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Creative writing

Space war, huh? What is it good for?

What’s the biggest franchise and the biggest trope in SF? Star Wars. War is everywhere on Earth, so it makes sense that there will be war in space, off among the stars. Anywhere you you find life, there will be war. Right?

Maybe. I started to think about this when I began writing a science fiction series set in the not-too-distant future. I’d comfortably slipped into laser-armed ships, gun-toting drones and made-for-space hand weapons.

As I read through my first drafts, it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t just the how. I couldn’t stop thinking about the why.

The Batlestar Galactica is pounded by Cylon missiles in the 2003 Battlestar Galactica remake series.
Battlestar Galactica (the remake): loads of SF tropes but it never felt lazy.

SF comfort food, episode 1

SF has banked a wealth of assumptions that live rent-free in the minds of viewers, readers and — crucially — writers. Here’s a handful that have I’d like to see a little bit less, or at least given a bit more thought.

I mean, there’s a good reason that SF can stand for Space Fantasy or Speculative Fiction as much as good old Science Fiction, and that’s because science is often the ginger kid locked in a cupboard when it comes to popular SF.

Many of these tropes date back to the early days of the Space Race when there was a lot of speculation. They often make for good drama, but there’s a point where those outdated ideas have to reach their sell-by date.

And that’s why I’m starting this occasional series with the biggest bang since the big one.

Space samurai woman, Afrospace gun guy, tough woman warrior, sketchy gunslinger antihero and war robot with emotions: the cast of Zach Snyder's lazy sci-fi omnishambles Rebel Moon
Rebel Moon. So dumb and lazy it should come with a health warning.

Space War? Phwoar!

Don’t get me wrong, I love a space battle. Dogfighting X-Wings, capital ships unleashing megaton broadsides, space marines scrapping with bug-eyed monsters: bring it on. (OK, Rebel Moon is too much, wind it back now.) But it makes Absolutely. No. Sense.

War on Earth is famously lethal. Blades are sharp. Bullets rip into bodies. Missiles, bombs and shells explode in a messy fashion. Ships sink and sailors drown. Aeroplanes crash. But you can still breathe when a window breaks. Gravity is great for holding stuff inside you, even if you’ve got holes in painful places.

Space is so deadly that it needs a new word for how lethal it is.
It goes without saying that in space, no one can hear you scream, because you can’t breathe. Zero-gravity wounds would be ludicrously lethal even at regular atmospheric pressure, because there’s nothing to hold you inside you.

At the same time, space combat would require G-forces that would liquify humans. The tropes go on…every spaceship going a useful speed is a kinetic kill vehicle, hot exhausts are deadly weapons. Escape pods? A dead weight that won’t get you anywhere useful before you run out of life support stuff.

On the other side of this, space warfare is always conducted by forces that are incredibly similar to Earth navies and air forces. Sometimes they’re a romantic old-timey navy, but they’re all signposting the fact that no-one knows what space war would be like. For the reasons above and many more, it won’t be like fighting at sea or in the air, because it’s neither of those things.

As for fighting on land that’s not the Earth…

An X-shaped Star Fury fighter from Babylon 5.
Babylon 5’s Star Fury. A show that often felt familiar but rarely derivative.

Space war means big war

War in space would be a zero sum game that turns any conflict into mutually assured destruction. People might tolerate occasional skirmishes in remote locations but it would be genocidally aggressive to target an extraterrestrial habitat, not to mention pointless if you’re trying to take territory for your own use.

And yet, SF writers are constantly flattening planets with orbital bombardments and smashing fleets into space junk. There you — space junk — another thing that would be a massive own goal if you wanted to travel through that part of space again.

Sure, you might get races so powerfully xenophobic that they don’t care about these levels of destruction. The nihilistic heart of any terrorist philosophy declares that acts of violence are a purpose in themselves. OK, so humans tick this box.

Right now, there’s at least one major world leader who would consider Chernobyling part of his neighbour to be an acceptable price of victory. That’s with just one habitable planet. If it’s the only one, we’re screwed, but if not, then the universe is so big that there will be a statistically-acceptable loss of habitable locations. At that point, casualties are just a rounding error.

Deterrence is another explanation for using megaweapons. Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t just end World War Two, they’ve kept another global conflict in fiction for almost 80 years. And people love to read and write about the aftermath of WW3.

We humans are astonishingly, inventively, disagreeable and self-destructive. Our leaders manufacture conflict on a daily basis to justify themselves. Terrorists don’t care about the consequences. War in space is stupid, and we’re just stupid enough to make it happen.

War’s loss is fiction’s win

So at this point I’ve argued myself into a Schrödinger’s war that’s both absurdly futile and horribly likely. And that’s really what I want. Space war that that doesn’t soften the punch with comfort food tropes that are more fantasy than science.

The best authors rise above them. One route is subverting the tropes to highlight their absurdity, although this leads easily into parody. The more sustainable path combines new knowledge and imagination to create new ideas that can become their own tropes (the Kzinti Lesson is a great example).

After all, reality is full of original creative opportunities. The only thing we have to lose is the opioid buzz of nostalgia.

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