V-2 war rocket which had never gone up. They painted her each year now to keep her from rusting.
         On her south fin was a small brass plate:

    as fired at White Sands Proving Ground
    1946-1951 A. D.
    The first rocket with pumps and
    the ancestor of the spaceship.
    Ad Astra per Aspera.

         He turned and walked away. A mile ahead of him was an orange gantry crane and the Fafnir. Her sides were streaking with rust now, but she stood tall and straight and proud, rearing high over the desert boondocks.
         Then he knew he belonged here. This was his life and always would be. Somehow, some way, he must live it. He had to go back into space — had to. He couldn’t live his life cooped up on this tiny planet, eternally chained to her by her gravity. He’d been kidding himself all along. He’d thought he could change. He couldn’t. He knew he never would. This is what he’d always wanted to do.
         Thousands of men had lived for the very thing he’d done, had given their lives to put a rocket on the Moon, had sweated on the hot, dry desert of New Mexico to throw a V-2 a hundred miles into the sky, had been laughed at as fanatics, had lived and breathed and talked and dreamed rockets all their lives. Men like Oberth, Ley, Winkler, Goddard, and those who had followed in their footsteps, sharing the dream, believing — knowing it could be done and would be done.
         He didn’t bother to wipe the tears from his eyes. He had to go back.

         “I’ll make you a deal,” Garver put in quickly. “You were complaining that you were going stir-crazy for lack of something to do, right?” “Right.”
         “I have an answer. You’ve got the Fafnir, and I've got the Traveler’s Tavern. Want to swap?”

         “All right, Garv, you want to go back.” The old free trader pointed his cigar at him. “But tell me this: how are you going to make it pay? That was the main reason I had to leave. I’d have kept going otherwise until I dropped dead on the deck. My family have been traders and merchants and merchantmen skippers ever since the Fifteenth Century. I grew up with the ledgers and warehouses and exchanges all around me — and I couldn’t make it pay! How do you propose to do it as a free trader? ”
         “You made a mistake,” Garver pointed out bluntly. “You grew up with the businessmen who had been chained to Terra for centuries. They had no more conception of interplanetary trade than the average man on the street does today. I grew up with the ships that ply the routes between the planets. I know interplanetary commerce from all its varied angles. Sure, a ferryboat skipper can’t see how transoceanic steamers can make a profit with their tremendous investment, long voyages, and changing markets. With the same token, the terrestrial businessman has trouble visualizing a profit when he can’t ship forty tons by sky freight and get it there in a matter of hours. It’s all a matter of viewpoint. Van, I’ve shipped for years with free traders who could and did make it pay! ”

         The Fafnir was ready to go again. She stood out starkly white in contrast to her gantry. Gone were the streaks of rust; her skin was welded and hammered out and painted. Her insides were clean and re-organized. The jets had been lined with R-26, the new refractory material, and were fed by pre-heating pressure-differential fuel pumps. Winch Astrabadi, whom Garver had hauled off the Asgard shuttle, had put in the new dovar which was hidden in the radomes bulging out from the hull, and had helped Harvey Bemotte rewire the entire ship.

         Thirty-three minutes later, Vanderhoff stood statuelike outside the control tower and watched the Fafnir lift. This time the old Fire-breathing Dragon lifted true, straight, and fast.
         Up and out the Fafnir drove, her steel heart singing with the sounds of well-functioning machinery, carrying Rod Carver out to his destiny. Every man has only one destiny, and he shapes that during his life by the things he likes and the things he does and the places he goes.
         Carver vaguely remembered the words written by another man in another century:
         “... And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by ...”
         He had his ship and he had all the stars in the universe shining through that porthole as the Fafnir reached cut-off.

         In every age, in every time, there have been those who are not content to settle down. They miss the kick of the wheel, the wail of the wind in the rigging, the exotic sights and smells of a harbor half across the world, the roar of engines cutting through the slipstream, and the powerful, body-shaking thunder of the jets. It is to these restless men with the wanderlust that the human race owes a priceless debt as the wanderers push the horizons out to the stars—

    (ed note: story can be found online here)

    From ...AND A STAR TO STEER HER BY by Lee Correy aka G. Harry Stine (1953)

    (ed note: in the year 2050, our heros are members of the Southwestern Rocket Society (SRS) fan club. The fans want to travel in space in the worst way, but civilians are not allowed to fly in their own ships.

    On a field trip to Luna Louis' rocket junkyard they are stunned to find the space ship Absyrtis sitting in the lot. As it turns out that ship was Mr. Louis' last command when he was in the UN Space Force, and when the ship was decommissioned he managed to obtain it at scrap metal prices.

    Club president Chubb Delany has an insane idea. He tells Mr. Louis that the club would love to refurbish the old ship, and fly it on a short hop to Luna. With Mr. Louis as captain.

    Mr. Louis says if the club will promise that, he will give the ship to them free, along with any used rocket parts in the lot needed for the refurbishing.)


    UN Space Force interplanetary cruiser, missile launching, universal type, Argonaut Class

    The space ship Absyrtis of the Argonaut Class saw twenty-two years of service as a ship of the UN Space Force line fleet, and an additional five years in support and reserve capacity. She was a member of the fleet which put down the Asgard Space Station Rebellion. After her modification to an express cargo vessel, she was instrumental in the sustenance of the outposts and colony on Venus. Subsequent modifications enabled her to serve the Jovian moons. She operated as a support ship in the Titan expedition to Saturn, but obsolescence forced her to confine her operations to the Earth-Luna area in which she served in many capacities until being mothballed and placed in circum-terrestrial orbit. She was finally returned to White Sands Spaceport, sealed, decommissioned, and left to stand for two years before being sold to a local salvage yard.

    She was the first ship to bear the name and the last of her class to be decommissioned and removed from the Big Book. Her reliability earned for herself and her crews three ratings of excellence, two efficiency awards, a UN citation, numerous national commendations, and the International Astronautical Federation plaque in connection with her work in the Jovian moons area.

    • Manufacturer: Hueco Spacecraft Inc., White Sands Spaceport, America, Terra.
    • Commissioned: May 2018

         “Have you, now?” Louis said quizzically. “And how do you like the farce space flight is now?”
         “Farce?” Chubb echoed.
         “Farce, son. They’re too sloppy these days. It’s too easy. Automatic controls. Nuclear drives. There was a time when space flight was an art! Yes, sir An art! Not button pushing! Used to load her up with thermo-propellants, hit the firing button when the clock said so, and fly her by the seat of your pants and the astrostat! All the time wondering if she was going to blow! … That was space flight! Pilots, they call themselves! Bah! Bus drivers is what they arel” He settled back in his chair and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Now, in the good old days, it was different. Take the old Absyrtis back there on my lot …”
         The junk yard was old stuff to Chubb, but LeRoy was utterly amazed at the terrific amounts of junk of all types. As the old skipper led them out to where the Absyrtis towered seventy meters over the low sheds, the real estate man found himself making mental estimates of the combined worth of this desert land and the tremendous inventory on it. It was plain to see that Luna Louis was not a down-and-out old spacebum. “Captain, there seems to be a little bit of everything here. How’d you come by it all?”
         “Ships are scrapped all the time, mate,” Louis replied.
         “Why? Do they wear out?”
         “No, sir! They just get obsolete,,and it becomes cheaper to build a new ship than to modify the old one,” Luna Louis explained. “The Bureau of Space Commerce has some pretty strict rules about the condition of space craft; when a ship reaches a certain age, they usually down-check it on principle …”
         “How’s that?”
    “They figure it’s old enough that if something hasn’t happened to it yet, it will. But with a little decent maintenance and repair, a space ship’s good for over a hundred years … and a power plant’s good for a lot longer than that because its operating time is only a fraction of that of its ship.” Louis paused for a moment. “Of course, we get a good deal of equipment from wrecked or damaged ships. Got one lad who does nothing but sit up on the roof with a pair of binoculars watching for ships that don’t make the grade …” He let it drop at that because they had reached the boat-tail of the Absyrtis.     Chubb stopped to catch his breath and looked up. In addition to the rust streaking her sides, there was no doubt that this ship was old. The tall, slim, almost regal lines were not those of a modern ship. Modern ships looked efficient; they were. The Absyrtis was merely beautiful, a work of art, the result of a designer with a sense of line and sweep and proportion who had labored over his drawing boards doing work which he must have loved. It was reflected starting from the parabola of revolution of her nose cone down her sleek, unbroken sides to the graceful curve of her boat-tail with its six gaping thrust chambers, and in the swallow-like profile of her drooping wings. It belonged to another day of space flight.
         “Shipped many a ton of lunar ore in this bucket,” Louis said in recollection. “But she was a bitch to handle under thrust. Shake? Man, she’d shake your teeth right out! And the center of pressure would tend to wander forward of the center of gravity if you didn’t watch the mass distribution. Let’s go aboard.” He grabbed a rope ladder hanging down the side of the ship and clambered spryly aloft with an agility which amazed Chubb and LeRoy.
         LeRoy followed and Chubb waited until the other had gained the lock high on the ship before he entrusted his full weight to the ropes. He didn’t look down; if he had, he would have frozen to the ladder with vertigo. He kept his eyes aloft and climbed steadily, hand-foot-hand-foot. He was out of breath when he stepped through the air lock and looked around.
         The tour of the old ship was fascinating. Chubb’s eyes were alight the entire time. It was like a childhood dream come true. It brought up memories entombed by the years and Chubb remembered the toy spaceships which looked like the Absyrtis and the drawings he had hopefully sent to the Space Force at White Sands, crude sketches of a “Sooper Space Combat Rocket”. And there were forgotten memories of a chubby little boy playing spaceman in that pile of boxes in the back yard, dreaming of a space ship the image of which was the Absyrtis.
         Just being in her gave him a feeling of satisfaction he had not experienced for years. Feeling the cold metal of her companionways and smelling the ancient, musty odors of far-off worlds which still lingered in her made him suddenly realize with a pang of sorrow and regret that this could have been his—could have, if he had had a different gene makeup (Chubb's genetic makeup predisposes him to be overweight, not allowed in space crews).
         The Absyrtis was far from a complete space ship. Most of the power plant essentials were missing, the electronics had been stripped, and there were no astrogation instruments. The Absyrtis had seen hand tools, but not a cutting torch.
         “Give her just a few essentials and she’s ready to lift,” Louis remarked, sitting down on an acceleration couch in the barren, echoing control room far forward in the nose. “Many’s the time I’ve sweated it out on this couch, mates. But this old bucket never failed me. A taut, reliable old ship she was. After we converted her to thermo-juice, she saw Mars and Venus and Ganymede. Bailey took her out to Titan once after I got stuck on dirt for keeps. But she knows her way into Dianaport by heart; hardly have to lay a finger on the board for a landing. She just sniffs her way in.”
         “What are you going to do with her, skipper?” Chubb ventured to ask.
         “She’s the last of her kind, mate. The pure-nuclear ships have taken over now. And a new kind of spaceman is flying them. We’re both obsolete, so she stays here with me. Oh, maybe one of these days I’ll get me a red-hot crew together. We may not get high enough to crash, but we’ll still get oft the ground again. The regulation hounds will try to stop us, but to hell with them! It’s a sad thing, mates, when the laws won’t let a man do what he wants or even kill himself as long as he doesn’t hurt anybody else in the process.” The old man’s eyes were on the empty holes in the control panels where instruments, lights, and switches should have been.

