Interstellar Travel

The most important part of writing science fiction is laying down a set of rules which stays constant throughout the book. In A Fire Upon the Deep (aFUtD), there was hyperwave, anti-gravity, hyperspace, and the Zones. In The Mote in God’s Eye (tMiGE), there were only two pieces of technology which violated physics: the Alderson Drive and Langston Field. Each was defined very clearly. Nothing is more infuriating than when an author saves the day with a previously undisplayed loophole.

Cover of A Fire Upon the Deep

The interesting thing about tMiGE is the interstellar travel. Scifi authors usually couple FTL travel with FTL communications; in tMiGE, the only way to send a message to another star system in a timely manner is to send a messenger ship. In addition, jumps between systems can only be made from specific points within each system, determined by the mass of the star and the arrangement of surrounding systems. aFUtD uses a similarly interesting, but completely different, device. Starships in the Beyond make micro-jumps, instantaneously jumping between two points in space and then calculating the next jump. This means that to go faster you just need more computing power. Systems built for different regions of the Beyond work differently; a bottom-lugger isn’t as fast as a state-of-the-art battleship except close to the Slow Zone.

In the fictional world I’ve been developing through a short story, interstellar travel is also interesting. Like tMiGE, the only way to go faster than light is with a spaceship. In my universe, ships have a minimum size requirement; messenger probes are out of the question. An interstellar drive has two parts: the ring, and the spikes. The ring manipulates space, flattening the local regions of the universe around the ship. While in theory a ring could be any size (bigger rings make bigger fields in a not quite linear fashion), it would lack control and have a tendency to fall into gravity fields. That’s why a ship needs spikes. Spikes are long, thin sensors that monitor the properties of the universe in small regions of space. They help the ring avoid massive bodies, correct for small spatial inconsistencies, and deactivate in the correct place. The more spikes a ship has, the safer and more precise it is. The higher quality a ring a ship has, the faster it can go. A ship that was too small wouldn’t be able to avoid planetary bodies or have a large enough detection field to navigate in flattened space. Ok, so maybe there is a little bit of Handwavium. But not THAT much.

You may be wondering: if the spikes hold sensors, why not just make a bigger spacecraft and imbed the sensors within the hull? Good question, reader. The answer is: you could. That is, if you are filthy rich. Rich people sometimes drive crazy cars and build crazy buildings, so certainly some people would make stylish spacecraft. At the end of the day, though, your spaceship is still occupying the same volume of space. It uses more sensors (unless you want minute pockets within your spaceship to expand and explode), and it only gives so much more interior space. It masses more, which means more energy or fuel to boost it through regular space. Spaceships aren’t like cars, either. Stylish lines are going to count for very little; even space stations don’t have windows, and nobody uses video to navigate. The result is that most spaceships are spheres inside a forest of spikes. Not very romantic, is it?

Mass is going to be the limiting factor on spaceship size. Unless you have very expensive spikes, you are still going to redimensionalize hundreds of thousands of miles from your target. You need some sort of in-system propulsion system. Since it is impractical to put a high-powered propulsion system aboard an already too-small ship, most spaceships would use local services: tugboats. Even obscure areas could afford one or two spacecraft with excellent traditional drives that can ferry interstellar craft around in cubic space. This also solves the problem of giving interstellar craft big dangerous drives that create exhaust. Except for military ships, redimensionalizing craft wouldn’t run the risk of toasting someone behind them. Military ships would be the exception; your enemies aren’t going to help you invade their system, so you need your own engines. On the other hand, military ships would be significantly different already. Most attack ships would be gigantic; they need to carry ship-board weapons, planetary craft, and a propulsion system. Military ships also carry prized interstellar equipment; governments are going to outfit their fleet with the finest rings and spikes.

Epic-scale Strategy Game

One idea for a game that has stuck with me for over a year has been that of a massive-scale strategy game. A crude way to describe it would be a cross between World in Conflict(WiC) and Spore (except it wouldn’t be as lackluster as Spore). The idea behind it is that players start out at a low rank, and are promoted based combat proficiency on the battlefield. When I have described this idea to people, they have likened it to America’s Army.

Each round of the game takes place on large battlefields covering a multitude of environments. The game would undoubtedly be set in the future, so the environments could range from undeveloped farm worlds and water worlds to urban centers and various theaters of space. A single player presides over the whole battlefield as a general, setting basic goals and deciding strategy. Each battlefield is in turn broken up into districts, which ranges in size from a WiC map (usually a couple miles across) to four WiC maps. Up to 8 commanders control 0 to 6 squads (they can order more based on reinforcement points) within each district. Each squad consists of 4 to 8 players, with one squad leader.

