Review: Objects in Motion

objectsEpub from AdAstra Games.


Approximately 6,000 words

Ken Burnside is the author.  He’s also a game designer of “space games” most notably Attack Vector: Tactical and game aides and miniatures for Traveler, the great SF role playing system that many of us grew up with.

Objects in Motion: Orbital Mechanics for Writers is a sequel to Ken’s The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF, which itself was manuevered onto the Hugo Awards final ballot for Best Related Work (2014) and consequently carries the 2015 Hugo Finalist mention prominently displayed on its cover.

I’ve not played any of Ken’s games, but I am very familiar with the genre, starting with Star Force: Alpha Centauri from SPI (1974), through quick little board games like Task Force’s Starfire, Starfleet Battles and ultimately finishing up with my own contribution to the oeuvre – The Biggest Damn Space Game Ever (working title) – where, among the other supplements one could find was an orrery for simulating planetary orbits (accurately) around a newly discovered solar system, and a “vector movement” system for ship-to-ship combat.  (Player’s not familiar with Newton frequently flew right out of the battle area….)

I was curious to see what Ken had to offer by way of writer’s advice (who doesn’t want to know how long it will really take for our intrepid explorers to reach Europa after leaving Cis-Lunar orbit?).

Unfortunately* I found little useful advice (that can’t be fairly easily gleaned elsewhere, including the mentioned Integral Trees series by Niven) beyond some stern-sounding admonitions about what authors ought not to do.

It didn’t start well right from the beginning when Ken opines

“A truism in visual SF media is that spaceships travel at the speed of plot.  This device is useful for getting characters from point A to point B with the minimum amount of reader attention on travel time. Omitting the day-to-day minutiae of a long journey has a literary pedigree going back to Homer’s Odyssey, which covered years of voyaging in a few stanzas.”

And here I am, a faithful fan of an author who violated the above rule successfully.   A. Bertram Chandler and his rim worlds series have been hailed as one of the best (perhaps the best) depiction of life aboard a spaceship..  Half the fun (at least) in those stories take place aboard ships that, like the age of sail and the age of steam, took weeks to complete their journeys. And there are others as well – any generation ship story; the prelude to arrival in Ringworld…I find this doubly problematic because Ken later on references sailing ships as providing a pretty good model for space warfare –

Analogies can be made to Age of Sail engagements, where you’d see the enemy ship for several hours to a day or more before the weather cooperated enough for it to get into gunnery range. The time frame leading up to this point might have been a week or more, as both ships tried to use low-thrust methods to either force or evade an engagement.

Familiarity with sailing ships (albeit of the coal-fired variety) was Chandler’s bread and butter.  He was a merchant seaman his whole life.

Ken’s take is somewhat surprising as the author demonstrates familiarity with much of SF with mentions of Niven, the THOR program (Pournelle) and RAH’s Starship Troopers, while dismissing the “errors” in many of their fictional usages.

For less than two dollars, one does not expect a graduate level course in ballistics.  On the other hand, with the subtitle Orbital Mechanics for Writers, one does expect a few fill-in-the-blank equations (or pointings to such resources) and at least some kind of survey of works “that got it right”.  Instead, we’re pretty much told that there’s only one way to do things (presumably the author’s method) and that anything less leads to plot holes or science foobars.

This closes off “surprise boarding action” plots without some sort of character-driven subterfuge

The disaster caused by a plummeting space elevator would be economic, not a Biblical one of “whips cracking around the equator of the Earth.”

…other solutions include suspended animation. Spacecraft with human passengers won’t do multiplanet slingshots to conserve delta-v; the value of human passengers’ time is greater than the value of the fuel and energy saved by using slingshot maneuvers.

(except for…suspended animation.  Except – why is a discussion of orbital mechanics largely limited to derivations of tech we have now, and sticking to their limitations is a requirement for good writin, but other technologies that are not nearly so well established are ok to use?)  (And wasn’t it suggested earlier that we just skip over the long boring travel parts to get to the action…?)

Orbital mechanics drive a nail into the coffin of another beloved science fiction trope: the space-born paratrooper, launched from an orbiting ship, surrounded by a shell of protection.

Burnside looks at things from a very narrow perspective here.  Take his dismissal of space-borne paratroopers – aka Starship Troopers.  His assumptions are that apparently no technology will be developed or used that would address the obvious.

Were I the defense coordinator for the Skinnies in the opening scene of Starship Troopers, I would have looked at the orbital tracks threatening the cities, waited for the telltale signs of plasma interference, and lobbed an airburst nuke about 70,000 feet up into the glide path. One nuke means no invasion.

Except:  One.  We don’t know if the Skinnies have nukes.  Nor do we know whether or not they have the technology to launch nukes to high altitudes.  Nor do we know if Skinny ethics prohibits such a tactic or technology.

Two.  We don’t know anything about Skinny tech other than the fact that they have cities with tall buildings, have telecommunications of some kind and have projectile and beam weapons of some kind and, maybe, a spaceport.  We don’t know if the Skinnies would be able to track the launch of Rico’s Roughnecks.

Three:  Heinlein was pretty clear that launches took place accompanied by empty capsules;  that troop capsules shed chaff;  that fake launches were conducted and that Mobile Infantry suits provide major protection from radiation, as well as maneuvering capabilities once in-atmosphere.