    (ed note: Mr. Louis takes them up on their offer. In exchange for refurbishing the Absyrtis and keeping Louis as captain, he will give them the ship for free)

         Refitting the Absyrtis turned out to be quite a task. The old ship lacked more than was apparent on a cursory inspection. As a result, Chubb closed the doors to his consulting office in order to devote his full energies to the project.
         So he moved in with Luna Louis, sharing the old bachelor’s quarters with him. It was far from being luxurious, but Chubb was having the time of his life. He didn’t really care where he slept or when he ate; he had his hands on a space ship at last.
         Louis turned out to be less senile than any of them expected. He seemed to snap out of his dreamy moods. The transition was strange to behold. Once again, he stood straight and his voice carried the tone of authority and casual competence. His eyes became alert, and his mind sharpened like a rusty knife edge that has been put to the whetstone at long last.
         The youngsters of the SRS were by far the most persistent at the work site. They came in droves on Friday afternoon and stayed on the job until Monday morning when they dragged back across the desert to classes or to their jobs. Many of them came out during the week to perform the many tasks at hand.
         Their first job was a complete and minute inspection of the ship as she stood. No manuals on the Argonaut Class could be found, but Luna Louis turned out to be a man of remarkable memory.
         “Hey, skipper, this valve seat mikes a tenth of a millimeter less than the blade. What gives here?” LeRoy called from the power room on the temporary intercom Bert Eggstrom had rigged.
         Louis answered from the forward radar blister, “Where did it come from?”
         “The feed heater just abaft of the forward tank bay.”
         “That sounds about right, Mister Finch. What’s the condition of the seat and gland packing?”
         “Packing’s shot. But how can this valve seal?”
         “Don’t worry about it. It gets hot in that forward feed heater. Thermal expansion of the seat causes that valve to seal tighter than your old britches. Get the part number off that valve, and we’ll see if maybe I’ve got some packing for it. Pull the whole valve and take it down to the shop.”
         “Right-o, skipper!”
         “Hey, skipper?” Chubb’s voce echoed up the main ship well. “Got a minute?”
         Louis turned to the youngster who was working in the blister with him. “Yank that sweep selsyn, Jimmy. The rotor’s shot. I think maybe one of the units from that old Mark Fourteen radar out in the yard will fit. Don’t bother with those cap screws; knock it loose with a hammer, because you’ll have to drill and tap new holes anyway."
         “How about these waveguide junctions, skipper?”
         “Put the torque wrench to them. They’ll warp back,” the old skipper told him, handing him his tools and crawling out of the little hatch into the main portion of the ship. Wiping the sweat from his neck with a piece of waste, he yelled down the well, “Up here, mate!”
         Chubb came puffing up the ladder from below. “Here’s a survey of the equipment in the boat-tail, skipper.”
         Leafing slowly through the sheaf of papers handed to him, Louis mused, “Not as bad as I expected.”
         “What do you mean, skipper? Half the structural members back there are bent, broken, or missing! Engineering-wise, it’s flimsy as a paper bag!”
         “And just what do you know about space ship structures, Mister Delany?” Louis asked sarcastically. “The tail of this bucket was grossly over-designed. We ripped out those members years ago to make room for the thermo-juice drive.” He handed the papers back to Chubb and told him, “Take them down and give them to that gal who’s doing the consolidation. I’ve got most of these missing parts—or something that will do the job.”
         “Check, skipper. Tank bays and radars are the only lists we need now. Maybe we’d better start thinking about moving the ship out to a launching pad.”
         “Why move her?”
         “A fine “engineer you are! What would the costs be? I've got the parts, the shops, and the tools right here.”
         Chubb thought about this. “You mean refit and lift from here?
         “Is there a better place?”
         “But it’ll wreck your yard when we lift, skipper.”
         “So it will. But once we raise ship, mate, I’ll not be needing this yard any longer.”
         Chubb stared at him for a moment, then quietly went out the hatch and clambered down the hastily-rigged servicing tower. A month ago, he would have paled at the thought of hanging on a slender ladder fifty meters up. He had in fact done so. But it didn’t bother him now, and he was in much better physical shape. It was a matter of pride to him that he had managed to lose five kilos.
         Wandering back through the yard toward the hut they were using for an office, he noticed the change in Luna Louis’ junk yard. Old tools had been ressurected from the heaps, cleaned up, and placed in sheds. Under a ragged tarpoline, three youths were hydrostating valves and pressure vessels; beside them was a jury-rigged flow bench. Farther down the line, he passed a leaning shack in which Bert and several other men were working over old radar gear. A sign over the door proudly announced, “Department of Witchcraft and Sorcery. Slightly Used Pentacles and Klystrons For Sale.”

         “What’s that part number again?” the clerk behind the supply counter asked, turning his head to catch Chubb’s words.
         Chubb repeated the list of numbers.
         With an efficient flip of his wrist, the clerk swung the top off the locator keyboard and punched the numbers into the system with practiced, easy speed. When the machine failed to deliver a card indicating the availability and location of the parts in the bins, his bored look changed to one of surprise. He punched again, using a different code. This time, the card flopped out announcing “Unavailable in present stock. Part numbers unknown. Check visual catalogue.” With a wrinkled brow, the clerk did so, flipping quickly through a large bound volume on the desk. He finally looked up and exclaimed, “Great Scott, mister! We haven’t stocked that servo unit for years!”
         “Got any ideas where I can get it?”
         Looking puzzled, the clerk browsed through his tremendous catalogue, then looked up and said, “It was made by Midwest Electronics. They folded up shop five years ago; the dies were probably scrapped. A boneyard is your best bet. Have you tried, Luna Louis down by Soledad Canyon?”
         “He hasn’t got it.”
         “Then you’re just beating your gums, friend.”
         “Anything I can substitute that’ll meet the specs?”
         “Buddy, that stuff was four-hundred-cycle gear. Nobody makes it any more; they’ve all gone to pulsed-power.”

         "Mate, where did you get those draftsmen?” Luna Louis asked, indicating the drawing he held in his hand. “They’d make better cartoonists! How do you expect the boys in the shop to make those obsolete parts from drawings like this?”
         “Look, skipper,” Chubb came back on the defense, “those boys are just college kids. They’re doing design engineering on parts and equipment that’s been out-of-date for years. The original parts aren’t even around for them to get dimensions and tolerances from! How’d you like to by making working drawings for an old reciprocating automobile engine after being told only how it worked?”