Screenshot of World in Conflict

Screenshot of World in Conflict


The basic foot soldier is expected to focus on objectives set by the squad leader. The squad leader is in charge of directing which positions to take and which enemies to focus on. A commander sets goals such as strategic objectives (defined by the game), rally points, and drop zones to secure. They are also in charge of ordering more troops. Their basic strategic goals are determined by the general above them, or perhaps an intermediary presiding over the district.

One major problem that becomes immediately apparent is discipline. How does one keep a player on task? The first solution that comes to mind is to let superior officers give or take promotion points based on the performance of players below them. However, this is easily abusable, both in the giving or taking of too many points and in the complete disregard for dealing with promotion points. The best solution is to have proficiency judged by the game. So what kind of criteria does the game have?

  1. Completion of given objectives

  2. Objectives are judged by the difficulty regarding enemy presence in the area and a number of other minor variables, the most important of which is subordinate proficiency. Failure to complete an objective due to it being impossibly difficult or having an inept team would barely count against a player. Conversely, failure to complete simple objectives would be counted against a player.

  3. Rendition of reasonable objectives

  4. A commander, whether at a high strategic level or as a squad leader, has a responsibility to give orders which make sense. If a commander is extremely incompetent, his commanding officer can choose to temporarily demote him, allowing another to take his place. In addition, sound tactical decisions are encouraged. Deciding to attack a position without much intel, even if the position is strategically important, is a bad choice. If a commander has access to tactical aid, poor placement will result in removal of promotion points.

  5. Combat Proficiency

  6. If the player is a grunt, he is also be promoted based on statistics like accuracy, deaths, and kills. Heroism and initiative may also be rewarded, such as single-handedly taking an objective or destroying a vehicle.

A player who accrues enough promotion points will be promoted to the next rank. There may be multiple ranks per command level to ensure that there will most likely be a command hierarchy even if two decimated squads are merged. Even if a player is promoted, though, it is possible that he will fill a slot lower down in the structure. If there are already enough commanders, someone qualified to be a general may be forced to serve as a grunt. However, if his squad leader is killed then he will instantly fill that slot (unless someone is of a higher rank than him). When a soldier dies, he is placed in a reserve pool. Until a commander orders another squad, he has to wait. Fortunately, battlefields are huge, and most likely, especially at the height of the battle, someone will need a new squad. Nonetheless, a delay time while waiting to be ordered also acts as natural motivation to stay alive. Be warned though, cowardice will be punished highly! Soldiers who pass qualification courses for things like vehicle piloting, administering first aid, and sniping will be able to fill special support slots.

Alongside infantry, commanders will be able to order a range of vehicles, including tanks, transports, and dropships. Other vehicles, like helicopters and ships, will be available as a special unit which must leave after a period of time. Tactical aid not delivered by a player includes artillery (including orbital strikes), airstrikes, and reconnaissance. All tactical aid (i.e. units and abilities not able to be ordered with reinforcement points) is able to be gained through spending tactical aid points, which a commander receives for performing well on the battlefield. Tactical aid points are different from promotion points in that they do not stick from game to game and that they are awarded for quantitative properties, such as objectives completed and enemy units destroyed.

The first person gameplay of the grunts would mirror other mainstream shooters. Each soldier has an array of guns, with the maximum weight decided by the planet’s gravity. Secondary weapons such as grenades and tactical devices (repair kits, radar kits, radios, medkits, etc) are available. A soldier can resort to melee if he runs out of bullets or is restricted by the environment (close quarters, pressurized space environment, presence of volatile props). The game’s varying environments also heavily affects gameplay. For instance, combat in space is an entirely different experience. Players would be able to move almost infinitely far (but would be penalized for abandoning objectives), and combat would be a lot slower. Players would have to worry about keeping their suits intact as well as jetpacks. Vehicles would also play a larger role. Alongside dropships becoming more versatile and critical, spaceships would start playing a role. In some cases the commanders might even be able to control large cruisers with a deadly array of weapons. Space stations would also hold a lot of firepower for whichever side’s soldiers could maintain control of it.

The story of the game would revolve around two distinct sides. Two budding empires emerge from different sectors but end up clashing for control of the core colonies. Whichever side dominates the colonies gains ultimate control over known space, since the colonies are the main centers of knowledge and raw material production. Humans have developed faster-than-light travel, but have not yet perfected material synthesization, so the majority of humans still rely on farm worlds and other such production centers to get metal, food, and leisure products. The FTL will probably be like The Mote in God’s Eye, in which ships can manipulate certain zones of space determined by gravitational fields to jump between stars. These jump points are hard to calculate, and only one exists between each set of stars. FTL communications have not been developed, so the only way to get a message to another system is to send a ship (a jump disables electronics and requires a sentient being to boot the systems back up).

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