Four:  one would presume that whatever Sky Marshall was in charge of the drop on the Skinnies, he’d have ordered the suppression, through means both fair and foul, of any Skinny anti-orbital weapons installations, tracking & etc. One good airburst nuke producing EMP over the landing zone would probably have taken care of all of that.

Five: Since the humans are the good guys in Starship Troopers, I’m pretty sure it’s safe to guess that if the Skinnies had possessed the wherewithal to prevent an M.I. landing, Earth would have found a different way to deal with them.  (And another thing:  The M.I. are quite capable of sustaining the loss of lots of troops – says so right in the book (Klendathau) and we all know that Mr. Heinlein would have us all fight to the death rather than knuckle under to commie arachnid aggression.

Six:  RAH goes to great lengthy pains to cover the orbital manuevering required to make a ‘drop’ as plausible as is possible.

This is not to say that spaceborne troops are all that great an idea necessarily, but it does serve to illustrate that the thinking here is decidedly one-sided, or, rather, not nearly as comprehensive an extrapolative take as one would hope for.  (And they are pretty cool.  I’m very certain that a good science fiction author, sufficiently interested in including this tech in a story could utilize their well-honed imaginative skills and provide us with a plausible scenario.)

Which last I think gets to the major issue I have with the tone of this pamphlet:  It’s unfun.  When dealing with science fiction and instructions to authors, I find that it’s usually best to provide them with the basic information and then let them go to work.  (I mean, they ARE perfectly capable of writing great stories even if they do avoid the ‘rules’ sometimes.  Seems to me that it’s entirely possible for someone to try to follow the rules but then decide that the scene they want to write is just too good to be stifled by reality.) I certainly think it’s almost a fools errand to tell them what they can’t do.  (You can’t make a spaceship from wood and power it with beer!  Oh yeah?  Watch me!)

If you’re looking for information on orbital mechanics – try these links:

Basics of Spaceflight:  EquationsOrbital Motion

A few additional thoughts.  Critiquing SF on the basis of its scientific orthodoxy is a time-honored and ultimately futile exercise.  As a quick example: we are all pretty much agreed that while hanging on to a shred of plausibility, FTL is unlikely to become available to us as a technology.  On the basis of orthodoxy alone, we can dismiss any story that references or utilizes any form of FTL as being “mere” fantasy and unworthy of the idea that SF is about people being impacted by tech and their reactions to it.  Yet we don’t dismiss most such stories and that for several reasons.  First – that shred of plausibility.  “It could happen” remains one of SF’s greatest touchstones.  Second, the story isn’t about the tech, its about the people, and so what if an unlikely-in-real-life means is used to place those people in a situation we find interesting and compelling.  Third, the trope is a familiar and time-honored one and, consciously or not, we’re always prepared to give the author a handful of “gimmes” so long as doing so is rewarded with a good story.  Fourth – you can’t get to the good stuff without it.

I think the major issue with this pamphlet is the author’s perspective.  When you’re writing an SF novel, you have some guidelines and a handful of squishy rules that you’re supposed to follow, but in the end you can violate and ignore every single one of them if you turn out a good story.  But when it comes to games, it is an entirely different enterprise.  Games have a rulebook.  In order to successfully play the game, everyone involved has agreed to follow that one set of rules.  Cheating doesn’t just violate the rules, it destroys the game play.  And if you are simulating inter-ship combat on a tactical, non-abstracted level in such a game, you’ve got to choose to (largely) follow the laws of physics as they are known, not as they might become known in the future.

Most space combat games concentrate on the fun of creating a ship and on the combat itself – firing missiles and lasers, turning shields on and off.  Starfire (Task Force games) is a perfect example of this kind of game.  Your ship systems are written down on a piece of paper (A for Armor, S for shield, etc) and, as you take damage in a fight, you cross off a letter.  Movement in the game is highly abstracted because players of this kind of game want to have a “space combat experience” – they don’t want to spend their game time resolving trigonometric functions.

Star Force (SPI) on the other hand attempts to deliver 3D space on a 2D game board and requires players to do mathematical calculations every turn before they can move their ships.  It even includes a very nice table of figures to help players resolve the Pythagorean Theorem (my ship is 8.3 parsecs above the galactic plain and the system I want to go to is 27.7 parsecs from Sol…therefore the distance to X is….).  Most of my game playing friends lamented the time consumed by the math and wished for a device that could perform the calculations for them (Star Force was published in ’74, well before the advent of readily available personal computers).

The difference is that game design requires rules that must be adhered to, consistently, all the time (both during game design and during game play).  If I were playing Attack Vector (and I haven’t so this is a swag) and suddenly announced that my faction had developed the Bloater Drive and could therefore ignore conventional physics, while at the same time we’d developed the perfect heat sink that allowed our ships to channel excess heat off into an alternate universe (which allowed my ship’s weapons to fire continuously with no fear of consequences) I’d be breaking the rules.  I could argue that the rules don’t say anything about instantaneously transferred technological advancements, but most people would agree that it was “unfair”, even if it wasn’t in the rules.  (And I’ll note by way of further example that Harry Harrison – inventor of the Bloater Drive – was a master of writing well-received novels that violated scientific convention – and logic – routinely and hilariously).  If you want to change the rules, you design a different game.  Fiction, on the other hand can ignore or follow some of the rules, some of the time, and get away with it.  Rules for the author are always optional.

*Full disclosure.  I was thinking of asking Ken for a copy for review but then decided just to purchase it instead.

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