         It took five long months filled with scrounging for old parts, digging around in junk yards all over North America, and draining of funds. Chubb’s savings were long gone. Luna Louis had converted everything he could to cash. Al Olson, being independently wealthy, kept the project on its feet.
         Everybody worked their hearts out. There were long hours. There were the inevitable minor accidents. There were daily crises which threatened to wreck the whole thing. Louis had his hands more that full working with a very green crew. Everybody made mistakes—but nobody made the same one twice. But the day finally arrived when they could start making dry runs of the ship and her equipment.
         The old Absyrtis didn’t look the same at all, Sporting a new coat of brown and yellow paint—a purposely difierent color and marking scheme than that used anywhere else —she was practically a new ship inside and out.
         Chubb stood surveying her in the late afternoon sunlight, taking a break in his schedule for a cigarette. Yes, every one of the hundreds of men and boys who had worked on her could take real pride in her now, he knew. A few more checks, radioactive bricks for her reactor, and propellants were all she needed—plus a trained crew.
         Olson was out pulling the legal strings for the reactor bricks. Chubb had no idea how they were going to be pried loose from the Bureaus of Nuclear Energy, but Al had assured him that there would be no trouble.
         The propellants? Well, Chubb was expecting ten tank cars into El Paso any day. There was no problem there. The “go-juice” for which the Absyrtis had been designed was a commercially-available chemical which would release its energy by thermo-catalytic action. It was cheap, but it was no longer used for space flight.
         The rocket engine is a basically useful device. Rocket engineers found this out many, many years before when they became aware that the military subsidies following the Second World War might not last forever. A rocket can do more than push. It can generate tremendous volumes of gas. It is an essential device for high-speed, high-temperature chemistry. And the jet of hot gases man dig holes. In the open-pit copper and iron mines all over the world, the snarl of rocket engines was a common thing as their exhausts dug holes faster and more economically than the best carbide bits.
         The crew was his only real worry. He knew they were still green as grass, himself included. Space Commander McLaughlin had been right on one point: you don’t learn it all out of the books. Some people had picked up Louis’ training with little effort; others just couldn’t understand the difference between a fitting and a flange or between a selsyn and a klystron, no matter how high their enthusiasm had been.
         “All hands clear the ship!” Louis’ voice came from a portable megaphone from the lock high on the side of the ship. “Stand clear for pressurizing and water-flow checks!”
         Chubb was joined by Bert, who was handling the electronics and had no part in this check of the propulsion system. “Ran the final checks on the radar today, Chubb. That doppler system is all hot to go. Same with the guidance and control.”
         “Good! Did you get the running rabbits off the surveilance screens?”
         “Yeah, found a mis-matched waveguide in the antenna system. How’s Greg doing with the air system?”
         “Had chlorogel all over Deck D the last I saw him,” Chuhb replied. “Sprung a leak in the irradiation chambers.”
         “Tough luck.”
         “He’ll get it fixed. He’s good.” Chubb watched the silent ship for a moment, then asked, “Say, Bert, maybe it’s none of my business, but how come a sharp electronic engineer like you never got into space in the first place?”
         “Oh,” Bert said offhandedly, “eyes for one thing. Plus the fact I’m a lunger.”
         “T-B? You don’t look like it!”
         “Hell, man, I’ve only got one lung—and that’s full of calcification. Why do you think I came to this country? Same reason as Greg: climate.”
         Great space! Chubb thought. What a crew this ship’s got! Greg with arthritis, Bert with one lung, LeRoy with a heart, and the skipper ripe for the grave! And me, twenty kilos overweight!
         “Stand by to pressurize!” came the call from the ship. Through the thick hull of the Absyrtis the two men on the ground heard the slam of valves and the high-pitched, ringing hiss of pressurized gas filling the propellant tanks.
         Nothing ruptured; the tanks held their pressure.
         “What are they doing?” Bert wanted to know.
         “We’ve got a dummy propellant load of water in the tanks,” Chuhb explained, rocking back on his heels with his arms on his hips. “They’ve pressurized to detect leaks and to see if the system will hold pressure. Next they’ll pop the main propellant valves and run the water out through the rocket nozzles to check flow rates and pressure drops.”
         “How can they run the propellant pumps without the reactor to drive them?”
         “They won't need the pumps. LeRoy and the skipper just want flow characteristics. They know what effect the pumps will have and they … Hold it! There they go!”
         It was quite a show. A terrific roar came from the stem of the ship, but no flame lashed out. Instead, the rocket nozzles sprayed solid streams of water which ran off onto the desert sands in a small flood. Thousand of gallons of water spewed out before the flood suddenly ceased with a bang and a hammering sound.
         “Wow! I’ll bet that shut-down opened a dozen joints!” Chubb took off across the desert like a huge ballon being driven before a gale.
         The power room was a mess when he climbed into it. LeRoy and his crew were trying to tighten fittings and stem the gush of water. There was still considerable water remaining in the tanks. Everybody was soaking wet. Chubb grabbed a box wrench, snugged up a leaking fitting, and shouted to LeRoy “Vents open?”
         “Hell, yes! Get that flange tight before we drown!”
         “Open your dump valves and drain those tanks! You’ll never get these fitting tight with ten meters of hydraulic head on them”
         LeRoy leaped for the jetman’s couch and threw switches. “Electrical system’s shorted out by water! Open that hand valve next to you, Chubb!”
         Once the situation was under control, Chubb—looking like a water-loogged whale—sat down on an auxiliary generator and observed. “I thought you guys knew this power room. What a sad show! What would you have done in a real emergency?”
         “Run like hell,” LeRoy returned sarcarstically, implying that Chubb would have done no better with the flow-checks. He opened the power room lock and uncapped the scuppers to allow the water to drain out. Then he suddenly sat down in a puddle on the floor.
         “What’s wrong, chum?” Chubb asked anxiously.
         “The old ticker,” LeRoy gasped. “Too much excitement.”
         Chubb lifted him under the armpits and deposited him on the jetman’s couch. “You stay put. I’ll clean up this mess. When you feel better, go home for the rest of the day.”
         “I’ll be all right,” LeRoy objected.
         “They all say that. Take care of yourself or you won’t be in any shape to make the jump.”
         It took Chubb and the crew of young college kids a good hour to clean up and get started on the loose fittings and flanges. They were hard at it when Luna Louis dropped cat-like through the hatch.
         “Mate, better heave-to and seal ship,” he cracked. ‘Weather coming up.”
         Dropping his Wrench, Chubb stepped to the hatch and looked out. Far across the Tularosa Basin a tremendous thunderhead had a torrent of rain streaming out of it like a skirt. And rolling across the sandy wastes, obscuring space ships and buildings, was a huge, turbulent wall of sand and dust kicked up by the thundersquall.
         “We’ll get winds out of that,” Louis warned, peering at the brown wall and the rain behind it. "I want everybody out of the ship. Empty as it is, it just may take a notion’ to topple”
         “Bring me some cable, skipper,” Chubb broke in. “I’ll throw some guy lines on the ship and anchor it.”
         “We haven’t got time! And they might not hold anyway if the ship started to go,” Louis snapped. “Shake a leg here!” He disappeared upward through the hatch.
         It took Chubb less than five minutes to get the locks and hatches closed. Ignoring Chubb’s orders, LeRoy climbed down into the boat-tail and installed a sealing diaphram in each nozzle throat.
         The wind and dust hit them ten minutes later. It howled and screamed around the ship and loading tower. Then it rained.
         It rained like Chubb had never seen it rain before. It was almost impossible to walk through it. Sheet after sheet of water hammered against the galvinized side of the hut in which they’d taken refuge. The rocky sand became rocky mud, and the water began to run in racing rivulets across the desert.
         It rained for two hours—a solid, wind-driven rain. The rivulets grew to flowing streams of water and then to raging flash floods.
         “Louis!” Chubb pointed out, yelling over the roar of the rain thundering against the shed. “The ship’s right in the middle of it!”
         “The water’s undercutting the concrete slab! She'll topple!” LeRoy yelled.
         A bolt of lightning arched down outyof the storm with a sharp crack, spearing the conical nose of the Absyrtis. Radar and communications antennas sparkled with glow discharge.
         “LeRoy, round up some men!” Chubb shouted. “Skipper, where do you keep those long lengths of two-centimeter cable? Can you dig up some railroad rail we can drive into the ground to anchor guy lines to?”
         “Stay off that ship, mate! She’s being hit!”
         "To hell with it! We’ll lose the ship otherwise! Get me that cable! I’ll anchor it topside!”
         “You crazy hoot-owl! Stay here!” Luna Louis roared.
         “Skipper, don’t you understand? We'll lose the ship! The water’s undercutting the slab! She’ll topple!”
         “Let it topple! I’d rather lose the ship than lose lives! Stay here!
         But Chubb was gone.

    (ed note: The ship is saved, but...)

         The Absyrtis was canted over at a five-degree angle, and that was that. Chubb and Luna Louis surveyed the situation the next morning and came to the conclusion that any attempt to right the ship might cause her to fall even farther. The only answer was to secure the ship in its present position and proceed. Taking LeRoy’s suggestion, they fastened quick-release clamps on the guys, then promptly safetied them against accidental release.
         The rest of the check-outs on the “Leaning Tower of White Sands”—the name hung on the ship by Greg Shearer —went off more or less as scheduled. They weren’t all successful at first. Bert Eggstrom was the only one who didn’t have more than his share of troubles, but he had them nonetheless. The communication gear worked like a charm, and Bert was very proud the night he logged his first contact with Asgard Space Station as it went over. The computer and the autopilot finally made four consecutively successful dry runs. He had trouble with the radar; instead of tracking the high-flying evening antipodal rocket as intended, it locked onto a flight of ducks migrating south. But it tracked.
         LeRoy kept on finding leaks, sticky valves, broken welds, and loose nuts everywhere. Most of his trouble was with a very green crew. The college students working for him did extremely well, but he had trouble with other kinds of people. Imagine trying to teach a dry-goods salesman how to run a smooth weld.

         Greg Shearer was having trouble with the air system, the water recovery system, and the hatches and locks. Being a bachelor like Chubb, he didn’t have the same kind of trouble LeRoy was having, but he had trouble enough nonetheless.
         He had recruited every member of the SRS who would work and who had, like himself, a green thumb and a knowledge of organic and catalytic chemistry. On the first pressure test, gaskets leaked all over the place, but the worst part came when Greg replaced the standard air with the oxy-helium space mix from the air system. It drove everybody choking from the ship. The ship air from the blowers smelled something like a cross between a garbage dump, a stable, and a locker room. In disgust, he and his crew had to replace every bit of chlorogel solution in the system—while wearing respirators.
         In addition, the ship’s water came out a putrid brown for five days while he fiddled with the old and finnicky water recovery system.
         He was still working with it when Luna Louis came around with Chubb for a final inspection on the refitting. Louis inspected the ship with a critical eye, finding things that nobody expected. He suggested here, corrected there, bawled out ninety-percent of the crew for blunders and oversights, but finally pronounced the ship as ready as it ever would be for final checks, provisioning, and space.
         It should have been a day of rejoicing, but for Chubb it was one of anxiety. During the quiet evening hours after supper when everybody sat around listening to Luna Louis spin old space tales of faraway worlds, Chubb could not keep his mind off the subject.
         The final check of the ship would require that the reactor be activated. This meant heavy water (moderator) and thorium, and as far as he was concerned that might take an act of God to get. The Bureau of Nuclear Power didn’t pass that kind of stuff around like tin pennies.

         They went in the personnel hatch. The interior of the ship was considerably different than it had been the day they had first walked her decks. New paint glistened on the bulkheads, and the smell of oil and solvents and men was in her again. After going up the main ship well, they emerged into the control room. The new pastahide cushions on the couches shone in the light of the resurrected flouro-units, and the gaping holes in the panels had been filled with instruments, gauges, switches, and winking lights. The computer rack now held a small electronic brain which was capable of flying the ship; Bert had managed to pick it up from Space Force surplus and had rebuilt it. It was capable of reading-in data in any number of ways: from sensing elements in the ship, from ground radio commands, from control panel commands, and from a self-programming keyboard. Its read-out was equally as versatile. Bert regarded it as being several grades smarter than any of the SRS men working on the ship.
         “About time you showed up,” Louis remarked caustically. “Grab a cup of joe and sit down. You might favor me by pouring me another cup while you’re at it. Can’t operate without coffee.” Luna Louis, true to Space Force tradition, had set up three indispensable things immediately on the Absyrtis; in order they were a coffee mess, a loudspeaker system, and a wardroom of division officers who really ran things.

         “It has to be that way, Mister Olson,” Louis pointed out. He took a long swig of coffee and went on, “And now we have a slight logistics problem: thorium and heavy water. What do you have to report on that, Mister Olson?”
         “It’s on its way. Be here tomorrow.”
         Chubb sat up and knocked his head against the bottom of the couch above. “Along with the BSC boys who will promptly hang a red tag on the lock?”
         Al Olson smiled knowingly. “Not yet. It seems the UN once passed a Nuclear Energy Act which has been on the books since 2005. It guarantees the delivery of available radioactive substances to non-profit organizations utilizing it for other than commercial purposes. After a little talk with the BNP (Bureau of Nuclear Power) Regional Director in Albuquerque, the way was paved.”
         “What did it cost?” Bert wanted to know.
         “It’s still BNP property under consignment lease to us,” Al replied.

         Luna Louis had to supervise the installation of the thorium and heavy water. The current BNP manuals possessed by the two men did not include the procedure for the Argonaut Class, the reactor being a long-obsolete model. This caused Chubb to ask Louis anxiously, “Skipper, are you sure this old reactor has enough soup to lift this ship?”
         “Mate,” Louis said huffily, “if the engineers hadn’t decided to go to the pure nuclear drive, they’d still be using this type of reactor. This old Mark Seven’s a damn-sight more reliable and efiicient per kilogram of mass and has a lower operating count so the ship shielding is lighter. What licked this type of drive years ago was the propellant mass you have to carry … and thermo-juice was more expensive then. The nuclear stuff cost less when they changed over, but this bucket’s flown for twenty years with that fish bowl, and it hasn’t had so much as a pin-hole leak in the heat exchanger. The Baja California power pile can't boast that record, mate!”
         At last, they were ready for the final checks. LeBoy, who had hand-picked his engineering gang, treated the reactor with a great deal of respect now. The power crew started using the particle counters which had been racked at the ready on the power room bulkhead for months. They raised the temperature to a stable plateau capable of running the ship’s generators and of charging the batteries, although ground power was still available to help them out. The other divisions began a gradual phase-over to reactor power but only as an emergency measure.

         The day dawned bright and clear, the New Mexico sun coming up in all its splendor over the Guadalupe Mountains to the east. But the crew of the Absyrtis didn’t notice it; they had been up all night, working in the artificial daylight of floodlamps, checking and re-checking. Some of them noticed it was getting light outside, but it made no impression on them.
         The air around the ship and Luna Louis’ junk yard rang with the tension which was mounting by the minute. There were a million last-minute checks and calibrations to be made, dozens of critical items which had to be taken care of, and scores of temperamental, precise gadgets which had to be watched and watched closely.
         No one was conscious of time save for a moment in the near future that was rushing closer with every tick of the clock and announced in a booming voice over a loud-speaker.
         Luna Louis seemed calm; he wasn’t. Chubb had no time to be nervous; he was kept busy checking on the progress of the division chiefs, and the division chiefs in turn were kept busy seeing to it that every little item was taken care of as stipulated on Louis’ pre-lift check sheet. The old spaceman had compiled a complete manual—the ship’s “cook book” and the crewman’s bible—entirely from memory. No one had grounds to doubt Luna Louis’ memory; he had not been wrong in the past.
         At X-minus one hour, the passengers and their baggage were loaded. Members of the SRS who were not assigned to the crew drew straws among themselves for the berths available on this shake-down cruise. They did not make up the full load the Absyrtis was able to carry; Louis wanted to run light and put extra mass into propellants in case of trouble. And he didn’t want non-working people under foot in what was essentially a new ship.
         The brown and yellow Absyrtis—deliberately painted in those colors to be a striking contrast to the white or silver of the commercial and military vessels—could be seen for miles. No registry number appeared on her spreading, swallow-like wings. This caused a great number of curious passerbys to stop.
         “No, it isn’t that,” Al corrected him. “I expect to go on the next one, which means I trust you’ll get to Dianaport and back without killing yourselves. Besides, I’ve got to stick around and watch the legal end.”
         “Huh? I thought we had that pretty well covered,” Chubb remarked.
         “Is it? Who’s going to look out for the interests of the private spaceman when the issue comes up before the UN? I intend to stick around because the fight isn’t really over yet. I want a private space yacht of my own after I’ve learned the ropes in this ship; but, more important, I want to see space opened up to private exploitation.
         “I’ve got to lay some groundwork, but the next move is up to you. You’ve got to make a successful flight to prove that space travel techniques have progressed to the point where an ordinary person with a limited amount of training can do something that up to now has been the private stomping ground of a bunch of experts.”
         Greg Shearer accompanied the lawyer down to the lock, and then Luna Louis got down to businessn The final briefing was short. “I’m lifting at 5-g. I want to get out of here in a hurry to economize propellant We may need later. Don’t let the noise bother you, and don’t worry about the vibration. This bucket has a resonant structure frequency of twenty-eight cycles.
         “When you hit free fall, remember: don’t panic! If something goes wrong, you’re dead so don’t worry about it. Take your shots when we hit free fall; you must do it in case some of your men need help. Don’t use the emergency procedures unless its absolutely necessary. I trust you on that, but some of your men may get scared; that’s why each of you has a billy club under your couch pads. One man—just one man—can kill us all.”
         He stopped and look around. His eyes were now cold and hard under the visor of his brilliant red baseball cap. “We’ll sweat this first lift, all of us. But remember that the boys who really know how to do it are out there behind that fence watching us. They don't think we have a chance; I think we’ll do all right. Any questions?” There weren’t.

         Gone was the glory. Gone was the thrill. Gone was Chubb’s enthusiasm as he lay there on the co-pilot’s couch chanting off the minutes left until zero time. Sweat was rolling off him in tiny streams although Greg had long since changed to space mix which was cool as it came out of the blower duct.
         Six months ago, a space ship lift had been a wonderful thing to watch. Now, Chubb was beginning to realize it was a terribly deadly game. So much depended on so many little things, and once they were under way, there was no backing out.
         Was that stubborn solenoid valve going to stick? Had he checked that sequence circuit thoroughly enough. Suppose there was an ignition delay which could blow the tail off? Should they have gone to the time and expense of static testing the propulsion system?
         The little relays, the pieces of wire, the lengths of tubing, the bolts and nuts which he had put into this ship Without really thinking about it were now the things which stood between him and death. They had seemed so insignificant and common when he had installed them; they were something more than that now. He had known this feeling before; every engineer is inwardly stupified at the tremendous strength and power of his achievements.
         He was almost ready to call it quits, admit he was a coward, and step out of the lock. But he recalled those agonizing months of hard work refitting this old hulk of a space ship and the terrible moments when they thought they would never make it at all. And he thought of the men in the ship with him, men who had put their hearts and souls into this great adventure, had neglected then professions and deserted their friends. And there were those outside that fence who would give anything they possessed to be inside the Absyrtis at that moment.
         There was LeRoy Finch who didn’t know if his heart could stand the high accelerations. And Greg Shearer, ridden with arthritis, who forced his stiff fingers to do things that were painful to him. And there was Luna Louis.
         “Ten minutes to zero, captain!” he snapped resolutely.
         “Roger, mate! Call all hands to lift stations and report!”
         “All hands, prepare for lift! All divisions report!”
         “Electronics standing by.”
         “Power room ready!”
         “Shipmaster secure!”
         “And co-pilot and astrogation ready! All hands to lift stations and ready for lift, captain!”
         “Very well. Final checks, please. Clear our lift with Traffic!”
         “All boards, Test-Fly to TEST! Perform final checks and report compliance! Electronics, clear with Traffic Control and secure your radar contacts!”
         For the last time, Louis and Chubh ran their final checks. Item by item, they went down the list. Then Chubb said, “Final checks complete in control room, skipper!”
         “Roger,mate!” Louis switched off his intercom and spoke privately to Chubb, “It looks good, mate; it looks good. I think we might make it after all.”
         “Sure, we’ll make it, skipper,” Chubb reassured him as he started the autopilot. He watched the chronometer.
         “Five minutes to zero! Five minutes to zero! Divisions report compliance on checks”
         “Roger from power room!”
         “Roger from electronics!”
         “Roger from shipmaster!”
         “Final checks complete, skipper.”
         Louis’ voice was sharp and raspy as he spoke from his couch, flipping up the safety guards over the switches and carefully adjusting knobs, “Stand by for lift! Red light condition!"
         “Condition red, all hands! All boards, Test-Fly to FLY! Four and one-half minutes to zero!” Chubb snapped.
         “Electronics to FLY!”
         “Power room to FLY!”
         “Shipmaster to FLY!”
         “Ready, captain!”
         Louis flipped a switch. “Key your board!”
         Slipping the key from around his wrist, Chubb inserted it in his board and turned it. “Power room, you may un-lock!”
         “Un-locked in power room! Tanks pressurizing! Reactor heat coming up!”
         “Three and one-half minutes to zero!”
         “Electronics reporting! Radar forward is hunting! Green light from Traffic!”
         “If you can’t fix it, let it hunt!” Louis ordered.
         Chubb took a deep breath and threw a switch, anxiously watching tell-tale lights on the board. “Gyros uncaged and tracking! Autopilot tracking!” he reported with relief. For five hours he had babied those gyros up to speed and held them steady; it had been no easy task to erect and orient them with the ship at a tilt, and even more difficult to adjust their speed precisely so they would not precess.
         “Two minutes to zero!”
         “Steady as she goes, mate,” Louis’ voice came back levelly. “Give me thirty-second counts.” The skipper, the mastermind of the ship operation inside and out, was calm but tense. He held the reins over everything; he was the absolute master at this point, a god in a steel and titanium hull.
         “Ninety seconds to zero!”
         “Reactor to heat! Tanks pressurized! Pumps coming up!”
         “Call up your shaft speeds!” Louis requested.
         “All coming up in synch!” LeRoy’s voice boomed over the interphone. The scream of the pumps could be heard in the background. “Four thousand r-p-m—five thousand— six thousand—seven—eight—steadying—nine thousand… peaked at ninety-four hundred… They’re holding!”
         “Bearing temps and outlet pressures?” Louis was vitally interested in the performance of the pumps. They were the only mechanically moving parts in the propulsion system.
         “Normal!—Pump Five just dropped a hundred!—There it comes back!”
         They could feel it in the control room now. Those six large staged-centrifigal pumps turning over as they would shake the most solid of structures. The vibration was a piercing, pulsing scream from the deck plates, bulkheads, and overheads.
         “Sixty seconds to zero!”
         “Give me aft view on the tv monitor!” the skipper ordered. It was Bert who complied from the electronics compartment below.
         “Forty-five seconds to zero!” Chubb smoothed his coveralls under him, adjusted his panel slightly, and pulled his astrostat hood down to where he could look through its eyepiece while still keeping the panel in view.
         The pumps were shaking the ship in every member.
         “Thirty seconds!”
         “Plugs away! Ship power!” came LeRoy’s high-pitched voice. “Whoa! Port generator just quit!”
         “Switch to emergency!”
         “Emergency batteries on! The inverter’s getting hot!”
         “Fifteen seconds!”
         Chubb felt the skipper should call a hold as he said this last. If the inverter went out, the radar would lose its source of pulsed power, and a ship without radar was blind. But Louis said nothing.
         “Autopilot in command! Seven—six—five—four—”
         His voice was drowned out by a snarling, thundering, rippling, beating universe of noise.

         Chubb never knew there could be so much noise.
         It shook the bulkheads and rattled the deck plates. It bounced Chubb up and down on the couch pads. The mighty thrust of the Absyrtis’ rocket engines hammered at the structure of the ship.
         “Ship is away!” somebody screamed.
         There was a sudden, backsnapping jolt and Chubb knew that the breakaways on the guy lines holding the ship had failed. The lines had merely parted, but two-centimeter steel cable does not give way easily.
         He sneaked a quick glance at the tv monitor, but all he saw was a malestrom of sand, flaming gases, and the litter and sheds of Luna Louis’ junk yard being scattered all over the desert.
         Then the ship really began to shake as the combustion vibration of the rocket engines reinforced and excited the natural resonance of the hull. It jarred Chubb’s teeth even though he Was being compressed into his pads by the force of five gravities of acceleration. Instrument needles were bouncing wildly, so he quit looking at them; he couldn’t see them anyway because he was being shaken so hard.
         He lost all sense of time. After seeming hours, he felt the vibration build up to the point where he had to shut his eyes and hold on with all he had. The increased vibration told him that the ship was passing sonic speed, and that in turn would bring blessed relief from the flooding noise.
         Then there was no sound except the rattle and shake of the ship’s old plates and the thunderous whine of the pumps in the tail. He could hear the scream of the dyna- motors in the electronics compartment aft and the Whistling note of the doppler radar as is climbed up—and up—and up the musical scale until it Was an ear-splitting screech. All of this he heard through a gray haze. He couldn’t breathe; he was pinned to his couch, his heart racing and his anns flattened against their rests. And he knew why high body mass was a disqualifying factor in space flight. His body muscles were no stronger than a lighter man’s, yet they had to support more apparent mass under acceleration.
         The take-offs of the antipodal rockets had been nothing like this! He could feel this in his face, in his bones, in his entrails. With the noise and the acceleration, he felt nearer death than he had ever been. If this doesn’t stop, he thought wildly and dismally, if it doesn’t stop, I’ll die! I can’t stand this much longer! I can’t stand it!
         Whang! Clank! Slam!
         “Cut-off” LeRoy’s voice screamed breathlessly over the interphone.
         There were three more rough jolts, and the force holding him to his couch suddenly disappeared completely. His stomach made a violent attempt to eject itself through his throat, and he convulsed involuntarily. Then his eyes came into focus and a sensation akin to dizziness overcame him. The control room was suddenly over on its side, then upside-down, then right-side-up again. Then his astrostat hood swam upwards in front of him, the panel following it. It began to spin to the right, then stopped and sank toward him.
         But something has gone wrong! was his thought. He still felt weight! They couldn’t be in free-fall!
         Chubb had had limited experience in sub-gravity on the antipodal rocket trips; it was not entirely new to him. It was diiferent, but not new. Before his autonomic nervous system could build up a “storm”, he got a hold of himself. It took a moment for the nystagmus of his eyes to stop. Then he remembered the injection. With practiced movement, he tried to bring his hand to the pocket in the arm rest—and over-shot the mark by a foot. On the second try, he got his fingers firmly around the ampule and gave himself his shot right through his coveralls into his thigh muscles.
         It helped. He gripped the arm rests and shouted into the interphone, “Al! divisions report!”
         “Power room here!” LeRoy’s voice came back.
         Good old LeRoy! Maybe his heart isn't as bad as everybody thought!
         “Power plant in cut-off!” LeRoy Went on. “Pumps running down! Tanks holding pressure! But the reactor heat-exchanger is running too hot! We can’t get it down!”
         “Louis told me that might be normal! Keep your pumps running if you have to! How’s that generator?”
         “Out like a light! But the inverter’s holding! We’re okay. But, buddy, that was rough!”
         “Shipmaster reporting,” Greg called in. “My baliwick’s running. I’ve got a lot of sick passengers and I’m not feeling too chipper myself. Doc Barcarez is giving drop-shots or knock-outs as the case requires.”
         “Electronics Report!” Chubb snapped after a few seconds’ silence. “Bert! Report!”
         Bert’s head appeared instead in the aft hatch. His face was pale and drawn, his dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses giving him a ghostly appearance. There was a cut under his left eye with blood streaming in all directions over his face. “I’ve got a busted intercom,” he reported, “but one of my boys has a busted jaw. Thanks for the billy!”
         Chubb nodded and gulped, moving his hand slowly over to press against his stomach. He salivated freely for a second, then decided he wasn’t going to lose everything after all.
         “Bert Eggstrom will relinquish the command of his division to his senior engineer and report to the control room to assume the duties of the executive officer. Power officer, secure your power room from lift and proceed with underway activities. Electronics, notify White Sands Traffic Control of the situation and have them stand by for my formal report later. We’ll also need some radar fixes very shortly.” He switched off the interphone and turned to Bert. “Set up Program Number Two on the computer and get ready to process data. Move, while I get this star fix!” He pulled the astrostat hood down over his eyes while Bert seated himself before the computer console by the chart desk and began to program the computer.
         He scribbled the star angles on a pad attached to the astrostat and started making a preliminary determination. Actually, it was no star fix, but a sight on Venus, Jupiter, Luna, and Sol for Euler angles of ship attitude. On the short jump to Luna, he would rely heavily on the precision of radar and doppler data. The trajectory was too short and too simple for him to bother with stellar methods.
         He finished his calculations to find Bert hovering near him. “Does is check?” the new first mate asked.
         “Looks good. I think we can live with it.”
         “Computer’s ready. Bob Danforth's taken over below for me and has the radar data ready.”
         When they all showed up-some of them looking half-dead—Chubb was still running the computer. He checked the answer and satisfied himself with it, then set the device up to run a continuous program of trajectory by presenting x-, y-, and z-plots on three chart recorders.

    (ed note: sadly Mr. Louis dies on the way up. But with a smile on his face as he finally goes home.)

         He took a swig of the hot coffee from the bag Greg had brought up and turned to face his officers.
         “I assumed command,” he began, "because Luna Louis appointed me executive officer with the knowledge I might have to do it. I have no better qualifications for the job than any of you. But three thousand years of naval tradition, reinforced by recent precedents in space, are in point here. So my assumption of command is not subject to vote—until we hit dirt at any rate. Then the Society can kick me out if they like.
         “But I’ll still have to rely on your support until then. We’ve lost Louis, but I’ll try to run things as I think he might have done. At this point, co-operation is the only thing that will save us.”

         “Just a minute, Chubb,” LeRoy out in. “We’ve all worked together for months. Why not run the ship with each division chief in joint control—a democratic system?
         “Because a space ship is operated from the control room,” Chubb told him.
         “But, look, Chubb…” LeRoy persisted.

         “Gentlemen,” the new skipper cut in, “I don’t think some of you realize the position we’re in. We’re used to looking to one man for leadership; our group habits can’t be changed on the spur of the moment. We’re neophytes, we’re in trajectory to Luna in a slightly marginal ship, and we’ve just lost the only man aboard who was experienced. Down below on dirt, a democratic system may work at times. But here, one man and one man alone must correlate the data, co-ordinate efforts, and make the decision.
         “I don’t relish this job. The responsibility scares me a little. But I’m by-God going to see that this ship and the people in it get down on Luna safely! Then—and not before—each one of you is entitled to a swift kick at my fanny if you want. Do we understand each other?”

         There was silence. Chubb looked at each of them in turn, meeting their eyes. He knew they had accepted Louis’ leadership and had respected him because of his age and experience; it was a bit difficult for them to do the same toward one of their own group. But behind the doubt and reluctance in some eyes, he saw the reassuring fact that each man realized that the Absyrtis had to have a captain and that committee system rule was too slow and cumbersome.
         “Well, we’re with you, skipper,” Greg Shearer spoke up. “What are your orders?”

         And the baffling, trifling problems with the ship’s equipment started. Taking a figurative hitch in his belt, each man put down his fear and called up all his reserve of knowledge, determination, and skill—no matter how small each may have been.
         The vent valve on the forward tank bay jammed, and LeRoy lost all tank pressure. Since it was a sure bet they would lose precious propellant through an open vent and since the tanks had to have a suppression head on them for the pumps, LeRoy was in a quandry.
         “Pull the valve and cap the line,” Chubb told him.
         “But I’m liable to rupture the tanks!” LeRoy objected. “That valve acted as a relief valve as well!”
         “You’ll just have to watch your pressures, boy. And watch ’em close!”
         Then the drive on the forward radar antennas quit cold. Bob Danforth crawled into the nose cone with Bert, and they came back shaking their heads.
         “Can it be fixed?” Chubb asked.
         “Some goof on the ground crew tightened the gear-retaining nuts with a straight wrench instead of a torque wrench. Must have been when I wasn’t looking. He got them too tight. All the gears are stripped. Those that didn’t grind themselves to bits got chunks of other gears in them and chewed themselves to pieces or jammed up tight,” Bert said in a tired voice. “It's locked up and the selsyns are smoldering messes.”
         “It’ll take a whole new antenna system,” Danforth remarked. “And it happened in about twenty seconds flat.”
         “Can we use it for fixed forward sights?” Chubb wondered.
         Bert shook his head. “The dish is canted fifteen degrees to the starboard.” He started through the aft hatch. “So we’re blind forward—staggering blind!”
         This was followed fifteen minutes later by the utter failure of the water recovery system. The tangle of coils in the vacuum still plugged up—somewhere—with something. Greg did his best, but finding a plug in three hundred meters of tubing was beyond him. The air system was still removing water from the air, but it wasn’t enough. Everyone went on very short water rations.
         “I’m not too sure about the purity of what we’ve got,” Greg reported. “The purification took place in the still.”
         Chubb took a look at the running-time clocks over the chart desk. Over twenty-six hours left until touch-down at Dianaport. He reached out, touched the interphone switch, and called for Doc Barcarez.
         “Doc, how much medicinal alky have you got?”
         Doc told him. “I … ah … I’ve also got a couple of jugs of Mexican rum I smuggled aboard in my baggage.”
         “You have any thiamine?”
         “Some. I have to take it.”
         “Okay. Greg’s having trouble with the water. Can you hit it with enough alcohol so we can stay sober and yet keep from coming down with the galloping crud? You may have to push thiamine to anybody who gets tight.”
         “Bueno! Can do!”

         Greg went aft and Chubb finished up checking the position fix. It looked good so far. “Take the deck, Bert,” he told his exec. “I’m going down and see if We can’t raise Al on the radio. I want to keep him plugged in on what’s going on.”
         “You want to speak to who?” the ham operator in El Paso asked. Chubb repeated Al’s name. “Oh, he’s your lawyer, isn’t he? Well, he isn’t here. I haven’t seen him at all.”
         There was a sharp snap, a pop, and the smell of smoldering insulation. The voice on the speaker quit. Half the sets in the electronics compartment went dead. The lights flickered. With a jerk, Bob Danforth reached over and pulled the main power switch.
         “Overload somewhere!” the new electronics officer re- marked hastily. “No, that wasn’t it; line voltage soared.” He reached for the intercom switch. The squawk box was still operative. “Hello, power room! This is electronics! Our line voltage went wild! What’s wrong?"
         “Wait one! Electrical fire in the power room!”
         Chubb reached the handle on a red box and yanked it down. A horn squawked throughout the ship. He muscled Bob away from the intercom and pushed the all-call. “All hands, general alarm! Fire in the power room! Greg, cut their blowers and stand by to seal-off! Bert, proceed with an emergency party to the power room. Damage and disaster plan number two is in operation!”
         He almost collided with Bert coming aft as he went forward to his own post in the control room. The desire to get back there and see what was going on couldn’t overcome his sense of responsibility as skipper. Chubb had to be in the control room right then. He just barely got into his couch before LeRoy passed the word, “Stand by, control room! We’ve got it under control!”
         “Bert’s coming back, LeRoy,” Chubb told him.
         “We won’t need him. We’ve almost got it out. Just some insulation on the port generator.”
         Chubb breathed a sigh of relief. Had it been bad, the entire tail might have gone. A fire in space is not serious; it can alWays—or nearly always—be extinguished by evacuating the compartment where it is. But in a power room, it can get out of hand in a hurry. He knew of one case, the SS Mirmidon, where an electrical fire had gotten to the reactor control circuits; no pieces of the ship had ever been reported (at least no pieces larger than two atoms sticking together).
         “Hello, Chubb, this is Bert. It’s secure back here. I just got here, and it’s out. Smoky, though. How about some blowers?”
         Chubb sounded the word to secure, then asked, “What’s the damage?”
         “The voltage regulator on the one remaining generator’s conked out. LeRoy got a terrific voltage surge on the line. The regulator itself is a sooty mess right now. We can write it off. Better find out what it did elsewhere.”
         The news was not encouraging. The lighting units on two decks were gone, the microwave oven in the galley was washed-up, and—most important—nearly half the communications gear was finished.
         “We still have radar and doppler,” Danforth reported. “And the low-power UHF stuff is okay; it was off. We can talk to Dianaport when we get close enough. But we can't even listen to anything else—not even Sammy in El Paso.”
         LeRoy and his crew started running continuous shifts on the power boards, regulating the ship’s electrical voltage by hand.
         “Well—how do things stand?”
         “We’ll make it. We’ve got plenty of scotch tape and glue.”
         “And the generator?”
         “As long as We keep heavy loads off it, We’re all right. I’ve asked everybody to call the power room before they so much as turn on a light. We could actually run the reset of the way on the emergency batteries…”
         “Don’t. Save them. We may need them yet.”

         “All divisions stand by to commence pre-landing checks at will! Executive officer report to the control room. It is now approximately ten hours to zero on landing at Dianaport!”
         Chubb left the details of the ship up to Bert and concentrated on the mechanics of their landing at Dianaport. He knew it was a critical test of the ship and crew. Lift was mere button-pushing. It takes considerably more skill to bring a space craft to rest with another object—considerably more skill indeed. He planned for a straight-in approach. An involute would have been better, but he did not want to stretch his luck in that complex a maneuver. With the Moon’s slow rotation, he did not have to allow for much of a drift angle. But because of Dianaport's position in Mare Nubium, he would have to correct quite a bit to get a truly radial approach.
         He had it worked down to one application of thrust for correction of trajectory and another for landing and was about to set up a prob to see if it could be done with one prolonged acceleration period when Bert interrupted him.
         “My checks don’t look so good, skipper,” the first mate told him. “Servo systems on the guidance nozzles are wild. We’ve apparently lost the dither on the transfer valves, and the system’s become critically damped.”
         “Oh, great balls of fire! Can it be fixed?” Chubb exploded.
         “I don’t know. I’ll have to check.”
         “Well, check—and fix it! How am I going to get this crate down without guidance nozzles?”
    “I’ll try, skipper …”     “Try, hell! Do it! If you need help, I’ll lend a hand. I’m familiar with that lash-up.”
         “Okay. But brace yourself for something else …”
         “Break it gently,” Chubb moaned.
         “Danforth's got running rabbits on the approach radar, and the range tracking element's gone out of calibration.”
         Chubb looked dismayed. “One more failure, and we can forget about trying to land; we’ll be lucky to get close enough to crash.”
         “How about going into circum-lunar orbit, skipper?”
         “That’s not a bad idea, but I don’t know if it can be done.” He scratched his head. “Let me feed it to Isaac Newton here. Get busy on that guidance and radar—and don’t Waste my time telling me it can’t be fixed. Get the lead out and use that time to figure out how it can be fixed —then let me know how you did it. And move! We haven’t got six months to play around this time!”
         Thirty minutes later, Chubb had determined that the Absyrtis could not make circum-lunar orbit. The mechanics of the maneuver were too expensive and too complex to be attempted. He told Bert, “It’s Dianaport or nothing, chum. Can I give you a hand with that servo problem?”
         LeRoy was almost at his wit’s end. The million little troubles he was havingin the power room were almost beyond him. He called Bert to report it. Chubb overheard. He muscled Bert away from the intercom and told LeRoy, “Look, you spent six months with that tangle of plumbing! Don’t tell me you can’t make it work now! Get out those spares you made! Get on the stick, man!”
         “But, skipper, this rusty old …”
         “If you want to gripe, join the Space Marines!” Chubb paused and went on in a quieter tone of voice, “What’s the trouble, LeRoy? Can I help?”
         Chubb could. He was a trained hydaulic engineer. LeRoy wasn’t the only one he helped in those long hours before turn-over. He wasn't doing the job Louis could have done; but it didn’t worry him because he was doing the best he could. He cajoled, cursed, encouraged, reassured, and bawled out his division chiefs, but he was always ready to help them. The crew responded. At turn-over time, there were still troubles, but the crew was of the state of mind where they would have gotten out and pushed if that would have done any good.
         The men of the Absyrtis were no longer the South-western Rocket Society; they were the crew of the space ship Absyrtis, a rusty, obsolete old bucket but still their pride and joy. Amateurs they were and would admit the fact—but unqualified, no. Heaven help the man who had the temerity to say they were not competent. Hadn’t they taken a piece of rotting junk and remade it into a space ship which was able to break free of the Earth’s stubborn gravity?
         They were not thoroughly satisfied with that, however. There was a matter of landing, the final portion of the examination. When they landed—not if—they would not have to take the ridicule of the seasoned spacemen. The landing would be their accolade.
         There are no adequate adjectives to describe their utter determination to get that ship down on Luna and eventually back to White Sands.
         It was reflected in the manner in which they performed turn-over, swinging the ship around so that the rocket nozzles pointed toward Luna. The radar was still jumping, but Danforth was reading it; the servos had no dither, but Bert was working the guidance nozzles by direct coupling, hoping that the hydraulic lines would hold; and the power plant—well, it looked good, but only the actual operation would tell the story.
         They came in boldly but carefully on their approach.
         “Dianaport Traffic reports that we are in the groove,” came the report from Bob Danforth.
         “Do they sound worried?" Bert asked.
         “No. Doubtful, perhaps. They’re going to hold traffic when we get in the final approach leg—and the meat wagons are standing by.”
         “Tell them we won’t need them,” Chubb remarked from under the astrostat hood.
         “How about some radar and doppler data?” Bert asked the electronics officer.
         “In half a shake. I’m having a little trouble reading the scopes and getting the aft radar locked in. We’re still a little far out; I’m getting a double trace on my scopes, but you’ll have data shortly.”
         “Well, start pushing doppler difference frequencies up to the computer as soon as you can.” The ballistic computer was standing by, its memory banks loaded with all the information Chubb and Bert could give it. The program data was also inside it. It was merely waiting patiently for final position data in order to swing into action.
         “Line up looks good,” Chubb said, pushing his astrostat hood up. “Give or take a half r-c-h, I think we can live with it. What’s the minus time for correction maneuver?”
         “I won’t know exactly until we get some radar. Wup!
         “Electronics to control! Do you read that radar data okay?” Danforth’s voice came over the phones.
         Chubb and Bert checked the winking tell-tale lights and swinging dials on their boards.
         “It looks rough, but the computer’s taking it,” Bert told him. He looked over at Chubb. “Computer and autopilot tracking, skipper. Minus five minutes to correction time.”
         “Okay, Bert. All hands to acceleration stations and strapped. Get the power plant hot and ready to go. Give me thirty-second counts.”
         “Aye, sir. Do you want all hand in pressure suits?”
         “Negative. We don’t have enough to go around. Have Greg seal all compartments in case we spring a leak under thrust.”
         It was, as usual, a long wait.
         After making one final adjustment on the autopilot panel, Chubb floated over to his couch and started strapping in. He studied the data presentations on his panel as he did so, trying to get the feel of this landing. He had studied the techniques of landing in texts, but realized it was more of an arcane art than a science. It took What they called “touch”, and he didn’t have any. He would have to feel his way down by inches, but he didn’t dare waste any time about it. The Absyrtis had only so much propellant left in her tanks, and he didn’t want to waste it by needless maneuvering or fighting gravity too long.
         “All hands ready, sir,” Bert reported, jostling him from his concentration. “Ninety seconds to zero!”
         “Let’s have pumps!”
         “Roger! Power room, stand by to fire!”
         “Power room here! Pumps coming up! Tank pressures coming up! Reactor at pre-fire heat!” LeRoy’s voice replied. “I think she’ll hold! I think she’ll hold!”
         “Read-back check on parameters!” Chubb ordered.
         Bert consulted his panel. “Set for all units one-third thrust—Three degrees pitch positive and seven degrees yaw left on the guidance nozzles for five seconds thrust duration. Do you concur?”
         “Sixty seconds to zero!”
         In theory, the Absyrtis could have made the Earth-Luna jump with two applications of thrust: one at lift and one at landing. However, it would have required accuracy far beyond practical engineering ability. Instruments could not be read that closely, neither by man nor machine. And the instruments could not possibly be expected to have that sort of accuracy. It was much cheaper, both in terms of all-up ship mass and sheer complexity of machinery, to allow for deviations and carry along a meneuvering margin in the propellant tanks.
         “Thirty seconds to zero!”
         “Power plant hot!” The pumps were shaking the ship again.
         Chubb stared at the pin-point stars in his astrostat, making a last check. Pushing a switch, he changed the mirror angles to show three separate stars which would coincide in the eyepiece once the correction had been made.
         “—fifteen—fourteen—thirteen—” Bert was chanting in a monotone.
         Chubb braced himself, relaxing and at the same time preparing himself for the push that was coming. “Fire on autopilot!”
         It was a hard start, even at reduced thrust. The ship bucked violently, then settled down to shaking. But it didn’t last long. The motors shut down with their usual clamoring and bellowing, a wet, sloppy blubber that was heard even in the control room.
         Chubb squinted through the astrostat
    .     “Looks good here,”“Bert remarked.
         “Power plant in cut-off!” LeRoy called. “She works smooth!”
         “Smooth, my foot!” Greg’s voice snapped. “What are you burning for go-juice?”
         “Shut up!” Chubb roared. The three stars were perfectly aligned and holding their positions. “Steady as she goes, Bert. Give me some ranges and bearings?”
         “Dianaport or Divana Space Station?”
         He lay silent as the data flowed into the computer. Watching, he saw it was assimilating the data continuously and was holding to program. It was a reliable piece of equipment, but with the fouled-up radar, Chubb felt he would probably have to make part of the landing either on manual control or manual over-ride.
         The Absyrtis was in quite close and falling toward the Moon’s surface at a little better than a kilometer per second. Bert was reading Moon-relative vectors now, using his own astrostat as a drift indicator.
         So far, so good, thought Chubb. He was just beginning to correlate all the data into a fair mental picture when LeRoy’s voice screamed over the interphone, “Control room, we’ve lost a pump! Number Four has seized her bearings! Chambers three and five are out!”
         That was almost too much for Chubb. He hesitated for a split-second, then saw the approach rate indicator. “Bert! All available chambers stand by for full thrust! Program the computer for four-g by chambers one, two, four, and six! Guidance corrections accordingly! Move! I want to know if we can do it with what we’ve got!”
         So near, he thought disparingly, and yet so far. Three- hundred and eighty-three thousand kilometers behind them and less than a thousand to go. A half-year of work, hours of sweat and worry, a man’s life—and a failure with the goal in sight.
         Bert had the keyboard console swung over his couch and was setting up the new prob. LeRoy called up, “Skipper, can we make it on four chambers?”
         “Pipe down and keep your britches on!”
         “Whew!” Bert breathed. “We can make it! Four and a half minutes to zero!”
         “LeRoy,” Chubb called the power man, speaking in a firm but quiet tone, “we’re going to have to mash it in under high-g. Can the plant take it? How does it look?”
         "I've got my fingers crossed. We’ll have to do something about the vibration at high thrust; it shakes everything loose.”
         Chubb thought back, trying to remember his theory of combustion. “Look, are your pumps running fast enough? Try increasing the injector pressures.” He was shooting in the dark, but it might work.
         “It may bust the chambers.”
         “Not those iron maidens it won’t.” The Absyrtis had been built long before the thin-walled, light-weight modern rocket engines had become standard equipment. They were such an integral part of the ship’s structure that they had never been torn out during the many modifications; the ship-yards had merely modified the injectors.
         "We'll have to cut the over-speed trips on the turbines!”
         “Do it! Let ‘em run hot! Those turb buckets will stand it for a couple minutes! Just hang on, LeRoy, and twist her tail hard!—Or there’ll be a new lunar crater called Absyrtis!
         “Two minutes to zero, skipper!” Bert armounced. “Doppler indicates our approach rate is within one-percent of calculated. Dianaport and Divana have confirmed. Autopilot is tracking. Dianaport Traffic says we’re eight degrees north of the groove and to correct. They’re holding traffic and have cleared the vicinity of Landing Pad Twenty-three for us.”
         “I’ll bet they’re standing by. Meat wagons for us and cops for LeRoy.” Chubb growled. “Okay,” he went on, then paused before giving the long-awaited order. “Bert, stand by to take her down;
         “All hands Stand by for landing! Ninety seconds to zero!”
         “All boards Test-Fly to FLY!”
         “Boards to FLY!”
         “Power room here! Pumps coming up!—Up!—Up!—Up!—Good Lord!—Up!”
         The sound was a scream in the deck plates.
         “Hold it, LeRoy! Hold her, boy!”
         “Seventy-five seconds to zero!”
         “Tracking, skipper! Corrections noted and ready for compensation!”
         “Locked on Dianaport beacons!”
         The rocky craters lining Mare Nubium were plainly visible through the conning blister now. There was no doubt that the Absyrtis was falling toward the Moon.
         “Bert,” Chubb said privately to his exec, “I don’t know what’s going to happen after we hit dirt down there—but whatever it is, so help me if we get out of the sky safely I’ll figure it was worth it.”
         “Sure, it was worth it! Sixty seconds to zero!”
         “We’!l make it—We’ve got to make it!”
         “Control, these pumps may not hold up much longer at this speed!” LeRoy yelled over the interphone.
         “Electronics reporting! Divana just went into our blind spot toward!”
         “We go down on one radar, then!”
         “Skipper, that’s suicide!”
         “Shut up and do as you’re told!”
         “Forty-five seconds!”
         “Control room, these pumps are shaking everything! We’ve got a leak!”
         “Where? How bad?”
         “Squirting out around a fitting!”
         “Tighten that fitting or seal it! Hurry!”
         “Thirty seconds to zero”
         “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want …”
         “Shut up, Greg! I can’t hear LeRoy!” Chubb yelled.
         “We’ll let it leak, Chubb. We’ll just get a little wet, that’s all”
         “All hands brace for landing!”
         “Fifteen!” Bert screamed. “All green! Autopilot in command!”
         “Like hell! I’m on manual over-ride.”
         It looked—well, they might make it—if the radar didn’t fizzle out—if the computer didn’t go wild—if the guidance system didn’t jitter—if the propulsion system worked. There were too many “if’s” for Chubb. He braced his fingers over the manual controls, not sure of whether he could land the ship or not, but willing to make a try.
         This time one chamber lit off before the rest. He felt the ship start to swing under the unbalanced thrust. Then all chambers were lit and correction was possible. The Absyrtis gyrated wildly, then settled down to a bone-crushing four-g's of acceleration.
         She hammered and rattled. Chubb clamped his jaws tight to keep from biting his tongue. He alternated his glances between the panel with the meters blurred by vibration and the conning blister.
         They were falling too fast! No, that was his imagination. He couldn’t read the approach rate indicator clearly enough. View aft on the tv monitor was useless; the vibration in the boat-tail had thrown the camera unit out of synch.
         But that couldn’t be Mare Nubium below them! It was much too rugged! Mountain peaks were spearing toward the ship.
         There was a weak voice in his headphones. “They’re holding! They’re holding!” LeRoy was screaming.
         The acceleration increased slightly, then slacked off as the autopilot felt its way down, the ground clutter on the radar confusing it to some extent.
         Then the ship cocked over at a ten-degree angle. Chubb almost over-rode it then, but it righted itself before he could move against the acceleration. Almost immediately, he was glad; through the brilliant orange haze of the jet aft, he could see the tiny checkerboard of Dianaport.
         What had Luna Louis once said? Why, he had been right! The old bucket did know her way into Dianaport by heart!
         The autopiot slacked off and let them fall at a half-g. The lunar soil rushed up at the ship. Chubb panicked invountarily, the old, ingrained fear of falling taking over. He tried to grope for switches. Something must be wrong! He got his hand over the panel, and a sudden burst of acceleration slammed his hand down on another switch.
         “What did I hit? What did I hit?” he screamed to himself.
         But it happened too quickly. Another burst of acceleration, a fall of about, a second’s duration, and then a back-wrenching jolt. The rocket nozzles blubbered and the dust swirled up around the conning blister.
         They were down on the Moon.
         And Chubb discovered what switch he had accidentally hit. He found himself staring at a luminous light panel on the overhead which said plainly:
         “You have just hit the panic switch, provided by the electronics division for your convenience in times of stress.”
         He started to laugh." “Jack down,” he managed to get out. “Secure all in-flight operations. Prepare to …” He couldn’t go on. He was laughing so hard that tears were running down his cheeks, pulled by the feeble lunar gravity. It was not hilarious laughter; there were sobs mingled in.
         Bert was a bit quieter, but he was doing the same thing. They lay there together on their couches, having trouble believing that they had made it at last.

         Chubb and Bert finally got the ship secured as the big loading towers were pulling up to the ship. The skipper of the Absyrtis would have liked to have seen the lunar landscape outside, but by the time things had quieted down to the point where he was able to take a look, the pressurized towers had cut off the view.
         “Electronics,” Chubb called, “give Dianaport Traffic a yelp and tell them we’re down and secured—and find out when the quarantine crew will be out …”
         “Wait one, skipper! I’m talking with them right now!” Danforth’s voice came back, strangely excited.
         “How about it, Bert? Have we got ground power yet?” Chubb asked his exec, checking.
         “Ready to switch now.”
         “Okay, all hands unstrap at will and stand by for …”
         “Chubb! Uh—Control, this is electronics! Skipper! We’ve got a reception waiting for us!…”
         “I’ll bet”
         “No, not what you’re thinking! We’re heroes, skipper! The mayor of Dianaport and all the colonial officials are waiting to greet us as soon as we get our locks open! This whole place is going nuts!”

    From CONTRABAND ROCKET by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine) (1956)

    Back to the Past

    RocketCat sez

    All you young whipper-snappers who think that science fiction was invented in 1977 with the first Star Wars movie, I have to inform you that you are sadly mistaken. SF was old when your great-great-grandfather was born. Get a load of this:

    • "Blaster" dates back to 1925 in Nictzin Dyalhis' When the Green Star Waned. By the time the term was used in the first Star Wars movie it was fifty-two years old.
    • "Disintegrator ray" dates back to 1898 in Garrett Serviss' Edison's Conquest of Mars.
    • "Needler" dates back to 1934 in E.E."Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Valeron.
    • "Stunner" dates back to 1944 in C. M. Kornbluth's Fire-Power.
    • Isaac Asimov invented "force-field blades" in his 1952 novel David Starr, Space Ranger, which was the father of the light-saber.
    • There was a form of "virtual reality" in Sir Arthur C. Clarke's 1956 novel The City and the Stars, and a more limited form in E.E."Doc" Smith's 1930 story Skylark Three.
    • "Tractor Beam" had its roots in the 1928 novel Crashing Suns by Edmond Hamilton, where it is called the attractive ray. Also in 1928 E.E."Doc" Smith's novel The Skylark of Space had attractors which drew an object closer and repellors which pushed objects farther away. The first use of the term "tractor beam" is in Doc Smith's 1931 novel Spacehounds of IPC. Thirty-five years later in 1966 the term was borrowed by the TV show Star Trek. Eleven years later in 1977 it showed up in the first Star Wars movie.
    • "Force Fields" seem to have their origin in E.E."Doc" Smith's 1930 novel Skylark Three. Ray screens defend against deadly weapon beams, and repellor fields turn back shells, missiles, and other weapons composed of matter (in other words it deflects them). In later science fiction, force fields and deflector shields stop both energy and matter, there is no longer two types of field.
    • Dreadnought is from the real world, refering to the largest most deadly type of seagoing warship, the first one was in 1906. The term was popularized for combat spacecraft in E.E."Doc" Smith's Lensman series, first appearing in 1937 inside Galactic Patrol. Smith did have a odd habit of spelling it "Dreadnaught".
    • Zero population growth is discussed in Walter Kately's 1930 story "The World of a Hundred Men."
    • Power from nuclear fusion appears in Gawain Edwards' 1930 story "A Rescue from Jupiter."
    • Atomic bombs are found in Sewell Wright's 1931 story "The Dark Side of Antri."
    • A "tiny computing machine about as large as the palm of a man's hand" (Palm PDA?) is featured in R. F. Starzl's 1931 story "If the Sun Died."
    • And an unprotected man exposed to the vacuum of space but did not explode appeared in Nathan Schachner and Arthur Zagat's 1932 story "Exiles of the Moon."

    Of course you shouldn't try to go travel the space lanes without your official Space Cadet handbook (1952).

    Or Ron Turner's Space Ace pop up book (1953).

    A Final Warning

    But beware the dangers of reading this website {very big grin}. Tom Clark had this to say:

    Ruined! It's all ruined! And it's all your fault. Particularly you, Nyrath!

    I've been having to travel quite a bit lately, and for entertainment I've been reading David Drake's Lt. Leary series of novels. Pretty harmless space opera mostly, similar in vein to the Horatio Hornblower or (more accurately) Patrick O'Brian's series of books about Capt Jack Aubrey and surgeon/spy Stephen Maturin in the Royal Navy during the fight against Napolean.

    The basic premise and plot didn't bother me, not even the "sail" metaphor Drake adopted for his FTL system. This drives the ships to be lightweight - a corvette like the Princess Cecille is about 150 meters long and weighs 1200 tons empty - and the ships are restricted to about 2-3.5 Gs of thrust. And yes, they land on planets. Lift-off must be a fairly leisurely affair. Propulsion in atmosphere is by "plasma thrusters" which use fusion bottles as a power source, and water as reaction mass. Outside the atmosphere, they use anti-matter powered High Drives to drive the ship. (They are also apparently converting normal matter to antimatter on the fly for energy. Nice bit of sorcery there.) So far, so good.

    Then they get to the armament. The ships mount turreted plasma guns (which we already know won't work because of the work Nyrath has done on his Atomic Rockets page), but as he says its the meme that won't go away. But these are the secondary weapons....

    Primary weapons of these ships are kinetic-kill weapons, anti-matter driven torpedoes launched from tubes in the side of the ship. Thirty-ton kinetic-kill torpedoes. And the Sissy carries twenty of them. (Which means half again her mass is weaponry...) Now, the torpedoes accelerate at 12 Gs, which is OK given that their targets only accelerate at 2 G usually...but then Drake goes on to say that the missiles can reach a maximum velocity of 0.6 C in combat conditions. And that they do so in 8 minutes.

    Now, before I started hanging out here, I probably would have bought that statement at face value and driven on. But my innocence has been lost, and it kept eating at me, until I started doing the numbers.

    - At 12 G, and assuming zero initial velocity, it would take one of those torpedoes about 420 hours to reach that velocity. That's about 18 days, if you're counting. It would also cover 1.4E11 kilometers while its at it. Even with a 6:1 acceleration advantage, I don't want to think about how large a sphere a ship that can accelerate at 2 G continuous for 18 days would be... Did I mention that the torpedoes don't carry seekers on them? They have some sort of rudimentary command link control, but no terminal guidance seekers.

    - At impact, each torpedo would unleash the kinetic equivalent of about 35,000 gigatons on its target. This is considerably more than I would expect to have to use to kill a ship-sized fact, with 20 stowed rounds, the Sissie is a threat to a significant portion of the inhabited galaxy. (Since this is a relativistic weapon, I used the formula's found here.

    In one book, two torpedoes miss their target and enter the upper atmosphere of an inhabited planet....and disappear harmlessly in "a flash of plasma". Ummm...sorry, don't think so. Even if 30 tons of missile turn into plasma on contact with the atmosphere (and at 0.6 C I don't think they'll have time to melt), they are still 30 tons of plasma moving at 0.6 C! So much for that inhabited planet..... I'm ruined. If Drake had just done a little math, and maybe set the terminal velocity of the torpedoes to 0.06 C, or even 0.006 C, things would have worked out much better. But thanks to the "education" I've received here, slips like that come back to haunt me in my sleep.

    Frankly, it would have been fine if Drake hadn't thrown that "0.6 C" number in there - the missiles have a high enough margin of acceleration versus the ships to make them a credible threat. It's just that, as one of H. Beam Piper's characters once said, "C makes for an awfully long lever." Ships capable of tossing around high-relativistic weapons become planet-killers in relatively short order. You don't need redirected asteroids - which is what brought about the end of galactic civilization the last go-round - to kill a civilization on a planet. One corvette with a load of torps can do it handily.

    So a word to authors who like to throw around big numbers....Do the math first! Please!

    I need the sleep....

    Tom Clark
    RocketCat sez

    You say that knowing the science ruins your enjoyment of things with sketchy science? Boo-hoo, cry me a river. So I suppose your knowledge of grilled steak ruins your enjoyment of hamburgers that taste like cardboard? Well I guess we'd better forbid everybody from ever tasting a steak. They'll be happier that way.

    By that idiot logic your knowledge of knowledge is ruining your enjoyment of life. Wrong. Thomas Gray said "Thought would destroy their paradise. No more; where ignorance is bliss, 'Tis folly to be wise." What a load of hooey. Sticking your head in the sand never works.

    No, the solution is to demand higher quality SF like Tom Clark said, over and above the fact that scientific knowledge is worth knowing for its own sake.

    Do It For The Children

    While this website is mainly focused on adults who are science fiction writers, I am also mindful of how important it is to kindle the love of science and science fiction in younger readers. Not just for the awe, majesty, and sense-of-wonder that science fiction opens. But also as advanced warning. Much science fiction is advanced warnings about possible perils of the future. For instance, events over the lasts few decades did not surprise me because at a young age I read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four during the 1970s. The Heinlein juveniles novels taught me important lessons about personality types and growing up. And Andre Norton's Star Rangers taught me that prejudice is not just obnoxious, it is contra-survival. When you are in a dire situation you need all the help you can get, whether or not they are Bemmies.

    Which explains my sometimes odd choice of novel quotations selected to illustrate certain points.

    Teach your children well,
    Their father's hell did slowly go by,
    And feed them on your dreams
    The one they picks, the one you'll know by.
    Teach Your Children by Graham Nash

    Young people who are “hooked” on watching fantasy or reading science fiction may be on to something. Contrary to a common misperception that reading this genre is an unworthy practice, reading science fiction and fantasy may help young people cope, especially with the stress and anxiety of living through the COVID-19 pandemic.

    I am a professor with research interests in the social, ethical and political messages in science fiction. In my book “Medicine and Ethics in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction,” I explore the ways science fiction promotes understanding of human differences and ethical thinking.

    While many people may not consider science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction to be “literary,” research shows that all fiction can generate critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence for young readers. Science fiction may have a power all its own.

    Literature as a moral mirror

    Historically, parents have considered literature “good” for young people if it provides moral guidance that reflects their own values. This belief has been the catalyst for many movements to censor particular books for nearly as long as books have been published.

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” published in 1885, was the first book to be banned in the U.S. It was thought to corrupt youth by teaching boys to swear, smoke and run away from home.

    In the latter part of the 20th century, the book has come under fire for the Mark Twain’s prolific use of the N-word. Many people are concerned that the original version of the book normalizes an unacceptable racial slur. Who can say the N-word and in what context is an ongoing social and political debate, reflecting wounds in American society that have yet to heal.

    The question is, how does literature of any genre – whether popularly perceived as “serious literature” or “escapist nonsense” – perform its educational function. This is central to the conflict between parents and educators about what kids should read, especially as it pertains to “escapist” fiction.

    Why science fiction gets a bad rap

    Historically, those who read science fiction have been stigmatized as geeks who can’t cope with reality. This perception persists, particularly for those who are unaware of the changes to this genre in the past several decades. A 2016 article in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, a scholarly journal, argues that “connecting to story worlds involves a process of ‘dual empathy,‘ simultaneously engaging in intense personal processing of challenging issues, while ‘feeling through’ characters, both of which produce benefits.”

    While science fiction has become more mainstream, one study claimed that science fiction makes readers stupid. A subsequent study by the same authors later refuted this claim when the quality of writing was taken into account.

    This ongoing ambivalence towards the genre contributes to the stereotype that such works are of little value because they presumably don’t engage real human dilemmas. In actuality, they do. Such stereotypes assume that young people can only learn to cope with human dilemmas by engaging in mirror-image reflections of reality including what they read or watch.

    The mental health of reading

    Reading science fiction and fantasy can help readers make sense of the world. Rather than limiting readers’ capacity to deal with reality, exposure to outside-the-box creative stories may expand their ability to engage reality based on science.

    A 2015 survey of science fiction and fantasy readers found that these readers were also major consumers of a wide range of other types of books and media. In fact, the study noted a connection between respondents’ consumption of varied literary forms and an ability to understand science.

    With increasing rates of anxiety, depression and mental health issues for youth in the past two decades, it may be the case that young people, no different from American society generally, are suffering from reality overload. Young people today have unprecedented access to information about which they may have little power to influence or change.

    The powerful world of science fiction

    Science fiction and fantasy do not need to provide a mirror image of reality in order to offer compelling stories about serious social and political issues. The fact that the setting or characters are extraordinary may be precisely why they are powerful and where their value lies.

    My contribution in the forthcoming essay collection “Raced Bodies, Erased Lives: Race in Young Adult Speculative Fiction” discusses how race, gender and mental health for black girls is portrayed in speculative fiction and fantasy. My essay describes how contemporary writers take an aspect of what is familiar and make it “odd” or “strange” enough to give the reader psychic and emotional distance to understand mental health issues with fresh eyes.

    From the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” series to novels like Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” and Nancy Kress’ “Beggars in Spain,” youths see examples of young people grappling with serious social, economic, and political issues that are timely and relevant, but in settings or times that offer critical distance.

    This distance gives readers an avenue to grapple with complexity and use their imagination to consider different ways of managing social challenges. What better way to deal with the uncertainty of this time than with forms of fiction that make us comfortable with being uncomfortable, that explore uncertainty and ambiguity, and depict young people as active agents, survivors and shapers of their own destinies?

    Let them read science fiction. In it, young people can see themselves – coping, surviving and learning lessons – that may enable them to create their own strategies for resilience. In this time of COVID-19 and physical distancing, we may be reluctant for kids to embrace creative forms that seem to separate them psychologically from reality.

    But the critical thinking and agile habits of mind prompted by this type of literature may actually produce resilience and creativity that everyday life and reality typically do not.


    There are multiple enjoyable genres for books and movies, including action and adventure. But we need to stop sleeping on sci-fi.

    Talk of parallel universes, aliens and space exploration may seem intriguing, yet it's unapproachable for some people. This surface-level perception prevents many from realizing that the genre extends beyond that, and it's more relevant to our lives than one might expect. 

    Dissatisfaction with traditional structures, like capitalism, is apparent among much of Gen Z. Serious concern surrounds the future of technology, the climate, sustainability, healthcare and a host of other social issues. Current issues and future implications involving COVID-19 spur even more pessimism.

    With this disillusionment, we need to use our imagination to help foster the change we seek in the future. One subject which lends itself to the encouragement of that imagination is science fiction.

    At ASU, The Center for Science and the Imagination represents the innovative power of science fiction, with projects exploring the climate crisis and others discussing technology and public policy. Edward Finn, founding director of the Center, expressed the importance of imagination. 

    “It is a capacity we can build as individuals and collectives, and it is the ignition system for a lot of things we care about: resilience, empathy, and innovation,” Finn said.

    Finn also expressed why the genre’s ability to make people envision different realities is important for societal progress.

    “Science fiction plays a valuable role in helping us deal with the present because it pushes us to use our own imaginations," Finn said. "Experiencing possible futures allows us to see beyond the present and think about the world we should be working towards and the people we want to become."

    For example, looking into a dystopian novel such as "The Handmaid’s Tale," we can examine current issues in terms of a possible future. Women are stripped of their rights in this world and a theocratic government holds power over society.

    By imagining such a future, we can question present policies that infringe on women’s rights and the negative future implications it could have if taken to the extreme. "The Handmaid's Tale" shows us the ideas we need to reject now if we want to halt their looming actualization.

    Other works can help us examine the future relationship between technology and humans. A sci-fi movie like "Her (2013)" displays dependency on technology in the form of a romantic relationship.

    It is indisputable that technology is one of the most important aspects of our world and our daily lives. Home technologies and devices like iPhones are constantly evolving to new levels never previously imagined. 

    This continuous improvement and innovation of these technologies parallels an evolving relationship and dependence on it. We need to question unintended consequences technology has in society and use this knowledge to navigate challenges and consider solutions to preventing potential issues in the future.

    From political and social issues, to technological issues and beyond, looking at them through the lens of sci-fi is important for evaluating our present and how we need to innovate and reshape society to progress. Science fiction’s ability to expand our imaginations provides tools to build a more ideal world than the one we currently live in.

    Atomic Rockets notices

    This week's featured addition is ANTIMATTER-DRIVEN SAIL

    This week's featured addition is PROJECT MALLAR

    This week's featured addition is THE HABITANK CONCEPT

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